Is Iraq on the Brink of a Civil War?

This is a partial transcript of "The Big Story With John Gibson," February 23, 2005, that has been edited for clarity.

JOHN GIBSON, HOST: An attack on a Shiite shrine in Iraq has led to mass protests and deadly violence across the country.

More than 100 people have been killed and dozens of Sunni mosques have also been attacked. Right now Baghdad and surrounding areas are also under a curfew to try to curb the violence. Is Iraq on the brink of a civil war?

Joining us now is Richard Perle, former assistant secretary of defense under President Reagan and a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

So, Mr. Perle, what do you make of this situation? Are we teetering on the brink of the feared Sunni-Shia civil war?

RICHARD PERLE, FORMER ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: I certainly hope we are not. And the leadership has once again demonstrated remarkable forbearance. Ayatollah Sistani calling for calm, urging that there not be retaliatory attacks. This was clearly intended to precipitate, or at least advance, toward a civil war.

This has been going on almost from the beginning. And, happily, the civil war has not yet come about. And I very much hope that, even after this incident, it won't.

GIBSON: But we are seeing reports, Mr. Perle, that the Shia — which dominate the police departments — have just had enough of this Sunni insurgency and are starting to send out people from the police department, in what amount to death squads, to extract, well, to end the insurgency, to extract revenge as well.

Doesn't that sound like we are getting very close to sectarian strife?

PERLE: I don't think that is an indication of sectarian strife, although there is certainly a great deal of bitterness and animosity.

Many Shia were killed under the reign of Saddam Hussein — hundreds of thousands, in fact. And from time to time, people will seek to take revenge. But given the enormity of the crimes of Saddam's period and the suffering of the Shia, it really is quite remarkable that this activity has been as limited as it has, in fact, been.

And even now, as I said, the leadership is very much on the side of calm and order and not inciting further violence.

GIBSON: What is the United States supposed to do in the middle of this?

PERLE: Well, I'm afraid there is not a lot we can do.

The president has already done something important. He has said we will assist in rebuilding this shrine. We are doing what we can to urge calm and to bring the parties together.

At the end of the day, of course, only the Iraqis can sort this out among themselves. And, fortunately, at least up until now, the moderates among the Shia, and even the Sunnis, who have prevailed.

And I have no doubt that they will end up putting together a unity government involving both Shias and Sunnis, together with the Kurds, and we will look back as this as a very unfortunate, a tragic moment, but not one that brought about a civil war.

GIBSON: Richard Perle, thanks very much.

PERLE: Been a pleasure.

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