BAGHDAD, Iraq — After what seemed like a temporary lull in the ongoing violence in Iraq, Tuesday saw a wave of bombing in the north of the country that left at least 18 dead.
NBC News’ Jim Maceda reports from Baghdad on the strength of the insurgency, the significance of the U.S.-lead offensive called “Operation Lightning” that recently unearthed a series of underground bunkers —the largest of which was the size of six football fields and included furnished living spaces and fresh food in the kitchen, as well as the tug-of-war over the timing of Saddam Hussein’s trial.
Today, a day after the Iraqi government announced that they had made nearly 900 arrests in a counterinsurgency offensive in Baghdad, dubbed Operation Lightning, there were a string of bombings in northern Iraq that killed at least 18 and wounded 39. What do the conflicting reports of progress in terms of arrests and at the same time as increasing violence say about the state of the war at the moment?
I think what it says about the state of the war is that it’s a war. And like all wars — it’s a work in progress. It’s not clear-cut and there are no frontlines. This is a war where there is a 360 degree battlefield, 24-7.
So, it is not a contradiction at all to have successes on one front and setbacks on another. It would be misleading — and we were very careful not to — to draw any conclusions after three or four days of a relative lull. There were about three or four days where the overall level of violence dropped significantly; the numbers of dead dropped down to nine or ten a day, compared to the 20 or 30 that we had been reporting every day since the new government.
Now, what does that say about tactics? A lot or nothing, it really depends. We just need more information.
We don’t know whether it was a strategic break being taken by the insurgents to prepare for future attacks during that lull. We don’t know if it was sheer coincidence, if it was the stifling 115 degree heat that just put a damper on things; it’s hard to say.
But, what is clear is that this kind of low-grade war will be fought in peaks and valleys. It will be fought in spikes and lulls.
Now, we saw a lull for three days and today we are seeing another spike in violence, and this is just going to continue. There is no doubt. I would think, and many believe, that this will continue at least through the end of this year and until new elections.
Operation Lightning uncovered a sophisticated network of underground bunkers that were put in place by Saddam Hussein. Can you describe the bunkers and how they are aiding the insurgency?
I can only describe the bunkers from the number of photos that were provided by the U.S. military. Interestingly enough, no one has had access to any of the Marine commanders who actually saw the bunkers or discovered the bunkers. Nor have we had opportunities to see any video of the bunker, much less take a trip there under the guidance of the U.S. military because the bunker was apparently blown up immediately after the collating of the various weapons, ammo, and sophisticated equipment that they found. However, in those photos, it was clear that these insurgents were still using the bunker. Video: Summer slowdown?
We don’t know which insurgents they are or which group they belong to. But, we understand that military intelligence is combing through some log books and some video to try to come up with some ideas and leads to move forward. They are trying to figure out which insurgency group it was, because there are several different ones operating at once, most importantly so that they can move their operations toward the leaders of that particular group.
But, based on the photos, what it says about the insurgents is that they are very clever.
These underground bunkers were built in the 1980’s and 90’s as defensive bunkers by Saddam Hussein and there is a whole network of them. It is clear that they are using them now, very much like the Vietcong and other revolutionary groups have used underground bunkers against the U.S. in previous wars. So they are resourceful, cunning, and they are going to try to stay one step ahead of the Iraqi and U.S. forces.
What do the weapons caches say about the strength and organization of the insurgency?
I think a lot of the insurgents are former intelligence agents who worked for Saddam Hussein’s secret service, and a lot of them are former army officers. They are very well trained and they understand and have access to the network of bunkers and the network of munitions that were out there before the war and during the war.
To believe that the discovery of this specific bunker — the largest weapons cache discovered in over a year here found in Karma, west of Baghdad — will be a turning point is very premature.
It could well be a central munitions depot, we don’t know if that’s the case or not. But, what’s more likely is that it’s just one of a number of similar bunkers that are strewn throughout the country that these insurgents are now using. We do know that munitions were strewn out across the country from these vast weapons arsenals from the early stages of the war.
I do think it is an important step, and an important victory for the counter insurgency. But, it doesn’t indicate at all that we are closer to the end of this thing.
What has been the reaction to the news that the trial for Saddam Hussein could begin as soon as few months from now?
The reaction from the people on the street is very positive. On Monday, the government — both the Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, and Laith Kubba, Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari's spokesman — confirmed that the government was intent on accelerating the trial of Saddam Hussein and his 11 cohorts and that Saddam could face trial by late summer or early fall — within two to three months.
The pressure from the Iraqis, especially the Shiites and the Kurds who suffered most under Saddam’s regime, are very much in favor of seeing the former dictator tried, convicted, and punished — preferably by death. The Sunnis are probably more circumspect and more suspicious of the process, and still more supportive of Saddam Hussein — at least members of the former Baathist party.
However, all of that seemed to be turned on its ear today because at a press conference this morning, Kubba,the prime minister's spokesman seemed to be backing off. Now he’s saying that they are not seeing a specific date for the trial anytime soon.
I think the reason for the flip-flop is because behind the scenes there is a real struggle going on between those in favor of a quick process, a quick trial, and the quickest way to have a solid case against Saddam Hussein. That is lead, of course, by the prime minister and others in the government who believe that trying, convicting and punishing Saddam Hussein is a quick way to neutralize the insurgency.
The other side of that, the other camp, is represented by the special tribunal and also supported by the American lawyers here who are helping that tribunal. They would rather take their time and build up an even more solid case against Saddam, clearly linking him to a number of atrocities where there may not be a paper trail, but there is eventually a responsibility in command, if you will. Sort of a similar process to what we see going on at the Hague Tribunal in regards to Milosevic.
So, the Americans and the government would rather take their time and build up a rock solid case against Saddam — which could take years. While the Shiite lead Iraqi government doesn’t want to wait years, they feel like they only have months, so they are pushing it.
I think behind the scenes, there is this tug-of-war. Today, based on the government stepping back from their position expressed yesterday, sounds like the Americans and the tribunal are flexing their muscles and getting the upper hand.
Jim Maceda is an NBC News Correspondent currently on assignment in Baghdad. He has reported from Iraq since the U.S.- led invasion in March 2003.