By Jonathan Finer and Naseer Nouri
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 19, 2005
BAGHDAD, Dec. 18 -- Violence and civil unrest surged across Iraq on Sunday as Vice President Cheney made his first visit here in more than a decade, praising what he called the "remarkable" turnout by voters in nationwide elections Thursday and telling U.S. troops that the country had "turned the corner."
Shrouded in fortified compounds and shuttled between venues by squadrons of helicopters, Cheney came on a day that underscored the deep economic and security challenges the country faces.
The government sparked angry protests in several cities by announcing a steep increase in fuel prices, currently the lowest in the Middle East and among the lowest in the world. And insurgents ended the lull in violence during the election period by launching a string of attacks across the country that killed more than 30 people, including 20 truck drivers and crew members on a highway north of Baghdad.
Among the strongest proponents of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq -- and of current American policy here -- Cheney sat for an hour-long briefing in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone with U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and generals George W. Casey, the military commander in Iraq, and John P. Abizaid, who heads U.S. Central Command, which is responsible for the Middle East region.
Cheney then met briefly with President Jalal Talabani and Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari, who told the vice president, "I'm very happy today for your trip. I thought only the ambassador would be here."
After watching Iraqi troops perform drills at an installation north of Baghdad, Cheney spoke to American troops at Al Asad air base in Anbar province west of Baghdad, the heart of Iraq's Sunni Arab-led insurgency. Voter turnout in Anbar was much larger than during elections in January, which Sunnis largely boycotted.
There, Cheney addressed the roiling public debate in the United States over how long American troops should remain in Iraq.
"I know most of you have heard the political debates that have been going on back home," he said. "You've heard some prominent voices advocating a sudden withdrawal of our forces from Iraq. Some have suggested this war is not winnable. And a few seem almost eager to conclude that the struggle is already over. But they are wrong. The only way to lose this fight is to quit. And that is not an option."
Afterward, he took questions from a group of 30 troops in a large tent. "From our perspective, we don't see much as far as gains," Marine Cpl. Bradley Warren told Cheney. "I was wondering what it looks like from the big side of the mountain -- how Iraq's looking."
"Well, Iraq's looking good," Cheney responded. "It's hard sometimes, if you look at just the news, to have the good stories burn through. Part of it is that what we're doing here, obviously, takes time. From our perspective, looking back, as I say, to a year and a half ago, I think it's remarkable progress. I think we've turned the corner, if you will. I think when we look back from 10 years hence, we'll see that the year '05 was in fact a watershed year here in Iraq."
Cheney, who last came to Iraq as U.S. defense secretary to visit American troops in the south after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, also discussed the possibility of American forces eventually withdrawing "to a few locations" in Iraq, which would "reduce the total number of personnel we need here."
"I think you will see changes in our deployment patterns probably within this next year," he said.
Meanwhile, in a long-anticipated move, the Iraqi government announced Sunday that heavily subsidized fuel prices would rise dramatically, effective immediately. Officials said the increase was necessary to fund services for the poor and to combat a growing black market for petroleum products. An estimated 25 to 30 percent of the fuel purchased in Iraq is smuggled out of the country and sold at higher prices.
Despite possessing one of the world's largest known oil reserves, Iraq imports about $500 million a month in fuel, including gasoline, because its refinery infrastructure is outdated and in disrepair.
The increases announced Sunday raise the price of regular gasoline from the equivalent of less than 5 cents a gallon to just under 40 cents. International lending organizations have pressured Iraq to scale back the subsidies to help improve the government's balance sheet.
"In Iraq now, there are a million families, which is about 4 to 5 million people, who make less than a dollar per day, which is considered below the level of poverty, and we are trying to help those people," said Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Chalabi, who heads the country's energy committee.
In the Shiite holy city of Najaf, about 90 miles south of Baghdad, demonstrators took to the streets, many gathering outside the home of Oil Minister Bahr Alum and tearing down election posters bearing his image from nearby walls. Moqtada Sadr, the fiery young cleric whose militia last year fought U.S. forces, emerged from his home down the street and calmed the crowd, witnesses said. Similar demonstrations occurred in the southern cities of Amarah and Kut.
Drivers stranded in long gas lines in Baghdad's Karrada district expressed anger and frustration about the price hike, which followed earlier attempts to address fuel shortages by restricting the days on which certain vehicles can get gas.
"This is not the first stupid decision this government made," said Muslim Raheem, 24, a taxi driver. "They did not announce this decision before the election because they knew that they would lose support."
Also Sunday, armed insurgents formed a makeshift checkpoint on a highway north of Baghdad, and shot and killed 20 drivers and the crews of five large trucks after forcing them from their vehicles, said Ali Khayam, a police official in Baqubah, about 25 miles from the scene of the shooting.
When police arrived at the scene near the town of Tarfa, the insurgents were gone and the engines of the trucks were still idling, police said. License plates showed the vehicles were from Nasiriyah, a Shiite-majority town 200 miles south of Baghdad.
Elsewhere, two relatives of a top Kurdish politician were gunned down in their car late Saturday night in the northern city of Kirkuk, police said. Also Saturday, gunmen killed Ali Asdi, a representative in Baghdad of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's most revered Shiite cleric, Sistani's office announced Sunday.
Meanwhile, the German government announced Sunday that Susanne Osthoff, a German archeologist and activist who was abducted three weeks ago with her driver north of Baghdad, has been freed and is in good health. Her driver should also be released shortly, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said at a news conference in Berlin. He offered few details.
Special correspondents Omar Fekeiki in Baghdad, Saad Sarhan in Najaf and Hassan Shammari in Baqubah contributed to this report.