GWEN IFILL: No matter what the outcome is of tomorrow's elections, the White House and its detractors do agree that they represent another critical turning point in the United States' continuing involvement in Iraq.
But a turn for the better, or a turn for the worse? For that, we turn to three writers who have been reporting extensively from Iraq and on Iraq.
Trudy Rubin is a foreign affairs columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. David Ignatius is a columnist for the Washington Post. And George Packer, is a staff writer for the New Yorker and author of "The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq." David Ignatius, narrow it down for us. What is at stake? What is the key thing at stake in these elections?
DAVID IGNATIUS: Well, this is really the last good chance, I think, for Iraq in this iteration, and for the United States to get it right. And the challenge for the new government that will be elected tomorrow will be the same as in March 2003 when the U.S. invaded Iraq, which is to begin a process of reconciliation, begin creating a new Iraq that has support of all of the basic sectarian factions.
You know, there's reason to be optimistic as we look at the thousand Sunni clerics calling on Sunnis to void. These are people who have been left out, marginalized, angry and supporting the insurgency, reason to think that this will be a more inclusive process.
I think my worry, Gwen, is that what we're looking towards is a government of checks, with each sect trying to check the other and prevent bad things from happening, but not yet a government of balance in Iraq. So I think we should be hopeful but guardedly so.
GWEN IFILL: Trudy Rubin, you have been back and forth to Iraq half a dozen times since the war began. What is your sense about what is the most critical thing at stake here?
TRUDY RUBIN: I think the critical thing at stake is that both U.S. military officers and everyone who knows Iraq says now publicly and privately that this war cannot be won militarily; it can only be won politically.
And what that means, basically, is it can only be won if the Sunnis are brought into the political process because the insurgency stems from them and in their areas and if, by getting engaged in politics, some Sunni leaders have the courage and the strategic foresight to try to undercut the insurgency in their own areas.
But the reason this election is so important is not just because Sunnis are taking part but because it is an election by districts, unlike the last time, where it was by national lists. So Sunnis in regions, in provinces will know the people they're choosing.
You will have regional leaders, tribal leaders, coming into the parliament. And the big question is whether those leaders will be willing to make a deal and whether the new Shiite-elected leadership and the Kurds will also have the strategic foresight to make concessions on certain bottom-line issues that the Sunnis will need, including the sharing of oil money.
GWEN IFILL: George Packer, that's what's at stake in Iraq itself. Is there as much at stake here in the United States?
GEORGE PACKER: I think it's important for Americans to understand that this is just one of many political milestones that Iraqi has passed through since March 2003. And each time we've seen one of these milestones, whether it's the transfer of sovereignty or the January elections or the constitutional referendum, there's been too much of a sense in this country that it's going to mean we've turn some corner, when in fact there really is no corner to turn.
And instead, it's simply one step along a very long road, and a very hard road. And I'm afraid in the past we've seen the administration lose its focus on Iraq after these milestones are passed, as if they are enough of an achievement in themselves for to us relax.
And if that happens again this time during a very delicate period of negotiation between the three main groups in Iraq -- because that's what we're now going to see is a political power struggle among those three main groups within parliament -- if the United States stops engaging in the way that Ambassador Khalilzad has been engaged recently, I'm afraid we may see a repetition of what followed the January elections when there was a period of drift and a surge in violence, and a very long process of forming a new Iraqi government.
GWEN IFILL: David Ignatius, Ambassador Khalilzad said this was the most important thing in the world, and you heard the president speak in broad and very sweeping ways today about the consequences for the outcome of this election.
Which is it, that this is a critical thing or this is just another turn in the maze, as George Packer suggests?
DAVID IGNATIUS: I think the election is important, certainly the Iraq project is enormously important. And I think -- you know, this is Iraq's first permanent government. This government is going to be around for four years.
So if a government is elected that begins to try to pull Iraq back together, that reaches out to these factions that have been drifting towards civil war and really begins to do something to provide good governance for Iraq, then I think you could see real progress.
You know, if we have a continuation of the current government, which has been, by almost all accounts, sectarian, divisive, corrupt, Iraqis have been very frustrated and unhappy. They look at this and say this is the new future that we dreamed of? So there's great disappointment, I think. If that continues, then I think you'll see drift, and it's going to be very hard for the United States to rescue that situation. So in that sense it does matter who is elected. This group will be around for four years.
I think Khalilzad has been manipulating, stroking, pushing this process. You know, he's done really quite a wonderful job as ambassador, getting it right, I think. But there's only so much that he can do. If the Iraqis don't have the political leadership themselves, if it doesn't emerge in this electoral process, there's nothing the U.S. can add, I think, to fix that.
GWEN IFILL: Trudy Rubin, is there such a thing as a single Iraqi leadership, or is there the potential for a kind of sectarian outcome so great that this doesn't really solve the immediate problem, or at least doesn't begin to mimic the American idea of democracy?
TRUDY RUBIN: No, I think there isn't a single leadership, but I think that who comes out of this as prime minister, as president, and what new Sunni leaders emerge from these elections in which they're taking part is truly crucial.
I do think that the next six months will matter in a very grave way because Iraq is in danger of splitting apart and because it's in that danger, the military that we are training, the Iraqi military, cannot effectively put down a Sunni insurgency.
So it's not a question of when they stand up, we'll stand down; it's a question of whether Sunni leaders and Shiite leaders can speak to each other. Who becomes the Shiite prime minister will be crucial because it has to be somebody that is willing to reach out.
Right now, the Shiites are talking about forming a mega state of nine provinces within Iraq that would almost be a separate state. The Kurds almost have a separate state.
It leaves the Sunnis in a region without oil, and right now, the constitution gives future oil control to Shiites and Kurds. These are real immediate issues. And there's provisions that the constitution could be changed in the next few months.
So the leadership will matter. The prime minister will matter. And the new regional leaders from the Sunnis will matter very much.
GWEN IFILL: One other thing the president had to say today, George Packer, is that success in Iraq would inspire democracies from Damascus to Tehran. Does that sound right to you?
GEORGE PACKER: A big question coming out of these elections is what will be the political agenda of Iraq's Sunni Arabs? They've historically seen themselves as Iraq's rightful rulers. They've now suffered a pretty serious blow to that status, and in that status, they sort of represented Sunni Arab aspirations and sense of privilege throughout the Arab world.
And one thing that's happened in Iraq in the last two and a half years is just a tremendous rewriting of that historical precedent, so that now we see the Shiite majority in power and behaving very much like a majority that wants to use power in order to protect itself and to pursue its own interest.
GWEN IFILL: Does that spread beyond --
GEORGE PACKER: Will Iraq Sunni Arabs accept their diminished status and play the political game in a way that's based on compromise and try to achieve certain interests without maximalist interests, or will they -- is their real intention to come back to power in a fairly exclusive way? And another question is whether they will both play the game within the halls of politics and also outside with the insurgency?
In other words, they may well pursue two tracks, much like the IRA and Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland.
GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask you about this David Ignatius, because you kind of wrote about this today, which is outside the borders of Iraq does what happens there over -- in the next 24 hours matter? Does it inspire democracies in Syria, in Lebanon?
DAVID IGNATIUS: I think the president today in his speech overstated -- almost over-romanticized the regional impact. I think it's important, but I think it's really important on the downside.
If you have chaos in Iraq, if you have terrorism on the rise in Iraq, that's going to threat threaten all of the progress towards democracy and stability in the region.
There are powerful movements for democracy and change in Syria, in Lebanon, in Egypt, throughout the region. As I travel, it just reminds me so much of what it felt like to be in the Soviet Union in the early 1980s.
People just can't stop talking, sharing ideas. And I think that's going to continue. It's really amazing. You look at Iraq, and, you know, by most accounts it's kind of a mess now, we hope it will get better, but even with that mess these movements for change are stronger today than they were three years ago.
GWEN IFILL: You talk about the mess, though, how much of this election, or anything in this political process, how far will that go in straightening out the mess?
DAVID IGNATIUS: Politics is step by step. We've seen a vicious cycle in which things have gotten worse month my month by most accounts in Iraq, at least in terms of what it feels like to be there, and you can have a virtuous cycle.
If you get a strong government that's committed for four years with good leaders, if the government reaches out across Sunnis and Shiites and brings people together, if it fosters a real national security strategy with the Iraqi security forces, if it works well with the U.S. - I mean, one prize for this government could be that it can claim to have liberated Iraq at the end of its four years from American occupation, and that will be significant.
GWEN IFILL: Trudy Rubin, is what David Ignatius just described what the president is talking about when he says he's not going to leave Iraq until there is victory, is that what he means by victory?
TRUDY RUBIN: I think the president has defined what he meant by victory. He said quite clearly that it meant that there would not be a terrorist base in Iraq that would threaten the political system there and would threaten us.
And so, I think victory will be if Iraq is stabilized and the U.S. feels that it can draw down without the Sunni part of Iraq becoming a basis for terrorism; and that brings us right back to these elections because so far, the military that we're training is heavily sectarian. You don't have enough Sunnis.
So when you have Shiite troops sweeping through Sunni areas, they don't get the intelligence. They can't stay and hold those areas.
The real key now is whether the Sunnis are going to be brought into the process, whether they, as George Packer said, will accept their new role.
I was given a perfect analogy, I think, for what's happening in Iraq is South Africa. Prime Minister Jaafari once said to me that the Shiites are like the blacks, the Sunnis are like the whites. They have a new role to play, but it's not the role that they had before.
The problem is that the Sunnis don't have a leader like DeKlerk who tells them that, and many Sunnis still think they're the majority in the country. The Shiites have a sort of Mandela in Ayatollah Sistani but he's a cleric; he can't play the political role.
So I think the real question is whether if you don't have one DeKlerk, you'll have mini-DeKlerks and you'll have Mandelas on the Shiite side.
GWEN IFILL: And, George Packer, briefly, if that's how you define victory, how do you define defeat?
GEORGE PACKER: Civil war, pulling the regional powers into a regional war, violence spiraling to the point where it's at a much larger scale, even than what we see today, and it could get a lot worse and here at home, Americans deciding it's just not worth it.
We need to cut our losses and get out, a rapid and precipitous withdrawal as opposed to a managed withdrawal, which leaves Iraq's three groups sort of without a buffer between them, facing one another without the United States as a buffer, and that is a nightmare scenario.
GWEN IFILL: The stakes are high, George Packer, Trudy Rubin, David Ignatius, thank you all very much.