U.S. Exit Strategy in Iraq

This is a partial transcript of The Big Story With John Gibson, November 14, 2003, that has been edited for clarity.

JOHN GIBSON, HOST: The White House says our troops will stay in Iraq until the job is done.

How do we win in Iraq, and how do we leave? Joining me now from D.C. to talk about it, Washington Post diplomatic correspondent Robin Wright (search).

Ms. Wright, the big question, is the U.S. already forming an exit strategy for Iraq?

ROBIN WRIGHT, WASHINGTON POST: I think that's probably what it amounts to, and it plays out in both the military and political field. The United States is looking for the same kind of mechanism, the draw down of troops and the draw down of the political presence in Iraq that will mirror each other.

GIBSON: Well, how would that work... How is this going to work if you're rushing to get [regular Iraqis] into service, and you may be recruiting [members of] Al Qaeda (search)?

WRIGHT: Well, the Bush administration clearly feels it's trying to find a formula that will not appear to be cutting and running from Baghdad. The mechanism will be a phased operation both in the draw down of troops beginning next spring as well as a gradual transition.

I think you will see sometime before next summer some form of election, be it at the provincial or national election, to select delegates for a constitutional committee that will, first of all, elect a provisional government to which the United States can hand over authority or sovereignty. And then, that group will move on to the constitution. That's a change in the order, but that will also — once sovereignty has been handed over to the Iraqis, it will allow the civilian administration to pull out.

GIBSON: Robin, in your story in the Washington Post, you make a point of talking about General Abizaid using the word "prudent" several times to describe what we're up to here. That's obviously code for something. Have you figured out what it is?

WRIGHT: Well, that, again, is the U.S. response to any charges that it is trying to get out to save itself or before a political election, that, in fact, there is an effort to do this prudently, cautiously, carefully, in a phased way that will not be precipitous and lead to too many mistakes being made or leave the Iraqis unprepared or unable to rule once the United States has left.

GIBSON: When somebody says time is not on our side, what do they mean? Do they mean President Bush has an election problem, or do they mean that the Iraqis simply aren't ready to take their country?

WRIGHT: Both. In fact, the United States faces an election in just one year, and the pressure is going to be on during the whole presidential campaign beginning in January, as Iraq continues to be a hot spot.

But it also reflects the problem in Iraq. This is a society that has never in modern times dating back centuries had any kind of democratic government, and so this is all a new experience for the majority of them, and there are deep disagreements, and democracy is — can be a very divisive process.

GIBSON: Well, yes. Is the United States going to be able to hand this country back to Iraqis if there is not a secular democracy in place? Are we going to hand it back to a theocracy?

WRIGHT: I don't think we are going to hand it back to a theocracy, but I think we'll probably hand it back to them before they write their constitution, and we actually know what kind of system of government they're going to put in place.

I think there's an overwhelming desire among Iraqis to have a democracy, some form of democracy that will provide guarantees of rights for all the major population groups, ethnic and religious. But there are clearly critical issues to be addressed about whether Islamic law is a source of law or the source of law in writing a new constitution as the basis of future system of political rule.

GIBSON: Robin, what is the Saddam factor right now?

WRIGHT: It's obviously a huge factor. If you look it at the factors creating problems for the United States, he lurks out there. As long as he is alive, as long as he is seen to have supporters and not be in U.S. hands, there is the fear in Iraq that Saddam Hussein (search) will make a comeback, that he can hold out longer than the Americans can, and, of course, that will become ever more a factor.

I think over the next year the U.S. has a lot to do politically and militarily, but also in order to be able to exit they need to get Saddam Hussein.

GIBSON: What do you make of these bombing runs and major combat operation kind of bombings that we've seen the last few days?

WRIGHT: Well, the United States is trying to put the squeeze on all the forces that are challenging them. Everything that happens in Iraq is tainted by the security situation, and that changes on sometimes a daily, even hourly basis. And so, I think the United States is looking at means of, you know, cracking down on these guys.

GIBSON: Robin Wright, formerly with the L.A. Times. Now a big catch for the Washington Post. And it's good to see you, Robin. Thanks for coming on. Appreciate it.

WRIGHT: Thank you.

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