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updated 5/23/2004 1:57:29 PM ET 2004-05-23T17:57:29

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PLEASE CREDIT ANY QUOTES OR EXCERPTS FROM THIS NBC TELEVISION PROGRAM TO "NBC NEWS' MEET THE PRESS."

NBC News

MEET THE PRESS

Guests:  Ahmad Chalabi, Iraqi governing council member, leader of the Iraqi National Congress, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., Chairman, House Armed Services Committee, David Broder, Washington Post, John Harwood, Wall Street Journal, William Safire, New York Times, Robin Wright, Washington Post

Moderator/Panelist:  Tim Russert - NBC News

This is a rush transcript provided for the information and convenience of the press. Accuracy is not guaranteed. In case of doubt, please check with:

MEET THE PRESS - NBC NEWS

(202) 885-4598, Sundays: (202) 885-4200

Meet the Press (NBC News) - Sunday, May 23, 2004

MR. TIM RUSSERT:  Our issues this Sunday:  yet more pictures and new videos of prisoner abuse in Iraq.  Former Bush administration ally, Ahmad Chalabi, now denounces the U.S. occupation.

(Videotape):

MR. AHMAD CHALABI:  Let my people be free.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT:  Iraq, Iraq, Iraq--what do we do?

(Videotape):

REP. DUNCAN HUNTER, (R-CT):  This is going to be a long, tough road.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT:  Stay the course says the Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Congressman Duncan Hunter of California.

(Videotape):

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH, (D-OH):  It is time to bring hope the troops.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT:  Get out now says Democratic Congressman Dennis Kucinich of Ohio. Hunter and Kucinich square off on the war in Iraq.

(Videotape):

Unidentified Soldier:  Go, go.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT:  Then how is the war affecting the campaigns of George W. Bush and John F. Kerry?  With us, David Broder of The Washington Post, John Harwood of The Wall Street Journal, William Safire of The New York Times and Robin Wright of The Washington Post.

But first, joining us from Baghdad is the man in the center of the storm, Ahmad Chalabi.  Mr. Chalabi, these were pictures in January.  There you are seated in the Congress right behind the first lady of the United States, and on Thanksgiving when George Bush went to Baghdad, there you are greeting him. And now this.  These are scenes Thursday when your compound in Baghdad was raided on allegations of sharing top secret information with the Iranian government which led to this headline in The Washington Post:  "U.S. Aids Raid on Home of Chalabi."  And now today, this Newsweek cover:  "Our Con Man In Iraq."  What has happened for you to fall in such a way?

MR. CHALABI:  First of all, the charges about giving classified information to Iran by me or by any INC officer are false, non-existent.  They are charges put out by George Tenet and his CIA to discredit us, and I want to go to Congress.  I'm prepared to go to Congress and testify under oath and expose all the information and the documents in our possession and let George Tenet come himself to Congress to testify and let Congress resolve this issue.

MR. RUSSERT:  It seems to be beyond George Tenet.  The Wall Street Journal put it this way:  "Recent intelligence, including communications intercepts, suggest Mr. Chalabi ... provided contacts in Tehran with details of U.S. security operations and political plans."

And this from Newsday:  "The Defense Intelligence Agency"--that's not the CIA, that's the DIA--"has concluded that U.S.-funded arm of Ahmad Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress has been used for years by Iranian intelligence to pass disinformation to the United States and to collect highly sensitive American secrets, according to intelligence sources.  Iranian intelligence has been manipulating the United States through Chalabi by furnishing through his Information Collection Program information to provoke the United States into getting rid of Saddam Hussein."

There are intercepts...

MR. CHALABI:  Anyone who has intercepts who has any information, any documents, I am prepared to go and face all this in the United States Congress.  It is no good quoting unnamed sources to say that they have a case. These are allegations that are put forward and directed by the CIA.

MR. RUSSERT:  Mr. Chalabi, have you not had extensive meetings and contacts with the Iranian government?

MR. CHALABI:  Indeed, we have had many meetings with the Iranian government, but we have passed no secret information, no classified documents to them from the United States because principally, we are allies of the United States and we do nothing to harm the United States.  Furthermore, we have not had any classified information given to us by the United States, nor have we had any classified briefings, nor have I seen any classified document from the United States.  And I believe none in the INC have done that either.

MR. RUSSERT:  Let me show you how some of the papers here have reported this latest incident.  The New York Times:  "Mr. Chalabi, regarded by many Iraqis as an American stooge, seemed to relish his new role as a martyr ... moving away from the Americans as he has moved closer to the country's Shiite majority."

The Christian Science Monitor said there is rumors all over Baghdad that said this was all part of a constructed charade by you and American officials in order for you to position yourself as independent of America so that you can seek to obtain power in Iraq.

MR. CHALABI:  Well, you can see the quality of the information then.  Iraq is not Latin America.  It's not Honduras.  And I would say a piece of advice for Ambassador Negroponte.  If he thinks he comes here and provides diplomatic cover for the control of Iraq through covert operations, I think he would be sadly mistaken.  Iraq seeks to be a democratic country, and the majority of the people of Iraq will express their views in an election.  The process that is going on now in Iraq to select a government, the Brahimi, Bremer, Blackwell process will lead to a failure of the government after June 30.  I call on President Bush, who is still the most popular politician in Iraq, to convene a meeting of Iraqi leaders in Camp David to iron out this process and put in place a government for Iraq that is effective, representative, and can lead Iraq to elections next January.

MR. RUSSERT:  Won't that be perceived as a puppet government of the United States?

MR. CHALABI:  Not at all.  Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, Massoud Barzani, Jalal Talabani, Mohammed Bahr Al-Uloum and others are not perceived by anyone as puppets of the United States.

MR. RUSSERT:  Let me turn the U.S. taxpayers.  This was a report from Reuters.  "The United States paid Ahmad Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress at least $33 million since March 2000, according to a congressional report made public on Thursday. ... U.S. officials this week said the Pentagon stopped funding the INC - it had been giving roughly $340,000 a month - with the final payment in May."

What did the U.S. taxpayers get for $33 million?

MR. CHALABI:  I refer you to the testimony of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Congress a few days ago.  General Myers said that the information provided by the INC saved American lives.

MR. RUSSERT:  Then why--excuse me.

MR. CHALABI:  They saved American lives.

MR. RUSSERT:  Then why did the Pentagon take you off the payroll?

MR. CHALABI:  We were never on the payroll of the Pentagon.  We had a cooperative program with the Pentagon and we contributed to it more than they did.  It was a prewartime program designed to fight Saddam Hussein.  With the movement toward sovereignty on June 30, it is inappropriate for a political party in Iraq to have relations of this nature with a foreign military organization.  This program should move to the Iraqi Ministry of Defense.  It was terminated by mutual agreement to end on June 30, 2004, with the advent of sovereignty.

MR. RUSSERT:  We all remember when Secretary of State Colin Powell went to the United Nations and made the case against Saddam Hussein.  He was on this program last week and expressed grave concern about the quality of some of that information.  Here's an article from the Los Angeles Times.  "The Bush administration's prewar claims that Saddam Hussein had built a fleet of trucks and railroad cars to produce anthrax and other deadly germs were based chiefly on information from a now-discredited Iraqi defector code-named `Curveball'...

"U.S. officials never had direct access to the defector and didn't even know his real name until after the war.  ... U.N. weapons inspectors hypothesized that such trucks might exist.  ... They then asked former exile leader Ahmad Chalabi...to help search for intelligence supporting their theory.  Soon after, a young chemical engineer emerged in a German refugee camp and claimed that he had been hired out of Baghdad University to design and build biological warfare trucks for the Iraqi army. ...

"Only later...did the the CIA learn the defector was the brother of one of Chalabi's top aides, and begin to suspect that he might been coached to provide false information."

MR. CHALABI:  We don't know who "Curveball" is.  That is part of the charges. Let them bring their files.  I'm prepared to go to Congress.  I'm prepared to answer all these charges.  We are mystified by this information.  We are mystified by who this person is and who is he the brother of.  We've been looking very actively to find out, but we still have not found out.  Let them tell us who it is, and let them put those charges, and I'm prepared to go and answer them in Congress.

MR. RUSSERT:  Mr. Chalabi, it's beyond the CIA and just George Tenet, as you suggest.  This is Whitley Bruner, who was the CIA agent who first contacted you:  "[Chalabi's] primary focus was to drag us into a war...He couldn't be trusted."

David Kay, the former U.N. chief weapons inspector:  "[Chalabi's] history is one, as a con man, quite frankly. ... It was a conscious campaign designed to get the U.S. militarily involved in the removal of Saddam.  ...Through fabricated information that indicated a weapons program that they did not have."

And this from Pat Lang, who headed up counterterrorism in the Middle East and Southeast Asia for eight years at the Defense Intelligence Agency:  "He's a fake, one of the greatest frauds ever perpetrated on the American people."

How can all these people be so wrong?

MR. CHALABI:  They are all wrong.  They are--this is part of the common wisdom that has grown in Washington, but it is baseless.  We provided--our focus was not weapons of mass destruction.  Our focus was the suffering of the Iraqi people and the liberation of Iraq.  It is no secret the Congress passed the Iraq Liberation Act in 1998 under the Clinton administration, and Clinton signed it.  It was the object of United States national policy to have regime change in Iraq.  And President Bush came.  Through his leadership and courage, he implemented this law, and the Iraq Liberation Act was passed long before any of these allegations came out.  So they should go and criticize the United States Congress.  We did not drive the United States to war in Iraq.  We were seeking the liberation of our country, and the United States decided for its own security and strategic purposes to help the Iraqi people liberate themselves, and that is what happened.

MR. RUSSERT:  But, Mr. Chalabi, you did say in--and the public documents are very clear, that the United States would only need 30,000 troops in Iraq, that we would be greeted as liberators.  Some fellow exiles said we'd be given sweets and flowers on the streets and that you could take U.S. troops to where the weapons of mass destruction actually existed.  And when asked about that in February, this is what you told The London Daily Telegraph.  "We are heroes in error.  ...As far as we're concerned we've been entirely successful.  That tyrant Saddam is gone and the Americans are in Baghdad.  What was said before is not important."

What was said before is important because it was information you provided to U.S. officials and to the American people.

MR. CHALABI:  What was said before is very important.  This interview is false.  The reporter did not ask these questions and I did not say "heroes in error."  I never gave him an interview.  I was sitting in a room chatting. The issue here is this.  We believe that the United States came to liberate the Iraqi people, and I think the liberation was successful.  Very few American troops were needed to defeat Saddam and the Iraqi people greeted them.  If the Iraqi people had fought them, just think what would have happened in Baghdad considering what happened in Fallujah.  The resistance was non-existent.  They were greeted as liberators.  The liberation was successful.  The occupation has been a failure.

MR. RUSSERT:  You said the other day, "Let my people go free."  We here in the United States have paid a very big price for the liberation of Iraq.  Seven hundred and ninety-three brave men and women dead, 4,524 injured or wounded. And now you're saying, "Let my people go free, get out."  Is that gratitude?

MR. CHALABI:  I never said get out.  The Iraqi people are absolutely grateful to the U.S. soldiers, the brave young men and women, and we are sorry for every single casualty that happened in Iraq.  We are very sorry about that. We are grateful and we will continue to so, but what we mean by let my people go is that we want sovereignty as agreed with President Bush.  President Bush agreed to give Iraq sovereignty.  We are struggling every day to implement this promise in Iraq and we want arrangements to give Iraq control over its armed forces, over its finances.  We want advisers appointed by the CPA to go when the CPA is dissolved on June 30.  And we want to make it possible for the U.S. troops to go out of Iraq with the thanks of the Iraqi people after having liberated our country, and we also want to have a strategic relationship with the United States, favoring United States' interests in Iraq because we believe that this is also in the interest of Iraq.

MR. RUSSERT:  If the U.S. troops left Iraq, what would they leave behind?

MR. CHALABI:  I hope they would be leaving a democratically elected government in Iraq that is friendly to the United States and that will be a model for future governments in the Arab and Muslim world.

MR. RUSSERT:  What if the Iraqi people chose a theocracy, a fundamentalist Islamic extremist country?

MR. CHALABI:  I believe the Iraqi people have enough sense to choose a democratically elected government.  This is a hypothetical question that is not pertinent here.

MR. RUSSERT:  Well, look what's next door in Iran.  Do you think that's a democracy?

MR. CHALABI:  Iran was not liberated by the U.S. troops.  The Iranians overthrew a regime, an oppressive regime that was friendly to the United States and the Iraqi people have learned from the experience of their neighbors very well.  They are very careful in what they want.  The Islamic parties in Iraq who are in the Governing Council also approved the transitional administrative law which gives freedom of faith to individuals in Iraq.  It gives a bill of rights which is far more advanced than any in the Middle East.  And that law was approved by the Islamic parties.  It is possible under that law for a Muslim to change his religion without being punished.  That is not the case in Egypt nor is it in Jordan.  It also gives freedom for Iraqis to recover their citizenship regardless of their religion or national origin, and that's a great step forward.

MR. RUSSERT:  Finally, will you seek elective office?

MR. CHALABI:  No, I'm not a candidate for any government office.

MR. RUSSERT:  Ahmad Chalabi, we thank you very much for your views.

Coming next, a debate on the future of U.S. involvement in Iraq with Republican House Armed Services Chairman Duncan Hunter and Democratic Congressman Dennis Kucinich.  They are both right here on MEET THE PRESS.

                               (Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT:  Iraq--a debate on the U.S. role after this brief station break.

                               (Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT:  And we are back.  Congressman Hunter and Kucinich, welcome both.

Congressman Hunter, George Bush, our president, has said stay the course in Iraq.  What does that mean?

REP. HUNTER:  Well, I think what it means is that what we just saw with Mr. Chalabi and the prison mess are side shows.  The real focus here should be on winning the war, we're making this transition, this hand over to the interim government on June 30.  I talked to Ambassador Bremer a couple days ago.  He's already working with Mr. Brahimi.  Brahimi is putting together this interim government that's going to be carrying the ball until the the last of the year when the national assembly is elected.

So, you know, none of these things go forward in neat packages.  And it's been tough, it's been rough, we've had 33 attacks on American forces in the last 24 hours.  That's what we should be focusing on, and the U.S. Congress should be focusing on getting this defense bill out that the House passed the other day but the Senate, mired in this prison mess, hasn't gotten their bill out.  We need to get that out, get it to the president, get the troops the tools that they need to get the job done, and let's hand this thing over.

MR. RUSSERT:  When you say "winning the war," how do you define winning the war?

REP. HUNTER:  I think you we put together--we're not going to turn Iraq into Republicans and Democrats, and Lord knows, you listen to Mr. Chalabi, there's going to be more stories of intrigue than you can shake a stick at, but what we have a chance to do is to have a nation that has a modicum of freedom for its people, basic freedoms for its people, and is benign with respect to its relationship with the United States.  It is not a cohesive force, and in that sense, to some degree, we've won the war in that we've dispelled--we've gotten rid of Saddam Hussein.  We don't have an Iraq that's a cohesive force that can be a danger to the United States.  Now, we have to see if we can hopefully make Iraq a cohesive force for freedom.

But if we don't, if we have an Iraq that plods forward, and has a modicum of freedom for its people, has a loose-knit coalition of these very disparate factions and groups, we will still have been very successful.  And now we're making the hand-off and we've got to make--along with the political hand-off, we've got to make a military hand-off.  It's time to put some weight on the shoulders of the Iraqi military, and you can't teach responsibility, you've got to give it.  So my recommendation to the administration is to make sure we make a military hand-off and start putting some major responsibility on the Iraqi military forces.

MR. RUSSERT:  Congressman Kucinich?

REP. KUCINICH:  Well, we're making progress when it's being said that we ought to bring our troops home, and I think that we have to recognize that this president led this country into an unnecessary war.  We're in a quagmire right now, and they don't have an exit strategy.  It's imperative that we not only have an exit strategy but a peace plan.  And that's frankly what I've been talking about for the last six months, Tim, that we have to have a plan which enables the U.N. to get involved on an interim basis to handle the oil assets, to handle the contracts.  There should be no privatization.  Ask the U.N. to help with elections and a constitution.  We should pay to rebuild what we destroyed, pay reparations to the families of innocent civilian non-combatants who lost their lives, help pay for a U.N. peacekeeping mission, bring in the U.N. peacekeepers, bring our troops home.

MR. RUSSERT:  I had Kofi Annan, the secretary-general of the U.N., on a few weeks ago and said there is no blue-helmet international peacekeeping force.

REP. KUCINICH:  Well, that's true.

MR. RUSSERT:  So who is going to come in and replace the United States? Where are these countries knocking on our door, begging to come in?

REP. KUCINICH:  Well, I'm speaking, of course, about the U.S. taking a new direction.  I have here a list of active-duty personnel by country, which the Security Council alone has 6.2 million.  If you subtract the United States, you still have nearly 5 million from the Security Council.  From the Middle East, you have a total of 2.8 million troops.  I mean, it's clear that the United States would have to take a new direction, away from unilateralism and away from pre-emption and away from away from the failed policies of this administration.

MR. RUSSERT:  Security Council, you mean France and Russia, China would send troops to Iraq?

REP. KUCINICH:  Tim, I'm absolutely suggesting that if this country takes a new direction, you know, and turns away from the failed policies of this administration that we can engage the world community, but it means that we have to give up control of the oil assets, give up control of contracts, stop trying to privatize Iraq and step up to our responsibility.  The American people should know that it is possible to have a peace plan and an exit strategy and that we can bring our troops home and that's what we should be focusing on.  Unfortunately, this administration led this country into an unnecessary war it's created a real mess.  I mean, look what they've done to our country.

MR. RUSSERT:  What does that mean?

REP. KUCINICH:  Well, what they've done to our country is that as you said earlier, 793 deaths, almost 5,000 injuries, $200 billion has been spent at the cost of money that should have been going for education, veterans' benefits, health, job creation.  And over 10,000 innocent Iraqis have lost their lives.

MR. RUSSERT:  Congressman...

REP. KUCINICH:  I mean, our international credibility has been undermined, and I think, you know, this alone points out why it's important to take a new direction.

MR. RUSSERT:  Two things he raised, Congressman Hunter.  One is an unnecessary war...

REP. HUNTER:  That's right.

MR. RUSSERT:  ...and two, the United Nations could supplement the United States or even replace the United States security.

REP. HUNTER:  Well, first, Tim, I keep a picture in the top drawer of my desk which is a picture of the Kurdish mothers killed in midstride with their children by poison gas by Saddam Hussein.  And those pictures are every bit as compelling as the death camps of Germany.  So the idea that this war is not justified is something that I don't accept.  But secondly, let's look at the United Nations and the contribution of the United Nations.  Korea was a United Nations war, but Americans carried that war, and we supplied the troops, even in Bosnia, which was arguably the small barbell that the Europeans could lift. You ended up with the Americans doing all the heavy lifting, doing all the air to refueling, all the expensive stuff while the Europeans hung back in what was their operation.

So you have 30 members of this coalition, and sure, when you go down past the Brits and you get down past the British and the Polish militaries, you go down pretty rapidly.  But you know what's interesting?  There's some Salvadorians there, and remember, we weren't supposed to bring freedom to Salvador.  That was supposed to be conceded.  There's Poles there.  Those were the people that were behind the wall that Mr. Reagan said bring down.  So this century has been a rough, tough century in terms of bringing freedom to other nations, but we have a good chance to be able to do that.  We've got right now, Mr. Brahimi is working on these choices right now for this hand-off.  This thing's going to take place.  The first members of this Cabinet are going to be announced in the next seven to 10 days, talking to Ambassador Bremer yesterday, so we're on the verge of making this turnover.

And I would say this.  If you had the U.N. stamped all over Iraq, if it's anything like Bosnia, if it's anything like Korea or any other U.N. operations, Uncle Sam will be carrying the brunt anyway.  We supply the troops for the simple reason that our allies don't spend much money on defense.  They have very small forces, and they can't do a lot.

MR. RUSSERT:  Are you...

REP. KUCINICH:  If I may, Tim, you know, respectfully, the administration's whole case for this war is totally falling apart.  Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11, with al-Qaeda's role in 9/11, with the anthrax attack.  Iraq had neither the intention, nor the capability of attacking the United States, was not trying to get uranium from Niger, did not have weapons of mass destruction. And yet the administration, the president refuses to admit that he made a mistake.  I mean, there has to be accountability here.  There must be accountability.  It appears that the only place that the buck stops in this administration is in Halliburton's bank account.

REP. HUNTER:  You know, that's very interesting, Tim.  First, General Kimmitt announced that the first round that has been tested positive for sarin, which is a weapon of mass destruction, was discovered last week by two GIs, who were dismantling IEDs.  Both the GIs got sick carrying this thing back.  I've gotten a picture from Iraq.  This has tested positive for weapons of mass destruction--that is for sarin-- with both the American force that's on the ground and the British force and it's now back in the United States for final testing or more testing, more thorough testing.

That is a picture of the 130mm mortar round that was found in Iraq that General Kimmitt talked about.  If so, the important aspect of this is we are finding dozens of weapons caches every month.  This is one that comes from a cache that obviously we don't know about, and that has...

REP. KUCINICH:  Can I see that?

REP. HUNTER:  Sure, you can see it.  In fact, you can have that, Dennis.

REP. KUCINICH:  Thank you.

REP. HUNTER:  And let me give you one...

REP. KUCINICH:  Duncan, are you saying this is why we went to war?  Come on.

REP. HUNTER:  No, you watch...

REP. KUCINICH:  This is incredible.

REP. HUNTER:  You watch the women and children laid out across that hillside dead, Dennis; that's one reason we went to war, and not on the statements of Mr. Chalabi, but on Hans Blix, who talked about the 8,500 liters of anthrax that Saddam Hussein put together, that he had according to his own records, all of which would fit, Tim, in one pickup truck with good sideboards.

MR. RUSSERT:  But, Congressman, you would acknowledge that the amount of weapons of mass destruction that the administration had talked about, and the potential nuclear threat, has not been realized at the levels that had been suggested.

REP. HUNTER:  Listen, the facts are the facts.  This is what we've found so far.  On the other hand, this is the first weapon of mass destruction, and these first two tests by the Iraqi survey group and the British survey group are borne out by more tests, but their tests are pretty accurate.  This will be the first one that's been found in Iraq.  And the point is, it comes from a location that we obviously didn't know about, and we are finding dozens of these things every month.

But I would just say you don't have--this is not a game where Saddam Hussein wins if we don't find these weapons.  I said a long time ago that when we had that first intercept from the Iraqi general to his colonels--he said, "I'm coming to see you in the morning."  That was the day before November 26, when a U.N. survey team was going to get to their location.  He said, and I quote, "I'm coming to see you in the morning.  I'm worried that you have something left."  His colonel answered back, "There's nothing left.  We've evacuated everything."  Now, what part of "evacuated" don't we understand?

MR. RUSSERT:  Congressman Kucinich, are you concerned if the United States withdraws its military troops that Iraq could break down into total chaos, total instability and become a haven for terrorism like Afghanistan was?

REP. KUCINICH:  Well, first of all, I'm speaking of U.N. peacekeepers coming in on an interim basis and rotating U.S. troops out.  I mean, so there would be a presence of international peacekeeping.  What we have to be concerned about here is that a long-term United States commitment will only mean a deepening war, more casualties, greater costs to this country, destruction of our budget.  I mean, you know, this administration has not yet taken accountability, Tim, and that's got to be a real concern to all of us because they won't admit they made a mistake.  You know, they won't admit to that.

And, you know, even now, this idea that somehow they're finding weapons of mass destruction--I don't think even the White House is really willing to try to stand very strong on that shaky ground.  It was wrong to go in and it's wrong to stay in.  But what we must do is have a plausible exit strategy, which this administration doesn't have, and a peace plan.  Tim, I've had this peace plan on my Web site at kucinich.us for the last four months.  I mean, it's--you know, it's not as though no one's thought of a way out, that the administration wants to tell us they're going to hand over sovereignty, but you know what?  They're not talking about bringing our troops home.

MR. RUSSERT:  The Democratic candidate for president, John Kerry, voted to authorize the war.  Do you believe he's held George Bush accountable?

REP. KUCINICH:  Well, you know, I support John Kerry, but I want to say that I think that this is George Bush's war, and George Bush has to be accountable.

REP. HUNTER:  Very simply, Tim, we're on the verge of making this handoff. Within seven to 10 days, you're going to have the first Cabinet officials named by Mr. Brahimi for this interim government.  In December, at the end of the year, you're going to have a national assembly elected, and this will be the first time from the dawn of time when Iraqis were able to vote for their own government.  Now, I think that we're going to see stars arising, people--leadership percolating up, just as they do in any country where people get to go to the polls and vote and cast ballots and not bullets.

So we're moving ahead.  It's a tough process.  It's not wrapped in neat packages.  The bad guys are doing everything they can in this upswell of violence to keep this from happening, but it's going forward.  And when we get the so-called--if we have--and we are using--incidentally, the U.N. is helping to put these elections on.  We're using their blueprint to put elections on.  But anytime you have an U.N. force, the idea that somehow it's this great force, that all these nations spring up and the United States becomes a very small part of the force is nonsense.  In all of our major U.N. operations, it's been Uncle Sam that carried the ball, spent all the money and provided most of the troops.  And you're going to see in this coalition of 30 nations, which is in country right now--you're not going to see a lot of difference.  If you have a U.N. force, you're going to have the Brits, the Americans, the Aussies, the Poles and right down the line.

MR. RUSSERT:  I gave Congressman Hunter the first word.  I'll give you the last word.

REP. KUCINICH:  Well, I think it's very obvious that this country's been dragged into a war that was unjustified, unnecessary.  Now, we have to get out. We have to have an exit strategy and a peace plan.  I think the American people are waiting to see if the White House will produce that.  I know that it's imperative that we recognize that this whole thing was a blunder and that it's costing the United States dearly in terms of the lives of our brave men and women, our tax dollars, innocent people being killed in Iraq.  It's time to take a new direction where we're not mired in this situation in Iraq, and I say we have to bring our troops home.  And that means the United States should not even be part of any U.N. peacekeeping mission.  Our presence there keeps our troops in jeopardy.  We have to bring them home.

MR. RUSSERT:  To be continued.  Congressman Hunter and Congressman Kucinich, thanks very much.

REP. KUCINICH:  Thank you.

REP. HUNTER:  Good to be with you.

MR. RUSSERT:  And our Roundtable is next:  the impact of the war on the John Kerry-George Bush presidential race.

                               (Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT:  And we are back.  Welcome all.

The political fallout--and we'll talk some policy as well, obviously.  This is The New York Times report from Thursday.  "Despite the sunny public pronouncements from White House and Bush campaign officials about staying the course, Republicans in Congress and outside presidential advisers describe a gloom in the Republican Party ...  about continuing crises that have helped drag the president's approval ratings ever closer to those of his father, who drove Saddam Hussein from Kuwait but then lost the election.  `If it was October, I'd probably being having a heart attack,' said Representative Ray LaHood, a moderate Republican from Illinois."

David Broder, Iraq and the presidential race.

MR. DAVID BRODER:  What is really worrying the Republicans are the signs that even in the Republican base there are now beginning to be doubts and defections.  A poll that I was shown in a Western state, one of the battleground states, shows that almost a fourth of the self-identified Republicans in that state now say that they are not certain that they would vote for President Bush.  That comes as a real blow to the Republican Party.

MR. RUSSERT:  Mr. Safire?

MR. WILLIAM SAFIRE:  This has been a terrible couple of months for the Republicans.  The prison scandal on top of all the casualties and the fact that the president's ratings have gone down is logical.  One would expect that.  The fact that Kerry hasn't gone up is very interesting.  I think--What?--six months before the election to say gloom and doom will persevere for the next six months is ridiculous.  The president will try to rally the troops with a bunch of speeches in the next 10 days.  We will see progress towards some kind of a transition government and the deadline of June 30 will be met.  And I just think the pendulum is likely to swing.  I don't think John Kerry has really made a move in the moment that he should be making a move.

MR. RUSSERT:  The Democrats seem to be emboldened, though.  Nancy Pelosi who leads the Democrats in the House of Representatives said this the other day. "Bush is an incompetent leader.  In fact, he's not a leader.  He's a person who has no judgment, no experience and no knowledge of the subjects that he has to decide upon."

John Harwood, that's very personal as well as political.

MR. JOHN HARWOOD:  Think, Tim, about how different a situation we're in than we were a year, a year and a half ago when the Democratic leader in the House of Representatives feels able to make an attack of that kind.  This is a trend that started with Howard Dean when he got very, very tough with George W. Bush in the second half of 2003.  John Kerry and other candidates picked up that rhetoric.  They really feel they've got a free hand to go after George Bush, and some of the static in the Republican base that David Broder talked about, criticism yesterday from Dick Lugar, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee who has been very critical of the planning for postwar Iraq, that makes Democrats feel safe in making those arguments against President Bush.

MR. RUSSERT:  Let me talk about Dick Lugar, Robin Wright.  This is what he said yesterday.  "I am very hopeful that the president and his administration will articulate precisely what is going to happen as much as they can, day by day, as opposed to a generalization."

Republicans I've spoken to say that we want to stay the course but we have to have defined for us what staying the course is precisely.

MS. ROBIN WRIGHT:  Well, the president tomorrow night will begin what is a campaign over the next six weeks to try to define the U.S. role in Iraq and what happens after the handover of power on June 30.  He will talk at the Army War College in the first of six speeches, one a week until the handover.  I'm told that there are a few new twists, but not anything major.  It's basically trying to pull the different aspects of U.S. policy that are already in place together and pronounce them out of the president's mouth, and I think that will play well for a few days.  But the problem is that the next six weeks is likely to be even more violent than what we've seen so far.  There are a lot of different forces that want to send a message to the United States and this is a way to do it.

And there is also the danger that after June 30, we may not see the kinds of answers that people are hoping for.  There's kind of an illusion that after June 30, things have to get better because the U.S. occupation will end, and the reality is that we'll still have 135,000 troops in Iraq and they are going to continue to be targets and maybe even more so.  And I can actually see in the run-up to the election here that Iraqis will also be moving toward their election at the end of this year or early next year and that the U.S. troop presence will become such an issue that no Iraqi politician, no matter how much they want the United States to stay, will end up being forced to say it's time for the United States to leave.

MR. RUSSERT:  David Broder, the economy and job creation are numbers that the Bush administration are desperately trying to get out and magnify in terms of being accepted by the public; significant job growth over the last six months. And yet, it seemed to be drowned out by the war.  Is Iraq going to be the central issue in the campaign?  Has George Bush staked his presidency on the outcome of the war in Iraq?

MR. BRODER:  I think the answer to your last question is clearly yes.  I mean, this was a huge step that he took when he launched that pre-emptive war, and he has to somehow convince the American people now that that basic decision was right.  What was interesting, Tim, I think about Duncan Hunter's comments here was the way in which he has, as a loyal Republican, begun to scale back the definition of success; a modicum of freedom, to use his terms, in Iraq, a country that at least is not united in its opposition and threat to the United States.  I think that there is this effort now beginning to take place to redefine the goals in a way that make it possible for the president, by October, at least to claim that there was some success from this venture.

MS. WRIGHT:  Absolutely.  Can I just say that this is what is so striking about the president's speech that the goal posts will be lowered?  He'll try to say we haven't.  When you think about again, to a year ago where we were, the ouster of Saddam Hussein, the prospect, big summitry between Arabs and Israelis of a new peace plan on the table, that the fabric on a lot of different fronts of U.S. foreign policy has begun to crumble.  And so it's not just Iraq that's there, it's the whole philosophy that was laid out that's being challenged.

MR. HARWOOD:  Tim, the American people are going to be very practical in their judgments about how this is going.  George Bush is at his best and has been at his best in the war on terrorism when he links American idealism with the defense of American security.  His problem right now is with this prisoner abuse scandal, it doesn't look very idealistic and Iraq doesn't look very secure and it doesn't, by extension, make Americans feel any more secure.  But if those events should improve in the fall, then George W. Bush is going to have this blanket that is now depressing American attitudes lifted, and the economy may kick in and help him.  You know, people have real jobs and real paychecks.  We're seeing jobs added, 900,000 in the last several months; that's going to kick in for the president if he can get events to a better place in Iraq.

MR. RUSSERT:  Mr. Safire, what happens inside a White House when you set out a series of speeches for the president to say stay the course and try to articulate a policy, and you don't control or can't control the real events that are going on in Iraq?

MR. SAFIRE:  Well, focusing on Iraq, there are three basic tribal warfares going on, and I'm not talking about the Kurds and the Shiites and the Sunnis. It's the Defense Department and the State Department and the CIA who are at each other's throats in Iraq.  There's one man there who is the president's man, and that is Robert Blackwell of the National Security Council, and he is calling the shots; not Bremer, not Negroponte, not Wolfowitz.  It's Blackwell.  And his policy is what Brahimi wants Brahimi gets.  That's the U.N. envoy.  And that's behind this whole Chalabi business, and it's also behind...

MR. RUSSERT:  What do you mean by that?  Was this an attempt to embarrass Chalabi or to remove him from the equation?

MR. SAFIRE:  Brahimi and Chalabi are at each other's throats.  Brahimi, who is Kofi Annan's man in Baghdad, wants to set up a transition government with no Chalabi, no Kurds, but essentially dominated by Arab technocrats.  And my friends over there say that kind of a government won't work, that can't set up the elections in January.  And so the word from--I guess right from George Bush to Blackwell is cooperate with Brahimi because the U.N. is our way out of this.  Now, that's why we're not taking on the Sunnis in Fallujah.

MR. RUSSERT:  Isn't it ironic that the United Nations, an institution that the Bush administration has never been warm and fuzzy towards, and Mr. Brahimi, who called Israel's policies poisonous, is now being perceived as the savior of our Iraqi policy?

MS. WRIGHT:  Absolutely.

MR. SAFIRE:  There's a certain irony there, yes.

MS. WRIGHT:  But I will say, with all due respect to my friend, Bill Safire, that I don't think that this is all about just technocrats.  This is trying to create the next phase of the transition that will not allow any individual--Mr. Chalabi or any other of the mainstream politicians--to take power and hold it and not give it up in six or seven months.  That's the idea behind the technocrats.  This is a weak government that's just to rule and oversee the running of Iraq day to day until elections, and Iraqis can decide who their government is.  So it's not a bad idea at all.

MR. SAFIRE:  But you can't have a vacuum for six months.

MS. WRIGHT:  It's not a vacuum.

MR. RUSSERT:  John Harwood, how does John Kerry deal with Iraq now and throughout the campaign?

MR. HARWOOD:  John Kerry's got a bit of a challenge on his hands.  There's rising sentiment within his party to get troops out of Iraq.  Ralph Nader, of course, who John Kerry met with this past week, is calling for a very rapid pullout of U.S. forces.  But I'm not sure the bar for John Kerry is all that high.  John Kerry has got fairly well-established credentials on foreign policy, and think about the Ralph Nader equation.  Four years ago, there were a lot of Americans who thought there wasn't much difference between the two parties.  There are a lot fewer Americans who feel that right now.  And there's good reason for that, because if Al Gore had been elected president, it's almost certain that we would not be in this war.  That's an advantage for John Kerry because a lot of that anti-war vote is going to fall his way, no matter what he says.

MR. RUSSERT:  David Broder, we all thought we were going to go to Boston in the last week of July for the nomination of John Kerry.  And now a trial balloon has been floated by the campaign of the Democratic candidate, saying, "Well, we'll probably have a Democratic rally there and a great event, but he may not formally accept the nomination of his party," because he can then delay having to receive public campaign funding until, say, Labor Day and continue to raise a lot of other hard money, contributions which will allow him to compete with George Bush.  What's going on?

MR. BRODER:  What's going on is money, money, money.  I have to say that we used to blame Republicans as being the party where money really drove everything.  It's the Democrats that are allowing money to drive everything. They moved up the primary campaign dates so that they could have more time in the spring to raise money.  Now, they want to move back the nomination time so they can raise more money in the fall.  It is ridiculous.  They are destroying institution after institution of political significance by this preoccupation with chasing money.

Ken Melman from the Bush campaign called yesterday and said, "If the networks go along with this scheme and cover the four nights of the Democratic Convention as a political rally, which does not produce a nomination, we will demand four nights of coverage of our rallies there."  And I said to him, "Why don't you just move your date back?  You have the president defer his accepting the nomination for another five weeks, and then you can go on raising money, and we'll end up with two parties, neither of which has an official nominee, and Ralph Nader will be the only candidate out there."

MR. HARWOOD:  Tim, this is a dangerous move for the reason that David Broder is suggesting.  There are four big events between now and the election:  the June 30 transition of sovereignty in Iraq, the two major party conventions and debate season.  John Kerry has control of two of those things, his nominating convention and the debates.  If they play games with when he gets nominated, they could jeopardize their news coverage of the nomination.  That's going to be very important for him introducing himself to the American people.

MR. SAFIRE:  This is the stupidest move that John Kerry could possibly make. Can you imagine--after 200 years of conventions and all, every speechwriter has always written an acceptance speech, and the key moment of an acceptance speech, right at the beginning, where the candidate stands up in front of the convention and says, "I accept your nomination," and the place goes wild and everybody has a spontaneous demonstration.  Can you imagine John Kerry getting up and saying, "Thank you for that nomination.  I'll accept it in a month"? It's going to ring hollow.

Now, if the Democrats want to have an exact equity and parity with the Republicans, I'm sure the city of Boston would go along and you could have both conventions the same weekend.  And the television networks would scream, but that way it would be fair and you would have both candidates accepting the nomination on the same day at perhaps the same hour, and you could cut back and forth between them.  And then you'd have an audience watching the conventions, which you wouldn't have otherwise.

MR. RUSSERT:  Robin Wright, before we go, Colin Powell--you traveled with him.  Last week on this program, he talked about his testimony, his statements before the United Nations about weapons of mass destruction, and acknowledged that he was uncomfortable by some of the things he may have said that have now proven not to be accurate.  What is his thinking, his mind-set right now?

MS. WRIGHT:  Well, I think he's one of the--he is the administration official who has--who is most deeply troubled, I think, by the Iraq operation.  He has a tremendous conscience and I think it's haunted him what he said to the United Nations.  He went as the United States' representative.  And he's often put out there as the front man for this.  He now has to try to bail out the United States by going back to the United Nations in the next couple of weeks to get yet another United Nations resolution to support the continuance of U.S. troops in Iraq, and that's going to be a hard sell.  I think--I'd be very interested to see the sequel to his autobiography, his years with the Bush administration.

MR. RUSSERT:  But he stays on through the end of the year?

MS. WRIGHT:  I think he stays on through the end of the year.  I think it's always been the case he was a one-term secretary of state.  It's a tough job. He didn't particularly want it in the first place.  I don't think he's going to go because of Iraq, but I think he'll be glad to get out because of Iraq.

MR. RUSSERT:  Robin Wright, William Safire, John Harwood, David Broder, thank you all.  We'll be right back.

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