Should Iraq Elections Be Postponed?

This is a partial transcript of "The Big Story With John Gibson," Dec. 3, 2004, that has been edited for clarity.

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JOHN GIBSON, HOST: Terrorists strike a police station and a house of worship in Baghdad today. Violence or no violence, there is going to be some violence. Leaders in Washington say there will be an election on January 30.

My next guest said that's not the best idea. Leslie Gelb (search) is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations (search). Mr. Gelb, so should these Iraqi elections be postponed?

LESLIE GELB, PRESIDENT EMERITUS, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS: They should be postponed; they're not going to be. When my co-author, Peter Galbraith (search) and I wrote that article, we knew we were blowing in the wind, but we wanted arguments out there because the important thing to us is that the United States get a strategy for an honorable and successful exit from Iraq.

And that's really what we're thinking about. The way these elections are set up, John, we're not going to get that.

GIBSON: Even as Rumsfeld has said a couple of times, an imperfect election in a few provinces — he means the Sunni triangle — but the election goes forward in the Shia area and the election goes forward in the Kurd area, what's so wrong with that?

GELB: Let me tell you what will happen, why we think that it's bad to go forward, or even worse than not going forward. One is that if you go forward, the Sunnis are effectively going to be marginalized and disenfranchised.

There's hardly going to be any Sunni turnout and they'll end up with something like 10 percent of the seats in the parliament. Well below the 20 percent they represent of the total population. They're going to be even more alienated, they'll be more Sunni-Arab support for the insurgents.

Secondly, the Shiites are going to clean up. They're going to get more than 60 percent of the seats. And they will think they can run that country. And they can't. They're not going to be able to implement their will over the Sunni-Arabs any more than we can. And they're certainly not going to be able to tell the Kurds what to do.

And as far as the Kurds are concerned, they might withdraw from the scene, establish a separate state and that really would annoy the Turks and the Iranians. So, it's a dangerous situation.

GIBSON: You suggested that a compromise would be to let the Shi'a vote and set up their own sort of, regional assembly and let the Kurds vote and set up their sort of, regional assembly; and let the Sunnis kind of, sort it out later.

GELB: You got it. And let me tell you what's in my mind in saying that.

I think our area of real strength is the Kurdish north. That's a democracy; it's a functioning market economy. They're good guys. They pump oil there, they would give us base rights if we ever needed to come back in there. Those are real allies.

We need to improve our relation with the Shiites in the south and they're capable of some form of self-government. And we want to strengthen our relations there.

The Sunnis in the center, the Sunni-Arabs in the center, are the problem. And we could go on fighting them and this insurgency for many, many years to come. I think they've got to sort it out themselves. The good Sunni-Arabs fighting the bad Sunni-Arabs. But let's strengthen either end.

Let's do what's called the 80 percent solution. That's 80 percent of the country, north and south, and use that as leverage for the good Sunni- Arabs, that's most of them by the way — most of them hate those damn insurgents — to get their act together and to bring stability to the center of the country. And then, out of it I think, can come some confederation.

But if we try to make a unitary state run from Baghdad that we call a democracy, we'll be there forever.

GIBSON: OK. Explain to me then why — this all making great sense — you don't think it would happen.

GELB: I think one of the problems with current policy is it started early with the idea of trying to keep Iraq as a unitary state...

GIBSON: One country?

GELB: ... with a strong government in Baghdad. And that only happened in the last 80 years, run by the Brits, the Sunnis, Saddam. And that can't be a part of the future. We had more of an ideology than a sense of the real history and politics of that place.

I think more and more though, the administration's coming around to this point of view, John. The President when he spoke to the U.N. a little over a month ago, called for a federal Iraq. Now they haven't thought through inside the administration exactly what they mean by that, but they're on the road.

Because I think that's where the reality is, and that's where our interests are. And that's the way for us to successfully leave that country.

GIBSON: In the best situation, how long will we still be in Iraq?

GELB: Under the best situation; if they did everything I said and things broke right, maybe a couple more years or so.

GIBSON: And the worst situation?

GELB: And the worst situation it's an open-ended bleeding commitment.

GIBSON: We don't have trouble in the south with the Shi'a anymore, do we?

GELB: No, it's pretty quiet there and it's quite quiet in the north.

GIBSON: And we don't have trouble with the Kurds?

GELB: That's right.

GIBSON: So, if those two areas stayed quiet, why would it be forever that we're running around the Sunni triangle chasing this smaller number of insurgents?

GELB: Right. Well, that's what we've been doing for the last year and a half, without making really much progress.

In fact, by almost all accounts, these insurgents — and they are monsters — are gaining in support. And they're gaining in support for two reasons: one, there's growing anti-Americanism among the Sunni-Arabs in the center; and there's growing fear of these monster insurgents. And the result is this insurgency festers and gains in support and strength.

GIBSON: Leslie Gelb, Emeritus head of the Council on Foreign Relations, with a good idea.

GELB: Sounds old.

GIBSON: Not quite. Sounds like maybe you don't have to do it every day anymore.

Thanks a lot, Mr. Gelb, appreciate it.

GELB: Thank you..

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