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Iraqi election results vital to U.S. exit strategy

<em>NBC News’ Washington bureau chief and host of "Meet the Press" offers insight and analysis into politics past, present and future.</em></p>

MSNBC: Tim, the Iraqi government says it has arrested two close associates of terror mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. One of the people in custody is said to be the chief of al-Zarqawi’s Baghdad operation. Would it be nice if this announcement, just two days before the historic elections that al-Zarqawi has declared war on, gave more Iraqis confidence to vote on Sunday?

Tim Russert: It sure would. America’s entire exit strategy in Iraq is based upon a successful and legitimate election, where an Iraqi government could take hold and then create its own security and armed forces, so that Iraqis would be willing, frankly, to join the military and die for their new country. That’s the only thing that’s going to allow Americans to leave.

MSNBC: Thursday, only a few days before the election in Iraq, Senator Ted Kennedy, D-MA, cranked up the volume of his opposition to the war in Iraq, declaring, when the elections end, the U.S. ought to start the process toward removing American troops.  Is there momentum for that on Capitol Hill?

Russert: I listened very carefully to that and what I heard from many of the senators was, yes, we should have an exit strategy, but we can not begin it until there are Iraqi soldiers who can take our place. To withdraw and leave the country open as a haven to terror or whatever would be unacceptable. That is their position.

I have little doubt there is a lot of anxiety among Democrats and Republicans on the hill as to what will happen and how long American troops will be there. But everything rests on this Sunday – a successful election – as the first step.

A year from now, perhaps, a lot of other people might share Senator Kennedy’s sentiments, but I do not see a lot of bipartisan support for an immediate withdrawal.

MSNBC: The longer the American troops stay; won’t it be harder to get them out?

Russert: No doubt about it. We have seen occupations that have lasted years and years and years. The key is for the Iraqis to have an armed forces that is capable of defending their country. Unless and until that happens, Americans are there.

MSNBC: Afghanistan is something of a success story. Is there a possibility the problems of Iraq are overblown and there is enough spirit toward democracy in Iraq that might gain some momentum as a result of Sunday’s elections and we could see more rapid progress than anyone expected?

Russert: I think we’ll know the answer to that question, in part, on Sunday. Who turns out… How many people turn out… from what part of the country. And, if there are big turnouts in the Shiaa sections in the south and the Kurdish sections in the north, will they then be magnanimous and try to include the Sunnis, who don’t turn out in such numbers, in the actual government.

Afghanistan does have a popularly elected president. He’s more like the mayor of Kabul then the president of the country, because warlords still run much of the country. But it is a vast improvement from the days when the Taliban ran the country and coddled al Qaida.

MSNBC: The Bush administration must see this as a pretty important mile marker in America’s eventual withdrawal. Is there anyway the results of this election could slow down the timetable?

Russert: Yes. If there’s a small turnout. If it’s not viewed as legitimate by the Iraqis or by the world. If it cripples the Iraqi’s ability to put together a real government. Because, unless and until they have a real government, they can not develop an armed forces and security forces which are adequate to protect the country and to replace the Americans that are defending them. Until Iraqis are willing to shed their own blood for their own country, America’s stuck.

MSNBC: Meet the Press will be on the air Sunday as the election is underway. Who will your guests be?

Russert: We’ll have NBC News anchorman Brian Williams live from Baghdad.

And then we have an exclusive interview – the first interview with Sen. John Kerry, D-MA, since the election. We haven’t heard much from him.

Sen. Kerry is going to sit down and talk about what he would do about Iraq and Social Security and also tell us how he’s coping with having lost the presidential race to George W. Bush last November 2nd.