Will Sistani Call for Peace Prevail in Iraq?

This is a partial transcript of "The Big Story With John Gibson," August 26, 2004, that has been edited for clarity.

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JOHN GIBSON, HOST: ... a dramatic change [in Iraq]. The top Shiite cleric there, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani (search) arrived back in the country and quickly made a deal with the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr (search) who is causing all of this trouble.

Patrick Theros (search) is a former ambassador to Qatar, and that's today's quick question, Mr. Ambassador, can we trust al-Sadr to keep his word and underline this this time?

PATRICK THEROS, FMR. AMBASSADOR TO QATAR: I don't think that it is a question of can we trust him keep his word or not, it's more a question, you now have Sistani aligned with the government, realizing that you can't have an independent militia within a stable government. Al-Sadr is operating, in my opinion, on somewhat borrowed time, and he has a lot of support in a lot of places. Less so in Najaf. He probably wants a way out. And I think that Sistani is giving him a way out. Whether there is some fighting breaking out again or not I don't know. My personal belief is that al-Sadr is looking for a way out.

GIBSON: Is Sistani doing Iraq a favor here ending hostilities before al-Sadr is, to put it bluntly, killed?

THEROS: Absolutely. You don't want al-Sadr killed by American troops. You don't want to make him into a martyr, you want to cause other Sadrs to grow up, to come into power, to be able to call out the street. Absolutely. This has to be an Iraqi job, so to speak. The Iraqi government has to impose its will on Najaf. You can't have an independent militia running the country or running cities in the country. In my opinion one of the mistakes that we have made in the press, not so much the armed forces is that a lot of Iraqi troops are fighting. Our reporters are reporting the American troops. And this is helping al-Sadr rather than helping...

GIBSON: I was going to say if al-Sadr were to be attacked directly, that is his person or the very closest people around him, it wouldn't be Americans, it would be Iraqis, wouldn't it?

THEROS: I would hope so. Right now the perception is that it is American troops that are driving into Iraq. Very little of that reporting that there is Iraqi troops there has been coming out.

GIBSON: The — I mean, those people in Iraq who want to see this as Americans versus al-Sadr wouldn't report Iraqi troops are doing any way. And it doesn't matter what's reported here, does it?

THEROS: Yes, it does. This news gets seen all over the world. This question, not just in Iraq, but it's elsewhere in the world as well. And this reporting that concentrates on the role of American troops I think is damaging to our own interests there.

GIBSON: Just to bring us up to date because it sounds like you know, how much is being done by Iraqi troops?

THEROS: The problem is that the Iraqi troops are still very poorly equipped. We have not been able to get heavy equipment to them. Their training is still somewhat lacking. So they are probably taking the brunt of the getting shot at up front. But the way it looks is that we're doing all of the fighting.

GIBSON: What is the deal that can be worked out here? I mean al- Sadr's challenge is not merely to the Americans, it's to Sistani himself. Yet Sistani has come back to end the fighting because the mosque itself may get caught up in the fighting as well as many people will die. But he leaves al-Sadr in place to challenge him, and he has been — at least up until now the ultimate authority among the Shiites in Iraq.

THEROS: He is the most influential among the Shia. There is no ultimate authority among the Shia. I don't think al-Sadr could take on Sistani in a political contest at all. Al-Sadr has the street, he has military strength inside the towns. I don't think that he has that much support inside the towns. The citizens of Najaf would rather that he went away. They don't want their city blown away.

GIBSON: Patrick Theros was the ambassador to Qatar and an expert on the area. Thank you very much.

THEROS: My pleasure.

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