Iraq Death Toll Rises in Face of U.S. 'Surge'
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Across Iran's border in Iraq, Americans continue their effort to improve security. And over the weekend four Republican senators took a tour of Baghdad, including Senator John McCain.
Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): Things are better and there are encouraging signs. I have been here many years - many times over the years. Never have I been able to drive from the airport, never have I been able to go out into the city as I was today.
INSKEEP: Senator McCain's presidential campaign has suffered because of his support for the war and for the surge of troops in Baghdad. The senators did move about the city, although they also wore body armor and traveled in a military convoy supported by American attack helicopters.
This week we will examine the Baghdad security situation, beginning with NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, who is in Baghdad. She has covered the story since before the U.S. invasion, and how would you describe the security situation in Baghdad now?
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know it's a really complicated picture. Let's go through the numbers; I think that's important to do. Last week alone, 600 Iraqis were killed. Now U.S. soldier deaths are also not down, either. There were over 80 in March, and that's consistent with what we've seen in the months before the surge. Official figures from Iraq's government shows that in general, civilian deaths were up last month about 15 percent.
We need to look at that a little bit more closely. Those deaths are up mostly because large bombing attacks - which according to U.S. generals have increased dramatically - are also up as well. And we're seeing many of those taking place outside of Baghdad. As the crackdown gains steam here, we're seeing violence move elsewhere to places like Talifar up in the north, where a large bombing and then a reprisal attack by police killed well over 200 people this week. It's moving to Diyala province, where the Brookings Institution, which monitors violence in Iraq, said there has been a 30 percent jump in attacks since the so-called surge began. So as central Baghdad is squeezed, the fight moves elsewhere to less-defended areas, which is a classic guerrilla insurgency tactic.
The good news, it has to be said, is sectarian murders. Yesterday there were 24 victims in the capital. The numbers we're seeing go from the 20s to the 40s, and that is really much, much lower than during the height of the bloodletting. The reason for this is that the Mehdi Army Shiite militia has stood down for now. The death squads are not operating as they used to.
INSKEEP: So those are some of the numbers. And I want to come back to something that's implied there, which is that there seem to be fewer deaths inside Baghdad itself. From the point of view of U.S. military officials, Baghdad is key; Baghdad is crucial. And you're saying that they are making some progress there.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well that's certainly true in some areas. I mean, there are a lot of big bombings. I mean, we saw a big bombing happen here in Baghdad where there were a number of deaths. But sectarian murders, which is one part of the violence - an important part of the violence - are certainly down. I mean, there is no denying that. I mean, I get the morgue figures every single day, and they are considerably lower than they ever have been.
INSKEEP: Now the effort to make Baghdad a little more secure was also an effort to provide a little room for a political solution among the warring factions in Iraq. Has any progress been made?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, General Petraeus, who is the head of the war effort here for the U.S. military, has always said that this battle cannot be won militarily; this is a battle that can only be won through a political solution. And the surge is designed to give a space to Iraqi politicians to get their house in order, so to speak. To create a political framework to move out of this kind of venal sectarianism that we've seen that's characterized so much of Iraqi politics for so long. And there are really few signs yet of political reconciliation.
I'll give you one example. The new de-Baathification law, which is designed to re-dress the massive firings of members of the Baath Party in 2003, to bring Sunnis back into the political process in more numbers, is stuck in limbo. So I think we haven't seen that reconciliation take place.
INSKEEP: I want to make sure I understand this. You're saying that in recent weeks, extra American troops have put their lives on the line to buy time for the Iraqi political process, and so far at least, people have not used the time?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: People have not seemingly used the time yet. And none of the benchmarks that have been given by the U.S. - the de-Baathification law, the oil law that's supposed to be debated in parliament - have even made it to the floor yet. And they're stuck in this kind of sectarian in-fighting as to, you know, what exactly should be done, at which time and which party is going to be sponsoring what. And we've seen very little progress in the six weeks since the surge in the political framework.
INSKEEP: NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro is in Baghdad. Lourdes, thanks very much.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're welcome.