updated 2/24/2006 10:16:47 AM ET 2006-02-24T15:16:47

Guest: Ken Allard, Barry McCaffrey, Wayne Downing, Robert Ford, Rend Rahim Francke, Rand Beers, Tony Blankley, Richard Perle

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST:  Did father know best?  The first President Bush believed going into Iraq would lead to civil war between Shia and Sunni.  For nearly three years, the will and guts of U.S. and coalition forces have kept the two sides apart, but is this the day of reckoning?  Is it upon us?  Let's play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I'm Chris Matthews.  Welcome to HARDBALL. 

Fear and loathing is sweeping through Iraq.  Seven U.S. soldiers were killed in Iraq today as religious rage and fury has turned into an all out holy war.  It comes in retaliation for the bombing of one of Iraq's most sacred Shiite shrines.  Hundreds have been killed, 168 Sunni mosques have been hit, 10 imams are dead and 15 others have been abducted since the shrine bombing.

Thousands of Iraqis demonstrated in the streets today.  Officials extended curfews and canceled all police and military leave.  Hopes for a functional Iraqi government have also turned grim, as Sunni leaders swiftly broke off talks with Shiite and Kurdish politicians. 

Will this sectarian violence lead to a full-blown civil war in Iraq?  We'll talk to the HARDBALL war council, Generals Wayne Downing and Barry McCaffrey, and Colonel Ken Allard in a moment.

But first, David Shuster has this report. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAVID SHUSTER, HARDBALL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  In the bloody struggle for power in Iraq, it is the kind of violence between the Shiite majority and minority Sunnis that U.S. officials have long feared.  And American troops are being caught in the crossfire.  Today, seven more U.S.  soldiers were killed. 

And the Iraqi dead today included 47 people, both Sunnis and Shiites, who attended a rally to show cross-sectarian solidarity and were dragged from their vehicles by Iraqi gunmen and shot. 

The widespread violence began on Wednesday.  Until then, a glittering dome marked one of the most sacred shrines in Shiite Islam, the 1,200-year-old Al-Askariya Mosque. 

Now this is all that's left.  Witnesses say men dressed in police uniforms stormed the mosque, overpowered guards, and then detonated explosives to blow the shrine apart.  In a swell of fury, Shiite masses took to the streets, calling for revenge against the Sunni religious minority. 

Roving Shiite militias killed more than 100 Sunnis, including several prominent Sunni religious leaders.  Some Shiites, in broad daylight, brazenly fired their weapons at Sunni mosques, while Iraqi Army soldiers, dispatched to stop the violence, stood helpless nearby. 

U.S. officials aware of the potential for civil war quickly condemned the attack on the mosque. 

ZALMAY KHALILZAD, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO IRAQ:  This heinous crime is a deliberate attempt to form a sectarian strife in Iraq and the region. 

SHUSTER:  And the reclusive Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Shiite Islam's leading cleric, made a rare television appearance to plead for restraint.  But attacks on the Shiites have been increasing over the past several weeks.  And Shiite rage has been building. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  (SPEAKING IN FOREIGN LANGUAGE).

SHUSTER:  Sunnis have vowed to respond to the Shiites and politicians on all sides have aimed at talks aimed at forming an Iraqi government.  And now U.S. forces are facing even more danger.  Several Muslim clerics in Baghdad have been telling followers that U.S. troops could have prevented the bombing in the mosque, but instead wanted to see a Muslim holy site blown up. 

In neighboring Iran, Shiite leaders went even further, blaming the United States for carrying out the attack.  These false accusations have a receptive audience among many Iraqis who blame the occupation for their problems. 

Meanwhile, the Iraqi security situation has become so unstable that even prominent Arab journalists trying to cover the story are being ambushed and killed.  Al-Arabiya correspondent, Atwar Bahjat, one of the most recognizable reporters in the Middle East, was in Samarra today covering the aftermath of the mosque explosion.  A Shiite militia group pulled up and took her and her crew away at gunpoint.  A short time later, the three journalists were shot, execution style. 

(on camera):  The violence and mayhem across Iraq is a huge setback for Iraqis, but also for the Bush administration.  It was just a few weeks ago when President Bush described the progress in Iraq as amazing.  Now the president and U.S. military leaders are facing the prospect of civil war. 

I'm David Shuster for HARDBALL in Washington. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  Well, that was one of the most powerful reports we ever got from David Shuster.  What a day in Iraq. 

Earlier, I spoke with NBC News correspondent Ned Colt, also in Baghdad. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  Is this the beginning of the long-feared civil war between Sunni and Shia? 

NED COLT, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT:  Chris, I think that there are concerns that we may be on the edge of that.  Are we in it yet?  No, I would say more on the edge of it.  It could go either way, according to people we're talking with here. 

I mean, just look at the last 24 hours here though, and you can sense that we are a lot closer than ever before.  We've seen 50 killed here in Baghdad alone in the last 24 hours, likely revenge attacks following yesterday's bombing of the Shiite's Askariya Mosque in Samarra. 

Dozens of Sunni mosques have been attacked in retaliation.  There have been ongoing street demonstrations.  Now, most of those have been peaceful.  That is a very good sign. 

Now there have been appeals for calm here.  Top military commanders, government officials, religious leaders, including the Shiite spiritual leader, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.  He was on television yesterday for the first time in a year-and-a-half, all of them appealing for restraint. 

But what we've seen across Iraq in the past 24 hours is clearly the worst sectarian violence since this invasion.  The big fear now is that this could escalate.  Everyone is afraid of those two words you mentioned.  No one likes to mention them here—civil war—but clearly that is a big concern right now. 

MATTHEWS:  Who stands to benefit from this new strife? 

COLT:  I think that that's another big question, and I think it's the million dollar question that everyone wishes they had the answer to.  Who stands to gain?  Most here want to believe it's foreigners, al Qaeda is a popular suggestion with Jordanian born terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi at the top of that list. 

Some suggest it could be a neighboring state.  We've heard Iran mentioned a couple of times, that a neighboring state could be to blame, some country, some leadership that is not interested in a stable Iraq. 

Now one certainty is that nobody wants to believe here that Iraqis could be behind yesterday's attack because what could follow is just such a horrible thought. 

Now, the U.S. and the Iraqi government are indirectly blamed.  This is what you're hearing at the demonstrations we've seen today.  Many of them are saying—many of the protesters are saying, well if militias were still providing security for religious sites, this wouldn't have happened, so somehow oftentimes it goes back to the Americans. 

MATTHEWS:  What about the Sunni holdouts who don't want to form part of the new government, they just want to bring it down?  Are suspected as well? 

COLT:  It's a big issue.  Today there was supposed to be a meeting, they're trying to pull together the first parliament here on Saturday.  They're having troubles getting the Sunnis back to the table. 

It's been a long-term problem, but now with this, the attacks we saw, the revenge attacks we saw today, a number of Sunni groups are saying, look, we're not going to come to the table unless we get a firm apology, unless we know that our people are safe, that our imams are safe.  Three of them were killed yesterday, one kidnapped.  There may be more.

And, again, there have been dozens of Sunni mosques attacked, so clearly, there are concerns on the part of Sunnis and they're demanding that they get some answers and an apology before they go back to the table. 

MATTHEWS:  Does this discourage the efforts to bring together the Sunni, the Kurd and the Shia in a new government? 

COLT:  Well, we keep hearing about the unified government here, and that's the unity government, and right now, that's appearing farther off than ever. 

And we have clearly seen a massive effort on the part of the international community, President Bush speaking about it again today, the ambassador to Iraq from the U.S. speaking about it yesterday, commanders in the military, as well as leaders of the government here, all of them saying, we've got to bring this country together, that what we saw yesterday is an attack on unity in this country.

And that's a big, big fear, that if the country splinters, where does it go from here?  Is it the Balkanization of Iraq?  And has it happened already, which you asked at the top? 

MATTHEWS:  OK, thank you very much, Ned Colt, NBC News in Baghdad. 

Thank you, sir. 

Well, that was a solid report from Baghdad. 

Let's bring in three former U.S. Army commanders.  Retired General Wayne Downing commanded a special operations task force during the first Gulf War.  He's now an NBC News military analyst, and tonight he's joining us from West Point.

And here on site with me is Retired General Barry McCaffrey, who commanded the 24th Infantry Division during Desert Storm.  He is now an MSNBC military analyst.  And Retired Colonel Ken Allard is also an MSNBC military analyst. 

Gentlemen, 10 years ago, five years after hostilities ended in the first Gulf War, Secretary of State James A. Baker said the following: 

“Removing Saddam Hussein from power might well have plunged Iraq into civil war, sucking U.S. forces in to preserve order.  Had we elected to march on Baghdad, our forces might still be there.” 

Colonel, are we seeing now the fruition of that prediction? 

COL. KEN ALLARD (RET.), MSNBC MILITARY ANALYST:  I can think of not only that prediction, but also of another secretary of state.  You remember Colin Powell said hey, this is the basic rule, if you break it, you then own it. 

We have broken this, so whatever happens in Iraq is very much our responsibility.  We are there, and right now, of course, we cannot afford to fail.  And so what we're seeing is very much the aftermath of that whole situation. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, I want to know what we can do.

General McCaffrey, what do U.S. soldiers doing fighting in the field when you see Shias fighting Sunni?  If you shoot a Sunni, they're mad at you.  If you shoot a Shia, they're mad at you.  How do you avoid taking sides in what is clearly a civil war now, or beginning to be one? 

GEN. BARRY MCCAFFREY (RET.), MSNBC MILITARY ANALYST:  I think we've been in the initial stages of a civil war for the last year-and-a-half.  Now it's intensifying.  The situation is unlikely but possibly going to go supercritical. 

We could see in the coming six months, thousands of Iraqi casualties as they start fighting it out, particularly in places like Baghdad and Kirkuk and Mosul, the mixed cities.

I don't think it's going to happen, to be honest.  I think the U.S. is going to try and keep out military forces out of the middle of the situation, and the forces of moderation hopefully are going to speak up and present an illogical destruction of the Iraqi emergency state.

MATTHEWS:  So you believe the United States' best posture is to stay in the barracks when these things are going on?

MCCAFFREY:  Absolutely.

MATTHEWS:  Let me go to General Downing.  Is that your view, that the United States forces stay out of the cross-fire?

GEN. WAYNE DOWNING, (RET.), NBC NEWS MILITARY ANALYST:  I think they should, Chris, if they can.  I think they will protect themselves.  You know, they're very, very good at this, but you know, I think they need to protect themselves and hope that this thing is going to quiet down. 

I, like Barry, in the last couple of months have come to believe now that we will have a civil war at some point.  But I—I don't think it's going to be now although this could go out of control.  I really think it's probably going to occur, Chris, six months from now or eight months from now as our force levels go down.  That will be much more critical.

MATTHEWS:  I'm thinking back to Lebanon in '83 where we were in that valley there and our troops were assigned to protect the airport, but basically, they were in the cross-fire, between the contending forces, the Christians and the Muslim forces.  And they ended up being seen as the enemy of the Muslims and pro-Israeli.

How do you avoid being seen by one side—for example, if we go and start to attack the Sunnis, who we think may have started this, aren't they going to see us as the enemy?

DOWNING:  They absolutely will.

ALLARD:  Don't pick sides.

MATTHEWS:  Let me go with the colonel first.  Colonel?

ALLARD:  Well, one of the things that was the great challenge about Bosnia and I think we need to remember the lessons we learned there, there was a continuing challenge about being the neutral party, that all three of the former warring factions could resort to.

And whatever happens now, we clearly have got the best role that we can play is that of an honest broker.  We have the ability to do that because the surveillance and all the rest of the systems we have in Iraq can give us surveillance in a situational awareness.  That is going to become extremely critical in the days and months to come.

MATTHEWS:  But if we watch someone throw a bomb at a Sunni mosque in retaliation for someone throwing a bigger bomb at a Shia mosque, how do we stay out of that?  We catch that guy, shoot them on site, the poor guy, he's dead.  But we've now taken sides.  How do we avoid that?

ALLARD:  The only way that you can try and do that is through the Iraqi government itself.  If we do that, you're exactly right, we become the enemy.  The only way to do that is to give this back to the Iraqis, make them responsible for it and it's a tough, tough nut.

MATTHEWS:  Is the army over there largely Shia, General Barry McCaffrey, or is it largely Sunni?  In other words, who's the army on the side of right now?

MCCAFFREY:  Well I think when you look at the history of the country, the military leadership is clearly Sunni by and large.  The army we're now forming seems to be predominantly Shiite, in many cases, incorporated militia units.

MATTHEWS:  Who are Shia.

MCCAFFREY:  Who are Shia.  But Chris, I wouldn't want to get exercise too early on this issue.  There's a couple hundred thousand Iraqi security forces.  There are significant U.S. military advisory teams with all of them.

That's the institution to watch.  In the coming six months, are they willing to step forward and try and create an Iraqi state and prevent civil war?  And the answer is more likely to be yes than no.

So again, this is a very serious situation, it clearly could spin out of control.  If we want to worry about something, as Wayne Downing suggested, it would be next fall, when we're going to get down to 80,000 troops, we've got to reduce our troop presence.  That's the point at which we're about to find out about the Iraqi government.

MATTHEWS:  General Downing, there's an old expression in American politics, when you're in a hole, stop digging.  If we find ourselves starting now, not next fall, having to choose between shooting on one of these two sites and thereby taking sides, or getting the hell out of that country, what's a better future for our country?

DOWNING:  Well Chris we can't flee under pressure and I think what's good for our country is really what's going to be good for Iraq.  I think what we've got to do is stay there and help this transition.

Chris, I am absolutely convinced, we need to draw down forces and we need to get out of Iraq as soon as we possibly can, but not peremptorily.  We need to build the infrastructures so that they can survive. 

I certainly hope that the Iraqi army holds together and does not spread on sectarian lines.  I know I am very concerned about how some of the police units, especially in the south now, are being accused of murder, under the guise of the police.

I'm also very, very concerned, Chris, about the militias, which have never been disarmed.  You've got this very, very well-armed Peshmerga to the north, fairly friendly to us.  But then you've also got Shia and Sunni militias and you've got the tribal militias.  These could all become very, very big factors if a civil war would start.

Chris the other thing we haven't even talked about is if the U.S.  force levels go way down, do they get to a point where you might have intervention from the neighbors?  Then you have really got a conflagration  on your hands, and one we're going to have to think through very, very carefully.

MATTHEWS:  Let's see if that neighbor is Iran.  We'll be right back with General Wayne Downing, General Barry McCaffrey and Colonel Ken Allard.  And later on the ground view—an on-the-ground view on Iraq's civil strife from a top American diplomat in Baghdad.  You're watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We're back with retired General Wayne Downing, retired General Barry McCaffrey and retired Colonel Ken Allard, all three are MSNBC military analysts.

General McCaffrey and I want you all to answer the same question.  The American people don't give a damn about the Shia and the Sunni and the Kurds, and most of them don't.  Maybe the editorial writers care, they care about us and whether we come home, having left behind something better than what we found.  The prospects for that right now?

MCCAFFREY:  Well, you know, I think the American people are probably going to give President Bush 24, 36 months to try and sort this thing out.  We're running out of time.

MATTHEWS:  That's all he's got.

MCCAFFREY:  Well that's what I mean.  But I don't think they're going to run us out of Iraq.  I think the president will be given the money and the troop strength and the decisions he needs to make.  The question is, can we actually set up an operational loose federation where these three factions come together.

MATTHEWS:  Yes, but how does that look today, General?

MCCAFFREY:  Well I think it looks pretty dim.  I'm still betting at the end of the day this is more likely to work than not work and we'll end up with a Sunni minority that will fight for 15 years.  It won't be a pleasant place to vacation in Baghdad, but they are unlikely...

MATTHEWS:  ... Who wins in the end, General?  The Sunni minority of 20 percent or the majority which is 60 some percent.

MCCAFFREY:  If we leave today, the Sunnis are back in power in 18 months, no question, and they'll be helped by the Syrian...

MATTHEWS:  ... And if Saddam Hussein's alive, they'll liberate him and put him back in power, right?

MCCAFFREY:  It'd be unbelievable.

MATTHEWS:  It's possible though, isn't it?

MCCAFFREY:  Yes, sure.

MATTHEWS:  If he gets enough appeal—if we wins an appeal a few times, it's possible he—Colonel?

ALLARD:  I will borrow a line from my pal Jim Miklaszewski who said “If we gave it back to Saddam, he'd probably be smart enough to turn it back to us.”

MATTHEWS:  OK, well let me go to General Downing on this—General Downing do you see the outlook, are you still bullish or bearish on whether we can put together a unity government over there?

DOWNING:  Chris, I think we have to stay the course.  The thing we've got to remember, there's been a lot that's been accomplished.  We've got a lot of things going.  This was a master stroke.  I mean, what would happen with this bombing, I mean, I've got to think if al-Zarqawi did not do it and I think he did, it certainly plays into what he wants to happen, because what al-Zarqawi wants to happen, he wants a civil war.  He wants to see the Sunni triangle.

MATTHEWS:  Do you know if he did this though?  Do you know if he blew up the mosque in Samarra?

DOWNING:  I don't know if he did for sure, but I certainly think it is something that he benefits from, because he wants a civil war, Chris.  He wants this thing to foment, he also want to create in the iron triangle, a Taliban-like government, he'd like to have the so-called Sunni stand.

MATTHEWS:  I keep thinking...

DOWNING:  Where he can then use as a base of operations for the entire region.

MATTHEWS:  ... Thank you gentlemen.  I keep thinking of Yogi Berra's line, “We're lost, but we're making good time.”  General Wayne Downing, thank you very much, General Barry McCaffrey and Colonel Ken Allard.

When we return, how close is Iraq to an all-out civil war?  We'll get the view from Baghdad.  You're watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Back to HARDBALL.  Earlier today I spoke with Robert Ford, he's counselor for political affairs at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.  He's on the ground in Iraq with a firsthand view of what's going on today.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  How does this uprising of killing and destroying of mosques on both sides by Sunni and Shia affect our efforts to stabilize that government and get out of there at some point?

ROBERT FORD, U.S. EMBASSY COUNSELOR FOR POLITICAL AFFAIRS:  Well, it certainly has gained everybody's attention over the last couple of days.  The violence today, Thursday, was much less than it was yesterday, Wednesday.

There's still some big marches and there have been some sporadic acts of violence around the country, but much less than there was yesterday.  My sense is that both political leaderships across the board as well as religious leaderships across the board are trying to calm things down and walk back.

MATTHEWS:  Who is it that wants to see a civil war?  What interests are there in the country of Iraq as you've looked around the country, that want to see this kind of fighting, end up in a big civil war?

FORD:  Well, there's really only one group and it's a very capable group, and it is the al Qaeda-related Abu Musab al-Zarqawi group here, and splinters that work with them.

They have been particularly nasty targeting Shia.  This is not the first Shia mosque to be bombed.  Frankly holier sites in places like Karbala and Najaf have been bombed before.

I think what has garnered the attention here is the Shia themselves reacted very violently to this yesterday.  Their community's leaders then came out very quickly, the Shia religious leadership, Ayatollah Sistani  and told the Shia faithful, “Do not fall into the trap of these terror groups that want civil war, and keep your demonstrations peaceful and do not attack mosques.”

I think that has had an impact today.  On the other side of the spectrum, the Sunni religious leadership, even some pretty hard-lined people that do not get along with us for example, have also counseled their faithful, not to engage in—they call it Fitna in Arabic, it means sectarian civil war, and the Sunni religious leadership has also told their people, do not engage in acts of sectarian violence.  The political leaderships are echoing that message as well.

MATTHEWS:  If there is a deal between the majority Shia, and the Kurdish allies and a handful or so of Sunnis to put together a new government, will that help or hurt the cause of stability and peace?

FORD:  Well, we have been urging the elected political leaders of Iraq to build a unity government that includes real representation of all of these communities.  Iraq really is a mosaic, and it's going to need a government that has real representation from Shia, from Kurds, from Sunnis and others.  That will help.

In the last government, that is to say the government that started in June of 2004 and finished with the last election, the Sunni Arabs really had no significant role, no significant power.  The next government will much more likely to have real power sharing and therefore a chance to bring all of the communities forward together.

It's as simple as a community in a Sunni area needs help from a government, building a school or building a hospital or fixing a road.  They'll have real elected Sunni Arabs in the next government that can help them do that.  They didn't have that before.

MATTHEWS:  Is the United States government position that we want to have a government of Iraq that is stable and strong, strong enough to drive the terrorists out of the country.  Is that our goal?

FORD:  Absolutely that is our goal, and frankly we're spending a lot of money and we have thousands of American military officers and soldiers, as well as officers and soldiers from NATO and a variety of countries here with us, working on that, to build up the Iraqi security forces so that step by step, as the Iraqi forces get better—and they are getting a lot better frankly.

I've been here two years, and it's a very noticeable difference.  But as they get better, we will begin our withdrawal.  In fact, we already have in a sense.  We have one brigade here less than we used to.

MATTHEWS:  When do you believe the United States and the coalition forces will achieve our political goal of establishing a solid, strong, unified government in Iraq that can put down the terrorists so we can leave?  When would that come?

FORD:  Well I think forming the government itself is going to take some time.  The sectarian divisions I was just talking about a little while ago are very real and they're going to have to find ways to bridge over those. 

They're going to have to figure out both a government program and then the people that are going to fill the cabinet jobs, the prime minister jobs, president's jobs, things like that.

I think it is important to understand that this moves at an Iraqi speed and not an American speed.  And an Iraqi speed, frankly, means more slowly.  And so I do not think we're going to have that new government ready next week, in all honesty. 

I think it is still some weeks away.  Some hard negotiations still to go, frankly, but the next government has all the potential to bring these three key communities together.  They all agree on the need to get the terrorists out of Iraq.  Nobody is arguing their case, everyone is arguing that they have to be expelled or killed, and so that the country can move forward. 

Iraqis actually are quite sick of the violence.  They would like to see some reconstruction, get their electricity going, get their water better.  And get some jobs, and they all understand that, and so it's just a question of how do you do the negotiations. 

MATTHEWS:  Robert Ford, counselor at the American Mission, head of politics over there.  Thank you very much, Robert Ford, for joining us from Baghdad. 

Up next, the rMD+IN_rMD+IN_rMDNM_Bush administration's response—is a stable Iraq possible or is all-out civil war just a matter of time?  You're watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(MARKET REPORT)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  For much more on the big Iraqi blowup today and the prospect of the all-out civil war, we're joined by Rand Beers, who worked for the first President Bush's National Security Council; and Rend Rahim, the former Iraqi ambassador to the U.S. before Saddam.  She's also executive director of the Iraq Foundation. 

What a history you've had.  When were you ambassador to this country from Iraq? 

REND RAHIM FRANCKE, FMR. IRAQI AMBASSADOR TO U.S.:  From November 2003 until January 2005. 

MATTHEWS:  Oh, that government.  I kept thinking you were a pre-Saddam person.  You wouldn't be as young as you are in that case. 

FRANCKE:  I was going go to say, I would've ...

MATTHEWS:  I'm sorry.  I was thinking way back in the 1950s like those Batista types.  Anyway ...

FRANCKE:  Chris, no. 

MATTHEWS:  Sorry.  So what is the prospect now of the Shia going to war with the Sunni, all-out war right now? 

FRANCKE:  Well, I think prospects are not very likely.  I hope that I'm right, that this is not going to happen.  There has been a strong backlash, of course, against the bombing of the shrine in Samarra.  But I think the backlash could have been much, much worse. 

It's been strong, but I think it could have been worse.  We could have had blood on the street, they could have had dragged Sunnis out of their homes and executed them on their streets.  They have could have blown up many more Sunni mosques.  Now they've done a little bit of that. 

MATTHEWS:  One hundred and sixty eight mosques have been torched. 

FRANCKE:  Well, yes.  You know, I don't know what state this was in and there has been a public reaction to all of this.  It's a natural, visceral reaction.  I'm not saying it's right.  I'm just saying I am glad it isn't much, much worse.  And the reason it's not much worse is because a lot of cooler heads, clerical leaders, political leaders, have called for calm.

MATTHEWS:  Certainly Sistani has.  Let me ask you, Rand, when you have one side torching the other side's major mosque and then you have in retaliation, them going back—the Shia going back and torching almost 200 Sunni mosques, all on—to use sports terms—all on offense, you can't somebody from torching your mosque, and we're standing there—what's our military—what's the proper military rule of engagement for us? 

RAND BEERS, FMR. SPECIAL ASST. TO BUSH 41:  Well, I think we have to absolutely stay out of the middle of this, lest we become being viewed as part of the problem to which, to some extent, we already are, rightly or wrongly. 

Some of the individuals involved in this struggle are saying that we or Ambassador Khalilzad is somehow responsible for this, for remarks which he made publicly earlier in the week. 

MATTHEWS:  By saying we'll leave if you can't get your act together. 

BEERS:  That's right.  Now, it's not clear to me what that connection is, but people have used it as a further incitement to what's going on here and I think that's disturbing.  And for us to be in the middle of this would just be absolutely the wrong move. 

MATTHEWS:  But morally—I rarely do this, but morally, what God-given or whatever right does an American soldier have to fire on a Sunni doing battle with a Shia, or a Shia doing battle with a Sunni?  What right do we have to kill anybody who is engaged in that kind of civil warfare?

FRANCKE:  Well, I think this ...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  It's not our country. 

FRANCKE:  We really—the United States should absolutely not get into that fight. 

MATTHEWS:  How do we avoid—you're out on the street, you have got a uniform on, you're in fatigues, you have got automatic weapons, and you see somebody go by to torch or blow up a mosque.  What do you do?  You turn your eye? 

FRANCKE:  No.  I think the Iraq police and the Iraqi troops ought to be in charge of this.

MATTHEWS:  But they're not doing it. 

FRANCKE:  Well, yes, they haven't done enough.  Now, everybody is on alert.  The Ministry of Defense has put everybody on alert, the Ministry of Interior has put all the police on alert, and I think that now they are beginning to take control of the situation.  It was very difficult to control anything in the first 24 hours when this outcry ...

MATTHEWS:  You know your people, you're Iraqi.  Even though you speak beautiful English, you're Iraqi.  Do you believe that a Shia cop is going to shoot a Shia for attacking a Sunni mosque?  Shoot him dead?  Our police have to shoot bad guys dead all the time in terribly incidents.  Will they be that lethal against their own blood, their own religion?

FRANCKE:  It is a very difficult situation, because it is a very visceral, very emotional situation.  And your question is extremely apt:

Will they do it?  Let us hope that they can gain control, not just by military means and by force, but by political persuasion and by political cool heads trying to come (INAUDIBLE)...

MATTHEWS:  The problem we have with Iran is we have the Sunni, who are 20 percent of the country.  They know they're doomed in terms of real political power if this government takes form.  They could have a minority role, but be minorities.  But having been the majority for all those years and in control, they now have to accept kind of a subordinate role, a very subordinate role.  Why should they?  Why shouldn't they just hold out until this government crumbles, we get out of there, and they take over again?  If you're a Sunni, wouldn't you wait for time? 

BEERS:  If you thought that that might be the case, then you might choose to wait for time, but I'm not sure that that's the case.  I'm not sure that the Shia are willing ever to relinquish power that they're accorded by their majority status, and I'm not sure that Iran is willing to allow them to be overturned either. 

MATTHEWS:  You mean they might come in in force as a government? 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  The army of Iran might march into Iraq to save a falling or faltering Shia government? 

BEERS:  I don't think that it would be necessary for Iran to do anything more than provide lethal support for the government at the highest level of involvement.  I don't see them having to send their own troops in.  The only situation would be is if other countries intervened with their military in support of the Sunni, and I think in that situation, the United States would use every pressure point that it possible could to keep foreign forces out of Iraq. 

MATTHEWS:  Thank you very much, Rend.  Thanks.  Please come back.

FRANCKE:  Thank you.

MATTHEWS:  And thank you very much, Rand.  Please come back. 

Still ahead, Richard Perle, one of the neoconservative believers in the Iraq war.  What does the Bush administration need to do now to prevent a real civil war over there? 

Plus, Ron Reagan and Tony Blankley debate what the civil strife means for the Bush administration's plans for a democratic, stable Iraq.  This is HARDBALL only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Could the killing in Iraq lead to an all-out civil war?  What would that mean for President Bush's vision for a stable Iraqi democracy, and what could it mean for his own political future?  Ron Reagan is an MSNBC political analyst, and Tony Blankley is editorial page editor of “The Washington Times.”

Ron, there have been warnings way back to Bush I, the President Bush I and Jimmy Baker, the former secretary of state, that if we went into Iraq and held it for a while, sooner or later there would be a civil war.  The Sunni and the Shia would go to battle, and we'd be stuck in the middle of it.  Is that coming to reality here? 

RON REAGAN, MSNBC ANALYST:  Absolutely.  Listen, you know, Iraq was always this seething cauldron of sectarian hatred, but there was a tight lid on it, and that lid was Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party.  Despotic, tyrannical, that's true.  But we went in there, into Iraq, and we popped that lid off, and if I can extend the metaphor any further, we didn't have a replacement lid for it.  We didn't plan for it.  We thought it was all going to be rose petal parades and what not, and this was inevitable. 

This civil war, if you want to call it that, really began as soon as we went in.  Began in earnest maybe a year and a half ago, as one of your previous guests said, and it hasn't really yet fully blossomed, but that's coming.  That's coming.  Six to eight months I would say, and you're going to have a real civil war. 

MATTHEWS:  Are we going to be like the British troops, Tony, in Northern Ireland, who take the heat from both sides?  Certainly from the Catholic side.  You're just there in the middle.  You're saying you're keeping order, but basically you're taking sides by being there. 

TONY BLANKLEY, WASHINGTON TIMES:  Well, look, I mean, first of all, we don't know whether we're at a factual tipping point.  We might be.  You know, your former guests have discussed whether it is, and obviously...

MATTHEWS:  There's no consensus yet. 

BLANKLEY:  Yes, the leadership in all the camps are trying to tamp it down.  The question is whether this is going to get—they're going to get dragged into it.  If they are, we have a couple of choices, and everybody has been talking about being an honest broker, but there's another choice, and that is to be a participant on one side, with the Shias and Kurds against the Sunnis.  The Shias, while they are a bigger number of people, they don't have the experience that the Sunnis have, but if you combine the Shia numbers with our technology and our support, technical support, we could in fact get a second best—not what we wanted, which was a government that was genuinely democratic, but perhaps a friendly, semi-theocratic Shia government that we had put in power by helping them win a civil war.  That's not a wonderful choice, but it's a lot better than turning tail and leaving. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you a moral question, Tony Blankley.  Should Americans operating in a foreign country, for better or worse, do we have the right to kill anybody on one side of a civil war, just because they're taking the side we don't like? 

BLANKLEY:  I don't think right comes into it.  I think...

MATTHEWS:  Why not?  We're killing people.

BLANKLEY:  Because it's a question of our national security. 

What's...

MATTHEWS:  Over there? 

BLANKLEY:  Yes, because our security here is affected by how the rest of the world is.  If we...

MATTHEWS:  How are we better off as a country to have the Shia, who are already ruling Iran, having a cloning of a country right next to them? 

BLANKLEY:  No, look, I mean, if we go over there and end up succeeding in placing a government there that rules effectively and is friendly or semi-neutral to us, that's a lot better than the situation we had going...  

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Ron Reagan, are we in the business here of trying to develop a country that's relatively benign toward us, towards Israel, toward its neighbors?  Do we have a shot at that, and does that justify what Tony is recommending, which is to take sides in a ruthless civil war? 

REAGAN:  I don't think taking a side in a civil war is a realistic prospect for us.  The question you've been asking all the show, what do American troops do when faced with a situation where they have to potentially take sides is a very relevant question.  You can imagine the scenario where there are troops out in the field and all hell breaks loose around them, with Shia shooting at Sunni, and they don't know if they're under attack, and it's going to be inevitable at some point that our troops are going to inadvertently perhaps take sides.  They're going to think they're defending themselves, and they're going to shoot somebody.  It's going to be Shia, it's going to be Sunni, and they're going to be sucked into this thing.  The last thing the U.S. Army wants to do is end up in the middle of someone else's civil war.  That would be a disaster.

MATTHEWS:  OK, let's bring it to the home front.  Do you think there's a connection between the months, the many months now we've been in Iraq, Tony, and the erosion that always sets in, the fatigue that comes in with being in a long war which has many stalemate qualities to it?  Do you think that's led to this anger and this perhaps great fear about the ports of our East Coast cities being under the supervision of an Emirates-based company?

BLANKLEY:  No, I think the fear regarding the port issue is generated starting with September 11th and the fact that we are in a genuine struggle against radical Islam and that the president has since September 11th been telling us we are in a struggle.

MATTHEWS:  And, how has he operated in this case?

BLANKLEY:  Well obviously he's done an appalling job of presenting his case and I editorialized last Wednesday, a week ago, expressing deep concern about the ports issue and I also had it in my lead, in my column last week.

MATTHEWS:  He didn't read it.

BLANKLEY:  Well he may have because apparently...

MATTHEWS:  ... Because he didn't know about this until this past weekend, apparently.

BLANKLEY:  Well maybe he saw an old copy of my paper, of “The Washington Times.”

MATTHEWS:  Maybe he went to the dentist office and came across your computer.  But aren't you amazed that once again he seems to be a week late, a bit late, more than a bit late on a big crisis matter?

BLANKLEY:  I mean, look, he's done a bad job of P.R.  The question is, what are the underlying facts and we don't have them.  Substantively, the question I have and I've not be been able to get an answer to this.

Is the Dubai corporation a passive investor, that is like I buy some stocks in General Motors but I couldn't even get into the building or are they actively managing.  Now if they're actively managing, there's a huge problem with letting them have it.  If they're passive investors, there's no problem.

MATTHEWS:  OK, Ron, yes or no.  Should the president stick to his guns on this?

REAGAN:  Well the president's made a terrible mistake on how he's handled this and there was an easy way to defuse this bomb that landed in his lap.  Instead of going out to the press and saying, “Look, I'm going to veto any bill that comes my way and I'm going to stick to my guns,” he should have said “Look, I just learned of this,” which apparently was true, “And I understand people's concerns.  And if there's any chance that this deal is going to jeopardize national security, the deal won't go through.  I'm going to sit down with members of Congress, we're going to address the security concerns, and if we can do that, then maybe the deal can go through.”

Kick the ball down the field a bit, because in a month or so, this isn't going to be a story anymore.  There probably isn't a lot of substance to this.

MATTHEWS:  Well I think Peter King and Rick Santorum are waiting down that field about 30 days, waiting for that can to stop and they're going to pick it up again.

Anyway, thank you Ron Reagan, thank you Tony Blankley.  When we return on HARDBALL, one of the true believers in the war in Iraq, we'll ask Richard Perle what comes next over there.  This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Richard Perle is an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration and a big player in making the case for overthrowing Saddam Hussein.  He's now a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.  Welcome, thank you.

Earlier tonight I quoted James A. Baker, the secretary of state under President Bush the first one, where he said, “Removing Saddam Hussein from power might well have plunged Iraq into civil war, sucking U.S. forces in to preserve order.  Had we elected to march on Baghdad, our forces might still be there.”  That's 10 years ago.  He's suggesting that a five-year war because of the civil war.  Could this civil war, which we're on the edge of, perhaps, be foreseen?

RICHARD PERLE, FMR. ASST. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE:  Well first of all, I don't believe we are on the edge of a civil war.  I think we need to stay calm, which is what we in the leadership in Iraq are urging, urging Iraqis to do.

MATTHEWS:  Why is our nervousness about a civil war in any way a triggering mechanism for more civil war?  What matters whether I'm nervous about this or not?  Why do we have to remain calm?

PERLE:  Well it doesn't matter in that sense, but I think there's a lot of hyperbole.  I was just listening to Mr. Reagan.

MATTHEWS:  One hundred and sixty eight mosques have been torched in the last 24 hours.

PERLE:  I don't believe that serious damage was done to 168 mosques and I don't believe that we're on the verge of a civil war although it was certainly the intention of the people who blew up the mosque in Samarra.

MATTHEWS:  Who are the usual suspects for you?  Who do you think did this torching of the Samarra mosque which has been around for 1,200 years?  It's like the blue mosque in Istanbul.

PERLE:  Well it was selected precisely because of its ability to inflame sectarian passions.

MATTHEWS:  By whom?

PERLE:  Well I think you'd have to put al Qaeda types at the top of the list.

MATTHEWS:  Al-Zarqawi?

PERLE:  After that, bitter remnants of Saddam's regime.

MATTHEWS:  Sunnis?

PERLE:  Sunni or Shia, it doesn't matter much.  These are people who want to destroy Iraq's movement towards civil order and democracy.

MATTHEWS:  You're a defense expert, right?

PERLE:  Sort of.

MATTHEWS:  Well you are.  You've had civilian roles in defense and you  were very much involved in this war debate.  What should be the rule of engagement for U.S. forces right now, in the face of this perhaps incipient civil war?

PERLE:  We should carry on as we have been.  We were not defending that mosque because that is not a responsibility of United States military forces.  We are not going to get drawn into choosing sides in a civil war.

I hope the civil war in fact is going to be averted.  We are there to assist the legitimate government of Iraq, an elected government, maintain law and order.  And if that means we operate against a Sunni, a Shia, or a Kurd.

MATTHEWS:  OK, who do we turn the army that we've created over to?  We turn it over to a majority Shia government.  That would then become an army on the side of the Shia in a civil strife, wouldn't it?

PERLE:  Look, I believe that the Iraqis are in the process now of putting together what will be a unity government.

MATTHEWS:  With a substantial Sunni participation?

PERLE:  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  Really?  Where do you get that optimism, it's not in the newspapers.

PERLE:  There are discussions underway.  They've been temporarily halted in response to these events, but I think they will resume in a matter of days.

We're going to see a government emerge from this political process in Iraq, and the Iraqi National Army will be a national army.  If it ends up being deployed by Shia against Sunnis, then we will have a catastrophic result.

MATTHEWS:  Do you fear an Iranian participation in this civil strife?

PERLE:  Yes, I think Iranians are involved in it even now.  And I wouldn't be surprised if the Iranians had a hand in this attack.

MATTHEWS:  OK, even bombing their own Shia?

PERLE:  Even bombing their own.

MATTHEWS:  Well that is really suicidal.  Thank you very much, Richard Perle.  Join us again tomorrow night at 5:00 and 7:00 Eastern for the HARDBALL “Hot Shots.”  Right now it's time for “THE ABRAMS REPORT” with Dan.

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

END   

Content and programming copyright 2006 MSNBC.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.  Transcription Copyright 2006 Voxant, Inc. (www.voxant.com) ALL RIGHTS  RESERVED. No license is granted to the user of this material other than for research. User may not reproduce or redistribute the material except for user's personal or internal use and, in such case, only one copy may be printed, nor shall user use any material for commercial purposes or in any fashion that may infringe upon MSNBC and Voxant, Inc.'s copyright or other proprietary rights or interests in the material. This is not a legal transcript for purposes of litigation.

Watch Hardball with Chris Matthews each weeknight at 5 & 7 p.m. ET

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,