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Rice: ‘This has to be an Iraqi government’

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice talks to NBC's Brian Williams about the path to democracy in Iraq and her recent visit to the country. This is a complete transcript of their conversation.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice just returned from an unannounced trip to Iraq, where she, along with British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, delivered some tough talk to Iraqi leaders — aimed at setting up a permanent government. Brian Williams interviewed her via satellite. This is a complete transcript of their conversation.

Brian Williams: First of all, Madam Secretary, you and I were talking just moments ago before we started rolling tape — you are to be commended for taking one of the most harrowing rides on the planet Earth. I'm talking about the airport road in Baghdad. It's something all visitors to Baghdad must do if they don't have air transportation, which was not of course an option to you in the pouring rain. I know you got an idea of just how scary a visit to that place can be.

Condoleezza Rice: The road has been better defended, in fact, since the Iraqis have been defending it, which is an interesting point, and indeed we did run into an Iraqi checkpoint, so it shows that they're taking the security seriously. But yes, there's a significant security problem in and around Baghdad, and I think everyone understands that. That stands in considerable contrast to the political process that is going on there, in which people are taking their own political futures into their hands. And so, yes, you have this contrast. You have this security situation, which Iraqis are beginning to take under their own control. And then, of course, the political process, which is moving forward.

Williams: Madam Secretary, a quote here from The Washington Post, the 6th of April 2006: "Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said he did not know what Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was talking about when she said last week that the U.S. had made thousands of tactical errors in handling the war in Iraq, a statement she later said was meant figuratively. How are things between you and the secretary of defense?

Rice: Couldn't be better. I think what the secretary said was that he hadn't seen what I said. And we were just together at a series of meetings, but the statement was indeed a figurative comment. I guess I shouldn't use figurative speech. But the point that I was making to this audience is that is it is always hard in great historical events to judge at the moment what might be a mistake and what might not be a mistake. Have mistakes been made? I'm certain that they have, but very often in history, things that looked brilliant at the time turned out to have been mistakes, and things that looked like mistakes, turned out to have been brilliant.

The point that I really would like to underscore is that it was not a mistake to overthrow Saddam Hussein. It was not a mistake to open up the possibilities of a different kind of Middle East and to give the Iraqi people a chance to build a different and democratic future, and then to be a part of a different kind of Middle East.

Williams: To your visit to Iraq, Madam Secretary. How much say does the U.S., should the U.S., have there? Specifically about the governing body, given our investment, our sacrifice in Iraq in lives and dollars.

Rice: Well, we certainly had sacrificed, treasure and lives and, of course, we have supported financially the Iraqi reconstruction. But it has to be for the Iraqis to decide who is going to lead them. It's going to have to be for the Iraqis to decide who is going to be their prime minister. I do think the United States, the American people, the coalition partners, have a right to expect that there will be a government and that there will be a government soon. And the purpose of my trip was to go and urge the rapid formation of a government because we don't want to leave a political vacuum there.

And Brian, it's not just the American people and coalition that are asking for that government. I was really struck by the degree to which the Iraqi people are demanding that the negotiations and in that a government be formed. They risked a great deal in going out and voting in huge numbers against terrorist threats. And now they expect a government to be formed. And in their newly free press, I'm told, I couldn't read the press, but I'm told that there were cartoons saying that the politicians need to get busy and form a government. So the impatience is there on the part of the Iraqi people, because they need a government that can represent their interests and help them deal with the many challenges that they face. 

Williams: It was said openly that you were in Iraq to talk tough with the Iraqis. Do you think they feel prodded as a result of your visit? The New York Times story today quotes an aide to the man you met with saying, "Pressure from outside is not helping to speed up any solution."

Rice: I hope that they see it as the urging of a friend. Because, after all, the Iraqis have had no better friend in their march to democracy than the United States. But of course it's important to urge and to prod. They have to have a government, and they have to have a government soon, because there is a very long list of problems to deal with. The Iraqi people need help to stem what has been a rising tide of violence, sectarian violence, where only the formation of a police force that is responsive to the needs of the Iraqi people. That can only be done when there's a minister of interior who will help to bring about a police force that is going to unite the country. So they need a government that can deal with their many problems. And that's the only thing that I went there to say and that (British Foreign) Secretary (Jack) Straw went there to say.

Williams: And if the next step they take is somehow objectionable to you, to your counterpart in the U.K., do you, do we have veto power?

Rice: We are not even thinking about veto power. Brian, I don't think it's the right way to think about this. We have given the Iraqi people, through the liberation of that country from Saddam Hussein, an opportunity to exercise their democratic rights. They've exercised those democratic rights three times in elections that by all accounts were extraordinary in this part of the world. In the last election, they elected a government, and they elected representatives who now have to form a government. They have to decide who is going to be in that government. This has to be an Iraqi government, but the international community does have a right to say, you choose the prime minister, but there must be a prime minister, and there must be one soon.

Williams: Is this all a part of that now well-worn expression, "You break it, you buy it"?

Rice: The Iraqis are building a new future. What we've done is to give them an opportunity to build that new future. And, Brian, I know that on our screens every night we see pictures of violence. I know every night we are given stories about the difficulties in Iraq, and it is a difficult situation. But nothing of this historical consequence has ever been born of anything but a struggle. The Iraqi people are struggling toward their new democracy, they're exercising their democratic rights.

Yes, there is really quite a daunting security situation. But their security forces are getting stronger. As a matter of fact, that checkpoint that we ran into was Iraqi, an Iraqi checkpoint. Iraqi army forces protecting Baghdad, and so I think we need to give them our confidence, recognizing that the road to democracy is hard. It was hard for our country, it's been hard for every country that's made that journey. But they are committed to democracy, they are committed to living together in a national unity government. And we should support and be confident in their ability to do it.

Williams: Has there ever been a single day in Iraq, say a daily death toll, an incident, a bombing, that has shaken you, your confidence in the mission or its ultimate end?

Rice: Well, certainly I have with the president and other members of the administration mourned every death. But we also know that nothing of value is ever won without sacrifice. And I am confident in the Iraqis’ ability to do this because I really do believe that in every human heart, there is a desire for freedom and liberty. The Iraqi people now have that chance.

And when you see what they have already achieved, when you watch that election with 11 million Iraqis going to vote, despite the terrorist threats against them, when you see that schoolchildren are now going to school in new schools that have been built for them by the coalition, or when you look at Iraqi political leaders, struggling toward their freedom, or members of the free Iraqi press asking very difficult questions of their government and also their foreign visitors like me or like Secretary Straw, you gain a confidence. It's one reason why I like to be in Iraq. Back here in Washington, it's sometimes hard to keep the pulse of a country that is going through such a struggle, but on the other hand, is still making progress. And when you're in Iraq, you feel it. You feel that these people are determined, they're tough and they're going to make it.

Williams: Madam Secretary, all of us who have flown into combat zones, yourself included, know we have to give up some luxuries, either en route or when we arrive. That in mind, is it true that you slept on the floor of the aircraft, giving the only bed to your counterpart from Great Britain, Jack Straw?

Rice: Well, it was what a good hostess should do, isn't that right? Yeah, I did. But I had very comfortable accommodations myself. I slept very well and got to Baghdad in good shape.

Williams: Is it also true he was horrified when he awoke and realized what the deal had been?

Rice: He was, and I didn't tell him, because I didn't want an argument over whether it was the right thing to do. But it was a great trip. Britain is a terrific friend, and Jack Straw is a great friend and a great counterpart in this because Great Britain has also sacrificed a lot. They remember that the United States came to their aid when their democracy was under threat, and they have now come to the aid of the Iraqi people. I can think of no better partner, and indeed Jack Straw.

Williams: Finally, Madam Secretary, I'll quote from the Associated Press just this afternoon. Vice President Dick Cheney's former top aide told prosecutors: "President Bush authorized the leak of sensitive intelligence information about Iraq." My question, I'd like to frame this way: For our viewers who will hear about this story tonight and will follow it in coming days and weeks, could this be true?

Rice: Well, this is an ongoing criminal investigation and criminal case, so I don't think it's appropriate that I comment about this. We've all cooperated with the investigator, and I'm certain that he'll establish the facts.

Williams: And one more to round up the subject of Iraq: Do you see the glass as half-full or half-empty these days? You've talked about the drumbeat before on this broadcast and others. While it is true we don't report successfully makes it from point A to point B in Baghdad, we report when it blows up en route. Do you still have the confidence you had the day the statue was toppled in the U.S. effort and the ultimate goal?

Rice: I have great confidence in the Iraqi people, and the ultimate goal of the establishment of a democracy in Iraq. It's going to take some time, and our job is to help to lay the fundamentals so that democracy can grow and proceed. But I have confidence because the Iraqi people have demonstrated time and time again that they are desirous of this, that's why they went to vote in large numbers, including almost 11 million strong, despite terrorists' threats, that if they voted, they would die. I have confidence because I have watched Iraqi leaders every time they've been confronted with a challenge that might tear them apart like the Samara bombing, that instead they've come together, and reaffirmed their wish and their desire to indeed have a government of national unity. And I'm confident because I know that in the hearts of every human being there beats a desire for the human dignity that comes with liberty, with democracy, with the ability to say what you think and worship as you please, if you need, and to educate your boys and your girls. And because I know that that is indeed a universal value, and I see the Iraqis responding to it, what is obviously a difficult struggle, in which violent people are trying to throw them off course, but it's a struggle that they seem to believe is worth it, and we should too.