Ready or Not, Iraq Prepares for Elections

This is a partial transcript of "The Big Story With John Gibson," January 13, 2005, that has been edited for clarity.

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JOHN GIBSON, HOST: The White House admitting now the Iraqi elections (search) will not be perfect. Some people will be scared away by the threat of the violence, but it's still an important first step in a new Iraqi democracy and it could get our troops that much closer to coming home.

Joining me now to talk about the Iraqi elections, perfect or not, the President of the International Republican Institute, Lorne Craner.

So, Mr. Craner, how perfect do they need to be?

LORNE CRANER, INTERNATIONAL REPUBLICAN INSTITUTE: You need to remember, first of all, these are the first elections Iraq is having. I've seen dozens of elections around the world; first elections are never technically perfect.

The second thing you need to remember is that these are not the elections. These are basically elections about having elections. From these January 30th elections will come an assembly that will decide Iraq's constitution and they will decide what elections are going to be for later this year. So this is not the penultimate election.

GIBSON: All right. Now, the White House seems to be trying to play down expectations. Are they right to do that?

CRANER: Yeah, I will say having come out of administration about five months ago, this discussion has been going on for a while. I think people at lower levels were very focused on the quote, "result" that was going to happen out of the election.

I think people at higher levels — and you heard Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) talked about this two weeks ago. Understand that Shiites (search) are going to win in Iraq. It's 55 percent of Iraq and in a democracy, the majority wins. The important thing to remember is Iraqi-Shiites are not Iranian- Shiites. There are natural affinities between them, but there are more natural tensions between them.

So, the day after the election, when Shiites have won, as they are going to, we need to be working as we did in Afghanistan, where hard-liners won in the Loya Jirga process to make sure that the rest of the process during the year goes well and goes fairly.

GIBSON: But the way it's being put — and I think it's being put this way so Americans will understand it — is we have presidential elections where turnout is half or less than half, so why should we expect much more from Iraqis? But that's really not a good comparison, is it? The Iraqis are going to be scared away from the polls by guys with bombs.

CRANER: So, I think some Iraqis are going to be scared away from the polls. You also see a lot of Sunnis say they're not going to go to the polls because they think this is an unfair system; they're a minority in Iraq. That is their decision to make if they're not going to turn out the polls.

I think through the rest of this year what you're going to see is the Shiites understanding that if Iraq is to stay together, they have to work with Sunnis. And I think you're also going to see Sunnis understanding that if they want to play a role in Iraq, they need to get involved in the electoral process.

GIBSON: So what happens the day after election, as you say, the Shi'a win, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani is essentially the de facto leader, whether he's on the ballot or not. And the Sunnis say, "The election wasn't legitimate; we're not going to participate. We're opting out of this system." What happens then?

CRANER: I think if the Sunni leaders do that, I think the Sunni people — many of whom, by the way, say they are going to vote — are going to understand if they opt out of the system, they're essentially opting out of the future of Iraq; that they will have no role to play.

What I hope, and I think you are going to see, is Shiite leaders extending a hand to Sunnis to try and get them involved in the process. Because without the Sunnis and without the Kurds, you don't have an Iraq anymore.

GIBSON: Well, what's in it for the Shiites? This is getting way inside baseball for the average American, but we've got a lot riding on this, too. What's in it for the Shiites to extend a hand to the minority that oppressed the majority for so long in Iraq?

CRANER: That's going to be very, very difficult to do. But what you've seen throughout this year is many Shiite leaders, including Sistani, saying, "We have to have elections in Iraq." And they want as many people to participate as possible.

What is it in for them is having an Iraq; is having an Iraq where Kurds and Sunnis and Shiites can live and work together. Because again, without the Sunnis, Iraq basically will not exist, if you're going to cut out that portion of the country.

GIBSON: Well, if the Sunnis don't participate, or they think this is illegitimate and their friends in Western Europe, who have been trying to declare this whole enterprise illegitimate for a long time, go along and say again, "The Bush administration trying to impose democracy. It isn't going to work." What's the danger of a civil war?

CRANER: Clearly you have that danger, and clearly I think the Shiites are going to want to end the terrorism and the violence that is going on in Iraq that's being propagated by the Sunnis. But again, most Sunnis do not support this violence. They want a peaceful, calm Iraq.

If you ask Iraqis what the number one issues are in the election, it's actually the economy, just like it is here, just like it is in most countries. They want to see the economy get better and they understand that that can't happen with car bombs going off every day.

GIBSON: What happens if the Shiites win the election, as you predict, and I'm assuming you're right, and the next day the Shiites say, "It's time for the Americans to leave."?

CRANER: I think they understand just as well as we do that at this moment the Iraqi security forces are not capable on their own of handling the security situation in Iraq. American policy makers have made very, very clear that we're prepared to leave as soon as the Iraqis want us to leave.

But I think the Shiites, like I've said, understand as well as everybody else that it would be very, very difficult security-wise in that country without American troops.

GIBSON: OK. Now, if this is a Shiite-run Iraq, is it more friendly to Iran or more friendly to the United States?

CRANER: I think in the beginning there are going to be a lot of people who are going to be afraid of and perhaps with some justice, that it is going to be closer to Iran. But you need to remember Iraqi-Shiites have been treated like the little brothers by Iranian-Shiites for many years. They have not really been helped by the Iranian-Shiites. Certainly not in their uprising in 1991.

And I don't think they feel that much of an affinity. I think what you're going to see is more less of Iran influencing Iraq over the long term, and more of a democratic Shiite Iran, dominated Iraq actually, influencing Iran over time. I think that's what you're going to see over the next couple years.

GIBSON: Lorne Craner, thanks very much. Appreciate it. We'll see how this works out.

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