One Day From Elections, Iraq Is Racked By Violence

Apr 29, 2014
Originally published on April 29, 2014 6:49 pm

In a town northeast of Baghdad, at least 17 people are dead and dozens wounded after a pair of bombs struck an outdoor market. As Tim Arango of The New York Times explains, it's just the latest deadly attack on the eve of Iraq's national parliamentary elections.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. Tomorrow, Iraqi voters head to the polls for parliamentary elections - the first since U.S. forces withdrew in 2011. A wave of deadly attacks throughout the country have threatened the process. Northeast of Baghdad today, a pair of bombs struck an outdoor market, killing at least 17 and wounding more. Yesterday, dozens of people were killed when militants targeted several polling sites where soldiers and police voted early. Well, for the latest, we're joined by Tim Arango, Baghdad bureau chief for The New York Times. And he joins us now. And, Tim Arango, first, it is suspected that Sunni extremists, in particular a group known as the Islamic State of Iraq in Syria, is behind these attacks. What would be their aim?

TIM ARANGO: Well, absolutely. I mean, they've become much, much stronger over the last year, particularly over the last three months when they actually now control a good amount of territory, especially in Anbar province and in Fallujah. And they want to challenge the Shiite-dominated government. And to do so, they are trying to kill as many people as possible and terrify the population.

SIEGEL: The Islamic State of Iraq in Syria, sometimes called ISIS, that's an active participant in the Syrian opposition to President Bashar al-Assad across the border. Is it the same group and are these groups moving freely between Iraq and Syria these days?

ARANGO: Yes. A lot of the so-called ISIS fighters who were fighting in Syria had been veterans of the Iraq insurgency from the days when the Americans were here. And now a lot of them are going back and forth. The border between western Iraq and Syria is very porous and we hear lots of reports of people coming back and forth, as well as foreign fighters coming back to Iraq, some of them who had been in Syria. So, it's become a real revolving door.

SIEGEL: And just to be clear here, the very area where the fabled surge of U.S. forces and the Sunni Arab awakening of local militias that joined with the U.S. to try to bring some peace to Anbar, nowadays a group that's more or less aligned with al-Qaida is, if not the dominant, a dominant force there?

ARANGO: It grew out of al-Qaida. It used to be called al-Qaida in Iraq. Now, it's called the Islamic State of Iraq in Syria and they've sort of broken away from al-Qaida because they were seen as even too brutal for al-Qaida. And a lot of these guys are some of the same fighters that had been in American detention centers and who had fought the Marines at one time. And now they're back on the battlefield. They're much better trained and that's one of the big problems because you have the Iraqi security forces up against fighters who are, you know, better-trained than those that fought the Marines.

SIEGEL: Well, what is the feeling there about security for tomorrow's vote, in that case?

ARANGO: This is the fourth national election the Iraqis have had since the American invasion in 2003. It's a little bit different than the past when there were, you know, 100,000 American troops on standby. And particularly the last election, 2010, was probably held during the best of times in Iraq - relatively speaking, of course, over the last 10 years. And so there's a real fear about the safety of the polling places. And there's also, you know, a lot of fear that they're not going to achieve change through this vote.

SIEGEL: Now, you mentioned that the Sunni extremists, the Islamic State of Iraq in Syria - that group - is very strong in Anbar province. What is their influence likely to do to voter turnout tomorrow?

ARANGO: There are going to be some polling stations in territories of Anbar where the government has deemed them safe enough. But, of course, if you live in Fallujah, you're not voting tomorrow. If you live in other places in Anbar that are contested, you probably will be fearful of going to vote. And so, turnout is certainly going to be down in those Sunni areas, and it's going to raise a lot of questions about the legitimacy of the election in the minds, I think, of many Sunnis.

SIEGEL: Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, has been in power for eight years now. What's at stake for him in these parliamentary elections?

ARANGO: Well, a lot is at stake. Obviously, he wants to have a third term, and this election is, you know, seen as a referendum on his rule. The real action, of course, will be after the election, in the period of time where he's negotiating with his rivals to try to win that third term. And that could be very protracted and messy, and some people here think it could last a year or even more.

SIEGEL: That's Tim Arango, Baghdad bureau chief for the New York Times. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.