A High Price to Pay?

This is a partial transcript of "The Big Story With John Gibson," April 15, 2005, that has been edited for clarity.

JOHN GIBSON, HOST: Another day of violent attacks in Iraq, bombs hitting several districts in Baghdad, killing one civilian and wounding eight others. This comes as a Sunni (search) cleric pressures Iraq's new president to free thousands of homegrown terrorists, saying it's the only way that the Iraqi government will get Sunni support for this government.

Joining me now is former assistant secretary of defense under President Ronald Reagan, Richard Perle.

Mr. Perle, so what about this deal? You know, we'll trade in our bombs and we'll take on ballots; how about you letting our terrorists go and we'll participate in the politics of the new country?

RICHARD PERLE, FORMER ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Well, we would certainly like to see the Sunnis participate in politics in Iraq. And many Sunnis would like to participate in politics. But, if the price is the wholesale release of Baathist (search) terrorists, I think that's too high a price to pay. And my guess is that the new government will not be prepared to pay that price.

GIBSON: Do you think there is some way to sort out — I mean, there are many thousands of people being held in prisons in Iraq — which ones were taking $100 to go throw a bomb and which ones are really committed Baathist, Al Qaeda terrorists?

PERLE: It's difficult to do, and it can't be done with perfection, because information is uncertain and people don't always tell the truth.

But it is possible to at least come to a reasonable judgment about most of the cases. And there will certainly be some willingness to be tolerant with respect to some individuals. But the ones who are close to Saddam's regime, the ones who wielded power during the Baathist days, they cannot be turned loose. The de-Baathification is essential to restoring Iraq to a decent government going forward.

GIBSON: Do you think this is sort of a bluff on the part of the Sunni leader: I will just try this, but I don't really expect it?

And are the Sunnis going to participate? Are they going to get it and say, OK, we'll go along here?

PERLE: I think, increasingly, there is pressure from ordinary Sunnis to get on with their lives. After all, they, too, have been the victims of the violence.

There is no single Sunni leader who can purport to speak for all the Sunnis of Iraq, and certainly not those who were closely associated with Saddam's regime. So, there will be different voices on this. And it would be a great mistake to respond in the way he is suggesting to the most militant of the Sunnis.

GIBSON: You know, by the way, I think we read news Friday that another mass grave was found with some 5,000 bodies in it, this just as Saddam Hussein is getting teed up for his trial.

How long is this going to go on? I mean, how many more of these mass grave killing fields are there?

PERLE: Well, sadly, we don't know.

The estimates are 300,000 to 400,000 people murdered by the regime, and that doesn't count those who were killed by poison gas, those who died in the wars that Saddam started. It is that legacy that makes it essential that the Baathists responsible for this be brought to justice and not brought into the government. People who were paid a few dollars to explode an improvised device on the side of the road are one thing.

But those who were intimately involved in the massacres and the killings and the jailings and all the rest, there can be no compromise with them.

GIBSON: Do you think that we're going to see Zarqawi (search) captured, same as we've seen so many of the other Baathists and Saddam Hussein himself captured?

PERLE: I think, eventually, we will get them. Things are already very much better than before the election. The election, which should have taken place a year before it did, had a very important political and psychological effect.

This is now their country. And the Iraqis understand that. And the flow of information to the Iraqi security forces, to the U.S., which is assisting them, has become a flood. And that information is critical to capturing the Zarqawis and bringing this insurgency under control.

GIBSON: Do you think, as I've heard some others say and even today, that there is a feeling that we kind of have turned a corner in Iraq?

PERLE: I believe we've turned a corner — and that that corner was turned when 8.5 million Iraqis braved death to cast their first votes. Now a government is being formed. The Iraqi people are invested in the future of their own country. And that was the critical turning point.

There will continue to be violence from people who have nowhere to go, who will follow Saddam Hussein into the dock, when they will be tried for their own crimes. And there are others who simply can't live in a democratic society. But, the corner was turned when the people of Iraq braved death in order to say they wanted a new country with a decent governance.

GIBSON: Mr. Perle, I can't let you go without asking for a short answer. Do you ever feel like saying, "We were right"?

PERLE: Well, I feel like saying that to the president. He was right, and he stuck his neck out. He did something that a lot of people disagreed with. And he has set in motion the most important political transformation in the region in my lifetime.

GIBSON: Richard Perle, former assistant defense secretary and a player in this whole scenario, we appreciate you coming on this program.

PERLE: Thank you.

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