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January 28, 2005



PAUL GIGOT: Welcome to THE JOURNAL EDITORIAL REPORT. It is hard to think of a more important election, other than our own. What happens in Iraq this weekend will help decide the chances of bringing democracy and stability to Iraq and the Middle East, and might well determine the success or failure of the Bush presidency. We'll devote almost the entire program to this subject, and we've assembled a uniquely expert group of panelists: Dan Henninger is a columnist and deputy editor of the Wall Street Journal editorial board. Rob Pollock is a senior editorial page writer and has spent a good deal of time reporting in Iraq. Michael Rubin is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former official of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad. He was the only official of the Provisional Authority to live outside the relative safety of the Green Zone. Fouad Ajami is director of the Middle East Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University and a contributor to the editorial pages of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL.

Michael, watched from this vantage point, watching the elections in Iraq, we get the bad of the violence and we see yet the good of so many millions of Iraqis preparing to vote to help set a new course for their country. What do you expect to happen on Sunday?

MICHAEL RUBIN: In the north of the country, where the Kurds are, I think you're going to see massive turnout. And in the south of the country, where the Shia are, again I think you're going to see massive turnout. Putting the Sunnis aside for a second, the fact of the matter is 80 percent of the country is politically sophisticated and has enthusiastically seized upon the idea of having elections. The campaigning is very sophisticated -- radios, television, rallies and so forth. And then when you look at the Sunnis, what I see --

PAUL GIGOT: The middle part of the country, around Baghdad and the west.

MICHAEL RUBIN: The middle part of the country are Sunnis. There are certain areas that Sunnis may not vote in as great numbers as we want them to, not because of a lack of desire for voting but because of intimidation. The insurgents aren't afraid that the elections won't represent them, they're afraid that the elections will represent them and will put out starkly how small a proportion of the country they really are.

The other thing which strikes me, and this is why it was so important to go ahead with the elections -- in 1991 former president George Bush called for the Iraqi people to rise up, and 14 out of the 18 governorates rose up. This time around, the U.S. military has said 14 of the 18 governorates are quite enthusiastic for the elections and are going ahead. There's the same 14 governorates. Now in 1991 we didn't support the majority of the people, and that's part of our legacy in Iraq. This time around it's important that we correct that legacy. So I share the Iraqis' enthusiasm in going forward with this.

PAUL GIGOT: Fouad, what about this problem in the Sunni part of the country, the Sunni Triangle. Is there a certain threshold of turnout that you think has to be reached before this will be perceived as legitimate?

FOUAD AJAMI: I actually don't think so. I think it's up to the Sunnis. In fact, there is a kind of interesting irony. Since you've invited a historian on your show you're going to get this. In 1920, when the Iraqi state was put together, the Shiite turned their backs on it and they lost. And now they admit that this, the rebellion they waged in 1920 was a calamity. The Sunnis have their own choice to make. They governed Iraq. Now they can no longer govern. Eventually, it will settle, it will dawn on them that they have a big piece of Iraq, but not dominion over Iraq. It's their choice. We can't patronize them, and we can't really lower our expectations. It's up to them. That's the choice that the Sunni Arabs have to make.

PAUL GIGOT: Interesting.

ROB POLLOCK: I'll go out on a limb and predict there will be at least an American level of turnout in Iraq.

PAUL GIGOT: Which would be about 50 to 60 percent, traditionally.

DAN HENNINGER: Paul, I wonder if I could ask Fouad my question myself. Let's say the Sunnis are intimidated from participating. They're voting for participation in a transitional government. They're going to create a constitution later in the year. Do you think that the Shiites will understand that these people were suppressed in this activity, in this election, and that they will try to incorporate them into the process post-election towards the constitution?

FOUAD AJAMI: Well, most everybody is saying that the morning after the elections there will be an attempt to correct for the results of this election. No one really, no one among the Shia and the Kurds, no one entertains the idea of an Iraq that would be governed and ruled and repaired and rehabilitated without the participation of the Sunni Arab. The door is going to be left wide open for them. The American Regency has left it open for them, and the Shia and the Kurds have left it open for them. They just can't have a veto over the life of the country.

ROB POLLOCK: And as a practical matter, they have to bring in the Sunnis, because to ratify the constitution. Any three provinces can veto the final constitution, and those could be the three Sunni provinces if they don't bring them in.

PAUL GIGOT: Some U.S. strategists, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Bret Scowcroft, have said that these elections could be a prelude to civil war. You wrote this week in our paper that these elections will not be a prelude to civil war, they will be a substitute for civil war. What did you mean by that?

FOUAD AJAMI: I have to agree with my own line. You appreciate they are really a substitute for a civil war. Let's face it. There has been a sustained effort to intimidate, murder, and liquidate many of the leaders of the Shia. It's their religious assemblies that are being attacked. It's their leaders who are being struck down. And in fact, the restraint of the Shia has been remarkable. And I wrote in your column, I said look, men are not angels. Why has the Shia been restrained? Because the leaders have told them, you shall be vindicated at the ballot box.

So instead of seeing these elections as the prelude to civil war, as Brzezinski argued -- Brzezinski, I've never agreed with Brzezinski on anything. He's a colleague of mine, I think, at Johns Hopkins, but nevertheless I think they have been the substitute for a civil war. In fact, this has been the way that Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and the leaders of the Shia have told their people, "Patience, and then you shall be vindicated."

PAUL GIGOT: Go ahead.

MICHAEL RUBIN: If I could just throw in -- I agree with Professor Ajami -- that when I was observing some of the campaigning, especially with this United Iraqi Alliance, the Shia list.

PAUL GIGOT: The Shia list.

MICHAEL RUBIN: It's important, a couple aspects. It may be a United Iraqi Alliance, but it's anything but united. It's really a coalition of different groups. And within those groups, they're not all Shia. They include some Kurds, they include some Sunnis.

PAUL GIGOT: Thirty Sunnis.

MICHAEL RUBIN: Exactly. And the Iraqis seem to have a sense that at every point in their history when someone has tried to be maximalist in their demands, it's ended in civil war. And if there's one thing Iraqis agree on, they're tired of that. Now there seems to be almost a cartoonish impression among pundits who have never been to Iraq that you can't be a legitimate Sunni unless you're throwing a grenade, and you can't be a legitimate Shia unless you're wearing a turban. And in the Iraqi context, nothing can be further from the truth. These are remarkably sophisticated.

PAUL GIGOT: But there is a fear among smart American strategists -- Kissinger and others have expressed it -- of the Shia taking over and imposing some kind of religious Iranian-like rule. Is that a legitimate concern?

FOUAD AJAMI: Well this is the Shiite boogie-man. We were afraid of it in 1991, and it's stayed our hand. It really basically pretty much explains why we kept Saddam in power. And I think, you know, you can understand. People who don't really know the inner details of Iraq -- and we really don't know the inner details of Iraq. They fall back on the template of Iran. This is when we came into awareness of the Shia. This is when we became, when we saw their self-flagellation, their religious ceremonies. And then we witnessed the upheaval in Lebanon in the early eighties. And this is what we know about Shiism. I don't think -- you know, we have to understand and accept the logic of Iraq as it is, that 60 percent of the Iraq are Shia. And this is what we work with.

PAUL GIGOT: But Moqtada al-Sadr, the firebrand who led a revolt last year against American forces and the coalition, has representatives who are contesting this election and may well win some seats. Is that a political huge program?

ROB POLLOCK: He has a few representatives who are contesting. But look, if the Shiite clerics thought that they had enough support from the Iraqi people to rule Iraq, they would have put forth its list of candidates that had a lot of Shiite clerics on it. They didn't. I think this united list has maybe half a dozen clerics on it. That's pretty amazing.

PAUL GIGOT: What about the government of Ayad Ali and his slate? He has the support of the Americans. A lot of people in the American government would like him to win. What are his prospects in this election?

FOUAD AJAMI: Well, he has some of the great ironies of Iraq as they are. In fact, you have Iyad Allawi, who is a Shia. But I think temperamentally -- see, I am a Shia, so I should put this on the table. I grew up in a Shia household. Now Iyad Allawi comes from a Shia background, but temperamentally he seems to be like a Sunni. His culture is the culture of the Baath party. And many Sunnis feel comfortable with his style. He's anti-clerical, and so are many of the people in the Sunnati Iraqi list. They're anti-clerical. And there are deep wells of anti-clericalism among the Shia anyway. The Communist party in Iraq was principally sons of great Ayatollahs joined the Communist party. The Baaths was originally led by members of the Shia community. So we shouldn't go for this sense that Shia would only be vote and act politically as Shia. And Allawi is a classic example.

PAUL GIGOT: Do you think he's going to do well?

FOUAD AJAMI: He will do well. He may even be rescued by the consensus of his country that this is what we need. If the polls are better in Iraq than they were in our election, what they're telling us is Allawi could end up with 15 percent of the vote. Okay, 15 percent of the vote. He could have 40 seats in the Assembly. And yet, he may still be designated as Prime Minister as a consensus candidate. It's conceivable.

PAUL GIGOT: One of the ironies as well is the role of Ahmed Chalabi, who was the former exile who wanted the United States to liberate Iraq from Saddam Hussein, then had a falling out with the Americans, and now is making a comeback on the United, or the Shia list. How do you explain that comeback?

ROB POLLOCK: This is really a pretty incredible rebuke to our own State Department and CIA, who kept telling everybody that Chalabi was a dilettante exile with no support in Iraq. Well, if he's a dilettante exile, first of all how did he persuade the U.S. Congress almost single-handedly to pass the Iraq Liberation Act, organize the exiled opposition. And even after we tried to discredit him, end up as perhaps the premier political coalition builder in Iraq right now.

MICHAEL RUBIN: In my five years of traveling in and out of Iraq one pattern I've always noticed is that Iraqis may say someone is irrelevant, but they never bad mouth someone who they don't perceive as a threat. People may say Ahmed Chalabi isn't popular, but they wouldn't bother telling a journalist or a diplomat or an intelligence analyst that unless they were afraid of him.

PAUL GIGOT: Dan, President Bush said this week that if the new Iraqi government invites Americans to leave, we will leave. Do you think that's a likely prospect, that that will happen? That we will be invited out?

DAN HENNINGER: I think there's almost no prospect of that happening. For the institutions that are going to be created by this event Sunday to thrive, you need stability. Absolutely, you must have stability. That's why Ukraine was able to do what it did. And I think the new government, whether it's Allawi or Sistani, will understand that they need -- the real transition has to be from the American forces to the Iraqi army, and the Iraqi police. And that process could take upwards of two years. At that point I would guess that we'll start coming out of Iraq.

MICHAEL RUBIN: And when you actually look at the campaigning, whether it's the Iyad Allawi list, or whether it's this United Iraqi Alliance, this Shia list, or the Kurds, the campaign issue that all the Iraqis are talking about is security. Just like it is outside the country, we look at it -- they look at it the same way. Iyad Allawi's television commercials: "Vote the Iraqi list for a better tomorrow." The Sistani list, the United Iraq Alliance list posters, showing a before and after picture of children hurt by terrorism and saying this won't happen if you vote for us.

They realize that the best way to undercut security would be to have an immediate American withdrawal. They don't want that. What they specifically ask are two things. First of all, not that we eliminate our presence. Our presence is stabilizing, and they recognize that. But that we regularize it. They also want, just very briefly, that we get out of their face. They'd much rather have us on the outside of town rather than on the inside.

PAUL GIGOT: Do you think there's a chance, very briefly, Fouad, that the new government might do a better job of security than the Americans have?

FOUAD AJAMI: I'm not going to take your bait. I don't know. I mean, obviously I think the fight will be on. And I think the elections -- this is really the way forward. There are the elections, and then there is a training effort. These are the twin pillars coming out of this Iraq adventure in a fairly decent outcome. So it really depends on the training of these Iraqi forces. Because some of that heavy lifting of security. The knowledge of who is a troublemaker and who is not, the knowledge of who is Arabic and Saudi, and not Iraqi. I mean, all this is really an Iraqi knowledge. We just -- kids from Indiana and Vermont are not going to be able to sniff out these insurgents, and the Jihadists. The Iraqis will.

PAUL GIGOT: All right. Thank you all very much. Interesting discussion. Next subject.