MARGARET WARNER: They arrived separately in Iraq today, Secretary of State Rice and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, but they presented a united front in urging Iraq's new leaders to form a government of national unity across sectarian lines.
Their key meeting was with Nouri al-Maliki, the Shiite political figure just selected as prime minister after four months of political deadlock.
Iraqis voted for a new government last December, but the dispute over who would be prime minister stalled its formation and triggered a round of sectarian violence that killed more than 3,000 Iraqis and threatened to drag the country into civil war.
The impasse was broken Saturday after interim Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari agreed to bow out, clearing the way for Maliki to become the Shiite's choice.
As prime minister-designate, Maliki has 30 days to form a cabinet. Parliament must then approve each nominee by majority vote.
Rumsfeld said today Maliki should appoint, quote, "people who are competent, people who understand the importance of running ministries not as sectarian ministries."
Rumsfeld also said, once again, that the faster the Iraqis create a stable government, the sooner American forces can begin to withdraw.
DONALD RUMSFELD, U.S. Secretary of Defense: As the new government is formed and the ministers are in place, then it's appropriate for us to begin the discussions with the new government about the conditions on the ground and the pace at which we'll be able to turn over responsibility in the provinces, and with respect to military bases, and with respect to security responsibilities to the Iraqi security forces.
MARGARET WARNER: But Maliki's selection got an entirely different reception from the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
In an Internet video yesterday, he condemned the new Iraqi leadership, saying, "Any government in Iraq, whatever it is, will be like a dagger in the heart of the Muslim nation." It was the first propaganda video to publicly show the face of the most wanted man in Iraq.
The insurgency Zarqawi helps lead continues to claim American and Iraqi lives. With at least 63 deaths so far, April is on track to be the deadliest month this year for U.S. troops.
MARGARET WARNER: And for more on these recent developments and what they mean for the building of a new government in Iraq, we're joined by Laith Kubba, who served as spokesman for Iraq's government from April 2005 until January of this year. Born in Iraq, he's now an American citizen.
And Mohammed Hafez, visiting professor at the University of Missouri in Kansas City. He's currently finishing a book about suicide bombers in Iraq.
Welcome to you, both.
Laith Kubba, help decode what we saw today taking place in Baghdad. When Rice and Rumsfeld talk about the need for a unity government, what are they really saying?
LAITH KUBBA, Former Iraqi Government Spokesman: Well, in the past, the ministries that were formed were very much based on quotas; each political party took its ministry and ran away with it.
The position of the prime minister was a bit weak, not being able to hold ministers accountable, sacking them or re-appointing them. That experience was very hard; it created some vacuum and chaos in the country.
And I think what they want to see now is really all the blocs coming together, working together to form one coherent, strong government.
MARGARET WARNER: But when Rumsfeld says you need to appoint people who -- he's speaking of Maliki -- he needs to appoint people who are competent at running ministries and don't see them as sectarian ministries, is he talking about things like the current state of the interior ministry?
LAITH KUBBA: Well, I think the two ministries that are of great concern are defense and interior, those, in particular, because they have direct impact on U.S. soldiers, on the security of the country in general. They're going to become ministries of special attention.
Other ministries of services, I'm sure they will fall to quotas, but those two positions in particular will be the focus of both the Iraqi government and, I'm sure, the American government.
MARGARET WARNER: But do you think he's referring specifically to the fact that certainly at the interior ministry the accusation by the Sunnis has been that some of the assassinations that are taking place and that are sectarian in nature have been, in fact, perpetrated by people working in or for the interior ministry.
LAITH KUBBA: Well, there has been, as you know, a couple of centers that some violations, serious violations, torture, was taking place. But, in terms of policies, I don't think the minister ever adopted policies that are sectarian.
The reality is different; the reality, the recruits, the practices were far away from the ideal position of a ministry.
MARGARET WARNER: And, also, is the Rice-Rumsfeld visit and the message they conveyed, is that helpful to Maliki in doing what he said yesterday in a TV address he wants to do, which is to have a nonsectarian government?
LAITH KUBBA: Well, I think in a way it's going to add voice, add weight to local voices, especially from Kurds and Sunnis who are saying, "You cannot continue to run the ministry of interior as you ran it before," referring to the Shia bloc. So, in that respect, I think he would find one additional voice to say, "You cannot do it as it was done before."
MARGARET WARNER: Now, Professor Hafez, Zarqawi had a very different message for these new leaders. What would you say that message was to them?
MOHAMMED HAFEZ, University of Missouri: Well, in many respects, it's a consistent message that he's been putting out, that whatever government is created in Iraq is, again, not really a representative of the Iraqi people or the Muslim nation, but something that has been brought about by crusaders, Zionists, et cetera, which is part of his continuous propaganda.
But I think the real message of the tape today was that he wanted to put to rest speculations that he's been pushed aside by some of the insurgent groups, pushed to a secondary position in the insurgency, as opposed to being a political leader of the major groups.
MARGARET WARNER: So you think, in other words, as far as he was concerned, it had more to do with the internal politics within the insurgency than it did with the greater politics of Iraq in general?
MOHAMMED HAFEZ: Absolutely. Earlier this year, in January of this year, a new formation emerged in the insurgency. It's called the Mujahideen Consultative Council.
Basically it consists of several groups. Al-Qaida in Iraq, which is being led by Zarqawi, was the major group in it, but there were others, like the Victorious Sect, et cetera.
And the official leaders of this formation were Iraqis, not Zarqawi. And you begin to see a drop, in terms of audio recordings and video statements by Zarqawi, and so that led to the speculation that has been pushed aside.
And, also, there was talk about tribes in the Anbar province turning against him, hunting him down, and forcing him out of the Anbar province. And I think that video put those speculations to rest.
MARGARET WARNER: When he says, as he did in the video, that any government formed will be -- it depends on your translation -- but a puppet government. One translation has it collaborator's government. Is he threatening Sunnis not to take part?
MOHAMMED HAFEZ: Well, he's done that in the past, and he's assassinated Sunnis for participating in the parliament or in the constitutional arrangements that were being set up.
So this isn't new, and it's something that is consistent with al-Qaida's message in general, that no matter who it is -- Sunni, Shia, Kurds -- as long as you work with this government, as long as there is an occupation and you're working with this government, then you are a collaborator and an apostate and deserving of death.
MARGARET WARNER: Laith Kubba, what's your take on the Zarqawi tape, the tape itself and its potential impact on this government-forming process?
LAITH KUBBA: Well, adding to the points that were made, the strategy of Zarqawi and al-Qaida have got nothing to do with the strategy of, say, the Sunni political groups in Iraq.
I think the Sunnis want to regain power. They see participation as the only way. They have to deal with the U.S., et cetera.
Zarqawi's interest is in keeping chaos in Iraq. The more there is chaos, the more there are training camps, the more there are people trained, and the more they spread that chaos, not only in Iraq, but in the region.
So, strategically, they do see this political process as the biggest threat, and the participation of the Sunnis is going to leave them without any cover. And I think they will do everything possible to stop this from happening.
MARGARET WARNER: So how do you assess the prospects for Maliki to be able to form a government, not only in terms of these two ministries we talked about, but throughout, that will be truly a unity government and that will be seen by all Iraqis of all groups as credible?
LAITH KUBBA: Well, we can keep the optimism, and I think we can have a wish list, but the reality so far, Iraqi politicians did not live up to the challenge of delivering national politics and national policies.
Unfortunately, when it comes to the crunch, different politicians go back to their narrow interests and compromise national interests. So I think he's going to find it very difficult to go way beyond what has been achieved in the past; it's just going to be a very difficult assignment for him.
MARGARET WARNER: And do you think that the Zarqawi-led -- and he's not leading the whole insurgency -- but the insurgency itself is in a position to significantly frustrate that or add to his difficulties?
LAITH KUBBA: The terrorist networks of al-Qaida and Zarqawi have benefited in the last four months from the lack of government and from the loss of public faith in the process, because people are frustrated; that gave him a lot of breathing space.
And to push him back, they really, all groups, have to work together to restore order. Otherwise, we have widespread criminal activities, not only terrorist activities, but also criminal activities.
MARGARET WARNER: Professor Hafez, who would you put -- I hate to put it this way -- but your money on here, in terms of Maliki wanting to establish a government that really is seen as credible and stable, and the obvious stated desire of Zarqawi and the other insurgents to make that impossible?
MOHAMMED HAFEZ: Well, where I would put my money depends on where the U.S. puts its money and its soldiers.
If the U.S. government continues to maintain a strong presence in Iraq, to work with the security services, to raise them up so that they could take the front role of fighting the insurgency, then certainly I would put my money on Maliki, because Zarqawi's messages really doesn't resonate with a wider public, whether in Iraq or in the Muslim world in general.
But where he does or where he seems to be effective is in creating chaos, and it takes only a few people to do that, whereas it takes an entire nation, really, to build up a state, to build up an effective economy, to maintain order. And, in that respect, I think the U.S. role is crucial on whether or not Maliki is able to lead Iraq into the next phase or not.
MARGARET WARNER: Laith Kubba, now that you're back here, I'm sure you can sense how much there's a public desire in the United States to get out as soon as possible. Do you agree with Professor Hafez that the U.S. still needs to stay in and play a major role for Maliki to get his legs under him and perhaps for some time to come?
LAITH KUBBA: I have no doubt in my mind that a commitment to help Iraq in this difficult time is necessary; it's essential, not only Iraq, but even to the region.
That does not necessarily mean keeping the same level of troops in Iraq that are current. Unfortunately, Iraq needed, I think, more of these troops earlier. I think Iraq needed to preserve its forces.
But looking where we are today, I can see in some of the provinces withdrawal of foreign troops and Iraqis taking over.
MARGARET WARNER: I hope you're right. Laith Kubba, Mohammed Hafez, thank you, both.