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Iraq insurgents send a message

Hopes for a new period of stability in Iraq were shattered on Thursday when a pair of car bombs exploded near government buildings in Baghdad, killing 18 and wounding 36.  NBC News' Charles Sabine reports on the jump in insurgent activity and what is like to be within striking distance of an attack.
/ Source: NBC News

Last month, Iraq experienced its lowest casualty rates in over a year, leading some to think the worst of the insurgency was over.

However, hopes for stability were shattered on Thursday when a pair of car bombs exploded near government buildings in Baghdad, killing at least 18 people and wounding 36.  Another dozen people were killed in separate attacks elsewhere in Iraq.

NBC News Charles Sabine reports on violence and what is was like to be within striking distance of an attack.

You were very close to Thursday's insurgent attacks in Baghdad. What happened?
There were three explosions here right next to our NBC Bureau in the center of Baghdad. The first struck at 10 a.m. (local time) shaking our NBC News Bureau compound. A suicide bomber detonated his vehicle in the street almost immediately below us. 

It was a huge ball of flame with smoke rising hundreds of feet into the air. As we all rushed to see what had happened in that first explosion, about 30 seconds later, a second car exploded just about a hundred yards away from that one, even closer to our building, shattering windows in the NBC News Bureau and shaking us all to the bone. 

The two explosions happened near the entrance to the Iraqi Interior Ministry compound and we assumed they were trying to get close to that. But it later became clear that they were trying to hit some sort of a convoy that had been heading down the road.

It’s very unclear as to what the exact target was, but what happened in the next few minutes was the sound of continuous gunfire.

As panic spread through the streets below us, it wasn't clear where the gunfire was coming from, whether some of it might have come from ammunition inside the vehicles which were now burning. There were about 15 vehicles that were destroyed by these two enormous explosions. 

And as it turned out, we believe 18 people were killed. It’s certainly one of the most serious explosions we’ve seen here in Baghdad for a long time and one of the most dangerous ones in terms of our personal safety. I can tell you that no one from NBC was hurt in either of those explosions. 

Then about three hours later I was filing a report for NBC on camera when there was an enormous explosion from the same part of the street where the other two had happened, just behind me. I felt it push me off my feet just as I was recording a piece to camera and it turned out that this was a third car bomb that had not exploded in the original attack.

It detonated as bomb disposal teams were trying to sweep the area for any unexploded ordinance. And they were effectively taken by surprise by the size of the bomb that was in one of the vehicles in the area.

Three-hundred pounds of plastic explosives were still in that vehicle when they let off a controlled device there. Later in the day we learned that the al-Qaida wing in Iraq led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi claimed responsibility for what was clearly an extremely well-planned and well-coordinated deadly attack.

With the latest wave of attacks, does it appear that the insurgency has got a new energy after a quiet period?
Coalition forces had been encouraged by a relative lull in militant attacks here in Iraq after January’s elections. 

March showed the lowest statistics for a year for coalition casualties and military attacks. So the coalition forces had been encouraged by that; however, today’s events and other attacks that we have seen, including the coordinated attack on Abu Ghraib prison last week, show that the insurgency is very far from over. 

Indeed there was worrying news for coalition forces on a website today as a group called Ansar al-Sunnah — which was claiming responsibility for another attack that occurred in Kirkuk where gunmen killed five police officers — suggested that it is now teaming up with al-Qaida to coordinate attacks on coalition forces.  

So it would seem that not only is the insurgency far from over, but the insurgents are mounting a new effort to show that they are still around.

At this point, Iraq is still without a constitutional government.  Has this impacted the region and does it have any relationship to the insurgent attacks?
There is no doubt that the power vacuum that exists here with the absence of the government being formed more than 10 weeks after the January elections feeds the insurgency.

People here feel disillusioned with democracy because they have not seen a government put in place, and as such, are perhaps still more fearing of insurgents and are less ready to bring out information to the coalition forces about them. 

We have seen an increase in information to U.S. military and Iraqi police hotlines, but certainly the feeling on the ground here is if the government is put in place and people can see a constitution on its way, that will be emboldened to isolate the insurgents. 

Clearly at the moment [the insurgents] are able to feed off the doubts of the Iraqi people, who are frankly very disappointed and frustrated that they still don’t have a government in place.

Al-Jazeera broadcast a video on Wednesday of an American hostage. How will the American government handle this hostage situation?
The U.S. Embassy here first told us the contractor, who was working here on a project in the center of Baghdad, went missing on Monday. Yesterday we received this video tape that had been released by his kidnappers. 

The U.S. Embassy is working very hard, as it always does, in trying to establish who the kidnappers might be and coordinating any kind of information they can with the family of the man involved, Jeffrey Ake, and the company which he represented. 

But the officials' hands are tied as to how much further they can go in dealing with these militants. It’s always possible that the kidnappers might be trying to demand money; that's something which the government and its representatives cannot be seen to be involved with in any shape or form. 

The other rather vague demands of the kidnappers, which were expressed through the words of Mr. Ake himself in that video — that American troops should withdraw from Iraq — are clearly not ones that can be listened to either. However, they are doing whatever they can to establish the identity of the group.