LE: Iraq status check

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Length: 13:29

WOLF BLITZER: The question on everyone's mind right now is when will the Iraqi government be able to stand up and stop the violence so that U.S. troops can start to stand down?

Joining us now to discuss this and more, our guests: on the ground in Baghdad, CNN's own Michael Ware; in Washington, David Ignatius, he's an international affairs columnist for the Washington Post; and here in New York, Richard Haass. He's president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Gentlemen, thanks to all of you for coming in, and I'll start the discussion with a report that General Barry McCaffrey, retired U.S. Army four-star general, released this week following another visit to Iraq.

Among other things, he said this: "Although we have arrested 120,000 insurgents and killed some huge number of enemy combatants, perhaps 20,000 plus, the armed insurgents, militias and al Qaeda in Iraq, without fail, apparently regenerate both leadership cadres and foot soldiers. Their sophistication, numbers and lethality go up, not down, as they incur these staggering battle losses."

Michael Ware, first to you since you're there in Iraq. Is General McCaffrey correct, bottom line?

MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Oh, absolutely. And it's been this way ever since 2003. Indeed, we've seen through the course of this war, since the fall of Saddam's regime in April '03, the insurgency not just mutate and transform, but grow in complexity, grow in sophistication and grow in breadth as more and more international players became involved.

And this was a trend that was emerging by the end of the summer of '03. So to say that this is continuing and goes on is of no surprise. A distinguishing feature of this insurgency has been its unbelievable ability to regenerate.

BLITZER: All right. I want to play for Richard Haass what Senator John McCain said at a news conference in Baghdad today. Listen to this, Richard.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-ARIZ.: Things are better and there are encouraging signs. I have been here many years, many times over the years. Never have I been able to drive from the airport, never have I been able to go out into the city as I was today.


BLITZER: All right. Clearly a much more upbeat assessment of things, while still very serious, are moving, at least he says, in the right direction.

RICHARD HAASS, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS: Well, the bottom line is, Wolf, they're both right. Depending upon where you are in Iraq, you can see very different things. So right around Baghdad where the surge has been heaviest, yes, there's been what you might call some microimprovement. But take a step back. Look at the country as a whole. No, there hasn't been.

What you are still seeing is a country that's more sectarian than national. When these people get up every morning and they look in the mirror, they see themselves more as Sunnis and Shia and Kurds than they do as Iraqis. National forces are still thin and weak.

So Senator McCain is probably right in terms of the specific areas he's seen. But I'm sorry to say, I don't think it's right. I think Barry McCaffrey is probably correct when he talks about what you might call the strategic direction of the country which, unfortunately, is still going in the wrong direction.

BLITZER: Where you do stand, David Ignatius, on this, I guess, bottom line question of whether things are moving in the right or wrong direction in Iraq?

DAVID IGNATIUS, WASHINGTON POST: I think it's too early to make a serious assessment of whether the surge is working. I think our discussion in the last couple of minutes has illustrated the paradox of the surge. There is no question in my mind that as we put more troops into Baghdad for a Baghdad security plan, we will be able to stabilize or give the appearance of stability in those neighborhoods.

I was in Baghdad last August with General Abizaid, the then-CENTCOM commander, doing what Senator McCain did today in his tour of neighborhoods that have been secured by U.S. troops. And, yes, we are the toughest militia in Iraq. We can beat out everybody out of these neighborhoods for a little while.

But that's not the same thing as having stability through the country, making progress toward a political solution. The problem with the surge is, you surge, you stabilize the area, but the rest of the country and the political dynamics remain unchanged. I still don't hear anything that really speaks to that.

BLITZER: Well, what about the fact, Michael Ware, that Senator McCain and his VIP delegation could actually drive in from the Baghdad Airport to the international zone, the so-called Green Zone -- the secure part, relatively speaking, of the Iraqi capital -- and then go out on a tour of some marketplaces? What, if anything, does that say to you?

WARE: Well, it speaks, unfortunately, to the naivete of the congressional delegation and it touches upon what David has just said. The fact that they were able to drive from the airport has been done by American representatives for years now. That is not new.

The fact that they were able to stroll through a marketplace that was heavily secured by American convoys and air assets and Iraqi troops bristling all around them has been done and done and done before. I myself, like David, have walked the streets with American generals. It speaks of nothing except the appearance on the surface.

And whilst the surge is having an impact on certain types of violence and needs to be supported, nonetheless, the underlying dynamics behind this war, undercutting this war, are not being addressed, which is why we are now seeing America cutting deals with the Baathists while we are seeing the prime minister cutting deals with Muqtada al-Sadr, the militia leader.

BLITZER: And, Richard Haass, I want to read another excerpt from General McCaffrey's report because it does speak to the problems in Iraq right now. "There is no function of government that operates effectively across the nation: not health care, not justice, not education, not transportation, not labor and commerce, not electricity, not oil production. There is no province in the country in which the government has dominance."

There are, what, 18 provinces in Iraq and the usual assessment is that things are going relatively well in 14, 15 of them. There are a few that things aren't so well. He says that the situation is bad in all of those provinces.

HAASS: Well, it's not bad in the north. The Kurdish areas are remarkably stable. They're economically booming. But there the credit essentially goes to the Kurdish people and the Kurdish leadership.

BLITZER: But that was happening even before Saddam Hussein went down when the U.S. was flying those no-fly zones in the northern part of Iraq.

HAASS: Right. You haven't had the federal government have sway in the north now for over a decade. The south, again, the federal government is weak. It's really a Shia stronghold. Sharia law is quite strong.

What most people talk about when they talk about Iraq, as you know, is the center, Baghdad and west. That's where you have the most mixed populations. That's where the situation is worse. And, again, one is not really seeing structural or systematic progress there. That's the reason that one has to be somewhat bearish when one thinks about what Iraq is going to look like six months or six years from now.

BLITZER: And I'm going to take a break, but David Ignatius, just weigh in on that last point.

IGNATIUS: You know, I think that we are still at a moment of blockage. What's most striking about the last year is we have really tried to reach out to the Sunnis, hoping to get to the insurgency and contain it and we have failed. That was the policy of our ambassador, Khalilzad. We really worked hard at it. It didn't produce any results.

BLITZER: All right. We're going to take a quick break. We have a lot more to talk about with our panel, including we're going to get their reaction to what we heard from King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia this week. He suggested that the U.S. was engaged in what he said was an "illegitimate foreign occupation" of Iraq. What is King Abdullah up to? What's going on on that front?

We're going to also pick their brains on what's happening in the stand-off between Britain and Iran. A lot more coming up with our panel.


BLITZER: Welcome back to "Late Edition." I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting today from New York.

We are talking with three guests: CNN's Michael Ware in Baghdad; Washington Post columnist David Ignatius; and Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations. He's here in New York.

Richard, let me start with you and read to you what King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, a good U.S. ally over these years, said on Wednesday at the Arab Summit in Riyadh. "In our beloved Iraq, the bloods among brothers are shed in the shadow of the illegitimate foreign occupation and the repulsive sectarianism threatens a civil war."

Were you surprised he branded the U.S. military occupation of Iraq, what he said was an illegitimate foreign occupation?

HAASS: Surprised is probably not strong enough. It's outrageous, in part because it's not illegitimate. We're there at the invitation of the Iraqi government. This is not an occupation in the sense of anything that's enforced.

More important, the Saudis know full well that they want us there, and they have been one of those who have been cheerleading against Congress and others who have been seen to somehow have been pulling out the rug and leading the United States to a hasty withdrawal.

The Saudis know full well that could lead to not only a more intense civil war, but possibly a regional war which they would be, in some ways, in the thick of. They don't want us to leave. They want the United States to essentially try to leave Iraq in a somewhat more stable way. So clearly, the king and others are playing to the domestic and regional galleries. But it's unfortunate because it makes it that much more difficult for the United States to retain the domestic and international support that it wants.

BLITZER: Do you do understand what the Saudi game in Iraq right now, David Ignatius, is?

IGNATIUS: Well, it's a little confusing. I think Richard had it about right. You can't really expect King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to be more supportive in public of the U.S. presence in Iraq than Democratic members of Congress. He does have to guard his flank in the Arab world.

The Arab world is very, very angry at the United States. We really have to underline that. When you travel in that part of the world -- I've been going out there for over 25 years. I've never seen a mood like this. And King Abdullah's comments reflect that.

I do think, because he doesn't want the U.S. to leave in a hurry, calling our presence there illegitimate was kind of nonsensical, but I think it is a reflection of the realities of Arab politics now.

BLITZER: Michael, you've done some brilliant reporting on what's going on on the ground in Iraq, and you've actually seen some sort of Saudi role there. Practically speaking, what are they doing? Because, clearly, they are concerned about the Shia and any alliance the Shia majority in Iraq would have with Iran.

WARE: Yeah, well, essentially Saudi Arabia, like many of America's important Arab allies, feel that they've been completely sold short and left in the lurch by Washington as a result of the invasion of Iraq and, more importantly, the construction of the particular type of state that we see.

Here are America's friends in the region sitting back, watching America bring this new system into one of its neighbors, and they see this new system called democracy deliver power into the hands of those America's allies see as the greatest threat to the region: Iran and Iran's friends and allies and proxies in Iraq.

They see America emboldening everybody's enemy and they've been scratching their heads about it. They screamed about it before the invasion. They've been screaming about it ever since, so there is support for the Sunnis here. At the moment, it's covert. At some point, it's going to have to step up.

BLITZER: Let's talk about the stand-off right now between Britain and Iran over those 15 British sailors and marines that were taken in the northern Persian Gulf.

There's a lot of concern, Richard, that this could escalate, the situation could get a lot worse, and that the whole issue of oil exports and the price per barrel could be affected.

Listen to Senator Joe Biden. He was earlier today on Fox. I want you to you hear what he had to say.


SEN. JOSEPH R. BIDEN JR., D-DEL.: I think you continue to ratchet up, get the entire world to ratchet up further the pressure on Iran, but I think quietly you have to be preparing to be able to deal with Iranian oil and be prepared to, down the road, make the kind of -- take the kind of action that would cut off their importation of refined oil and affect their export of crude oil.


BLITZER: Now, if Iran's export of crude oil is affected, that could dramatically increase the price per barrel.

HAASS: Probably in the short run, but not that much over time. Iran exports somewhere between two-and-a-half million barrels a day, maybe three -- a little bit more than that -- percent of the world's oil right now.

There's probably not much spare capacity in the system, so I think right now in 2007, we are in better shape. Though you are basically right; there would be a short-term price spike. But we're basically in better shape than we were a couple of years ago.

But I think what the senator is talking about is interesting, the idea of some sort of pressure on Iran also to get at roughly half of their gasoline that they import. They don't have refining capacity. That's one of the Achilles' heels of that regime. What we need to do is keep this combination of diplomacy and mounting pressure on them.

And also, one other thing, Wolf, is not to allow this hostage situation to divert us from the real issue, which is Iran's development of a uranium enrichment capacity which down the road would, obviously, put them in a position to make nuclear weapons. That's ultimately far more important. I don't mean to be insensitive, but it's ultimately the most important question vis-a-vis Iran.

BLITZER: We're going to have to leave it right there. Good discussion, Richard Haass. Thanks for coming in here in New York. David Ignatius of the Washington Post, our own Michael Ware in Baghdad, appreciate it very much.