Multi-National Corps Iraq chief monitoring sectarian violence
Stars and Stripes March 2, 2006
CAMP VICTORY, IRAQ — At noon on Tuesday, when U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, commander of Multi-National Corps Iraq, opened up the phone wires on what was the fifth special noon status report from around Iraq, it looked like the country might have dodged at least one bullet.
Chiarelli added the noon updates to morning and evening briefings the day after last Wednesday’s Shiite mosque bombing so that he would have the most up-to-date information of what was going on in all his subordinate units’ sectors, Lt. Col. Michelle Martin-Hing, a spokeswoman for Multi-National Corps Iraq, explained.
“It certainly was not normal operations,” she said. “We were in crisis-action mode and we had to monitor what was going on in the aftermath of the bombing.”
Tuesday’s report from the northern region, where the Shiites’ Golden Mosque, also know as the Askariya shrine, was bombed last week, precipitating a disputed number of killings and fears of civil war, was that there was nothing unusual to report. A weapons cache had been found and so had the bodies of 10 people.
From the west, Chiarelli heard, “no violence or demonstrations” were being linked to the Samarra bombing, and it looked like the days of killings and subsequent curfews had only added to the resolve of Iraqi army soldiers.
In Baghdad, although there had been attacks near two mosques on Monday, Iraqi army armored units were out patrolling streets and protecting mosques, U.S. soldiers had increased their patrols and “people are thinking things are going to settle down,” Chiarelli was told.
And in the southeast, the commander in that region said in the conference call to Chiarelli that calm prevailed except for two roadside bombs that had caused no casualties.
“The general assessment seems to be that sectarian violence has decreased,” Martin-Hing said. “Thus far we now have a second day of relative calm without the curfew.”
Or, as one officer reporting to Chiarelli said, “Sectarian violence will transition to normal levels of anti-Iraq forces activity.”
Just two hours later, the level of violence had indeed transitioned, but whether it was the usual “anti-Iraq forces activity” or the Sunni-Shiite reprisals that made civil war seem imminent, was unclear.
By Tuesday’s end, at least 75 Iraqis had been killed and scores injured in five powerful bombings in Baghdad.
Additionally, where roadside bombs had exploded earlier without causing casualties, another, later one killed two British soldiers.
While The Associated Press reported that several of Tuesday’s attacks hit clearly religious targets and appeared to be a continuation of sectarian attacks, U.S. military authorities drew differing conclusions.
“You cannot conclude that all attacks are linked to the Samarra mosque bombing,” said Martin-Hing. “The attacks we are seeing appear to be typical anti-coalition and anti-Iraqi forces activity we were seeing prior to the mosque bombing and are actually at a lower rate right now.”
At the Tuesday noon briefing, Chiarelli had asked Martin-Hing to check into a Washington Post report that said violence after the shrine bombing had killed not 230 people, as had been reported according to Iraqi government and U.S. military figures, but, according to Baghdad morgue officials, 1,300.
U.S. commanders previously had criticized what they said were inflated media reports on the number of killings attributable to the sectarian violence. And Tuesday afternoon, the Iraqi cabinet put the post-shrine bombing death toll at 379 people, along with 458 injured. The cabinet said the higher numbers were wrong.
On Wednesday, U.S. forces were still “trying to get a handle on what the true and accurate number is,” Martin-Hing said. U.S. military counts are not the final word, she said because, “if something happens and we’re not there and there are civilian casualties, we’re not tracking that. The Iraqi government is tracking that.”
But while the U.S. monitored the situation, Martin-Hing said, the response was left to Iraqi forces.
“It was Iraqi Security Forces and Iraqi police in the lead, providing for protection of the people,” Martin-Hing said. “We were basically in support of them and ready to assist if they needed our assistance.”
Multi-National Force Iraq officials said the sectarian violence had not changed the way U.S. forces were operating.
“A championship team does not change its strategy just because the other team scores a first down,” said Col. Gary Langford, chief of operations, in an e-mail. “We are making progress in helping the Iraqis take control of their own country, and this desperate act by the terrorists failed to achieve their desired effect of inciting a civil war based on sectarian differences.”
Although there were 30 mosque attacks, Langford said, that was out of 2,190 mosques throughout the country.
And he said whatever the number of Iraqis killed in last week’s violence, “keep in mind it is out of a population of 25 million. Look at the number of deaths in any city of even 5 million over a week and see what the numbers are.”