Gone for Good?

This is a partial transcript of "The Big Story With John Gibson," August 27, 2004, that has been edited for clarity.

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JOHN GIBSON, HOST: A bloody three-week standoff in Najaf has come to an end. Radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr (search) has turned over the keys to the Imam Ali shrine and his militia have left the mosque. But is the fighting really over?

Joining us from Washington, Ambassador Marc Ginsberg. Mark, today's big question, will al-Sadr just go somewhere else and fight again?

AMB. MARC GINSBERG, FMR. U.S. AMBASSADOR TO MOROCCO: Absolutely, John. He gets the gold medal this week, and we don't even get the bronze. His ability to essentially face down the United States. We had the mosque surrounded. We had the Iraqi forces ready to storm it. Grand Ayatollah Sistani (search) returns from London and is able to serve as the referee, call the time-out and let Muqtada al-Sadr escape.

Now despite this five-point agreement that he was able to negotiate, that is Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani and let Muqtada al-Sadr out, he essentially is free to roam the country. He's escaped the murder charges by this new interim Iraqi government and I think there's egg all over everyone's face at this point.

GIBSON: But wait a minute, Marc. Look, isn't this a win for the United States? We don't have to conduct a massacre in the open before the eyes of the world to get rid of this guy? The shrine is back in the hands of people who won't blow it up and blame America and, you know, the guy as you say roaming around which might make him a bit of a target.

GINSBERG: Well, John, I would agree with you. Look, every American's life saved here, including as a result of what may have been an attack on the shrine even by Iraqi troops for which we would be blamed is a worthwhile, lives being saved and we needed to do that. But at the same time, John, we're engaged in mission creep. There's a dangerous parallel that as this new interim government takes over, we should not be engaged in the forefront of having to be caught up in sectarian violence inside Iraq. We have to in effect, protect the interim government.

Now while it is true that Muqtada al-Sadr's army should have been destroyed a long time ago, the fact that we were facing the situation where the shrine may have been attacked with the U.S. being blamed could have only exacerbated tensions against the United States. The fact that we avoided that, however, is a good thing. The fact that Muqtada has been able to escape means that it's a bad thing in the long run for America.

GIBSON: Ok. Now listen, Marc, I tend to try to be a realist and I know you do, too, and this is a dirty war. We're fighting it. Are you telling me that American troops are now not on the secret moving around Iraq looking for Muqtada and that he's got a big bull's-eye on him?

GINSBERG: I don't think at this point in time that we, in effect, are engaged in that type of targeted effort against him, as we could have been just a few days ago. Now, perhaps John, our military in the end is going to find an opportunity to finally finish what should have been finished a long time ago when it relates to this fiery young radical cleric that's caused us nothing but heartache and will continue to cause everyone heartache.

GIBSON: Doesn't Sistani want him gone too?

GINSBERG: Yes. There isn't a soul in Iraq, other than his immediate followers, that want him gone. We need to get his followers yanked out from underneath him by finally letting reconstruction money begin flowing and we need the American government not to be engaged in a haphazard strategy of deciding that he's public enemy number one.

He is not really in the long run public enemy number one. What is really the problem here, John, is that we're letting festering wounds continue to exacerbate our efforts to find a viable exit strategy out of Iraq and we've got to be very careful here we won't commit the same mistakes we did in Beirut in the '80s, in Mogadishu in the early '90s.

GIBSON: We're committed at least until there's an election in January, aren't we?

GINSBERG: We should be. And we've got to continue to protect the ultimate integrity and strength of the new interim government but the interim government made a decision here along with the United States to essentially try to finish the Mahdi army off. But Grand Ayatollah al- Sistani arrived from London and stopped that from happening. We could have probably gone in, if we were going to go in, we should have finished the job once and for all. We basically sort of blinked at the very precipice of the attack and Sistani arrived in time to stop that from happening.

GIBSON: OK. Is this because there is presently an election underway and the president can't afford to have a bloodbath in Iraq, even if it's the Mahdi army that bleeds?

GINSBERG: I don't think the American people want to see a bloodbath in Iraq. I don't think we need to have the Shiite and the Sunni form an unholy alliance again as what Muqtada al-Sadr as well as Abu Moussada al-Zawari would like to see. We should be much smarter here than falling into any sectarian-led trap to let these people form alliances to be turned against the American troops in Iraq.

GIBSON: Ambassador Marc Ginsberg, Marc, it's always good to see you, thanks a lot.

GINSBERG: Great to be with you as always, John.

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