Iraq situation report

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JEB SHARP: I'm Jeb Sharp and this is The World. Iraq's leaders are calling on the country's neighbors to do more to keep insurgents from crossing into Iraq. That follows a pair of suicide bombings against government buildings in Baghdad yesterday that killed more than 150 people. It was the worst attack in Iraq in more than two years. Iraqi officials are blaming foreign fighters, but the attacks are fueling fears about Iraq's ability to protect itself as it gears up for elections and the withdrawal of US troops. The World's Jason Margolis reports.

JASON MARGOLIS: Pick up just about any paper today and the situation in Iraq once again looks grim. Images of people weeping, charred vehicles and blown out windows in downtown Baghdad. It's a horrific scene, but the overall situation in Iraq may not be as bleak as today's pictures suggest. Former Assistant Secretary of Defense Lawrence Korb just returned from a two week trip to Iraq. Korb says despite yesterday's attacks, overall violence is down there. He says, In part, that's because American forces aren't around as a target.

LAWRENCE KORB: The key thing that I found out was that the Iraqis now know we're leaving. There was always a certain amount of them that didn't think we would leave, and thought, "Well, if we kill enough of them, then they'll go." But when we took those troops out of the cities on 30 June, it's a big difference. You don't see any US troops around at all in the cities.

MARGOLIS: Yesterday's attacks were also noteworthy for the targets: two government buildings in the heart of Baghdad. Lawrence Korb says the bombers chose government buildings in part because they could reach them. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki recently ordered the removal of some protective blast walls in Baghdad.

KORB: I think Maliki, the prime minister, sort of overreacted after the US left. We told him they'd take down a lot of the checkpoints and the walls. I think that was a mistake. Once you do that, then you're, you know, giving people more opportunities.

MARGOLIS: It's not certain who orchestrated yesterday's suicide attacks, but many people who follow Iraq suggest the bombings were likely a message intended for Maliki, who is running for re-election in January.

THOMAS RICKS: I think the message that the bombers were trying to convey, no matter who they were, was that Maliki does not control Iraq as much as he claims he does.

MARGOLIS: That's Thomas Ricks, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

RICKS: And the message to Iraqis was, he can't even protect ministries in the heart of Baghdad.

MARGOLIS: Ricks has written two books about the Iraq war. He's a pessimist about the situation there. He argues that yesterday's bombings also sent a message to American leaders, that American troops just can't pack up in two years and expect a happy outcome. US forces are scheduled to fully withdraw from Iraq by the end of 2011.

RICKS: The cost of leaving could well be a civil war. Could even be a regional war.

MARGOLIS: But others caution against inferring too much from yesterday's suicide bombings. Rick Nelson is at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

RICK NELSON: Things in Iraq are relatively stable to where they were, you know, one, two, three, especially four or five years ago. We shouldn't expect that there won't be any additional

attacks. And while these attacks are significant, it doesn't mean that Iraq is not on a road to stability.

MARGOLIS: Nelson says yesterday's attacks shouldn't create a panic among American decision makers, nor does Nelson say the attacks prove that the Iraqi government can't provide security for its citizens.

NELSON: We have to give the Iraqis a chance to do this and to see how they respond to these attacks, to gauge their resilience, and most importantly, to see if they can do the elections on January 16th.

MARGOLIS: Since US troops pulled back from Iraqi urban areas in June, there have been five significant bombings throughout the country. But those kinds of attacks are getting less coverage, now that Afghanistan and Pakistan are dominating headlines. Thomas Ricks says Iraq has become the forgotten war.

RICKS: Partly because Americans want to forget it. I think there's a growing recognition that this was a terrible mistake, in my view the biggest mistake in the history of American foreign policy, and that little good is going to come of it.

MARGOLIS: But Rick Nelson sees Iraq's fade from front pages as a good sign.

NELSON: It shows that the progress is moving forward, that there's not a lot of news being made in Iraq, which means a lot of bad things aren't happening.

MARGOLIS: Though Nelson concedes yesterday's attacks were a setback. For The World, I'm Jason Margolis.