TWAW: Another step closer to the brink

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Length: 6:39

JOHN ROBERTS: Another week of deadly violence takes Iraq another step closer to the brink, even as Iraq's neighbors show new interest in bringing peace to the war-torn nation. Joining me now, correspondent Michael Ware in our Baghdad bureau. Here in Washington, CNN military analyst Brigadier General James "Spider" Marks, U.S. Army, retired; and in Los Angeles, former "Washington Post" Baghdad bureau chief Rajiv Chandrasekaran. He is also the author of "Imperial Life in the Emerald City, Inside Iraq's Green Zone."

Michael Ware, start us off here. This coordinated series of attacks in Sadr City on Thursday, more than 200 people killed. Any idea what's behind this dramatic escalation in the violence there and is there any way to keep a lid on the reprisal violence that's probably certain to follow?

MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: This is part of a broader offensive. This is a Sunni strike deep into the heart of this Shia population. Simultaneous with a coordinated raid on the Ministry of Health, again controlled by the same Shia militia and political faction whose people live in Sadr City and were the targets of these bombings. We then saw in the day that followed, retaliatory attacks, entire neighborhoods being mortared by the Shia. We then have reports of Sunni mosques being burned and hit with rocket-propelled grenades. Wild unconfirmed reports of Sunnis being pulled from their house, doused in flammable liquids and set alight. So it's very difficult to stop and this is not necessarily an escalation. This is just another punctuation in a long chapter of what really is civil war, John.

ROBERTS: Quite an exclamation point though, Michael. You had a terrific report on Wednesday. We sent our cameras to the Baghdad morgue to take a look at how the sectarian violence is affecting rank and file Iraqis. Take a look at how Michael reported that story on Wednesday.


WARE (voice-over): Viewing bodies is impossible in the crush, so a large video screen has been installed with photographs of the dead scrolling slowly past. With many of the images still bloodied, barely recognizable, we agreed not to show the screen. Inside, women hold worn photographs; as men peer at the screen, a wail rises up.


ROBERTS: Spider Marks, when you see images like that, it really drives home what this means for Iraqis and sometimes the statistics become very impersonal for us when you hear the numbers. It doesn't really drive it home. But why is the U.S. military so powerless to be able to stop this sectarian violence?

BRIG. GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, I don't know that they're completely powerless, John.

ROBERTS: Spider, 3700 Iraqis killed last month. That seems powerless.

MARKS: I think what it is, it's a combination of U.S. and Iraqi forces have got to be able to increase that type of cooperation. So I mean, you can't just put this at the -- the blame is not entirely the United States'. The Iraqis clearly, as we've discussed many times, have got to step it up and take responsibility, as has been described many times. And Michael describes it very, very well. This is kind of a description of the loss of the center in the Iraq population, especially in Baghdad. And what you have is the devolution, if you will, of neighborhood fights, as you said families upon families. You lose the center, it's now a matter of protection and to exact some degree of protection on your family and some vengeance against those that mean you harm. What has to happen is you've got to be able to develop sources, people who are willing to talk, who are willing to come forward and take great risk to get ahead of what is the inevitable ensuing violence that's going to occur. So it's a combination, John.

ROBERTS: I know the U.S. military is trying to do that. But it seems so difficult to be able to get ahead of the game there. Rajiv Chandrasekaran, let's take a look at these latest statistics from the United Nations. I mentioned 3700 dead during the month of October. When you look at it, the month of September and October, the numbers get even worse. In July and August there was 6,599 deaths of Iraqis. September and October, that number rises to 7,054. We don't know what to call this anymore. Is it civil war? Is it ethnic cleansing? Is it tilting, as some people have suggested, toward this word genocide?

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN, THE WASHINGTON POST: I think it in some ways it's a combination of all three. I think we in this country risk getting drawn into sort of a debate over semantics that really takes the eye off of the most important challenge, which is trying to fix our failed policy there. I think what we saw on Thanksgiving Day just once again highlights the real -- very real problems with the Bush administration's current strategy in dealing with Iraq. Because it is based on having multi-ethnic, multi-religious security forces maintaining order. That was a fine strategy when we were just dealing with the Sunni-led insurgency. Now that you're dealing with what some will call civil war, others will call genocide, ethnic cleansing, you name it. You're in a situation where you've got rival groups in the country after each other and the U.S. security strategy just is not cut out to fit that kind of civil strife.

ROBERTS: Michael Ware, President Bush is trying to get a handle on this, trying to gain the upper hand. He's got this meeting set up with al-Maliki. They announced that earlier in the week. By the end of the week, Muqtada al-Sadr had been saying if you have that meeting, I'm pulling out of the government. What are the pressures that Maliki faces as he tries to forge an independent way forward here?

WARE: What is this government? It's essentially a composition of varying militia forces and their political factions. So Maliki's government as such in many ways doesn't exist. And what there is of it relies on two divergent sources of power; in fact, opposing sources. One is the U.S. administration that in terms of security and other measures is propping him up. But politically, locally, he's drawing his constituency and his place as prime minister from the Mahdi army political faction, that loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. So his sponsors are diametrically opposed. And somehow he needs to try and keep them both happy, which is an impossible task and only threatens to see things implode.

ROBERTS: When you try to keep everybody happy, very often nobody's happy. Michael Ware in Baghdad, Rajiv Chandrasekaran in Los Angeles, "Spider" Marks here in Washington. Thanks.