In Iraq, Violence Comes with Concession from Sadr

Two bombings in a Shiite district of Baghdad leave more than 90 Iraqis dead. Nearly 30 American soldiers were killed during the weekend in a series of incidents. On the political front, supporters of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr end a boycott of government and parliament.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

We are going to begin this hour in Baghdad, where it has been an especially bloody day. A pair of bombings in a largely Shiite district of the Iraqi capital left nearly 90 people dead and at least 150 others wounded.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki blamed the attacks on supporters of Saddam Hussein. It has also been a deadly stretch of days for American troops. One soldier was killed today in a bomb attack north of Baghdad. Over the weekend, a total of 27 soldiers and Marines lost their lives.

NPR's Anne Garrels joins us from Baghdad. And, Anne, let's talk first about these two bombings today, 90 deaths. That's high even by Baghdad's standards.

ANNE GARRELS: Absolutely. Unfortunately, one of the skills you develop here is sensing when it's been a particularly bad bombing. And today, all the signs were immediately grim. Massive clouds of smoke billowed high into the sky after two near simultaneous bombs exploded about noon, just when foot and vehicle traffic is the densest. A parked car bomb ripped through stalls of vendors. Seconds later, a suicide car bomber drove into the crowds. Iraqi army troops say they then spotted someone on a nearby rooftop filming the carnage.

Now, such videos turn up on insurgent Web sites, on DVDs, or on an underground Sunni insurgent TV station. In this case, the Iraqi troops shoot the cameraman as he try to escape. They say he was an Egyptian, and they surmise the film was meant for use as propaganda for Sunni insurgents.

BLOCK: And in the past, attacks against Shiites have often led to reprisal attacks by Shiite militias against Sunnis. Is there any sense that Prime Minister Maliki will make good on his pledge to crackdown on the Shiite militias?

GARRELS: Well, one good sign is that U.S. forces had recently detained several members of Moqtada al-Sadr's organization, which is believed to be behind many if not most of the reprisal killings. But unlike similar incidents in the past, Prime Minister Maliki has not publicly protested or publicly demanded their release. The Associated Press quotes two unnamed officials close to Maliki, saying the prime minister has ended his protection of Sadr's militia.

However, my conversations with Iraqi officials have not been nearly as clear cut, and U.S. officials remained skeptical about Maliki's determination to shut down the Shiite militias.

BLOCK: You know, over the weekend, there was an unusually sophisticated attack against a U.S. military liaison team. This was in the Shiite holy city of Karbala. Five servicemen were killed in that attack. What more have you been able to learn about what happened there?

GARRELS: Well, U.S. and local Iraqi officials have not been able to confirm who they believe carried out the attack, and the situation here is such that they say it could be either Shiite militias or Sunni insurgents. What is clear, though, is that this was a particularly audacious, well planned attack. Gunmen posing as American service men in the kind of sport utility vehicles used by foreign officials, managed to get through Iraqi checkpoints right up to a government building. Local officials say the gunmen specifically targeted members of an American military liaison team who were meeting with Iraqi officials. Five were killed.

BLOCK: And after President Bush has announced an increase in the American military presence, have you seen signs yet there in Baghdad of a change of U.S. tactics?

GARRELS: There've been no signs on the ground of any change in operations but 3,200 additional U.S. soldiers just arrived in Baghdad. However, the rest aren't going to be here for some time, in some cases a few months. Some senior U.S. officials have warned us not to look for any significant results from that so-called new plan until the summer. Officials - Iraqis and Americans - are still huddling together to turn blueprints into an actual plan. And there are plenty of problems, from a contested chain of command to questions about where American troops will leave if they go out into the districts and get out of the bases, where are they're going to live in the dangerous areas.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Anne Garrels in Baghdad. Anne, thanks very much.

GARRELS: Thank you.

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