MARGARET WARNER: As the regime of Saddam Hussein and his Ba'ath Party crumble, disorder is taking its place in many quarters. And though the U.S. Military will be in the country for quite some time, the U.S. is also trying to quickly generate some sort of interim civilian authority with an Iraqi face.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: From day one, we have said the Iraqi people are capable of running their own country. That's what we believe. The position of the United States of America is the Iraqis are plenty capable of running Iraq. And that's precisely what is going to happen.
MARGARET WARNER: It's a daunting task, complicated by Iraq's wide variety of religious, ethnic and tribal groups. Chief among these: the majority Shia Muslims, in southern and central Iraq, the minority Sunnis, who've held power during Saddam's reign, and the Kurds in the north, who've been running their own affairs since the last Gulf War.
At CENTCOM today, General Victor Renuart said for now the U.S. is trying to tap local leaders to help restore order in each community.
MAJOR GENERAL VICTOR RENUART: Clearly, the Iraqi people will choose what their country's government will look like. So we attempt to work with the known and respected leaders in each of the communities to maintain security, while the country begins to move forward towards whatever will be the final government.
MARGARET WARNER: The Bush administration also sees a major role for Iraqi exiles. Last weekend, the Pentagon flew into Iraq London banker Ahmad Chalabi, head of the umbrella Iraqi National Congress, and 700 other U.S.-trained Iraqi exile fighters. And yesterday, Vice President Cheney announced a meeting this coming weekend with exiles and indigenous Iraqis.
VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: We're going to have a meeting on the 12th, just three days from now, in Talio, outside of Nasiriyah in southern Iraq, where we will bring together representatives of groups from all over Iraq, to begin to sit down and talk about planning for the future with this Iraqi interim authority and getting it up and running.
MARGARET WARNER: In a Senate hearing today, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz laid out three steps to creating a fully democratic and independent Iraqi government. The Pentagon's Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, with coalition experts, will oversee the initial restoration of basic civilian services, and advise Iraqi ministries as they get up and running again. An Iraqi interim authority, made up of Iraqis from all religious and ethnic groups from inside and outside the country, will gradually take over those functions, and begin preparing for elections. Finally, a full-fledged Iraqi government will be elected to run the country.
PAUL WOLFOWITZ: Our goal in Iraq is a democratic Iraq that truly represents the wishes of the people of Iraq with leaders who are chosen not by us or by any outsiders, but by the Iraqi people. And that means we can set up some parameters for a process, but we cannot write a blueprint.
MARGARET WARNER: But hurdles lie ahead. One of the U.S.-backed Iraqi exiles, a Shiite cleric, was hacked to death in the city of Najaf today. And in Basra, local residents have balked at efforts by occupying British troops to hand-pick a local sheik to set up an interim committee to run the city.
MARGARET WARNER: And for more, we turn to: Qubad Talabani, Deputy U.S. Representative for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of the two Kurdish groups that control much of northern Iraq. He's the son of PUK Leader, Jalal Talabani. Mahdi Al-Bassam, a Houston doctor and a founding member of the Iraqi National Congress. Born and raised in Baghdad, he left in 1967. He's related to INC leader Ahmad Chalabi. And Muhannad Eshaiker, a California architect and vice president of the Iraqi Forum for Democracy. His group has advised the State Department on creating a democratic Iraq. Also born in Baghdad, he left in 1977. Welcome to you all.
Mr. Talabani, before we get into the subject of this, let me just ask something about what's going on in Kirkuk. There was a report late today that your father has said he will in fact withdraw PUK fighters from Kirkuk by tomorrow to ease Turkish concerns. Is that true?
QUBAD TALABANI: We will be withdrawing the PUK forces, as we expect the American forces to come in, and help control the situation inside the city of Kirkuk, yes.
MARGARET WARNER: All right, thank you. And Mr. Eshaiker, let me begin with you with the overall topic and we'll pick up where Ray's conversation left off. Who should, are there Iraqis who can be involved in restoring order in Iraq, and if not then who?
MUHANNAD ESHAIKER: Absolutely. Well, this is a very critical time in the transformation of Iraq. We should not overjoy for the removal of Saddam, but we got to think seriously how to bring back law and order into the towns and cities of Iraq. I believe that there are leadership inside these cities, but I don't think the Americans can approach them and can negotiate with them without the help of the Iraqi partner. And I see the Iraqi partner missing from the equation right now.
MARGARET WARNER: By Iraqi partner, do you mean exiles?
MUHANNAD ESHAIKER: Yes, I mean exiles, and anyone who comes forward who is willing to work with the Americans can act a pivotal role in locating those local leaders or authorities and just to make sure that this is only an administration, it has no political future, it has no political, let's say, privileges. And it's just to prevent, you know, the looting that we've seen on TV, and bring back law and order for the next, say, six months to a year.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. al-Bassam, what do you think it's going to take? The administration as you know has this plan for a three-step process, but it looks like the need is incredibly urgent.
MAHDI AL-BASSAM: I agree with Muhannad that we do need to have Iraqi partners on the ground. There is now a significant contingent of the Iraqi National Congress in southern Iraq as well as part of it in northern Iraq who can be able to touch and talk with the Iraqi people, especially the leaders, and try to help establish law and order. I think that this is very important, they're on the ground and they should be able to help significantly being allowed to do so.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Talabani, do you think this can be done without re-involving Ba'ath Party members and officials who were in Saddam's regime ten percent of the population, and a very high percentage of the officials of all kinds.
QUBAD TALABANI: That's going to be a very difficult to sift through everybody that's ever worked for the Iraqi government. I think a great deal of common sense has to be used here, because to be a teacher at a school you have to be a member of the Ba'ath Party, to be a doctor in a hospital, you have to be a member of the Ba'ath Party. So we cannot exclude everybody that was once a member of the Ba'ath Party.
But we do put forth a vision for a de-Ba'athified Iraq, where we try to eliminate those people that have blood on their hands, that have committed cruel acts against the Iraqi people. But there are people inside Iraq who will come forward and emerge as local leaders. We can use tribal leaders, community leaders and political leaders to put in place this interim Iraqi authority.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. al-Bassam, how does the meetings that now the U.S. is trying to organize, with the help of the INC, how do they avoid being seen as handpicked by the Americans? In other words, how do you get, everyone seems to agree you ultimately want an independent Iraqi government that seems free of U.S. taint. But how do you get from here to there?
MAHDI AL-BASSAM: Well, the INC is not necessarily handpicked by the Americans, and I think a significant number of Iraqis are aware of that. The important thing about the INC is that it does have multiple organizations under its cover. So that it is not one group or one idea. Now, the INC is able to function and meet with these leaders on the ground, and I would also like to say something about the fact that a lot of officials are in the Ba'ath Party or have been members of the Ba'ath Party. Those officials, it is, it's really easy to find out if they were coerced into it or they actively did something. The process of de-Ba'athification has to go all the way forward, if we rely on Ba'ath Party apparatus now, we're going to return Iraq to where it was before this war started.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Eshaiker, just pick up on the point about how at least in the first stage the process avoids looking like it's being engineered by the U.S.
MUHANNAD ESHAIKER: Well, when you look at the overall picture, our president, President Bush, mentioned that Iraq would be run by Iraqis, so he's setting it from the outset that the U.S. is not going to interfere in the decision-making and the picking. But we do need U.S. forces, I mean, the fact that we lost Majid al-Khoei, who was a dear friend of mine, is a really monumental change in the rules of the game.
So the U.S. has to be there, but the negotiation needs to take place between the Iraqis, let's say expatriates and Iraqis on the ground. And I don't see that being a problem. I think that the fact that the Majid was hacked was because he really had no bodyguards, no support, and he was looked at as that weak element that can be revenged.
MARGARET WARNER: How do you think we should look at the death today of the Shiite cleric, Mr. Talabani, in the context of what we're discussing? As you heard, some of our military analysts thought it was a very clear signal that local Iraqis aren't going to accept someone who appears to have been brought in by the U.S., someone else saw the hand of Iran in that. What do you see?
QUBAD TALABANI: I think we really have to look at the facts and find out the investigation of actually how this tragedy came about. But it does show the complexity of the situation and the fact that anyone that is appeared to be imposed on the Iraqi people will not be looked upon favorably by the Iraqi people.
MARGARET WARNER: There are also reports, in fact it's been confirmed now, that this meeting that the vice president announced with such fanfare yesterday has been postponed to a date not certain, in part because there were groups in Iraq who said whoa, wait a minute, you know, we're not included. What does that say to you?
QUBAD TALABANI: It says that there are groups that feel that they're not being represented at this early stage. And we have to understand that there will probably be a series of meetings that will take place over time. I don't think this one meeting will be the meeting that sets up the interim authority. But we have to make sure that everybody feels represented. We must not make the mistakes of the past by only relying on one sector of Iraqi society or one group or one faction. We have to make sure that this is an Iraqi effort where everyone feels represented in order to make sure that the outcome is right.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Eshaiker, I'd like to ask you about something, I've read a number of stories out of the Basra, and this concerns, as you know the British forces there tried to sort of anoint a local cleric as kind of de facto mayor of Basra, and there were a lot of quotes from doctors in town, lawyers and so on saying, why are the Americans going to the old tribal and religious leaders, many of whom were being paid by Saddam Hussein anyway, but also that that just perpetuates some ethnic and religious divisions, why don't they go to the merchant class, the professional class? What is your view of that point?
MUHANNAD ESHAIKER: Okay, my view is that there's a lot of apprehension right now after the fall of Saddam. So any signal would be interpreted and amplified as if this is our future. We got to emphasize that this is just an interim administration, it's not even a government, it's just an administration, and it's got a short life, and that life will expire, so it doesn't really matter who is, you know, running the show.
But it would be nice to have a mixture of tribal and professionals, I agree that if it's strictly tribal and then it's a tribal system all across, so it's not really looking forward even for a short period of time. I would definitely encourage to have professionals involved. And I don't see any problem having a council, maybe a council of three men in every town run the government, and three men of different backgrounds, and could create kind of a model for other towns to acquire.
MARGARET WARNER: Dr. al-Bassam, what do you think of the approach that the U.S. and British are taking now in terms of who they're picking out locally?
MAHDI AL-BASSAM: Well, I think that the approach needs to be a lot closer with the people who are presently in Iraq, especially the tribes, the tribesmen, and the city leaders and village leaders. Iraq is more of a secular state than it is being conceived at this point. The tribal structure of Iraq has actually weakened and broken down over this period of time. And we need to try to keep it the way it is now. I would also like to add that going to the tribes the way that is being suggested may well lead to the Lebanonization of Iraq, which is something we all want to avoid. Finally, in response to one statement made about al-Khoei, who was assassinated today, it's a clear indication that we need law and order established in the cities as soon as possible.
MARGARET WARNER: Even if it's U.S. forces or U.S. military, or police force that has to do it?
MAHDI AL-BASSAM: I think at this point, military police would not be objectionable until we can transition rapidly into an Iraqi-based police force. And that is something that can be done reasonably rapidly.
MARGARET WARNER: Finally, Mr. Talabani, based on the experience you've had up in the Kurdish area, to what degree do you think local Iraqis will be willing and interested in accepting a prominent role for Iraqi exiles?
QUBAD TALABANI: It's a difficult question, and it's one that is probably unclear at this point. But exiles have a role to play, they can provide certain degrees of expertise as was the case in Iraqi Kurdistan, but it must be clear that this is not an imposition of an exile leader or an exile group, it's very clear.
MARGARET WARNER: Thank you very much, Mr. Talabani, Dr. al-Bassam, and Mr. Eshaiker, thanks.