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Iraqi National Security Adviser Meets with U.S. Lawmakers

May 9, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Iraq story in two capitals. We begin with a report from NewsHour congressional correspondent Kwame Holman.

KWAME HOLMAN: The message from the White House today was unequivocal: House Democrats again are pursuing a war funding bill that the president will not accept.

At a congressional hearing, Defense Secretary Robert Gates explained why, telling members of the Senate Appropriations Committee that partially funding the war through July, as House Democrats are proposing, is not the way to finish a war.

ROBERT GATES, Secretary of Defense: The impact on the Department of Defense, in terms of disruption and canceled contracts and programs, would be huge if we had to do that.

KWAME HOLMAN: The biggest problem, he said, was the plan to have Congress vote again in mid-summer to release the remaining money, but only if conditions on the ground in Iraq have improved.

ROBERT GATES: We will have forward-spent so much money to keep the troops in the field by that time that the truth is, if that vote were to be a no, I would have to shut down significant elements of the Department of Defense in August and September, because I wouldn’t have the money to pay salaries. So a no vote in July would have dramatic consequences.

In essence, the bill asks me to run the Department of Defense like a skiff, and I’m trying to drive the biggest supertanker in the world. And we just don’t have the agility to be able to manage a two-month appropriation very well.

KWAME HOLMAN: Senators from both parties agreed that a short-term funding plan was not an ideal solution, but there also was little tolerance on the panel for funding the war beyond this fall. Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER (R), Pennsylvania: There’s a sense here, certainly by the Democrats and growing among Republicans, that there has to be some progress, significant progress to sustain it beyond September.

KWAME HOLMAN: Gates acknowledged that a critical reevaluation of the war will take place in September, when General David Petraeus gives a much- anticipated progress report to President Bush. But the secretary also issued a stern warning against leaving Iraq too early, regardless of the progress.

ROBERT GATES: If we were to withdraw, leaving Iraq in chaos, al-Qaida almost certainly would use Anbar province as a place — as another base from which to plan operations, not only inside Iraq, but first of all in the neighborhood, and then potentially against the United States.

Al-Qaida has actually expanded, I would say, its organization and its capabilities. So I think that, if we don’t leave Iraq with some sense of stability, regardless of ongoing internal difficulties, then I think the problem we face will be significantly worse.

KWAME HOLMAN: Still, committee Democrats and Republicans made it clear that the Iraqi government’s inability to get its own house in order ultimately may mean that U.S. troops are forced to leave behind a messy situation. Gates also was asked about reports earlier this week that the Iraqi Council of Representatives, a major governing body, might take off the entire months of July and August.

ROBERT GATES: I’ll be blunt. I told some of the Iraqis with whom I met that we are buying them time for political reconciliation and that every day we buy them, we buy it with American blood, and that for this group to go out for two months, it would, in my opinion, be unacceptable.

KWAME HOLMAN: Meanwhile, during Vice President Dick Cheney’s surprise visit to Baghdad today, he urged Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government to meet their lagging commitments, including dividing oil revenues, rolling back de-Baathification, and revising the constitution to help reconcile Sunnis and Shiites.

DICK CHENEY, Vice President of the United States: I did make it clear that we believe it’s very important to move on the issues before us in a timely fashion, and that any undue delay would be difficult to explain, and that we’d hope they would approach these issues with all deliberate dispatch, if I could put it in those terms. I think they’re somewhat sympathetic to our concerns.

KWAME HOLMAN: Cheney spoke to reporters at the U.S. embassy just 30 minutes after an explosion just outside the Green Zone rattled windows and forced the traveling press corps into a secured area. Still, the vice president said conversations he had with various government officials convinced him security in Baghdad was improving.

DICK CHENEY: The impression I got from talking with them — and this includes their military, as well as political leadership — is that they do believe we are making progress.

KWAME HOLMAN: Stability in Iraq will remain the vice president’s focus as he continues a five-nation tour of the region.

Working to meet the benchmarks

Mowaffak al-Rubaie
Iraq National Security Adviser
We understand very, very well the requirement, the political requirement for these benchmarks to be met. But we're very determined.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now we get an Iraqi view of the congressional debate in Washington and of the political and security situation in Baghdad. Margaret Warner spoke earlier this evening with Iraq's national security adviser.

MARGARET WARNER: Mowaffak al-Rubaie has spent the past week in the U.S. meeting with President Bush, top administration officials, and members of Congress who both support and oppose prolonged U.S. military engagement in Iraq. National Security Adviser al-Rubaie joins us now.

And thanks for being with us.

MOWAFFAK AL-RUBAIE, Iraq's National Security Adviser: Thank you for having me.

MARGARET WARNER: As you know, Vice President Cheney was in Baghdad today urging your government to produce concrete results on these benchmarks that the White House and Congress keep talking about. Does your government accept these benchmarks as legitimate measures against which should be judged continued U.S. military engagement in Iraq?

MOWAFFAK AL-RUBAIE: I think Vice President Cheney is rallying support in the region and in some of the Arab countries, rallying support for Iraq. And we are very grateful for this tour.

Of course, he's going to get serious discussion with the prime minister, Maliki. And these benchmarks, we have adopted and co-opted these benchmarks several months ago, and we are working on these benchmarks. Whether we get all of them in the right time for Washington's requirement, if you like, that remains to be seen.

But we are working. We understand very, very well the requirement, the political requirement for these benchmarks to be met. But we're very determined. We're committed to -- strongly committed. Prime Minister Maliki wanted this to happen.

But we need our -- we need time and space. We can't fit this strategic shift from the old order of Iraq to the new order in a very short timescale of four years or three years or we cannot fit this in the election cycle of Washington. This is a huge strategic shift, and the whole understanding in the culture of the whole region, what happened in Iraq, wasn't something transitional and a coup d'etat. It's a huge, major transformation from old order to the new order.

The Iraqi parliament vacation

Mowaffak al-Rubaie
Iraq National Security Adviser
My message was to all people in Capitol Hill that, look, we are walking the last mile in here. And this is a marathon. We have reached to the end. And we can see the success. And we can feel it. Don't pull the rug from underneath us.

MARGARET WARNER: But are there any of these benchmarks that you are confident now you can meet, say, by September when General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker give their report?

MOWAFFAK AL-RUBAIE: We very much hope we will have the provincial election law in place and hope that we get a date for next year for the provincial election. We will get the budget spent in place, as well. We will get other benchmarks fulfilled on the way from now until September.

MARGARET WARNER: But the big ones that everyone is focused on are the division of the oil revenues, let's say, the de-Baathification.

MOWAFFAK AL-RUBAIE: I can rest assure you that the hydrocarbon law will be by September or even before September will be ratified and approved by the council of representatives. It needs just the dotting of the i's and crossing the t's.

MARGARET WARNER: An issue that has raised its head in the Cheney visit, and Secretary Gates talked about it today, is this business about the parliament going on two months vacation this summer. And Secretary Gates said that that was unacceptable while Americans were dying. What is your reaction to that? Is parliament going to take vacation or stay and work on these issues?

MOWAFFAK AL-RUBAIE: I can disclose to your station that we have managed to convince the council of representatives, the parliament, to cancel July vacation and even look into seriously considering canceling or reducing August vacation to have probably one week during -- so we're reducing it from two months probably to a month or even to a week.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you said that you cannot do what needs to be done in Iraq on Washington's timetable. Tell us about your meetings on Capitol Hill. Was that your basic message to them? And, if so, what kind of reaction did you get?

MOWAFFAK AL-RUBAIE: My message was to all people in Capitol Hill that, look, we are walking the last mile in here. And this is a marathon. We have reached to the end. And we can see the success. And we can feel it. Don't pull the rug from underneath us.

Don't let us -- we need your helping hand. We need the U.S. support for Iraq to get there to the finishing line. And we're almost there. Don't abort. You can't have a baby in three months' time. You need that full nine months to get a mature baby. And so we need your continued support and help to get to the finishing line.

Trying to convey progress

Mowaffak al-Rubaie
Iraq National Security Adviser
I gave them what huge progress we have made in Iraq over the last three years, in politics and politically, in security, in economy. And I think we are proud of what we have achieved.

MARGARET WARNER: So the American public and members of Congress would say, how long? Early last year, I think you predicted, or you said you hoped, you thought, that American troops could begin withdrawing this year. What is now your best assessment of when that process could begin?

MOWAFFAK AL-RUBAIE: See, we are fighting an amorphous, amoebic enemy. That's al-Qaida and its affiliates. And they keep on changing the nature of the fight. And we have to develop this even further.

And this is the central front of fighting al-Qaida globally. And this is the forefront. What we have in Iraq is the forefront of fighting al-Qaida globally, to contain it, and to constrain it, and to keep or confine it within this fight so that it will not spill over to the region, or to Europe, or to America.

MARGARET WARNER: But 60 percent of the Americans now want Congress to set a timetable. What is your best sense of what a time frame would be like?

MOWAFFAK AL-RUBAIE: I don't want to interfere in the internal politics, but the public opinion leads the leaders or the leaders lead the public opinion and change it. I believe the Senate and the Congress and the public opinion maker need to tell the American public opinion and the American people that the Iraqis are grateful, and we appreciate everything America has done for Iraq.

And we know that you've invested treasure, blood, sweat, and you've invested a lot in this country. Don't lose this investment by pulling the plug in the last minute.

MARGARET WARNER: And what reaction did you get on the Hill? Did you persuade anybody?

MOWAFFAK AL-RUBAIE: I think I managed to convey a very clear message from the ground, from reality, not from reading the report, and picking that, and reading the sensational, spectacular attack of the car bombings of al-Qaida and detecting and trying to stain everything with blood in the Western media.

I gave them what huge progress we have made in Iraq over the last three years, in politics and politically, in security, in economy. And I think we are proud of what we have achieved. What we need -- we are in the last mile and near or very close to the finishing line.

MARGARET WARNER: National Security Adviser al-Rubaie, thank you for being with us.

MOWAFFAK AL-RUBAIE: Thank you for having me, madam.