In Wake Of Blasts, Assessing Iraq Security

A series of coordinated attacks hit the Iraqi capital Tuesday, killing more than 100 people and wounding hundreds others. Retired Lt. Col. Doug Ollivant, who was in Baghdad last August during the previous coordinated bombing attacks, offers his insight.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Some fallout from yesterday's bombings in Baghdad that killed more than a hundred people and wounded several hundred more. Today, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki spoke of the need to review security strategies, and he urged that more Iraqis who are convicted of terrorist offenses should be executed as a deterrent.

We're going to hear more on the violence in Iraq now from Doug Ollivant who's a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army. He served in Iraq during the troop surge and after that he was director of the Iraq desk of the National Security Council. And he now has a private security consulting business. Welcome to the program.

Mr. DOUG OLLIVANT (Former Director, National Security Council, Iraq): Thank you.

SIEGEL: You were in Iraq back in August when there was a big coordinated bombing. There was another one in October, now the one yesterday. Are these all of a piece or do you see significant differences?

Mr. OLLIVANT: I believe these are all of a piece. Since August we've seen a shift in strategy by al-Qaida and, again, we believe with near certainty that al-Qaida is behind all these attacks. Prior to August, they were focusing their attacks on Shia civilians: markets, mosques, neighborhoods, things of that nature.

Beginning with the August attacks, there - they have been focused on symbols of government authority: government buildings, finance ministries, defense ministries and so on.

SIEGEL: They have been able to pull off three big strings of coordinated attacks. And I gather the daily news out of Baghdad includes much smaller bombs that go off in various places. What does all this say about the effectiveness of the Iraqi security forces?

Mr. OLLIVANT: The Iraqi security forces have a unique vulnerability to these very coordinated terrorist attacks. There really isn't a lot of violence in Baghdad other than these large scale attacks. There are a few bombings here and there, a few assassinations here and there. But on the whole, the violence level in Baghdad is significantly down, with the notable exception of these three attacks that have popped up every two months beginning in August.

SIEGEL: Well, what do those big attacks say about security in Baghdad?

Mr. OLLIVANT: They say that Iraq has a terrorism problem and probably will continue to have a terrorism problem for some time. Al-Qaida is a serious opponent and they know how to infiltrate. They know how to find vulnerabilities in a security force, and they'll continue to do so.

SIEGEL: Back in the days when we were routinely reporting on bombings in Baghdad, one of the big players was the Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr. Today, are they responsible for any violence at all? Are they quiescent? What would you say?

Mr. OLLIVANT: Again, the bad news is that al-Qaida continues to do these attacks every two months. The good news is that the battlefield is much simpler now. In the battle days of 2007 and prior, we did have some great concerns about the Jaish al-Mahdi of Muqtada al-Sadr, that group has almost completely gone to ground, entered the political process, become a social organization, now only does very, very rare military attacks.

Likewise, the Sunni insurgency has been caught up in the Sons of Iraq movement. It's beginning to be integrated into the Iraqi army, Iraqi security forces, other government jobs. They're no longer on the battlefield. Really, the only people who are still actively fighting against the Iraqi government is al-Qaida in Iraq.

SIEGEL: You were involved in planning - one of the officers planning the surge in Iraq. Does this in any way tarnish the success of the surge, that there can be such devastating attacks in the Iraqi capital?

Mr. OLLIVANT: Well, that leads into a very complicated question about, you know, what was the surge? And what worked? And what didn't, and what was really causal and what was not. But let's bracket all those.

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

Mr. OLLIVANT: No, I don't think so. Again, Iraq has a terrorist problem. It no longer has a civil war. It no longer has a serious insurgency. It no longer has rogue militias running around. It has a terrorist problem. There are lots of developed nations that have terrorist problems. This is lamentable. It's not great. But all in all, from a macro standpoint, it's not a bad place for a country to be.

SIEGEL: A different and more - and a narrower problem than�

Mr. OLLIVANT: Exactly.

SIEGEL: �the chaos that.

Mr. OLLIVANT: Much, much narrower than the large scale crime, insurgency, civil war, terrorism mishmash that we had to untangle in 2006, 2007.

SIEGEL: Doug Ollivant, former U.S. Army officer and former director of the Iraq Desk at the National Security Council.

Thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. OLLIVANT: Thank you.

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