updated 1/31/2005 1:59:05 PM ET 2005-01-31T18:59:05

Guest: Feisal Al-Istrabadi, Elisabeth Bumiller

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  Iraq seals its borders and extends curfews. 

Insurgents kill five American troops in three separate attacks in Baghdad.  What‘s the U.S. military‘s role in Iraq‘s elections this weekend?  Is it to secure the vote or get out the vote?  Tonight, the HARDBALL war council, Generals Wayne Downing, Barry McCaffrey and Monty Meigs.  

Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews.  As Iraqis prepare to vote, insurgents continue their campaign of violence in at least six major cities.  And five U.S. soldiers were killed in a series of roadside bombs and shooting attacks in Baghdad Friday.  In an effort to calm fears of insurgent attacks on Election Day, Iraqi authorities announced the capture of three associates of Zarqawi, al Qaeda‘s leader in Iraq. 

HARDBALL‘s David Shuster is in Baghdad. 

What‘s the latest on the ground, David? 

DAVID SHUSTER, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Well, Chris, the latest is that officials are saying that there were more than a dozen insurgent attacks all across Iraq and that those three that happened here in Baghdad, Chris, that took the lives of five American soldiers and four Iraqi police, these are bombs that you can basically hear all across the city. 

One of them went off not too far from where we are here in the Green Zone.  And when it goes off, Chris, it is sort of a thud that you hear.  The walls reverberate.  In this particular case, you could their gunfire that erupted afterwards and then the roar and the whine of the Humvees as they either move to try to go after the insurgents or to get away from them. 

But the noises that you hear in Baghdad, Chris, it says something of a mixed message.  It creates a mixed message, given that, around the same time that these bombs were going off, there was the Iraq interior minister announcing the arrest of these three top aides to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.  It turns out that those arrests were made at least 10 days ago and it is not clear what sort of information or help these aides are giving the coalition forces. 

So, again, this does seemed designed to be part of the overall campaign to try to convince Iraqis that the security situation is moving in the favor of Iraqi security forces and the coalition forces, even as the violence seems here to be intensifying—Chris.

MATTHEWS:  Well, does that message of optimism square with your sense of the tone around you? 

SHUSTER:  Chris, the sense here is that things are actually intensifying and that the Iraqis know it.  All the streets are essentially closed.  You don‘t see Iraqis walking around anymore.  Shop are closed. 

There is a great sense of fear in the air, even as the coalition is trying to put its message out, not only through arrest of the Zarqawi aides, or although the announcement of the aides, but also through the television and raid that the Iraqi interim government is putting it out there as far as trying to assure everybody that all these steps that may create an inconvenience, such as the roads being closed, vehicles not being allowed out, the airport being shut down, the borders being tightened, all of that, while it might be an inconvenience, at least the message from the interim government is that people are going to be able to walk to the polls and that, at most of the polls, they are not going to have security problems. 

But who knows whether or not the Iraqi people are going to believe it.  And also, the other big question, Chris, is whether or not the Iraqi election worker are nervous or confident about what the situation is going to bring on Sunday. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, thank you, David.  Stay with us. 

We now turn with the HARDBALL war council, we‘re calling it.  Retired general Barry McCaffrey commanded the 24th Infantry Division during Desert Storm.  Retire General Montgomery Meigs served as commander of the Iron Brigade during the first Gulf War.  And retired General Wayne Downing commanded the Special Operations Task Force during first Gulf War.  He is presently in Baghdad. 

Let me go to General—Baghdad.  You‘re in country.  What do you see as the strategic threat between now and the weekend, as we have these elections? 

RET. GEN. WAYNE DOWNING, NBC MILITARY ANALYST:  Well, I think what they‘re trying to do, Chris, is to try to get to all these different cells, especially these suicide bombing cells.

The base of operations is very, very high, probably 25 percent over normal.  And they‘re launching day and night operations.  In fact, here this evening, earlier, I saw a group of soldiers launching on an air mobile raid.  So they‘re really putting the heat on.  And, you know, we‘ve got to remember, Chris, that the problems they‘re having are really in five provinces; 13 of the 18 provinces look like they‘re going to have a fairly quiet election with a very, very high turnout, 80 percent in the Shia areas, perhaps 70 percent in the Kurdish areas. 

The problem areas, we know, the Sunni areas, the Triangle and Baghdad. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me to go General McCaffrey. 

I meant by the question of what is the strategic threat, what could happen this weekend that could render these elections illegitimate?  In other words, what would have to happen to have the world say they‘re a joke?

RET. GEN. BARRY MCCAFFREY, NBC MILITARY ANALYST:  Nothing.  It seems to me, Wayne has got it right.  The Kurdish population in large numbers will come out.  The Shia where not threatened will vote enthusiastically for one of the two major slates. 

At province level, there is a great need to try and get your own people in office.  So it‘s the contested zones.  Now, that is 40 percent of the population.  There is going to be a fight going on.  Starting in about another 12 hours, it will get intense.  And I think it will suppress the vote significantly.  But it is still a legitimate expression of democratic action. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me—General Meigs, is that your assessment?  No matter what they do to stop these elections, the fact of having them, the expected large majority of people who are going to vote based upon the big turnout from the Shias and the Kurds will legitimize the effort?

RET. GEN. MONTGOMERY MEIGS, NBC MILITARY ANALYST:  Right.  This is going to be very visible.  They can‘t stop the election now.  It‘s too late.

They‘re going to try to make it as messy as possible.  The thing for viewers to watch after the election is what is going on where key people who have pulled back have said, hey, I am not going to play here, but I want to be part of the constitutional process?

MATTHEWS:  Well, let me ask you about a rather deadly scenario here, a nightmare scenario.  If we have a lot of suicide bombers, if we have a lot of people walking in armed with explosives into polling areas where they really do hit the inside of the operation, is that going to hurt the legitimacy of the elections?

MEIGS:  Sure.  But, look, you can‘t stop the election.  It is going to happen.  It is the first one.  It is a major milestone.  And when you close the borders, when you seal off all the vehicular traffic, you‘ve taken away the major source of suicide bombers, the most deadly ones.

And you have Iraqis at the polls.  They ought to be able to see better the walk-in type.  So, this is going to be messy, but it is not going to stop.  And it is going to be a positive thing overall. 

MATTHEWS:  General McCaffrey, what is your nightmare scenario?

MCCAFFREY:  Well, actually, it seems to me we‘re almost on the wrong subject. 

The election is going to happen.  It is going to move ahead.  It is going to be legitimate to a large extent.  I think the problem is we‘re in the middle of a civil war.  There‘s probably 80,000 armed fighters.  They‘re well organized.  There‘s five, six million people supporting them.  It isn‘t over on Sunday at midnight.  They‘re going to go after the candidates.  They‘re going to try and oppose this. 

They hope at the end of the day that they‘re going to run the U.S. out of Iraq in the coming two years and win the subsequent civil war.  That‘s the nightmare.  They might do it if we don‘t have the political will to stay with this. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, is the target after the election us there as the continuing force from outside?  Or is it the Iraqi officialdom of the new government? 

MCCAFFREY:  The real target is, the Sunnis want to run Iraq.  They have for several generations.  They haven‘t given up on that notion.  So, I think the worst threat to them is an effective Iraqi government composed of Shia and Kurds and some turncoat, quisling Sunni. 

But, however, we make a good target.  The problem is, going after the United States is, we‘re too dangerous.  Screwing around with the 1st Cav Division with the Marines or the 1st I.D. gets you killed.  So they have really defaulted to the Iraqi government and the National Guard and the police. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, General Downing, I guess question in country there is, do we have confidence or hopes that the new government will have the military muscle, the fighting spirit to defend themselves and the country? 

DOWNING:  Chris, this is very significant. 

I was last here about 10 months ago.  And, in that last 10 months, they have grown now 43 maneuver battalions in these Iraqi security forces.  They had a long talk with General Petraeus and his guys yesterday.  They have achieved remarkable things.  And the great thing is, these Iraqi units are beginning to fight and beginning to do well. 

Two nights ago, I was with some special forces officers.  And they are embedded in many of these Iraqi army units.  And they were very, very high in their praise, the esprit, the morale and the dedication to the task.  This is a major step forward, Chris, from 10 months ago. 

And, you know, the thing that we‘ve talked about on this show a lot is the significance of the Iraqi security forces.  We can‘t do this.  We cannot do this with everybody we‘ve got in the U.S. military.  Only the Iraqis can do it.  And that is going to take, you know, two years, three years, five years.  And, as Barry said, what we‘ve got to do is, we‘ve got to hang with this thing. 

This thing, we‘ve got ahold of it.  We‘ve got it turned the right way.  Now we have got to work our way through this, take casualties when they come.  And there will be some.  But we have got to support these people and get them on their feet, because, Chris, this is a very, very important event, this election and what this means for the future of this country and this region. 

MATTHEWS:  General—General Downing, when will they throw the Iraqis into the first team, into the game itself and say, it is your turn to stand and fight, we‘re going to hold back?  When do the American say to the Iraqis, you‘re out at point here?

DOWNING:  Well, listen, Chris, they‘re doing this right now.  And one of the significant things that‘s come here in the last week is the decision to form advisory teams, like we had in Vietnam, to go with these Iraqi units.  Right now, we‘re doing this.  We‘re doing it in an ad hoc basis.  For probably the last six months, both the Army and the United States Marine Corps. 

And they‘re forming this out of their own combat assets.  Now we‘re going to have advisory assistance efforts that will be with these Iraqis, help them, train them, help them plan operations, go on operations, and then also be the support for the coordination with other American forces and firepower, if they need it. 

MATTHEWS:  General Meigs...

DOWNING:  Again, Chris, very, very significant and it‘s starting to happen.  They‘re starting to stand up and take charge of some areas. 

MATTHEWS:  When is the acid test for the Iraqi forces of the new government? 

MEIGS:  It is starting.  But you have some Iraqi units, special forces, intervention forces, some of the army battalions that have been around for a while that are hanging pretty tough.  And that is going to grow. 

And so one of the things that hopefully the administration is going to show us as we go along, because the American people are going to want to see that, is where those successes occur.  That‘s critical.  But it is starting now.  And when the election is over, I‘ll bet you will see some stories about this particular unit did this good thing and this particular unit showed up here and did what it was supposed to do. 

MATTHEWS:  General McCaffrey, what is your sense when we‘re going to know whether they have a—we have a fighting force to protect the new government? 

MCCAFFREY:  Well, I am probably a little more skeptical than the other two voices on this show. 

It seems to me it is a good bit of time.  Lieutenant General Dave Petraeus, who we‘ve got organizing this, is probably the best guy we got have in uniform.  He‘s brilliant.  He has got a lot of help.  Wayne Downing is right.  We‘ve now made a national commitment to put the right kind of advisory force on the ground.  It took us seven years to get to that point in Vietnam.  I was part of an advisory detachment with a Vietnamese airborne division years ago.

And we had second-rate equipment.  And they tried to keep us out of the fight.  Now, so John Abizaid made the right calls and the ambassador has made the right calls.  I think the problem is, it is not just training and equipping.  You have got to have some government they‘re willing to fight and die for.  That may be a little bit of a question on how soon that happens. 

Right now, it is not there.  Most of them aren‘t going to fight and die for the Allawi government.  And we‘ll have to see about the next one. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, we‘ll be right back with HARDBALL and our war council and David Shuster, who is also in Baghdad, in just a moment.

And on Saturday at 4:00 p.m. Eastern, it is the HARDBALL Heroes Tour with the Marines of Camp Pendleton.  Join me, along with special guests Maria Shriver and Ed McMahon, as we pay tribute to the brave men and women serving our country in the Marine Corps.  That‘s Saturday at 4:00 p.m.  Eastern.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  This half-hour on HARDBALL, Tim Russert joins us for a preview of his interview with John Kerry, Kerry‘s first since he lost the election.  Plus, the latest from Baghdad and NBC‘s Campbell Brown, as Iraqis get ready to vote.  But, first, let‘s check in with the MSNBC News Desk.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. and the HARDBALL War Council, General Barry McCaffrey, General Montgomery Meigs and General Wayne Downing, who is in Baghdad right now, and HARDBALL‘s correspondent David Shuster, who is also coming to us from Baghdad. 

I want to talk to the three generals to get this started in terms of an historic comparison.  If this weekend‘s elections occur, and they are going to occur, and if we have a big turnout, which we expect to have, from the Shia especially and the Kurds, we will at least in structure and formality a new government, a self-determined government in Iraq. 

How does this compare to the allied situation we found back in the ‘70s, early ‘70s, in Vietnam, where we had still soldiers in the field?  I should say probably a bit in the late ‘90s, where we had American troops doing the fighting, hoping to Vietnamize the fighting by turning it over to the ARVN forces, the South Vietnamese forces, and yet that didn‘t seem to quite work out.  And I want to know why. 

I was talking during the break with General Meigs why it didn‘t turn out. 

Let me ask you that, a question on the air.  Why didn‘t the United States succeed in turning over the running of that war in Vietnam and the support of that government to the local people?  Why didn‘t it work? 

MEIGS:  Well, there‘s two issues here.

First of all, General Abrams did a masterful job of starting and executing Vietnamization.  And there were ARVN units that fought extremely well, 1st—I was in I-Corps.  Others can tell you about the other areas.  But 1st ARVN, 2nd ARVN Division, ARVN Rangers, ARVN Airborne, ARVN Marines, super.  They were very capable.

The other question is, how do you get down and affect a society?  And the answer is, only the Vietnamese could have done that.  And in this situation, only the Iraqis can do that.  That‘s why we have to have this Iraqi government that can stand on its own two feet.  And, remember, we are electing a constitutional convention with this election.  Then it has to be ratified in a referendum.  Then you have an election next December.

MATTHEWS:  This December.

(CROSSTALK)

MEIGS:  So this is a year-long process we‘re going into here. 

MATTHEWS:  Right.  But what stopped that from working?  Why wasn‘t the Vietnamese War eventually won by ARVN, by the South Vietnamese armor? 

MCCAFFREY:  Chris, let me offer a viewpoint.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  All right, General McCaffrey, go ahead. 

MCCAFFREY:  Yes.  History has probably underweighted the effect of Congress turned off the money for the Vietnamese, for their military forces, the ammunition.  The POL was going to stop.  The day Congress took that action was the day we lost the war. 

Now, it might still have not come out right.  But what I would suggest to you is that the political will of the American people, particularly in the U.S. Congress, to what extent do they believe they‘ll fund $5 billion a month for the military effort, $20 billion a year for reconstruction, the day they decide they won‘t do it, that‘s the day we lost the war. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Well, now we have a political situation. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Just a minute.  But there‘s a difference.  Then, if that‘s the decisive question in our willingness to stick with this fight, to turn over to Iraqis their own country with a military force capable of defending that government and that country, it seems to me the president has an advantage.  He has a Congress in his political hands.  The United States Congress is Republican.  The president is Republican, houses, with comfortable majorities now. 

Should that lead us, General Downing, to believe that this scenario is different than the Vietnam one? 

DOWNING:  Possibly, Chris.  Barry is exactly right about what the congressional—lack of congressional support did to the Vietnamese.

But the other thing that‘s very critical and it‘s all about this electric is the government, the South Vietnamese government could never win the allegiance of the people.  Why?  Because it was basically transplanted Northerners that had been brought down after the partition in 1954, and put in there, and they could never—and primarily Catholic, and had a very, very difficult time winning the allegiance of this Buddhist south. 

Now, we have got it turned over now in the situation in Iraq, because you‘re going to end up with a government that is going to be very, very heavy supported by the Shias and the Kurds.  We know that.  And, of course, hopefully, after this election, and very critical, this is not the government that is going to rule these people forever.  This is a government that is going to write a constitution and have other election, seat another government in a year. 

This is very criminal.  And, hopefully, this is going to get Sunnis after this is over to participate, because they know, if they don‘t, then they are not going to have a stake in what goes on in this country. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Let‘s come back in a moment with General Wayne Downing, General Barry McCaffrey, General Montgomery Meigs. 

By the way, General Meigs made that point earlier about the fact that failure of the Vietnam campaign was the failure of Congress to support it in the end.  And David Shuster, he‘ll also be joining us when we come back.

And this Sunday on “Meet the Press,” Tim Russert has the first television interview with Senator John Kerry since Senator Kerry lost the presidential election.  He‘ll talk about Iraq, Social Security, the future of the Democratic Party and his own political future.  That‘s Sunday on Meet the Press.”  Check your local listings. 

And Tim Russert will join us here a little later on in the program, in fact right here in a moment, on HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back with the HARDBALL war council, General Wayne Downing in Baghdad, General Barry McCaffrey and General Montgomery Meigs, and HARDBALL correspondent David Shuster, who is also with us from Baghdad. 

David, if you can—you‘ve only been on the ground there for less than a week.  But give me the sense you‘re getting from the military there on the ground as to the threat that the people loyal to us and our own military are facing during these elections and immediately thereafter. 

SHUSTER:  Well, Chris, the problem is that not only—it‘s not that the Iraqi security forces aren‘t getting better fast enough.  The problem is that they may be being outstripped right now as far as the pace from the insurgents. 

The insurgents are getting a lot of help from throughout the region.  There was a claim just in the last couple days that the insurgents have 400 suicide bombers in place for Sunday.  And there‘s a sense that perhaps the that insurgents, who were the ones who were wearing the black ski masks a couple of months ago, now it is reversed.  Now they‘re ones who are not wearing the ski masks and it is the Iraqi police and the Iraqi security forces who are having to hide their identity—Chris. . 

MATTHEWS:  General Downing, your sense there—you‘re on the ground -

·         as to the outside influence there in the fighting. 

DOWNING:  Well, Chris, I think what we have to do is keep the pressure up on these people who are coming in from the outside, continue to seal those borders. 

The military has an excellent plan.  They have got good reserves.  What they‘re doing is, they‘re taking the fight to them.  They‘re being offensive.  Their trying to do that, use the Iraqis to protect close in.  And I think this is going to work.  And we‘ve got to remember, Baghdad is not the entire country.  And neighborhoods of Baghdad are not the entire country. 

It is not as bad, I think, as what we are portraying it here tonight. 

MATTHEWS:  General McCaffrey, who has got the advantage in this fight as you see it now, the people putting these elections together and hoping on a—hoping for a legitimate government or those trying to bring it down already? 

MCCAFFREY:  Oh, the people putting the election together. 

Basically, the U.S. armed forces, the coalition cannot be taken down.  They will stand up to it.  This is going to be a bloody 48, 72 hours.  The elections will take place.  They have very few options in the insurgency. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, General Meigs? 

MEIGS:  Barry is right.  Tactically, locally, they have the advantage. 

They can sneak in if the Iraqi police and security forces are not watching. 

Strategically...

MATTHEWS:  Unless they keep all the cities from voting, right? 

MEIGS:  That‘s right.  But they probably won‘t do that. 

And, strategically, we still have the advantage if we hang tough. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, thank you very much, gentlemen.  It‘s great having a war council of your dimension, pedigree and greatness.  I‘m just kidding.  It really is.

Anyway, Wayne Downing, General, thank you very much.  General Barry McCaffrey again.  General Montgomery Meigs.  General—and civilian David Shuster.  Thank you very much, David, for that report.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Good luck over there, buddy.  I‘m rooting for you.  I‘m even praying for you at times.

SHUSTER:  Thanks, Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  Good luck over there. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Senator John Kerry will be—will do his first interview since the election on “Meet the Press” this Sunday.  Tim Russert joins me with a preview of the big interview, the first back from the action with John Kerry.  That‘s coming up next on HARDBALL.

And on Sunday, join us for a HARDBALL special two-hour coverage of the Iraqi election, beginning at 6:00 p.m. Eastern here on HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  This half-hour on HARDBALL, Tim Russert joins us for a preview of his interview with John Kerry, Kerry‘s first since he lost the election.  Plus, the latest from Baghdad and NBC‘s Campbell Brown, as Iraqis get ready to vote.  But, first, let‘s check in with the MSNBC News Desk.

(NEWS BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Tim Russert is the Washington bureau chief for NBC News and also, as everyone knows, moderator of “Meet the Press.” 

On Sunday, Tim interviews Senator John Kerry for the entire hour in Kerry‘s first television interview since losing the presidential election in November. 

Tim, let‘s talk about Kerry a minute.  I want your view, the big picture on this election in Iraq this weekend.  What are the historic stakes here? 

TIM RUSSERT, NBC WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF:  Well, they‘re huge, Chris, for the Iraqi people, for George W. Bush and for the American people. 

Our entire exit strategy in Iraq is to have a government in Iraq that can produce an armed forces and security force that will allow the American military to leave.  Unless there is an election Sunday that is perceived as legitimate by the Iraqi people and by the world community, you will not have a government that can produce that kind of security force. 

MATTHEWS:  Do we have any history or any way of knowing how willing to fight the winning government will be, the Shia? 

RUSSERT:  Boy, that‘s a great question.  And that will solve, answer all of our anxieties, if we can find the correct answer to it. 

It has been very spotty and mixed thus far, one in training Iraqis, and, two, in their performance on the field.  Some have been heroic.  Many have cut and run.  We do not know if the vast majority of Iraqis are willing to spill their blood and die for their new government.  And until we know that, we will not know how long our troops will be in Iraq. 

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s take a look at the most recent NBC/”Wall Street Journal” poll on this very question of American opinion; 50 percent of Americans, just an even half, believe that Sunday‘s election results in Iraq will not be legitimate due to the fact of the increase in violence that‘s already going on and the boycott of the election, which everyone is expecting, by the Sunni population. 

Is that to be expected, about 50 percent not optimistic?  And you could argue, also optimistic, 39 percent. 

RUSSERT:  Yes.  About 52 percent don‘t think the war is worthwhile.  Sunday‘s results will tell us an awful lot.  Do the Shia show up in the south?  Do the Kurds show up in the north?  What about in the Sunni Triangle? 

And if there are big numbers turning out in the north and south, will they put together a government that will be representative of the whole country, reach out to the Sunnis, even though they didn‘t vote in the same kind of numbers?  That‘s what the world will be watching, and, frankly, Chris, George W. Bush will be watching so carefully, because he has bet his presidency on the war in Iraq. 

The other day, I saw an Associated Press story.  And it was a senior White House aide.  Normally, it says Bush adviser or family friend.  This was a senior White House aide.  And it said, we have to get Iraq right.  And we have to get it right quickly or everything else we do is futile.  They realize that Iraq is a cloud over the second term.  And their ability to deal on Social Security, on tax cuts, a whole variety of things, can be affected by an unpopular war. 

MATTHEWS:  Two words that scare the hell out of most people, civil war.  Tim, is there any way to gauge now the prospect that the people who lose this election, the 15 percent or so of that country in Iraq who are Sunni in their religious dispensation, are they willing to go along and say, all right, we lost; we‘re going to still live in this country?  Or is there an outside or even immediate prospect they will say, we are going to war with this new government? 

RUSSERT:  Brent Scowcroft, former national security adviser to Bush 41, the current president‘s dad, believes the possibility of a civil war very, very strong. 

And the question, how large is this insurgency, Chris, and how large can it get?  When the national security adviser of Iraq says that it is 200,000 people, how do you have an insurgency that can exist without the support of a significant amount of the populace?  That‘s the unanswered question.  Will people abide by this election or will they take to arms? 

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s talk about American politics in this context, Tim.  Let me show the latest poll.  This is another poll that‘s relevant here, NBC/”Wall Street Journal” poll just done; 45 percent of the American people believe that Iraq will not be able to establish and maintain a stable democratic government; 38 percent disagree.

I guess that‘s speculative.  But what do you think it tells you about American politics and our prospects for winning the war over there? 

RUSSERT:  I think Americans have always been reluctant about nation building.  If they go to war, they like to go to war, win and get out. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

RUSSERT:  But the question is, would people have been voting in Iraq two years ago in a free election?  The answer is no.  That‘s a positive step. 

The key to it is, what kind of government will evolve from this Election Day?  And can they build a security force?  That is what it is all about; 150,000 American troops can protect the Iraqis for only so long.  They have to be willing to do it themselves.  We cannot do it for them. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  That‘s Iraq. 

Let‘s talk about the wider question of U.S. ambitions in the Middle East.  The president gave a very dramatic inaugural address, as you know.  I don‘t know your reading on it, so I‘m going to ask you.  A lot of people read that as perhaps a bold statement of tremendous ambition, that we‘re going to try to turn the Middle East to a democracy in our own—as a matter of necessity. 

Most recently, the president held a press conference and he very carefully seemed to dial back say, no, it is going to take a long time to democratize that region.  And, no, we don‘t absolutely have to have that place democratic for us to stay free. 

What turned the president to—made him begin to modify his own rather bold statement? 

RUSSERT:  It actually happened almost immediately.  The day after the inaugural, his staff was saying, don‘t read too much into this speech.  It is the Bush doctrine, sure, liberty and freedom for all.  But it is the application that will have to be discussed and debated.  And don‘t think that the Iraq model is one we‘re going to apply to Iran or North Korea or anywhere else. 

And then, over the weekend, Chris, the president‘s dad happened to be giving a tour to one of the owners of the Boston Red Sox, a tour of the White House.  He popped up to the podium in the briefing room and said, hey,  don‘t read too much into this inaugural address.  And then the president‘s news conference himself. 

So, clearly, a very calculated attempt by the Bush administration to lower expectations that there is going to be any attempt of a global war to bring about an armed conflict. 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

RUSSERT:  To bring out liberty and freedom.  The president is saying, it can be done in nonmilitary ways. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Two-minute drill, Mr. Russert.  We have got you here. 

It is a Friday. 

If it is Sunday, it is “Meet the Press,” of course.  And you have got John Kerry, about the best get in the business these days.  He‘s been out of business.  He‘s been off stage, saying nothing.  How do you read that reticence on his part not to come out until now? 

RUSSERT:  Well, I think it is quite striking. 

I think he‘s trying to organize his thoughts.  He wants to know what demeanor should he display to the American people in terms of having lost the election and his own future.  I think his vote against Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state is indicative of his interest in protecting his options to run again in 2008. 

He‘s been sending e-mails to his list of donors, some 2.7 million.  Clearly, John Kerry is thinking, thinking about another run.  It‘s a long way away.  But you have to lay the predicate down now. 

MATTHEWS:  So he has to secure the base?  He has to avoid what Al Gore did last time?

RUSSERT:  Yes.  Al Gore pretty much went off and wandered for a while to try to... 

MATTHEWS:  He grew a beard, in fact. 

RUSSERT:  Figure out who he was and what he wanted to do. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

RUSSERT:  I think John Kerry realizes that John Edwards, Hillary Clinton, a lot of other Democrats are thinking about running in 2008.  It will be the first presidential election in more than 50 years, Chris, where there will not be an incumbent president or vice president seeking one of the party‘s nominations. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you expect that he‘ll give you a clear or sort of Shermanesque statement on Sunday or he‘ll come out somewhere in the middle between running and not running? 

RUSSERT:  I think my sense is, he‘ll probably say it‘s too early for that kind of thinking. 

But I think his answers to the questions, the way he conducts himself, will be very indicative of what he is thinking.  The debate that the campaign had against George W. Bush within the Kerry campaign, how should he respond to the Swift Boat Veterans ads, how should he come out against the war in Iraq, I‘m very, very curious as to how refined John Kerry has gotten his answers on a whole variety of subjects. 

He knows that he was accused of flip-flopping and vacillating or being too reflective and too cerebral.  I think Sunday will be a very interesting spotlight to just who is John Kerry right now and how is going to he present himself to the American people?

MATTHEWS:  OK, Sunday morning, “Meet the Press,” Tim Russert and John Kerry, the whole hour.  And, once again, Tim‘s guest this week, John Kerry of Massachusetts. 

It‘s Kerry‘s—by the way, to remind you, the first TV appearance since the election. 

And when we come back, NBC‘s Campbell Brown joins us from Baghdad, along with Elisabeth Bumiller of “The New York Times.”

And don‘t forget to check out Hardblogger, our political blog Web site.  Just go to HARDBALL.MSNBC.com.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Coming up, to Baghdad and NBC‘s Campbell Brown, as Iraqis get ready to vote for the future of their country.

HARDBALL returns after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

Elisabeth Bumiller is the White House correspondent for “The New York Times” and sat down with President Bush in the Oval Office just yesterday for an exclusive interview.  And Campbell Brown, co-host of MSNBC‘s “Weekend Today” show, is in Baghdad. 

Let‘s to go Baghdad and to Campbell Brown. 

What does it smell like over there?  Do you sense fireworks? 

CAMPBELL BROWN, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  You do, Chris. 

We‘re in the Green Zone.  We‘re reporting from the Green Zone.  And I think, here, you feel a little bit cut off from what‘s happening out on the street, because it is so fortified here.  You don‘t get that sense of danger.  But I have been out on patrol the last couple of days with the 1st Cavalry.  And on the street, you get the sense that something big is about to happen, something big and fairly ugly. 

People are lined up in their cars.  Traffic is snarled in gas lines.  People are shopping, stocking up on supplies, planning not to leave their home, frankly, for the next couple of days.  And it is almost eerily calm, a sense that there may be spectacular violence.  We don‘t know if it going to happen, obviously.

David reported about it earlier, these reports of many suicide bombers, sleeper suicide bombers that could be women, perhaps, sort of the unexpected or car bombs sitting in garages waiting to be detonated.  And everybody has that sense.  It is sort of this hushed anxiety of waiting for something to happen. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me go back to Elisabeth Bumiller here. 

Is there kind of a bring-it-on challenge the president is bringing here to bear, saying to the Iraqi opposition out there, the terrorists, look, we‘re going to hold elections.  And once we hold these elections, the world is going to change over there, because then we‘ll have self-determination and you‘ll be on the wrong side of history. 

Does the White House have that sense that the stakes are that high? 

ELISABETH BUMILLER, “THE NEW YORK TIMES”:  The White House—well, the president certainly is saying this is a great moment in Iraqi history.  I think they‘re also a little—they‘re a little on edge.  I think they‘re hoping it goes well.  They‘re putting out a very positive message.  The president has been talking nonstop all week about how, look, it doesn‘t matter how many people turn out.  The fact that they‘re even voting is a success story here.  So they‘re engaging in the classic game of lowering expectations. 

MATTHEWS:  You reported on the front page today a news story—it was right on the right-hand column, the No. 1 column in the paper—that the president said, if they tell to us leave, we‘ll leave.  Was that the main thrust of what he said or was that part of what he said?  Did he also—does he lean more on the argument that they would never ask us to leave?

BUMILLER:  Right.  We led with the fact that, if they ask us to leave, we‘ll leave. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, that‘s the news.  That‘s the news.

BUMILLER:  That‘s the news.             

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  But that wasn‘t the push from him. 

BUMILLER:  No, no.  We asked him about that. 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

BUMILLER:  But the administration has said that before.  It‘s just the president has not said it before. 

But he said first, of course, look, we don‘t think they‘re going to ask us to leave, because I‘ve been in touch with the people we think are going to end up victorious in this election, which is interesting in itself, that he‘s been talking to them.  And what we hear from them is they want us to hang around for a while until they get things under control themselves. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me go to Campbell Brown on that very tricky question.

Is this a chicken-and-the-egg kind of thing, where they‘ll never ask us to leave because the people we‘re pushing are not the kind of people that would ask us to leave? 

BROWN:  Well, you don‘t get the sense here at all that, regardless of who the new government ends up being, that they would, that they‘re in any position, frankly, given the state of the Iraqi forces, to maintain control if U.S. forces do leave. 

And you hear a lot of scenarios being presented.  For example, if the document Shia list, the United Iraqi Alliance, were to win, that they might put forth a candidate like Iyad Allawi, who is the current prime minister, to be a sort of sacrificial lamb over the next year.  There‘s no sense here at all that this election is going to bring any calm.  And this is still a temporary government that they‘re voting on. 

The permanent government would not hold its election for another year.  So it‘s sort of let someone else take the heat for what is going to continue to happen, the continued violence over the course of the next year until a permanent government is elected.  And I would be hugely surprised, whoever the permanent government is, if they were to ask U.S. forces to go. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me go to Elisabeth, Elisabeth Bumiller of “The New York Times.”

I guess there‘s two questions I‘m going to ask you and they‘re both rough.  You may not have an answer to either one.  Is it likely we‘re going to see a massive, Tet-style, like we had in Vietnam, explosive of opposition over the next 24 hours?  They‘re really going to throw out everything they have had at these elections to try to bring them down?

BUMILLER:  Chris, I have absolutely no idea. 

I‘m sitting here in Washington.  The White House doesn‘t think so. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, second question.  That‘s what you have to use as your listening post. 

And what is the opposition in Iraq going to do when they do lose the elections?  I‘ve said this before on this program.  The 15 percent of the country which are Sunni, who basically were the population support group of the previous administration, of the terror regime of Saddam Hussein, are like the whites in South Africa.  They‘re outnumbered four or five to one in this case.  They‘re going to lose the election.  Will they secede afterwards?  Will they continue to cause trouble?  What will be their mission then?

BUMILLER:  Well, there has been talk that there will be places for them in a new government.

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

BUMILLER:  That there has been talk that they will be given some places.  I imagine there will be some negotiating going on.  I think that‘s what will happen, quietly. 

MATTHEWS:  But it‘s the short end of the stick. 

BUMILLER:  Yes, of course. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.

Let me go to Campbell on the ground.  Phase one.  Do you think there is going to be big trouble over there this weekend?  And, two, what will the opposition do when they do lose the election? 

BROWN:  Well, let‘s start with phase one. 

And I think what you have to watch for is sort of the unexpected, as we talked about earlier.  You hear a lot about how things are dangerous in Baghdad and Mosul and the Anbar Province, but everything is going to be fine in the north and in the south, where the Shia are voting and where there‘s been a lot of calm. 

But if that‘s what Zarqawi‘s intent is, is to provoke a civil war between the Sunni and Shia, then what would make more sense than to have the attacks actually be there, where the Shia are expected to turn out in great numbers, as opposed to Baghdad or other places where we‘re expecting it?

MATTHEWS:  Campbell Brown...

BROWN:  And that could set off this next wave of violence. 

MATTHEWS:  Campbell, I‘ll see you on Sunday. 

Campbell Brown in Baghdad and Elisabeth Bumiller, thanks for joining us. 

When we come back, we‘ll be joined by an Iraqi government official to talk about what could happen after Sunday‘s election.

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  This weekend‘s election in Iraq presents both a liberating and a frightening opportunity for Iraqis who go to the polls.  Terrorists have threatened those who vote with death. 

Ambassador Feisal Al-Istrabadi is deputy permanent representative of Iraq to the United Nations.

And I want to ask you, sir, the way we look at the election over here

·         and I want you to correct me, because this is sort of the cartoon notion we have in this country, real simple.  The majority of people who live in Iraq are Shia.  That‘s their dispensation.  That‘s their sectarian identity.  It‘s about 60 percent of the population.  There‘s about 15 percent of the country who are Sunnis.  And that‘s the population from which the former government drew its power.  The Sunnis were the community that supported Saddam Hussein. 

The Kurds are a third group, are not Arabs, but they‘re up in the north.  They‘re separate.  And they‘re generally supportive of change and they would be happy with a new government.  What do you think will happen with the Sunnis, assuming they lose this election because of their numbers? 

FEISAL AL-ISTRABADI, IRAQI DEPUTY PERMANENT REPRESENTATIVE TO UNITED

NATIONS:  Well, I‘ve never accepted an analysis of the situation in Iraq which says Iraq is composed of three groups.  Iraq is far more complex than that. 

There‘s a very high degree of intermarriage in Iraq.  There‘s a very high degree of amity between the different groups.  Amongst the Kurds, there are Sunnis and Shias.  Amongst the Sunnis and Shias, there are religious Sunnis and Shias.  There are secular Sunnis and Shias.  And the situation is far more complex than that.

Now, it happens that, in the same sense as one might say that Adolf Hitler was a Catholic, if those thoughts can be held together. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, he was—first of all, he wasn‘t a Catholic. 

AL-ISTRABADI:  Whatever.  Or a Christian.  OK.

MATTHEWS:  He wasn‘t a Christian either. 

AL-ISTRABADI:  That‘s precisely my point.  So, why do we say that Saddam Hussein was a Sunni?  He wasn‘t a Sunni either.  He is not a Muslim.  No Muslim could have done the things that he has done. 

Now, he comes from a particular geographic area of Iraq.

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

AL-ISTRABADI:  Which happens, incidentally, to be populated by a particular population. 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

AL-ISTRABADI:  His friends and family did well. 

And in the—that is not to say that he enjoyed support amongst the Sunnis.  The Sunnis were as oppressed as anyone else in Iraq.  And there were Kurds and Shias who were high-ranking member of the Baath Party organization. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Who is killing our soldiers in Iraq right now?  Isn‘t it true that they are the Sunnis who are killing our soldiers? 

AL-ISTRABADI:  Well, there are foreigners in Iraq who are doing a lot of the killing.  They tend to be Sunnis, and Wahabis in fact.  There are remnants of the previous regime who want to regain power. 

MATTHEWS:  Who are Sunnis. 

AL-ISTRABADI:  Who could be of any sect.  We have no idea what sect or nationality they are.

MATTHEWS:  OK, let me ask you this.  If the numbers, the demographics hold, like they usually do in elections in this country, if the majority of Shia win the election, they win the presidency, will the—what will the Sunnis likely do?  What will be their response, especially those who don‘t vote, who choose not to vote? 

AL-ISTRABADI:  Well, those who choose not to vote have dealt themselves out of the process. 

The problem is those who want to vote but can‘t vote.  And that‘s true of all Iraqis, in Baghdad, for instance, and in other places.  What I think you‘re looking at is, and even the Sunnis, the Shias, the Kurds, it‘s too diverse a group to make generalizations about any of the Iraq‘s groups.

What you‘re going to find I think is, there is a desire amongst all of

Iraq‘s group for genuine democracy, genuine pluralism, a genuinely place to

live.  There—in the best scenario, there will be a lot of—there will

be cooperation.  There are already discussions under way.  Everyone

understands that this will be a flawed election and that what is important

·         remember, this transitional government that is being elected is going to be in power for 11 months. 

What is far more important than who the next president of Iraq is going to be or who the next prime minister is going to be is, will there be broad buy-in by the broad mass of Iraqis into the constitutional drafting process?  And there are ways of adjusting that, notwithstanding that it will be a flawed election, particularly in central Iraq. 

MATTHEWS:  Is that likely? 

AL-ISTRABADI:  I think so. 

Everyone in Iraq, including those who may or may not—we have yet to see—but who may get a majority in the next government, well, obviously, in the nature of things, people get a majority in government, they would like to keep a majority, not lose a majority. 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

AL-ISTRABADI:  And they want greater stability, not less stability.  And the way to get that stability is by reaching out to all of Iraq‘s groups...

MATTHEWS:  OK. 

AL-ISTRABADI:  ... in the constitutional drafting process. 

MATTHEWS:  Mr. Ambassador, thank you for joining us.  Good luck in the elections.

AL-ISTRABADI:  Thank you very much.

MATTHEWS:  I hope everything you say is true. 

AL-ISTRABADI:  Thank you.  I‘ll be voting tomorrow.  Thank you. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  It would be good for everybody if Iraq becomes a working democracy.  Thank you for joining us.

On Saturday, join me for a special encore presentation of HARDBALL Heroes Tour—and I mean it—with the brave men and women of Camp Pendleton.  What a week it was out there.  I‘ll be joined by special guests Maria Shriver and Ed McMahon, as we pay tribute to the Marines.  And they deserve it.

Then, on Sunday, HARDBALL‘s special coverage of the Iraqi elections begins at 6:00 p.m. Eastern.  I‘ll be joined by “NBC Nightly” anchor Brian Williams from Baghdad.

Right now, it‘s time for the “COUNTDOWN” with Keith.

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

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