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Was tension in Iraq understimated by Bush?

Has the Bush administration underestimated Shiite-Sunni antagonism?  For a firsthand view of what is going on, Chris Matthews speaks with Robert Ford, the Counselor for Political Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
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As tension mounts between the Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq, many are calling into question the Bush administration and its role in Iraq affairs.

Robert Ford, a counselor for political affairs at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad joined Chris Matthews on ‘Hardball’ to determine if President Bush underestimated the violent tensions that may lead to a civil war in Iraq.

To read an excerpt from their conversation, continue to the text below. To watch the video, click on the "Launch" button to the right.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST, ‘HARDBALL’:  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. 

Watch each night at 5 and 7 p.m. ET on MSNBC.