Guests: Dilshad Qadir, Rod Nordland, Robin Wright
KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST (voice-over): Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow? Millions vote, dozens, only dozens, are killed. Iraq‘s elections, turnout better than 50 percent, maybe as much as 60 percent. Among expatriate Iraqis, turnout around the world, nine out of 10.
And a comparatively quiet day for U.S. troops in the embattled country. Has the insurgency been wounded or was today just the result of banning private automobiles? Can you perform that trick more than once?
The entire vote, was it hyped? Was it, as the president said, a great and historic achievement? Or do we seem to hear about great and historic achievements in Iraq every few months?
The purple badge of courage. There is one small frightening question about the stamp that showed that you voted, the indelible ink on your index finger. We will ask that question.
All that and more now on COUNTDOWN.
OLBERMANN: Good evening.
Their short-term and long-term importance will be impossible to judge for days and decades. But after Iraq‘s first free elections in half a century, this much is clear. The voting there has drawn a huge turnout of American reporters.
Our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN, the balloting in Iraq. There are at least two perspectives, that this was a historic day, comparable, in some way, to the fall of the Berlin Wall, or that this is one of many markers, probably not even a halfway marker, on a road at whose end there may or may not be democracy.
The facts first, millions of voters defying violence and calls for a boycott to cast their ballots today. Even in Baghdad, there were long lines of voters, mostly in Shiite neighborhoods, at least one Baghdad polling center running out of ballots, according to U.S. officials. No Ohio jokes, please. Security at all locations tight. Insurgents determined to disrupt the balloting succeeding in many cases, all but one of the suicide attacks reported thus far coming in Baghdad, bombers strapped with explosives entering polling places on foot, since private cars have been banned from the streets of the capital city.
At least 35 people killed in the various attacks, which makes the upbeat mood at many polling places all the more remarkable. One index finger of each voter soaked to the knuckle with purple bluish ink to prevent double voting, voters then waving those ink-stained fingers outside polling place, a badge of courage and pride, but with an obvious terrible side effect, perhaps, which we will discuss later in this news hour.
Here in the U.S., the American president also expressing satisfaction with today‘s vote.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Across Iraq today, men and women have taken rightful control of their country‘s destiny. And they have chosen a future of freedom and peace.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: Also of note today, up to 15 British troops killed when a transport plane crashed near Baghdad. No word yet on the cause of what could be British—Britain‘s biggest single loss of life in the Iraqi campaign thus far.
Our correspondent in Baghdad is David Shuster, where it‘s already the early hours of tomorrow morning.
David, I guess the first question about the whole day is an obvious one. Do we have any verifiable data on voter turnout?
DAVID SHUSTER, NBC CORRESPONDENT: Keith, no, we do not. It‘s simply anecdotal, the long lines and whatnot that people saw in some particular polling locations.
The problem is that the Iraqi Election Commission, which is part of the interim government, they have every incentive to inflate the numbers. Originally, they said today 72 percent. Then they said 60 percent. Then they said, well, we actually don‘t really know. One of the reasons they don‘t know is because many of these international election monitors who were supposed to come in the country, go to some of these polling sites and keep track, they decided not to go because of the threats and the violence over the last couple of days.
So, there is no real independent reporting or analysis about particular neighborhoods, particular cities and whether or not the turnout is as high as some people would like to believe.
OLBERMANN: Something else that I presume would be very hard to gauge, but I‘d be interested in your estimations of it anyway, and I haven‘t heard this addressed nearly all weekend, how informed was this electorate, given the risk that candidates were taking simply by running? Is it believed that voters succeeded in acting knowledgeably without, heavens, a full-fledged political campaign?
SHUSTER: Well, Keith, I suppose they did, but not in the traditional sense.
And that is, most of the voters today, it was very predictable based on where they lived, which tribes they belonged to, which particular parties they were then going to support. A lot of the people were simply showing up at the polls and saying I know that I want this particular logo or this particular number.
And, again, it had nothing to do with policies. Everybody, for the most part, agrees that they want the United States to get out of Iraq. Everyone wants the power and the water, the electricity, to have better services and that sort of thing. So, it‘s simply a matter of identification.
And, to that extent, there wasn‘t a lot of surprises, I suppose. If you talked people in particular neighborhoods, you could almost predict almost by the block which particular party they were going to support. So, in that extent, in that sense, I suppose there weren‘t a lot of surprises and they were informed as far as who they identified with. But as far as distinctions among policies, there were no policy discussions leading up before this campaign.
OLBERMANN: MSNBC‘s David Shuster doing great work from Baghdad these past few days—thanks, David. Get some rest.
SHUSTER: Thanks, Keith.
OLBERMANN: It is well documented that many Americans are less likely to vote when it‘s raining outside, while in Iraq today, millions went to the polls when it would not be overstating things to metaphorically say that there was a threat of it raining death.
That made for an uneasy day, to say the least, for the citizens of the nascent democracy, as well as for their protectors.
Our correspondent Campbell Brown has more from Baghdad on what the past 24 hours have been like for all of them.
CAMPBELL BROWN, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It‘s 7:00 a.m. in Baghdad. Curfew has ended, but there are few people on the streets. This is the most worrisome time of day for Captain Neil Mayo (ph) and his battalion.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If they plan to conduct any large-scale attacks, I think it will be this morning to discourage people from leaving their homes.
BROWN: In the meantime, Mayo and his guys are supposed to show restraint. They are handing off the role of primary protectors to the Iraqi forces. The front line is polling places today. This Iraqi captain is proud of his role, but many of his men are in black ski masks.
(on camera): A lot of these guys are so afraid of the insurgents, they don‘t want to show their faces. What does that tell you?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, it is a challenge for them and for their families. But we respect the fact that they are willing to be here and participate.
BROWN: We‘re at a polling station in the Karada district of Baghdad. It‘s 9:00 a.m. local time. This polling station has been open about two hours. There are some people here, but, overall, it‘s quiet. Election officials believe a lot of people are waiting to see what happens this morning before they turn out.
(voice-over): Those who do have to go through several security barriers and are thoroughly searched. Inside, there is some confusion. Several people tell us they‘re not being allowed to vote, being redirected to another location. But many more are casting ballots here and afterwards feeling secure enough to show off their inked finger to prove it.
While there are explosions in other parts of Baghdad, the quiet morning here is a small victory for these Iraqis.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): No one will stop us.
BROWN: And the American troops patrolling on the perimeter.
Campbell Brown, NBC News, Baghdad.
OLBERMANN: Given the dangers associated with casting a ballot in Iraq today, it‘s unlikely that any voters would have been willing to hang around polling centers to answer a few personal questions. As such, exit polling was all but impossible, making predictions about turnout and the ethnic background of voters just that, mere predictions.
The estimates varied widely today. As David Shuster mentioned, the Iraqi Election Commission originally putting turnout at 72 percent, later, that commission backtracking to 60 percent, David also mentioning that they have a vested interest in the number being as high as possible.
The spokesman for the commission admitting—quote—“The numbers are only guessing.” That said, the safer the province, the more people to cast ballots, long lines of voters in the relatively stable southern part of the country in places like Basra and Najaf, with overwhelmingly Shia populations, but turnout in many Sunni areas low, polling stations in the Sunni Triangle largely deserted, few voters lining up outside this polling center in Fallujah.
And, no, the limited exit polling does not show John Kerry leading Iyad Allawi.
Iraqi expatriates here in the U.S. also casting votes in this election, many of them having driven hundreds of miles in the past three days to reach one of just five polling places on American soil, Nashville, Detroit, Chicago, L.A., and a Maryland suburb of Washington.
Our correspondent Ron Blome has more on the turnout today in Detroit, which is home to the nation‘s largest Iraqi community—Ron.
RON BLOME, NBC CORRESPONDENT: Keith, for three days now, Iraqi Americans have been coming to this polling site in suburban Detroit to vote. The turnout has been low. This site is pretty remote from some of the Iraqi-American neighborhoods. That‘s one factor.
The other is, there just wasn‘t a lot of time to register for this.
But for those who did vote, the joy factor has been very high.
(voice-over): Here, at least, democracy is taking hold for these Iraqis, who took refuge in the land of democracy, only this act, this vote, is for those still in Iraq.
SYLVANNA MANZO, IRAQI-AMERICAN: Well, I voted on behalf of my cousins, my aunts, my uncles. And also, most importantly, I voted on behalf of the sacrifices that the American soldiers have made. That is my vote.
BLOME: Sylvanna Manzo was also thinking about her aunt, who lives next to a polling place in Baghdad, but isn‘t sure it‘s safe to vote. So Sylvanna and others made sure some voices would be heard as the ballots were cast.
BASHIR SHALLAL, IRAQI-AMERICAN: We give rivers of blood for this day, believe it or not. That‘s why you see the emotions over here. You saw the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) right? And this is a joyful (UNINTELLIGIBLE)
BLOME: In this corner of the world, the Iraqi election is already decided, decided to be a day that was a long time coming and worth a celebration.
(on camera): For all the celebrations, some voters acknowledge that this is only symbolic, but it is a first step, a step they could only dream about before—Keith.
OLBERMANN: Ron Blome in Detroit, great thanks.
It can be argued that this Iraqi election may have been more spun in this country than was even our own last November. Critics of the government have claimed it was oversold and far from representative. Supporters have said it was a milestone and a triumph just to pull the thing off.
To give the vote some early grades, I‘m joined by Robin Wright, senior diplomatic correspondent of “The Washington Post.”
Robin, as always, great thanks for your time tonight.
ROBIN WRIGHT, DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT, “THE WASHINGTON POST”: Nice to be with you, Keith.
OLBERMANN: Is there any way yet to assess what happened in Iraq today or is it all still spin?
WRIGHT: Well, it‘s not still spin. We have a lot of evidence of a strong turnout. Whether it‘s 50 percent or 60, even lower, it‘s a major accomplishment, given the violence in that country, given our own voting record.
But it has to be remembered that this is a final year of the Iraqi transition, and the election today was the easiest part of it, that what lies ahead is really extraordinary. And if—it‘s a very different issue to agree on a constitution than to turn out and vote.
OLBERMANN: Let‘s say that what we know of this day so far or we think we know turns out to be pretty much the way it actually was, that there are no overwhelming follow-up acts of terrorism during the week ahead, that the process moves on to the assembly meeting and writing a constitution.
In that situation, will this day have meant closer to what those people who say it‘s a parallel to the fall of the Berlin Wall believe or closer to what those people who say—say this was an intermediate step?
WRIGHT: It‘s a strong intermediate step, not quite the fall of the Berlin Wall. Remember, Iraq will have an election at the end of the year for a permanent government after the constitution is written. And that really will be the kind of inspiration that may ignite interest, passion, democratic aspirations in other parts of the region.
OLBERMANN: The issue of violence, is this a closed book relative to the election? Or when the extraordinary measures like banning the driving of private automobiles comes off, is the expectation that the level of recriminatory violence from the terrorists might actually increase?
WRIGHT: The pattern has been recently an escalation. And that may continue. The administration acknowledged today that the insurgency is far from over.
But this does send a strong signal that Iraqis are interested in political expression and participation and does send a real jab at the extremists who have been trying to unravel the process.
OLBERMANN: In your own estimation, were you surprised that it was comparatively quiet—as quite a day as it turned out to have been?
WRIGHT: I think a lot of us who were—who have been following Iraq for a long time were afraid that this morning, we would wake up, as Campbell Brown mentioned, and we would see 25 or 40 or whatever suicide bombers try to hit the polling stations and discourage people from voting, and then you would have only a 10 percent or 15 or 20 percent turnout, which would not make this a legitimate or credible election.
That didn‘t happen. You did have large numbers. And the obvious joy among Iraqis really was tremendously important in judging the Iraqi mood today.
OLBERMANN: Robin Wright, the senior diplomatic correspondent of “The Washington Post,” as always, Robin, great thanks for your time.
WRIGHT: Thank you, Keith.
OLBERMANN: In a near total lockdown on travel and traffic across the country, the insurgents failing in their bid to—quote—“wash the streets with blood,” that‘s for certain. Now new concerns about what might happen once the lockdown is in history.
And the push for an exit plan. U.S. troops visible today protecting polling stations, but come those next Iraqi elections in December, will they still be on patrol there?
You‘re watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.
OLBERMANN: A suicide bomber who survived under interrogation giving insight to the insurgency in Iraq and telling police that they had arrested be Abu Musab Zarqawi and then let him go.
COUNTDOWN‘s coverage of the Iraqi elections continues in a moment.
OLBERMANN: It‘s hard to imagine a terrorist doing an American president a favor or an independent Iraq a favor either. Yet, there was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi saying exactly what the U.S. and the supporters would have scripted for him or written for an impersonator to read.
He not only threatened to wash the streets of Baghdad with the voters‘ blood. He also said democracy was an evil principle, not American-supported democracy, not George Bush-supported democracy, but democracy-democracy.
In our fourth story on the COUNTDOWN, Insurgents killed at least 35 would-be voters. And with due respect to each of those victims, that hardly qualifies as blood washing the streets, security an obvious components in this. Nine of today‘s attacks coming in the form of suicide bombers, but on foot, their bodies strapped with explosives because private cars had been banned from the streets.
Many blew themselves up while standing in polling lines. One killed five people in a bus that was carrying voters to a site south of Baghdad.
In a moment, I‘ll be joined by “Newsweek”‘s Baghdad bureau chief, Rod Nordland, who is in the capital tonight and wrote the magazine‘s cover story on the insurgency.
First, this. “Newsweek” has obtained an interrogation video of a suicide bomber who actually lived to tell his tale. al-Shayea‘s Ahmed Abdullah al-Shayea admits he came to Iraq to become a martyr for Iraq, but said he was tricked when the fuel truck he was driving was detonated by remote control. It killed 10 policemen. He somehow survived, went to the hospital. Presumably, he was an innocent bystander. Police were then tipped off to his identity and sent undercover agents to kidnap him.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): What were your instructions?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): They said go from here and go straight ahead, then right and left and then you will find the concrete blast barriers. Our friends will come to take it. And once I stopped, the truck blew up.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): What was the objective of the terrorists from what they told you?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): They said we were against Americans. We killed the Americans and the police and Iraqi National Guard and civil defense because they collaborate with the Americans.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: That went on for nearly five hours, the most startling revelation coming when he was asked about al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al-Shayea claiming the Iraqi police had actually arrested Zarqawi in Fallujah last October, but let him go, not realizing who he was.
The information al-Shayea gave intelligence officers also led to the roundup of several of Zarqawi‘s supposed key lieutenants, including one of his leading demolition men, who confessed to 32 car bombings over the last two years.
Joining me now from Baghdad, “Newsweek”‘s bureau chief there, Rod Nordland.
And great thanks again for your time tonight, sir.
ROD NORDLAND, BAGHDAD BUREAU CHIEF, “NEWSWEEK”: Sure.
OLBERMANN: And let me start with this.
To the degree that we have any clue about these things yet, if the election was a qualified success for the Americans and the Iraqis, what was the election for the insurgents?
NORDLAND: Well, if anything, the election was their biggest defeat yet.
It really punctured the myth that‘s very common among Iraqis that they‘re somehow invincible, that they can get away with attacks, that they can do pretty much what they want to on the streets of Baghdad. Well, they put enough troops and enough Iraqi police on the streets in Baghdad today that they created a secure environment. The day began with voters afraid to out, very few people going to the polls.
And after a few hours, they realized they could do it. And they went out and did it in very big numbers. And they did it despite these very serious death threats that are something they‘re going to have to worry about for the next several days.
OLBERMANN: Did anything in those comparatively low death tolls, the comparatively ineffective actions of the insurgents today suggest genuine inroads against the insurgency, or was it all because of those extraordinary security measures that you really can‘t repeat very often?
NORDLAND: Well, yes, I think it was mainly because of those.
I mean, nine suicide bombings in Baghdad is a record number. But they were all wearing vests, so they didn‘t cause as much damage as a big car bomb with maybe 1,000 pounds of explosives would do. But, nonetheless, the insurgents knew that was going to be the score. They had time to prepare for it. And everybody was expecting them to make a big bang, and they didn‘t succeed in doing it. And that‘s got to be a big defeat and a big victory for the Iraqis.
It will give them a lot of confidence. It will give their own forces a lot of confidence.
OLBERMANN: Does that redound to the benefit of the United States, that simple fact of confidence?
NORDLAND: I think it does.
You know, the end game is getting the Iraqi forces to the point where they can defend themselves, so that we can get out. And that‘s what the United States wants. And it‘s not going to happen until they can. And this is the first really big step forward in that direction. There‘s a lot to do yet. And the insurgency is hardly defeated. It‘s big. It‘s gotten a lot bigger over recent months. And they‘ve now kind of joined forces between these foreign terrorists and the old Baathist structures that Saddam left in place.
And they‘re still a potent force and very numerous. But they suffered a very major setback today.
OLBERMANN: Lastly, these anti-democratic sentiments by Zarqawi, is this the gist of the real deciding factor in what‘s going to happen in Iraq or even the Islamic world, whether Iraqis or Afghans or whoever will say, no, you‘re wrong; we can have our religion and we can also have democracy?
NORDLAND: Yes. No, I think—I think this is—you know, it hasn‘t been a very good war for democracy and the values that we‘ve been expounding here.
In fact, you hear Iraqis say all the time, well, if this is democracy, you‘ve brought it. We don‘t want any of it. We‘d just as soon see you leave and take your democracy with you. And I think this is—has the very real potential to turn that around and turn it around for the rest of the region.
OLBERMANN: Rod Nordland, the Baghdad bureau chief for “Newsweek” magazine, great thanks for coming out in the middle of the night for us. Stay safe.
OLBERMANN: We all know they were voting, but for what offices? And why is there another vote in December? We‘ll have the raw facts about today‘s election.
Plus, these were the joyous images of the Iraqi election shown all over American television. We‘ll examine what the rest of the world, particularly the Arab media, reported.
OLBERMANN: There is no hard data on this, but intuition tells you it‘s true. In the interminable months before this election, you probably assumed that Iraqis would today be voting for a new president, a parliament, something permanent.
In fact, as COUNTDOWN‘s Monica Novotny points out in her report on the underreported details of the election, the best analogy today might be to those times in our history when individual states of the union have elected the members of a constitutional convention.
MONICA NOVOTNY, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): There are a few things you may not know about Iraq‘s Election Day. Here are COUNTDOWN‘s top five.
At No. 5, what did Iraqis vote for this weekend? A 275-seat transitional national assembly. They will later vote for their president and two vice presidents. They will later choose a prime minister. Iraqis also voted for 18 provincial councils. And, in the north, the Kurds elected their own independent parliament.
No. 4, who was on the ballot? One-hundred ninety-six parties, 33 coalitions of parties, and 27 individuals, in total, 18,900 candidates, 7,785 of them hoping for one of those national assembly seats.
No. 3, count them in—well, some of them. More than 14 million of approximately 25 million Iraqis registered to vote, but they did they make it to the polls? According to the independent election commission, about 60 percent, eight million Iraqis, did, though commission spokesman Farid Ayar acknowledged, the numbers are only guessing.
No. 2, when will they start counting? Preliminary results expected early this week, with final results announced by mid-February and certified on or about February 20.
And the No. 1 thing you need to know about this Iraqi Election Day, it‘s not over until it‘s over.
(on camera): Once elected, the transitional national assembly must draft a constitution by August 15, on which a referendum will be held by mid-October. If the referendum passes, voters will choose a full-term national assembly by December 15. But if it does not pass, a new transitional assembly must be elected to begin again.
For COUNTDOWN, Monica Novotny.
OLBERMANN: Here‘s a shock. The president of the United States was pink with pride today. And the purple finger of pride, the Iraqi equivalent of the “I voted” sticker, could there be a dangerous side effect to it?
OLBERMANN: Underpromise, overdeliver, it is one of the credos of guerrilla business strategy. It works well in politics, too.
Our third story on the COUNTDOWN, what‘s next, based on what just happened, a period in which terrorists and American military honchos alike predicted wide-scale violence and a president predicted that any election would be a triumph? If it was not underpromising and overdelivering, it coincidentally produced the same results.
So, what‘s next for this country, both in Iraq and in the spin game?
We start with White House correspondent David Gregory—David.
DAVID GREGORY, NBC WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Keith, seeking to put his own stamp on Iraq‘s first step toward democracy, the president today declared the Iraqi election a resounding success, but warned that America‘s mission there is not over.
QUESTION: Mr. President, are you pleased at how...
GREGORY (voice-over): The president left a Sunday church service just minutes before the polls closed in Iraq. Within hours, he emerged to congratulate the Iraqi people.
BUSH: By participating in free elections, the Iraqi people have firmly rejected the anti-democratic ideology of the terrorists. And they have demonstrated the kind of courage that is always the foundation of self-government.
GREGORY: Mr. Bush thanked the American public for its patience in the face of mounting U.S. casualties, but warned of difficult days ahead.
BUSH: Terrorists and insurgents will continue to wage their war against democracy. And we will support the Iraqi people in their fight against them.
GREGORY: America‘s chief partner in the war, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, addressed Great Britain tonight, saying the election will have broad impact.
TONY BLAIR, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: It is also a blow right to the heart of the global terrorism that threatens destruction not just in Iraq, but in Britain and virtually every major country around the world.
GREGORY: With most Americans increasingly skeptical about the U.S. role in Iraq, the administration kicked its P.R. offensive into high gear today, with Secretary of State Rice, fresh from her confirmation, splashed across the airwaves, arguing, Iraq‘s majority Shiites will work to head off civil war.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “FACE THE NATION”)
CONDOLEEZZA RICE, SECRETARY OF STATE: I‘m quite certain that they will try to put together an assembly that brings Iraqis together, rather than splitting them apart.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
GREGORY: In response today, former presidential contender John Kerry warned against overhyping the election and speculated that the White House would like Iraqis to ask the U.S. to leave.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “MEET THE PRESS”)
SEN. JOHN KERRY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: A prolonged American presence in Iraq is neither affordable, nor wise, nor will it ultimately enhance our goals in the region.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
GREGORY: Tonight, the president‘s political goal of an American exit from Iraq is directly tied to the ability of Iraqis to secure their country for themselves—Keith.
OLBERMANN: David Gregory at the White House, great thanks.
Speaking of spin and what will happen next, it was an odd day for John Kerry to resurface on political TV, freshly back from a lengthy Middle East tour. To say nothing of a purely beltway frying of Condoleezza Rice on “Meet the Press” this morning, he resuscitated his campaign four-point plan to resolve the situation in Iraq and was not certain about the degree of legitimacy to the vote.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “MEET THE PRESS”)
KERRY: A kind of legitimacy. It‘s hard to say that something is legitimate when a whole portion of the country can‘t vote and doesn‘t vote. I think this election was important. I was for the election taking place.
The four steps were, No. 1, massive, rapid training. No. 2, you‘ve got to do reconstruction and you‘ve got to get the services to the Iraqis. No. 3, you‘ve got to bring the international community into the effort.
No. 4, you‘ve got to have the elections.
Well, today, we did No. 4. We had the elections. And I will say unequivocally today that what the administration does in these next few days will decide the outcome of Iraq. And this is not maybe. This is the last time, last chance for the president to get it right.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: For many of us in this country, getting it right comes down to one thing, getting 150,000 American troops home alive quickly. What did the vote today do to the chances of that?
To the Pentagon now and our correspondent Jim Miklaszewski—Jim.
JIM MIKLASZEWSKI, NBC PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Keith, despite some political pressure here in the U.S. to bring American troops home, Pentagon officials warn again tonight it won‘t happen any time soon.
(voice-over): With elections over, U.S. military officials predict Iraqi insurgents will now step up their attacks even more to put pressure on the new transitional government.
That means all 150,000 American troops now on the ground in Iraq may have to remain at least until summer. Even then, only small numbers of U.S. forces may start to withdraw from Iraq. That‘s because Iraqi forces are nowhere near ready to provide their own security. The U.S. military will accelerate training for Iraqi forces and put more American advisers in Iraqi units to provide badly needed leadership.
But Pentagon officials say, only when the Iraqis can provide full self-protection and self-governance, will American troops able to come home, and predict that could still take years.
(on camera): And, tonight, Pentagon officials say they‘re confident that the new leaders of Iraq‘s transitional government will not ask for an early pullout of American troops because—quote—“They know they‘d be committing suicide”—Keith.
OLBERMANN: Jim Miklaszewski at the Pentagon—Mik, great thanks.
That would suggest no change in the U.S. role in Iraq in the near term, anyway, but is the status quo still viable?
Always an honor to be joined by the retired Army General, now MSNBC military analyst Barry McCaffrey.
General, thanks, as ever, for your time tonight.
RET. GEN. BARRY MCCAFFREY, NBC MILITARY ANALYST: Good to be with you, Keith.
OLBERMANN: Can this picture of an indefinite 150,000-troop presence that Jim Miklaszewski just painted actually be maintained?
First of all, I think what we will see is somewhat of a drawdown by this summer, because we—General John Abizaid wisely retained some people in country and accelerated the arrival of some other units.
But 3rd Infantry Division will close in, in the next 60 days. I think there will be somewhat of a drawdown. There will be an attempt to have the Iraqi security forces take a more visible role, particularly in the urban areas. But we‘ve got at least a year or two before the Iraqi security institutions are capable of conducting offensive operations against what may be, Keith, an 80,000-person insurgency, particularly in the Sunni areas.
OLBERMANN: Predicating withdrawals of U.S. military personnel from a very foreign, hostile area, guerrilla-style war, predicating that on the training of native troops and guards, does that remind you of anything in our not-too-distant past? Is there a parallel at this point to that awful word from the ‘60s and the ‘70s, Vietnamization?
MCCAFFREY: Well, actually, probably not.
I was an adviser with the Vietnamese Airborne Division in the early days. It took us seven years before we suddenly recognized that, if we wanted to get out of Vietnam, we had to Vietnamize the war. So, we finally started giving them first-line equipment and training and the capability to step forward. Then Congress turned off the ammunition and the POL money. And that was the day we lost the war.
So, I would argue, General John Abizaid, General George Casey, Ambassador John Negroponte, are accelerating that process. Notwithstanding that, it‘s still a couple of years, Keith. This won‘t happen overnight.
OLBERMANN: But there has been a lot of speculation that sooner, probably more sooner than later, to establish credibility with its own people, any Iraqi government would have to ask this country to, at minimum, set up a timetable for withdrawal. Even if it‘s a pro-American government, it can‘t be pro-American presence forever.
And just today, Iraq‘s interior minister was telling a British television network that the coalition could be out in 18 months. Whether or not that‘s realistic, does the probability that there could be more and more calls for this affect our military planning in the short term?
MCCAFFREY: Well, you know, I view this with tremendous anxiety. I think setting a withdrawal timetable would be a huge mistake, would embolden the insurgency, would tell them the points at which they will start to win.
So, in my own judgment, I hope the Shia leadership, which is going to dominate this new constitutional process, will be smart enough to recognize, if we pull out early, they‘ll end up in a civil war. And the money would bet they‘d lose it and the Sunni will be back in charge. That‘s who had the leadership of the Baathist party, the intelligence service, the armed forces. So, this is a tricky situation. We should be there until we know this thing has stability and legs on it.
OLBERMANN: General Barry McCaffrey, as always, great thanks for your time tonight.
MCCAFFREY: Good to be with you, Keith.
OLBERMANN: The president wants this to be the blueprint for democracy in the Middle East. But what did the Arab world make of the Iraqi elections today?
Plus, insurgents vowed to kill anyone who voted, why that threat clashes so disturbingly with another color, perhaps the most compelling image of today‘s election, the voters‘ inch-drenched finger.
OLBERMANN: You‘ve seen the coverage here. How is the rest of the world, specifically the Arab world, portraying that Iraqi election? And is it being seen as legitimate?
OLBERMANN: Wall-to-wall coverage of the Iraqi election on American cable television can be viewed as overkill. Of course, the industry is the American distributor for overkill. So it‘s hard to use cable news as a barometer for just how important this all was.
But in our No. 2 story on the COUNTDOWN, a lot of judgments about that from other lands. One measure came from Jordan, which was as close as most of the international poll watchers were willing to get to Iraq. Another came from the 14 other countries in which Iraqis voted.
Our correspondent Keith Miller is in one of them.
KEITH MILLER, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The whole world was watching and, in many countries, voting, too. More than a quarter of a million Iraqi expatriate voters were expected to cast ballots in 14 countries. Iraqis in Australia were the first people today to cast a ballot.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I‘m so happy to vote for my country.
MILLER: Election officials cheered as people deposited their ballots.
In Berlin, they were dancing. And everywhere, there was security.
(on camera): And here in London, security was also strict. Polling officials said, however, that there were no problems in casting a ballot. And, in fact, most of the people registered to vote did so.
(voice-over): Arabic TV stations gave the vote wide coverage. In Cairo, there was surprise at the high voter turnout reported from Iraq.
MONA MAKRAM OBEID, THE AMERICAN UNIVERSITY IN CAIRO: The Egyptians are watching with quite a lot of interest what is happening in Iraq, first of all, to see if really it will turn out as a viable process.
MILLER: And Egyptian TV suggested today‘s vote could be the turning point.
A different tone on Al-Jazeera TV. The former Iraqi ambassador to the U.N. under Saddam Hussein calling the election illegitimate. In the Middle East, there was also concern about what happens next.
ABDUL BARI ATWAN, “AL-QUDS”: It is a step, but we don‘t know where the step will lead. It could be more violence.
MILLER: The overseas vote count will be complete by Tuesday, but the impact of the election on Iraq and the outside world will take much longer to calculate.
Keith Miller, NBC News, London.
OLBERMANN: And it will be days, weeks before actual voter turnout worldwide, especially in Iraq, is known. Nonetheless, the fact that so many Iraqis literally risked their lives to go to the polls today was not lost on their neighbors.
Hisham Melham is a host of the TV network Al-Arabiya and also the Washington bureau chief of “An-Nahar,” the leading daily newspaper in Beirut.
Mr. Melham, good evening. Thank you for your time.
HISHAM MELHAM, AL-ARABIYA: Thank you, Keith.
OLBERMANN: Never mind what President Bush said or what American TV is saying. How are the realities of this election going to be received throughout the Middle East?
MELHAM: If the turnout is as high as some Iraqi officials said today, 70 and plus, this will be a validation of the whole process.
And the issue of the legitimacy—the legitimacy of the Iraqi elections will be decided by the Iraqis, not the Arabs outside Iraq and not by the Bush administration. And that‘s why it was very important for the Arabs to see the long lines of Iraqis standing before the polling centers, risking their lives to participate in a process that is denied to their brethren throughout the Arab world.
And that‘s why these results, albeit imperfect, and this is an election that is not ideal, marred by violence and uncertainty and questions, will present the Arab political establishments with some tough questions. If the Palestinians a few weeks ago and the Iraqis today participated in a process of empowerment, if you will, under abnormal conditions, to say the least, how come the rest of the Arabs are denied these basic rights?
OLBERMANN: Bringing that specific point into focus, in the State of the Union address, in the radio address yesterday, in his comments today, the president emphasized this is about democracy on the march and all that. What does that mean? What does this vote mean in kingdoms like Saudi Arabia and Jordan and the other countries you mentioned?
MELHAM: People are very concerned about the elections in Iraq and before that the elections in Palestine, because the Arab rulers understand that their people are yearning for a sense of empowerment.
People in Iraq—in Syria, in Egypt, in Saudi Arabia, in Tunisia, where the ruler, when he runs for elections, for instance, he runs unopposed and he achieves the results in the 90s. Mahmoud Abbas achieved the results in 63, 62 percent in Palestine in elections that were seen as legitimate by people, although they occurred under occupation.
Arabs not empowered with this kind of process in the neighboring countries. And those governments were—looked at the elections in Iraq with a sense of trepidation and concern, because they do understand that their people are yearning for democracy.
Look, there is a movement for democracy and transparency and reform in the Arab world, Keith, before George Bush was elected in the year 2000. The problem that Arabs have with George Bush is that, sometimes, he focuses on the easy targets, on the Syrias of the Arab world, but not on Egypt, not on Saudi Arabia, not on Morocco, not on Jordan.
And they accuse President Bush, I think correctly, of resorting to double standards. Unless George Bush criticizes the Israelis when they violate Palestinian rights and unless he does that in the countries that are seen and considered friendly to the United States, like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Jordan and others, his words will not be seen as credible by many Arabs, including those reformers who have been struggling for reform and democracy and human rights in the Arab world for decades.
OLBERMANN: A final question, Mr. Melham. Have there been assumptions in the region about what would happen after these elections? And how might those assumptions have been changed today?
MELHAM: Yes. I think people expected huge violence. I expected a bloodbath. And I‘m extremely happy that I was—my predictions were not correct.
I think people are going to be pleasantly surprised that the Iraqis showed a degree of political maturity. And I think now it‘s incumbent on those who are going to win, the Shia, the Kurds and others, to extend their hands to those who did not participate, the nonviolent forces who did not participate. And I think we are going to see some interesting developments in Iraq in the next few months.
OLBERMANN: Hisham Melham, the host of—on Al-Arabiya and the Washington bureau chief of the newspaper “An-Nahar,” great thanks for joining us tonight.
MELHAM: Thank you, sir.
OLBERMANN: Not just in Iraq, but around the world, this tonight is a badge of honor, what they did to you after you voted. But could there be unforeseen consequences to this logistical innovation?
OLBERMANN: It is a phrase perhaps as old as our language, sticking out like a sore thumb. For all that appears to have gone well in Iraq‘s first free elections in 50 years, there is a nagging worry about recrimination and, in our No. 1 story on the COUNTDOWN tonight, the prospect that people who voted might be terrorist targets this week because they almost literally stick out like a sore thumb.
While some of those assigned to protect the polling places obscured their faces with ski masks, the voters were unmistakable. Whether in Baghdad or suburban Washington, voters had to dip an index finger into a sponge soaked in dye, designed not to fade or wash off for as long as three days, perhaps a risky venture, given the insurgent threats to kill anyone who voted today.
I‘m joined now by one of today‘s voters. Dilshad Qadir is an Iraqi citizen and a U.S. resident. He voted in New Carrollton, Maryland, today.
Mr. Qadir, thank you for your time. Good evening.
DILSHAD QADIR, IRAQI CITIZEN: Thank you. Good evening.
OLBERMANN: So, apparently, they used the ink not just in Iraq, but also in Maryland. Tell me about the process of getting your finger all purple.
QADIR: Well, today, I went to Prince George‘s County. And they had a special place for the votes for all—most of the, like, Iraqis and all the Iraqis who had, like, papers and the—they‘re the citizen of Iraq.
So, basically, they set up a place for them, allocated a place for them to go and vote, which is—this vote for our Kurdish is a very, very important thing in our history for Iraq especially. Like, Iraq, they never had any elections like this as of today.
OLBERMANN: How about the ink? How about—did they tell you about the ink and that you were going to dip your finger in that thing?
QADIR: Well, I had like—as you can see, my finger, it‘s still—it‘s being like painted with the ink. And that is purple ink that will stay there for two to three days.
And I tried my best to remove it, but I couldn‘t remove that. And I thought there is going to be poison associated with that color and that ink, so I didn‘t use my finger to eat with it.
OLBERMANN: Did they give you any idea how to wash it off?
QADIR: They didn‘t give me no ideas. So, I was expecting them, one of them, to give me an idea how to remove that ink from my finger. And I don‘t know what the purpose of this ink that they are using now for this election.
OLBERMANN: I guess just consistency with what happened in Iraq. But, obviously, here and in Iraq, it‘s been viewed as a mark of freedom. Do you worry about your family, though, in Iraq after the vote? The terrorists did not get to many people today, but if they want to come after people tomorrow, most of the voters will still have the blue fingers. Do you worry about that?
QADIR: Well, we are not really—as the Kurdish, we are not worried about that. We are faced with so many consequences and with so many problems in Iraq. So, this problem—like, actually, this is one of the opportunities for all Kurdish to participate and to achieve something within Iraq, in the parliament of Iraq.
So, every single Kurdish, as you can see, in—around the world in different countries, that they are traveling far away just for—especially to vote and to achieve something within Iraq.
OLBERMANN: We‘ve spent an hour talking about a vote. Until you, none of the people we talked to was Iraqi. Let me give you the last words of this hour. What did this all mean to you today?
QADIR: Well, that‘s a really good thing.
Like, that‘s everything to me. That is the day that I was waiting for and to participate, to have an election like today, a vote, and which makes me happy and to have a right for myself and to stay—to stay up and to have—to have something within my country, within Iraq, in Iraq, to actually like—to have self-freedom, yes.
OLBERMANN: Dilshad Qadir, thanks for joining us and good luck in getting the ink off your finger.
QADIR: Thank you very much.
OLBERMANN: That‘s it for this special edition of COUNTDOWN. Thank you for being part of it. If you encountered us for the first time tonight, we‘re usually here Monday through Friday 8:00 Eastern, again at midnight Eastern, 9:00 Pacific. Be there. Aloha.
MSNBC‘s coverage of the Iraqi elections continues next with Chris Matthews.
I‘m Keith Olbermann. Good night and good luck.
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