Spike in Violence Shatters Calm in Iraq

In Iraq, a series of explosions, gunbattles, car bombs and executions over the past 48 hours have left at least 192 dead, including eight U.S. soldiers. In one attack, a car bomb was detonated at a police checkpoint near the Ministry of the Interior, killing at least 16 people. The surge in violence ended a relative calm across the country that lasted about a week. The calm led the Iraqi government to claim that the situation was improving.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

In Iraq, a series of explosions, gun battles, car bombs and executions over the past 48 hours have left at least 192 people dead, including eight U.S. soldiers. This surge in violence ended a relative calm across the country that had lasted about a week. In a few minutes we're going to hear a report on the struggle to turn over to Iraqis the task of patrolling Iraq.

First, NPR's Corey Flintoff is in Baghdad and joins me to talk about the violence. Corey, violence over the past couple of days from Basra in the south all the way to Kirkuk in the north. Bring us up-to-date on what's been happening.

COREY FLINTOFF reporting:

Well, I think the most potentially significant is fighting that broke out last night between Iraqi government troops and Shiite militia in a town called Diwaniya. That's about 80 miles south of Baghdad. The Mahdi army there has been gaining more and more control in the past few weeks. That's the militia that's loyal to the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

The Iraqi Defense Ministry's version is that its troops raided three neighborhoods in the city and that they were looking for militia members and trying to capture weapons and that triggered an attack from the militia fighters with rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns. Casualty numbers from sides are all over the place, but we think that at least 60 people have been killed.

SIEGEL: Well, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has promised that he's going to disarm such militias. He's made the promise. Any sign that he's making good on it?

FLINTOFF: Well, yes. He's made the promise. But Sadr's Mahdi army is a particular problem for Maliki. Sadr supported him in that very close struggle for the prime minister's job and he remains a key supporter. He's got about 30 seats in Iraq's Parliament. The other problem is that Sadr's militia is big, so it's not going to be easy to disarm a force like that militarily.

SIEGEL: Now what about the surge of violence in the capitol in Baghdad? What seems to be going on there?

FLINTOFF: Well, in Baghdad at least military officials say that the insurgents are just concentrating all their resources into a series of dramatic attacks over the shortest possible period of time so that they'll get more media attention and just make the situation look worse than it really is.

General William Caldwell, he's the senior U.S. military spokesman here, he said this morning that insurgents had been trying to stage attacks in the neighborhoods that have been cleared by U.S. and Iraqi troops, but he said they haven't been all that effective, so they're now going after other targets.

Critics would say that's partly true in the sense that insurgents and criminals have been driven out of those neighborhoods. But they say that the bad guys simply took most of their weapons with them and are regrouping elsewhere.

SIEGEL: There was also news that eight American soldiers were killed in Baghdad yesterday. What do you know about that?

FLINTOFF: Well, they happened in several different attacks in widely different parts of the city. All the ones that were reported from yesterday were caused by roadside bombs. In fact, it was the worst spate of fatal attacks over a weekend in months.

I asked a U.S. military spokesman here what the statistic meant, you know, whether it's a sign, for instance, that the insurgents have figured out some new way to make their bombs more effective or whether it's simply a matter of having more troops on the street and therefore more people exposed to attacks.

He said that for some time now they've been seeing the occasional bomb that's pretty sophisticated but that most of what they see are fairly primitive devices and there just happened to be a lot of them. He also suggested, as other military people have, that maybe this spike is just an anomaly and it doesn't indicate a trend.

SIEGEL: Is that what you're hearing from military spokesmen there, that perhaps this is an anomaly, or do they suspect that indeed there could be a further intensification of violence throughout the country?

FLINTOFF: Well, they acknowledge that there could be a further intensification but General Caldwell said this morning there really is progress being made. But this is something that's likely to increase just to make that dramatic media statement that the insurgents are looking for.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Corey.

FLINTOFF: You're welcome, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Corey Flintoff speaking to us from Baghdad.

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