GWEN IFILL: Today's assassination of the provincial governor of Baghdad appeared to be the latest in a series of high-profile targeted attacks. Governor al-Haidari and six of his bodyguards were executed in a hail of gunfire as his convoy moved through the capital city. The insurgents aim to derail the upcoming Jan. 30 elections.
The attacks have been repeated and frequent, including attempts on the life of interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and last week's unsuccessful car bomb attempt to kill Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, one of the country's most powerful Shiite parties.
Near-daily suicide bombings target Iraqi police, national guard and American forces, those entrusted with securing election sites; attacks like this brazen daytime execution of three Iraqi election workers in Baghdad. Prime Minister Allawi, though still publicly supportive of the elections, telephoned President Bush Monday to discuss the latest wave of violence. The president has said, however, that the elections must take place as planned.
PRES. GEORGE W. BUSH: So the task at hand is to provide as much security as possible for the election officials as well as for the people inside cities like Mosul to encourage them to express their will. And it's very important that these elections proceed.
GWEN IFILL: But hundreds of Iraqi civilians have been killed during the last month, and officials are now engaged in daily debate about whether the elections can proceed as scheduled. Among the most prominent voices urging delay is Adnan Pachachi, a Sunni who played a leading role in the Iraqi governing council. He, along with other Sunni leaders, is concerned that the lack of security will keep Sunnis from the polls and render them powerless in a new government.
ADNAN PACHACHI: I think delay of a few months is worth - worth it if we are going to probably ensure greater inclusion and wider participation in the elections.
GWEN IFILL: Pachachi renewed his call for delay on the pages of the Washington Post this past weekend. The main Sunni political party, the Iraqi Islamic Party, has vowed to boycott the elections, claiming the process is biased in favor of the majority Shiite population. Shiite leaders, including Grand Ayatollah Sistani, have said postponing the elections would create further chaos.
The continuing violence has forced some international agencies to the sidelines. Last month, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the U.N. will continue to monitor the situation, but...
KOFI ANNAN: We are also concerned about the security situation on the ground. We are assisting and advising the Iraqi commission, electoral commission. And I must stress here that they are the ones running the election. They are responsible for the elections.
GWEN IFILL: Among those trying to influence the process has been Osama bin Laden. The al-Qaida leader last week called for a boycott of the elections, and, for the first time, named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as his chief emissary in Iraq. Zarqawi, a Jordanian-born militant, has claimed responsibility for many attacks, including today's assassination of the governor.
GWEN IFILL: The violence in Iraq is building as the elections approach. We explore the connection between the two, and the potential consequences, with James Dobbins, a former assistant secretary of state and now director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at Rand Corporation; Fouad Ajami, director of Middle East studies at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies; and retired Army Col. W. Patrick Lang. He was the chief of Middle East intelligence at the Defense Intelligence Agency during the early 1990s.
Fouad Ajami, it seems as we have watched these violent events occur and as the election keeps approaching and as the administration and others are standing their ground that somewhere along the way assassination has become a political weapon in Iraq. Is that what you're picking up?
FOUAD AJAMI: Well, I think that's exactly where we are. And I think we should have anticipated this. This is really just a life-and-death struggle now, and of course, the insurgents in Iraq have a target. And the target is obviously the elections on Jan 30. It's very clear. We know that holding the elections is problematic, but let's remember one thing: Postponing it is much worse, because in fact that would just simply show that the insurgents are winning.
GWEN IFILL: Ambassador Dobbins, is this something that, as Professor Ajami says, we should have seen coming?
JAMES DOBBINS: Yes. I mean, I think that it was anticipated that the insurgents would try to undermine the elections and prevent their being held in large parts of the country. I do think that we need to fix the problem of Sunni underrepresentation, that in the areas of the country where the insurgency is most strong, which is Baghdad and the Sunni areas of the country, many voters either won't vote or won't be able to vote.
And we need to fix that problem so that this population isn't underrepresented in the resultant assembly and resultant government. We might have to postpone the government to do that or we might have to do it after the election. We have to fix that problem or the election is actually going to polarize the society even more than it already is.
GWEN IFILL: Before we get to discussing fully about what the risks are of postponing this election, Col. Lang, how significant are attacks like today's and the series of near misses that we've seen in the last couple weeks in the full picture?
COL. W. PATRICK LANG, (Ret.): I think they're very significant. In fact, what we've seen in spite of the fact that it was thought that maybe after Fallujah there would be a dying out in some way of the insurgency that that is not the case. In fact, their attacks are multiplying and escalating in size.
We now get 50 manned ground attacks against our air power, against our outposts and things like that. You have people executed in the streets of Baghdad with impunity. I mean, these are very serious things. What they're seeking to do is to make the country ungovernable. They've made a good start of it so far. And I think that if you postpone the election, they will probably take that as a great encouragement.
GWEN IFILL: Are we seeing an increased sophistication on the part of these attackers?
COL. W. PATRICK LANG, (Ret.): I think so. There's more and more use of more complicated ground attack maneuver schemes for ambushes and attacks from different directions, and very obviously a sophisticated scheme of surveillance of targets to let you know exactly where they are so that you can hit them. I think these people are getting better at this all the time.
GWEN IFILL: Professor Ajami, you suggest that these elections have to go ahead. But are Iraqi officials at all shaken by the events that they're watching unfold?
FOUAD AJAMI: Well, I think they are shaken, Ms. Ifill. I think you could already see even in the Allawi government, itself, in this interim government, there are voices of dissent about the election. For example, the Iraqi defense minister, Hazem Shaalan, just went to Cairo. In Cairo, he raised openly the possibility of postponing the election. So I think the Iraqis know exactly what they're facing and the interim government knows the scale of the challenge.
One thing I just want to point out to you, the deputy prime minister of the interim Iraqi government, Barham Salih, one of the most decent of the Iraqi leaders, has basically openly and forthrightly accused the Syrians of fomenting these new levels of insurgency.
He said it's not so much the Zarqawi people, though the Zarqawi people may do one dramatic assassination or another, but that the insurgency is really fueled by Baathist elements located in Syria and using money that they stole and took out of the country with them.
GWEN IFILL: Ambassador Dobbins, do U.S. officials see that the same way? Are they -- I suppose in part pointing at Syria -- are they worried about the growing sophistication and can this idea that the election cannot occur, can it stand?
JAMES DOBBINS: Well, they're certainly worried about the growing sophistication. They are concerned about support that insurgents may be receiving from neighboring countries, Iran -- and Syria is the one that's been most often spoken of in recent weeks. And the Iranians are actually supporting the elections and supporting holding the elections. So for the moment, they've receded as a problem in the administration's eyes, although I expect that will be temporary.
In the last few days, the administration has acknowledged the problem that I've suggested, which is that the election is going to result in a skewed outcome in which the Sunni 25 percent of the population may only have 5 or 10 percent of the representatives in the resulting assembly, and are beginning to talk about ways of fixing that. But so far they're not suggesting that we should postpone the election in order to do so.
GWEN IFILL: You suggest that maybe that's a good idea, that it ought to be postponed at least for a while. Is that a lose-lose proposition-- you postpone it, and the violence continues anyway?
JAMES DOBBINS: I am suggesting the problem has to be fixed before the election or with more difficulty it has to be fixed after the election by adjusting the results or rerunning the election in certain provinces where the participation is too low to be considered legitimate or adjusting the system slightly before the election takes place.
But the problem needs to be addressed, and if the election would have to be postponed for a month or two in order to fix it, I think that's probably better than having an election which actually exacerbates the polarization in the society and feeds the civil war.
GWEN IFILL: Col. Lang, what do you think about that?
COL. W. PATRICK LANG, (Ret.):Well, if a postponement would result in an apportionment of power acceptable to enough Sunni Arabs so as to sort of isolate the insurgents that would be fine.
But if it doesn't result in that, in fact, you have this profound psychological and political effect that will result from people not only in Iraq but across the Islamic world looking at this and saying, "oh, the United States and its friends have been defeated in Iraq." And a war like this is essentially a political and psychological phenomenon, and the violence is symptomatic of that. So when you start to slide, in people's minds as to whether or not you're winning or not, then you have a big problem. So this is a real trade-off here.
GWEN IFILL: So do you fix it, as Ambassador Dobbins says, in advance, or do you just have the election and try to fix it afterwards?
COL. W. PATRICK LANG, (Ret.): You could try it either way. It's a gamble. You're gambling with history in this case.
GWEN IFILL: What do you think about that, Professor Ajami?
FOUAD AJAMI: Well, I think it's very interesting because I agree with Ambassador Dobbins. In fact, Abdul Aziz Hakim, who was featured in the lead piece, Abdul Aziz Hakim himself, the head of the most important Shiite Party, has held out an olive branch to the Sunni Arabs and said, in fact, we want to make sure they're fully represented.
So even though Adnan Pachachi himself is urging postponement to the election, he has a list that's competing in the election. And the interim Iraqi president, a Sunni Arab of tremendous authority and standing, xxxx has his own list. Nobody really has a scheme for dispossessing the Sunni Arabs. I think everyone is holding the door open for them in the hope that they will turn away from violence and turn in these insurgents and turn back to the political process.
GWEN IFILL: But does anyone have a scheme, Professor Ajami, for making sure whatever happens on Jan. 30 or some date beyond that it's legitimate in the end?
FOUAD AJAMI: Well, I think that's a very good question. I think that's really the heart of the matter. And I think maybe these elections will not be the silver bullet. They will not give us the pretty outcome that we all expect, but I think it's too late. We have to go through with these elections.
You have someone like Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani, by common consent the most powerful man in the country, who has already given a fatwa, urging and standing behind this election. So we have to go through these elections; we have to train these Iraqi forces, because it's their country. This really is our exit out, the elections plus the training of these Iraqi forces; it's an attempt to accommodate the Sunni Arabs, which everyone is really eager to do so.
GWEN IFILL: Well, that's an interesting point. I wonder, Ambassador, if you agree with that, that the elections is essentially... they're essentially important for the U.S. exit strategy. They're necessary; that one of the reasons why the U.S. is sticking to this date is because it's the only way out.
JAMES DOBBINS: I think it's seen as a necessary benchmark to an ultimate exit strategy. I don't think that the administration sees it as a near-term point at which it can begin withdrawing. Personally, I believe it's important that this war has to be converted from an American-led war to an Iraqi-led war, and an election is an important step toward creating a legitimate authority in Iraq that has some greater credibility.
GWEN IFILL: But at a time when it's proved to be so difficult to get Iraqi military and Iraqi police officers trained, and when so many of these attacks are directed at those very people, how do you go about doing that, taking the American handprint off of this enterprise?
JAMES DOBBINS: It's not easy. You're going to have to take certain risks to do it. But I mean, the key comes back to having a result that is not... that doesn't further divide the society. And if you can have that, you then have the chance of gradually transitioning to an Iraqi-led conflict as opposed to an American-led conflict.
COL. W. PATRICK LANG, (Ret.): Well, the key word here is "gradually." And I don't think anybody with any real grasp of this situation believes that the Iraqi forces will be in a position to handle these insurgents for another year or so, which means that we have to have a result from this election which is acceptable to a large number or large percentage of Sunni Arabs, or else we'll be under increasing pressure throughout the year while we're trying to create these forces.
GWEN IFILL: Professor Ajami, there always seem to be new deadlines. At one point a year ago, the idea was if Saddam Hussein was captured, we will have turned a corner. Before that, was when his sons were captured, we will have turned a corner there. There always seems to be another corner ahead in this maze. And now Jan. 30 is the next one. What's your sense of that?
FOUAD AJAMI: Well, Gwen, I think you've chronicled our heartbreak. We expected, as you exactly said... we've always looked for deliverance. We've always seen every turning point as the next turning point. And then after that turning point, we only met greater sorrow. And I think we have to be ready for this.
And I think even our own president recently with this election behind him acknowledged that the results have been mixed in terms of training this Iraqi forces, because in the end, in the end, our way out is really the training of these Iraqi forces, is making this, if you will, a fight for the Iraqis themselves.
GWEN IFILL: Ambassador Dobbins, can you even turn that corner at a time when there are daily, at least weekly attacks happening against people who are trying to put the peace in place without fearing you're turning into another blind spot?
JAMES DOBBINS: I think it's quite possible we won't. I mean, there is no assurance given the current situation. The security situation is deteriorating. It doesn't make any sense to postpone the election until it gets better, because it's not going to get better. That's why the logic is to have the election and hope it gives a government some greater legitimacy, and then begin to empower that government as quickly as possible.
GWEN IFILL: It's not going to get better Patrick?
COL. W. PATRICK LANG, (Ret.): Hope is not a planning system that I'm familiar with, and so I think you have to expect that there's going to be a predominantly Shia government, which will be unacceptable to many Sunni Arabs, and that the insurgency will continue for several years. And that will require the presence of significant American forces. This is going to go on quite a while.
GWEN IFILL: Sounds like you've sketched out a plan which is going to turn on itself, which is that American forces, they have to remove themselves from this debate in order for there to be a real, legitimate government, and yet you're saying that there will be American forces there.
COL. W. PATRICK LANG, (Ret.): But they really can't do that until these Iraqi forces are capable of handling the insurgency. And that will take a long time, which means that the existing combat situation will probably persist for a long time, whether or not the government is seen as legitimate.
JAMES DOBBINS: You're going to have to take a risk. The presence of American forces is exacerbating the situation and further feeding the insurgency. Removing the forces could destabilize the situation entirely. So you have risks on both sides. And you have to weigh those risks. Staying is a risk as well, given the fact that the situation is deteriorating.
GWEN IFILL: And, Professor Ajami, what do Iraqi officials do, beckon with one hand while holding back U.S. help with the other?
FOUAD AJAMI: Well, that's exactly right because in a way, they're not really ready to stand on their own. And in fact, if they are so close to the Americans, then they're really proxies and quislings of ours. But I think they're beginning to find their own way.
And I think if you take a look at the interim government, the elements of the interim government, the people who are represented and at the heart of it -- the Sunni president, the Kurdish deputy prime minister, Iyad Allawi himself -- there is a political class in Iraq which takes in Sunnis and Shias and Kurds. We shouldn't overdo the separation of the country. We shouldn't see the country through the eyes of the insurgents.
GWEN IFILL: Fouad Ajami, James Dobbins, Pat Lang, thank you all very much.