Tim Russert is NBC News’ Washington bureau chief and host of Meet the Press.  He regularly offers MSNBC.com’s readers his insight and analysis into questions about politics past, present and future.

MSNBC: Tim, President Bush has called the war in Iraq an integral part in the war on terrorism. But now we see this report from the National Intelligence council that says Iraq has become the new training ground for terrorists.

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Russert: It realizes his every worst fear.

Afghanistan had been the haven for al-Qaida, with the Taliban protecting them -– we had to go in there and take down the Taliban and try to root out al-Qaida.

If Iraq becomes the new haven, geographically, it is a disaster. It is so much closer to Israel and to other countries in the Middle East.

It is not what George Bush wants to leave behind. His vision was to have a democracy in Iraq, which would, in effect, lead the way for other democracies to follow in that area.

So, now the challenge is two-fold. How do we have an exit strategy, train enough Iraqis in military and security forces to turn over control of that nation so our troops can leave? And, secondly, how do we ensure that those Iraqis can hold down the insurgency and not let Iraq slip into the control of the terrorists.

MSNBC: What about former Secretary of State James Baker’s plan for a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Russert: I think that’s the dream of the policy makers at the Pentagon.

The difficulty is the Iraqis have to step up. If they do not take control of their country by having people join the military and join the police force and, frankly, be willing to hunt down other Iraqis, we are in a situation where we either stay and have a long war of terrible attrition, or we get out and the insurgents and the terrorists take over.

It’s Catch-22, in the worst sense of the word.  I think we’ll have a much better idea of how the Iraqi people feel about their future when we see the result of the elections on Jan. 30.

MSNBC:  So, we may find out the Iraqis don’t want democracy as much as the Bush administration has been encouraging democracy and maybe it can’t work?

Russert:  Precisely.  Do the Shiites really feel that the last 35 years under Saddam Hussein was such a burden that they now want to rise up and take control of their own destiny?  And, will the Sunnis allow that? 

That’s why you saw the Sunnis going after the cleric Sistani’s top aides. It’s a Shiite versus Sunni conflict in that area.

And today, several Kurds in the north were killed.

Brent Skowcroft, former national security advisor to former President George Herbert Walker Bush, believes they may be on the verge of a civil war.

MSNBC:  What will you be talking about Sunday on Meet the Press?

Russert:  We’re going to tackle this very issue, along with the other challenges confronting George W. Bush as he starts his second term this Thursday.  We’ll talk with the man who’s worked with him for 12 years, the new counselor to the president, Dan Bartlett.

For the Democrats, former Clinton advisor, now head of the Democratic congressional campaign committee, Rahm Emanuel, congressman from Illinois.

Then in our roundtable, we have Doris Kearns Goodwin and Jon Meacham of Newsweek magazine with a look back at the most memorable and most forgettable inaugurations in American history.


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