French Journalist, Interpreter Released in Iraq
LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.
French journalist Florence Aubenas and her Iraqi assistant are free today after a five-month kidnapping ordeal. The pair was kidnapped in January a few blocks from a Baghdad hotel. For months, there was no news of their fate. Then in March, the kidnappers released a video of Aubenas in which she pleaded for her release. It's not known if there were negotiations with the kidnappers. NPR's Deborah Amos joins us from Baghdad.
Deb, what more can you tell us about the release of Aubenas and her assistant?
DEBORAH AMOS reporting:
Well, the French journalist, Liane, left for Paris today despite a sandstorm in Baghdad that's grounded all other commercial flights. Her translator and her assistant, Hussein Hanun al-Saadi, was reunited with his family. And his name became as well known as hers in France over the five months of the kidnapping.
HANSEN: Now the news of the release comes at a time of continued violence. Just this weekend, there were reports that at least 30 Iraqis have been killed in and around Baghdad, seven Marines died in roadside explosions in Al Anbar province. Last week, we talked about Operation Lightning and that security sweep in Baghdad. Has it made a difference?
AMOS: Yesterday the interior minister brought out some slides and charts. It was a media conference to show results, and the numbers are impressive. Car bombings in the capital have been reduced from 12 a day to two, $6 million was found and confiscated, 2,000 forged documents were seized and more than a thousand people have been arrested. But at the same time that he was giving the briefing, a car bomb exploded in front of the Slovakian Embassy, and then earlier in the day, another suicide bomber in a police uniform managed to get past sniffer dogs and metal detectors at the Interior Ministry. This one missed his target. He was after the commander of an Iraqi commando unit.
This is a colorful character that Iraqis know as Abu Aleed(ph) because he's the host of a prime-time television program called "Terror in the Grip of Justice." Now the minister of interior played down the security brief, but just as important, this incident drives a wedge deeper between Sunnis and Shiites because the target was the Wolf Brigade. And they're seen here as a Shiite-dominated force. Some Sunnis say that the Wolf Brigade's commandos have killed and captured their clerics. And after the bombing, a militant Web site claimed responsibility for the hits, saying it was a revenge for Sunnis.
HANSEN: Now this comes at a delicate political time for the Shiite-led government and relations with the Sunni community. Now August is the deadline for writing a new constitution. How does it look for actually reaching an agreement?
AMOS: The more important deadline now is August 1st. The government has until then to decide whether they'll ask for a six-month extension on writing the constitution. If that happens, the current government stays in power for another six months, and all kinds of deadlines will be missed, including a general election in December. The US government and the Europeans are pressing on Iraqis to stick to that timetable. And this week, a delegation from the European Union made a surprise visit to Baghdad, and they hammered that message while they were here: Bring Sunnis into the process.
So here's where it stands. There's been one breakthrough. The constitutional committee decided that any decision they take has to be unanimous. So it really doesn't matter how many Sunnis or how many Shiites are on the committee, even one could stand up and object. So the numbers game is about saving face and proving power. The Sunnis say, `We want 25 members.' The government says 15. The Sunnis say, `No way. It's 25 or we pull out.' So that's where it stands right now. And the process, Liane, is stalled.
HANSEN: NPR's Deborah Amos in Baghdad.
Deb, thank you very much.
AMOS: Thanks, Liane.