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Background: Iraq Self-Rule

November 13, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: This was a busy public day for America’s top officials working on the future of Iraq. First: The military. General John Abizaid, the central command commander, spoke to reporters from CENTCOM headquarters in Tampa, Florida.

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: This is a very tough battle that we’re engaged in. It’s tough. A lot of people have lost their lives. A lot of very difficult soldiering has to go on there to make Iraq a more stable and a more prosperous location. The clear and most dangerous enemy to us at the present time are the former regime loyalists, the Baathist cells that operate in the areas primarily of Baghdad, Fallujah, Tikrit, Mosul, Kirkuk, and conduct operations against us primarily through the use of improvised explosive devices, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, and very infrequently but sometimes also small-arms fire.

I would say that this group of Baathists by far represents the greatest threat to peace and stability, and it is very important for us to close with that enemy, to discover their cellular structure, to unravel it, and to remove that threat from moderation emerging in the Iraqi government. The extremists are those that can fill a large number of different groupings. They represent religious extremists, they represent national extremists that may or may not have been associated with the Baathists, yet nevertheless desire to fight the coalition and to ensure that no moderate Iraqi government emerges.

There are a large number of criminals that are hired by the Baathists and the extremists to do their dirty work. As a matter of fact, in most of the cases of direct-fire engagements that our troops have, they find very young, out- of-work young men that have been paid to attack our forces. And it is very important that as we progress militarily, we also progress politically and economically so as to get these young men, these angry young men off the streets.

There are a small, yet important and well-organized group of foreign fighters, some of whom have been operating in Iraq for a long time, many of whom are infiltrating across various borders. I would point out to you that the border areas of Iraq are as long as the U.S./Mexican border areas, and they are difficult to secure.

Yet on the other hand, we have had good success recently in interdicting many of these foreign fighters. So in all, I would say that the force of people actively armed and operating against us does not exceed 5,000. Now, people will say, “well, that’s a very small number.” But when you understand that they’re organized in cellular structure, that they have a brutal and determined cadre, that they know how to operate covertly, they have access to a lot of money and a lot of ammunition, you’ll understand how dangerous they are.

WILL DUNHAM, Reuters: General, this is will Dunham with Reuters. Can you tell me, what is your perception of the goals of the resistance forces fighting U.S. and coalition troops in Iraq? Is it a military victory? A public relations victory? An attempt to isolate the United States from international partners? Maybe an attempt to undermine popular support among ordinary Iraqis or undermine U.S. public support? What are your thoughts on that?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: Well, I actually think you answered your own question. The answer is yes. I mean, that is the goal of the enemy. The goal of the enemy, though, is not to defeat us militarily, because they don’t have the wherewithal to defeat us militarily. The goal of the enemy is to break the will of the United States of America. It’s clear; it’s simple; it’s straightforward. Break our will; make us leave before Iraq is ready to come out and be a member of the responsible community of nations. That’s their goal. That’s what they’re trying to do. And they won’t succeed.

ERIC SCHMITT, New York Times: General, Eric Schmitt with the New York Times. To what extent do you believe some of these local attacks are being directed or coordinated at the national level now? And to what extent are you concerned about the attacks in the south now, the bombing yesterday in Nasiriyah, and the growing attacks in Mosul and Kirkuk in the north? What does that say to you?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: I believe that there is some level of coordination that’s taking place at very high levels, although I’m not so sure I’d say that there’s a national- level resistance leadership. Not yet. It could develop, but I don’t believe it’s there yet. I believe that most of… most of the action has taken place at a regional level, where there are strong indications of collusion between the Baathists, some of the extremist groups, and even some of the terrorist groups.

I think that the enemy’s desire to spread chaos into an Nasiriyah, Basra, up into Mosul and beyond, is part of a strategy to make people believe that nowhere is safe in Iraq. And the truth of the matter is that most of Iraq is fairly safe. It’s a dangerous place, no doubt about it. But the enemy is trying to split the coalition. The enemy is trying to break our will. The enemy has an assassination campaign against very brave and courageous Iraqi leaders that are trying to build a new Iraq. They’re a despicable bunch of thugs that will be defeated. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that with patience, perseverance, and courage, we will see this thing through.

JIM LEHRER: On the political side, later in Washington, Secretary of State Powell appeared at the State Department with British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. He reacted to reports the U.S.- appointed Iraqi governing council wants to proceed with elections, and has rejected the idea of writing a constitution first.

COLIN POWELL: There has been concern expressed that the time required to write a constitution, if you are going to go through an election process to determine who should be on that constitutional writing commission, could eat up a great deal of time, more time than we think can be allowed before we start transferring sovereignty back.

And so we’re trying to work through those concerns and see if there’s a way to work through them or to find alternatives that would speed up the process in a way that would be acceptable to all members of the governing council and other interested parties in Iraq. Some of the ideas that we are hearing from a number of our European colleagues was “turn over sovereignty right away.” At one point it was “do it within 30 days,” and then “do it within six weeks.”

And we resisted that because there was not an entity there that could receive sovereignty or act on any sovereignty it did receive. And it was an unrealistic expectation; it was an unrealistic position. And we said so at the time. We believe that the plan we have put forward with respect to getting a legitimacy base for a new government is the right way to go about it. And Ambassador Bremer’s consultations with the governing council, and then here in Washington, and now again with the governing council when he goes back, I believe will lead to a plan that will accelerate the process, but it will be along the basic, fundamental lines that we have laid out from the beginning. And we were looking to see if there are any modifications to that basic line that might allow the process to move even faster.

JIM LEHRER: Then, at the White House, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice spoke of the need for faster hand-over to the Iraqis.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: It is still important that the Iraqi people have a permanent constitution. It’s still important that they have elections for a permanent government. Nothing has changed. But what is also important is that we find ways to accelerate the transfer of authority to the Iraqi people. They are clamoring for it.

They are, we believe, ready for it, and they have very strong ideas about how that might be done. It’s a matter of recognizing that the Iraqis want to take more authority and responsibility. We believe they can take more authority and responsibility. They are taking… the response to the security side is the increase in Iraqi security forces, not the political side, but to increase the number of Iraqi security forces because the kind of dangers that are being faced there, the kind of security circumstances and challenges that are being faced on a daily basis are going to be better dealt with by Iraqi security forces with us in support of them than by our coalition forces alone.

Of course, the more stake that Iraqis have in their own political future, the better, but we believe that the few who are trying to keep Iraq from moving forward and progress need to be exposed by Iraqis as doing that.