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PAULA ZAHN NOW

Special Edition: Countdown to Handover

Aired May 24, 2004 - 20:00   ET

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


ANNOUNCER: This is the special edition of PAULA ZAHN NOW: "Countdown to Handover."
PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: This is the scene at the prestigious Army War College in Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, where in just a few minutes President Bush will give a crucial speech. Tonight, he will explain his strategy to achieve democracy and freedom in Iraq.

Good evening. Thanks so much for joining us tonight.

Looming just 37 days away is the deadline to end the occupation and hand over power to the Iraqis. Senior White House correspondent John King is standing by at the Army War College, and has learned what we can expect to hear from the president tonight. Good evening, John.

JOHN KING, CNN SR. WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Good evening to you, Paula.

The president will stress five points. None of them new, but all of them White House says critical to convince the American people that this president has a plan to get past the current security chaos and political confusion in Iraq. Those five points are handing over sovereignty on June 30, establishing stability and security to support that new government, rebuilding Iraq's infrastructure, encouraging more international help -- that's a tough sell for this president right now -- and moving toward national elections by early next year. The president also will say the United States is prepared to bulldoze and destroy the Abu Ghraib prison for those abuses occurred, Paula.

ZAHN: John King, thanks so much. We're going to talk to you right after the president's speech.

In the meantime, let's check in with Joe Klein of "Time" magazine to talk a little bit about what the president needs to accomplish tonight as we await him to go up to the podium.

What is the risk here tonight? This clearly is one of a number of speeches the president will do.

And it -- well, here comes the president of the United States. Perhaps you'll have to wait until after the speech to address that question.

Here is the president.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Thank you all. Thank you and good evening. I'm honored to visit the Army War College. Generations of officers have come here to study the strategies and history of warfare. I've come here tonight to report to all Americans, and to the Iraqi people, on the strategy our nation is pursuing in Iraq and the specific steps we're taking to achieve our goals.

The actions of our enemies over the last few weeks have been brutal, calculating and instructive. We've seen a car bombing take the life of a 61-year-old Iraqi named Izzadine Saleem, who was serving as president of the governing council. This crime shows our enemy's intention to prevent Iraqi self-government, even if that means killing a lifelong Iraqi patriot and a faithful Muslim.

Mr. Saleem was assassinated by terrorists seeking the return of tyranny and the death of democracy.

We've also seen images of a young American facing decapitation. This vile display shows a contempt for all the rules of warfare and all the bounds of civilized behavior. It reveals a fanaticism that was not caused by any action of ours and would not be appeased by any concession.

We suspect that the man with the knife was an al Qaeda associate named Zarqawi. He and other terrorists know that Iraq is now the central front in the war on terror, and we must understand that as well.

The return of tyranny to Iraq would be an unprecedented terrorist victory and a cause for killers to rejoice. It would also embolden the terrorists, leading to more bombings, more beheadings and more murders of the innocent around the world.

The rise of a free and self-governing Iraq will deny terrorists a base of operation, discredit their narrow ideology and give momentum to reformers across the region.

This will be a decisive blow to terrorism at the heart of its power and a victory for the security of America and the civilized world.

Our work in Iraq has been hard. Our coalition has faced changing conditions of war and that has required perseverance, sacrifice and an ability to adapt.

The swift removal of Saddam Hussein's regime last spring had an unintended affect. Instead of being killed or captured on the battlefield, some of Saddam's elite guards shed their uniforms and melted into the civilian population.

These elements of Saddam's repressive regime and secret police have reorganized, rearmed and adopted sophisticated terrorist tactics. They've linked up with foreign fighters and terrorists. In a few cities, extremists have tried to sow chaos and seize regional power for themselves.

These groups and individuals have conflicting ambitions, but they share a goal. They hope to wear out the patience of Americans, our coalition and Iraqis before the arrival of effective self-government and before Iraqis have the capability to defend their freedom.

Iraq now faces a critical moment. As the Iraqi people move closer to governing themselves, the terrorists are likely to become more active and more brutal.

There are difficult days ahead, and the way forward may sometimes appear chaotic. Yet our coalition is strong and our efforts are focused and unrelenting, and no power of the enemy will stop Iraq's progress.

(APPLAUSE)

Helping construct a stable democracy after decades of dictatorship is a massive undertaking. Yet we have a great advantage. Whenever people are given a choice in the matter, they prefer lives of freedom to lives of fear.

Our enemies in Iraq are good at filling hospitals, but they don't build any. They can incite men to murder and suicide, but they cannot inspire men to live in hope and add to the progress of their country. The terrorists only influence is violence and their only agenda is death.

Our agenda, in contrast, is freedom and independence, security and prosperity for the Iraqi people.

And by removing a source of terrorist violence and instability in the Middle East, we also make our own country more secure.

Our coalition has a clear goal, understood by all: to see the Iraqi people in charge of Iraq for the first time in generations.

America's task in Iraq is not only to defeat an enemy, it is to give strength to a friend -- a free, representative government that serves its people and fights on their behalf.

And the sooner this goal is achieved, the sooner our job will be done.

There are five steps in our plan to help Iraq achieve democracy and freedom: We will hand over authority to a sovereign Iraqi government; help establish security; continue rebuilding Iraq's infrastructure; encourage more international support; and move toward a national election that will bring forward new leaders empowered by the Iraqi people.

The first of these steps will occur next month, when our coalition will transfer full sovereignty to a government of Iraqi citizens who will prepare the way for national elections.

On June 30th, the Coalition Provisional Authority will cease to exist and will not be replaced. The occupation will end and Iraqis will govern their own affairs. America's ambassador to Iraq, John Negroponte, will present his credentials to the new president of Iraq. Our embassy in Baghdad will have the same purpose as any other American embassy: to assure good relations with a sovereign nation.

America and other countries will continue to provide technical experts to help Iraq's ministries of government, but these ministries will report to Iraq's new prime minister.

The United Nations special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, is now consulting with a broad spectrum of Iraqis to determine the composition of this interim government. The special envoy intends to put forward the names of interim government officials this week.

In addition to a president, two vice presidents and a prime minister, 26 Iraqi ministers will oversee government departments from health to justice to defense. This new government will be advised by a national council which will be chosen in July by Iraqis representing their country's diversity.

This interim government will exercise full sovereignty until national elections are held.

America fully supports Mr. Brahimi's efforts, and I have instructed the Coalition Provisional Authority to assist him in every way possible.

In preparation for sovereignty, many functions of government have already been transferred. Twelve government ministries are currently under the direct control of Iraqis.

The ministry of education, for example, is out of the propaganda business and is now concerned with educating Iraqi children. Under the direction of Dr. Ala'din al-Alwan, the ministry has trained more than 30,000 teachers and supervisors for the schools of a new Iraq.

All along, some have questioned whether the Iraqi people are ready for self-government, or want it, and all along, the Iraqi people have given their answers.

In settings where Iraqis have met to discuss their country's future, they have endorsed representative government, and they are practicing representative government.

Many of Iraq's cities and towns now have elected town councils and city governments, and beyond the violence a civil society is emerging.

The June 30th transfer of sovereignty is an essential commitment of our strategy.

Iraqis are proud people who resent foreign control of their affairs, just as we would. After decades under the tyrant, they are also reluctant to trust authority.

By keeping our promise on June 30th, the coalition will demonstrate that we have no interest in occupation. And full sovereignty will give Iraqis a direct interest in the success of their own government.

Iraqis will know that when they build a school or repair a bridge, they are not working for the Coalition Provisional Authority, they are working for themselves.

And when they patrol the streets of Baghdad or engage radical militias, they will be fighting for their own country.

The second step in the plan for Iraqi democracy is to help establish the stability and security that democracy requires.

Coalition forces and the Iraqi people have the same enemies: the terrorists, illegal militia and Saddam loyalists who stand between the Iraqi people and their future as a free nation.

Working as allies, we will defend Iraq and defeat these enemies.

America will provide forces and support necessary for achieving these goals.

Our commanders had estimated that a troop level below 115,000 would be sufficient at this point in the conflict. Given the recent increase in violence, we will maintain our troop level at the current 138,000 as long as necessary.

This has required extended duty for the 1st Armored Division and the 2nd Light Cavalry Regiment -- 20,000 men and women who were scheduled to leave Iraq in April. Our nation appreciates their hard work and sacrifice, and they can know that they will be heading home soon.

General Abizaid and other commanders in Iraq are constantly assessing the level of troops they need to fulfill the mission. If they need more troops, I will send them.

The mission of our forces in Iraq is demanding and dangerous.

Our troops are showing exceptional skill and courage.

I thank them for their sacrifices and their duty.

(APPLAUSE)

In the city of Fallujah there has been considerable violence by Saddam loyalists and foreign fighters, including the murder of four American contractors. American soldiers and Marines could have used overwhelming force.

Our commanders, however, consulted with Iraq's governing council and local officials and determined that massive strikes against the enemy would alienate the local population and increase support for the insurgency.

So we have pursued a different approach. We're making security a shared responsibility in Fallujah. Coalition commanders have worked with local leaders to create an all-Iraqi security force, which is now patrolling the city.

Our soldiers and Marines will continue to disrupt enemy attacks on our supply routes, conduct joint patrols with Iraqis to destroy bomb factories and safe houses, and kill or capture any enemy.

We want Iraqi forces to gain experience and confidence in dealing with their country's enemies. We want the Iraqi people to know that we trust their growing capabilities, even as we help build them.

At the same time, Fallujah must cease to be a sanctuary for the enemy. And those responsible for terrorism will be held to account.

In the cities of Najaf and Karbala and Kufa, most of the violence has been decided by a young radical cleric who commands an illegal militia. These enemies have been hiding behind an innocent civilian population, storing arms and ammunition in mosques and launching attacks from holy shrines.

Our soldiers have treated religious sites with respect, while systematically dismantling the illegal militia.

We're also seeing Iraqis themselves take more responsibility for restoring order. In recent weeks, Iraqi forces have ejected elements of this militia from the governor's office in Najaf.

Yesterday, an elite Iraqi unit cleared out a weapons cache from a large mosque in Kufa.

Respected Shia leaders have called on the militia to withdraw from these towns. Ordinary Iraqis have marched in protest against the militants. As challenges rise in Fallujah, Najaf and elsewhere, the tactics of our military will be flexible.

Commanders on the ground will pay close attention to local conditions and we will do all that is necessary by measured force or overwhelming force to achieve a stable Iraq.

Iraq's military police and border forces have begun to take on broader responsibilities. Eventually, they must be the primary defenders of Iraqi security as American and coalition forces are withdrawn. And we're helping them to prepare for this role.

In some cases, the early performance of Iraqi forces fell short. Some refused orders to engage the enemy. We've learned from these failures and we've taken steps to correct them.

Successful fighting units need a sense of cohesion so we've lengthened and intensified their training. Successful units need to know they are fighting for the future of their own country, not for any occupying power. So we are ensuring that Iraqi forces serve under an Iraqi chain of command.

Successful fighting units need the best possible leadership.

So we improved the vetting and training of Iraqi officers and senior enlisted men.

At my direction and with the support of Iraqi authorities, we are accelerating our program to help train Iraqis to defend their country.

A new team of senior military officers is now assessing every unit in Iraq's security forces. I've asked this team to oversee the training of a force of 260,000 Iraqi soldiers, police and other security personnel. Five Iraqi army battalions are in the field now, with another eight battalions to join them by July 1st.

The eventual goal is an Iraqi army of 35,000 soldiers in 27 battalions fully prepared to defend their country.

After June 30th, American and other forces will still have important duties. American military forces in Iraq will operate under American command as a part of a multinational force authorized by the United Nations.

Iraq's new sovereign government will still face enormous security challenges and our forces will be there to help.

The third step in the plan for Iraqi democracy is to continue rebuilding that nation's infrastructure so that a free Iraq can quickly gain economic independence and a better quality of life.

Our coalition has already helped Iraqis to rebuild schools and refurbish hospitals and health clinics, repair bridges, upgrade the electrical grid and modernize the communication system.

And now a growing private economy is taking shape. A new currency has been introduced. Iraq's governing council approved a new law that opens the country to foreign investment for the first time in decades. Iraq has liberalized its trade policy. And today, an Iraqi observer attends meetings of the World Trade Organization.

Iraqi oil production has reached more than 2 million barrels per day, bringing revenues of nearly $6 billion so far this year, which is being used to help the people of Iraq.

And thanks in part to our efforts, to the efforts of former Secretary of State James Baker, many of Iraq's largest creditors have pledged to forgive or substantially reduce Iraqi debt incurred by the former regime.

We're making progress. Yet there still is much work to do.

Over the decades of Saddam's rule, Iraq's infrastructure was allowed to crumble while money was diverted to palaces and to war and to weapons programs.

We're urging other nations to contribute to Iraqi reconstruction, and 37 countries, and the IMF and the World Bank, have so far pledged $13.5 billion in aid.

America has dedicated more than $20 billion to reconstruction and development projects in Iraq. To ensure our money is spent wisely and effectively, our new embassy in Iraq will have regional offices in several key cities. These offices will work closely with Iraqis at all levels of government to help make sure projects are completed on time and on budget.

A new Iraq will also need a humane, well-supervised prison system. Under the dictator, prisons like Abu Ghraib were symbols of death and torture. That same prison became a symbol of disgraceful conduct by a few American troops who dishonored our country and disregarded our values.

America will fund the construction of a modern maximum security prison.

When that prison is completed, detainees at Abu Ghraib will be relocated. Then with the approval of the Iraqi government, we will demolish the Abu Ghraib Prison as a fitting symbol of Iraq's new beginning.

(APPLAUSE)

The forth step in our plan is to enlist additional international support for Iraq's transition.

At every stage, the United States has gone to the United Nations to confront Saddam Hussein, to promise serious consequences for his actions and to begin Iraqi reconstruction.

Today the United States and Great Britain presented a new resolution in the Security Council to help move Iraq toward self- government.

I directed Secretary Powell to work with fellow members of the council to endorse the time table the Iraqis have adopted, to express international support for Iraq's interim government, to reaffirm the world's security commitment to the Iraqi people and to encourage other U.N. members to join in the effort.

Despite past disagreements, most nations have indicated strong support for the success of a free Iraq, and I am confident they will share in the responsibility of assuring that success.

Next month at the NATO summit in Istanbul, I will thank our 15 NATO allies who together have more than 17,000 troops on the ground in Iraq.

Great Britain and Poland are each leading a multinational division that is securing important parts of the country. And NATO itself is giving helpful intelligence and communications and logistical support to the Polish-led division.

At the summit, we will discuss NATO's role in helping Iraq build and secure its democracy.

The fifth, and most important step is free national elections, to be held no later than next January.

A United Nations team headed by Carina Perelli is now in Iraq helping form an independent election commission that will oversee an orderly accurate national election. In that election, the Iraqi people will choose a transitional national assembly, the first freely- elected, truly representative national governing body in Iraq's history.

This assembly will serve as Iraq's legislature and it will choose a transitional government with executive powers. The transitional national assembly will also draft a new constitution, which will be presented to the Iraqi people in a referendum scheduled for the fall of 2005.

Under this new constitution, Iraq will elect a permanent government by the end of next year.

In this time of war and liberation and rebuilding, American soldiers and civilians on the ground have come to know and respect the citizens of Iraq. They're a proud people who hold strong and diverse opinions.

Yet Iraqis are united in a broad and deep conviction. They're determined never again to live at the mercy of a dictator.

And they believe that a national election will put that dark time behind them.

A representative government that protects basic rights, elected by Iraqis, is the best defense against the return of tyranny. And that election is coming.

(APPLAUSE)

Completing the five steps to Iraqi elected self-government will not be easy.

There's likely to be more violence before the transfer of sovereignty and after the transfer of sovereignty. The terrorists and Saddam loyalists would rather see many Iraqis die than have any live in freedom.

But terrorists will not determine the future of Iraq.

(APPLAUSE)

That nation is moving every week toward free elections and a permanent place among free nations.

Like every nation that has made the journey to democracy, Iraqis will raise up a government that reflects their own culture and values.

I sent American troops to Iraq to defend our security, not to stay as an occupying power. I sent American troops to Iraq to make its people free, not to make them American.

Iraqis will write their own history and find their own way.

As they do, Iraqis can be certain a free Iraq will always have a friend in the United States of America.

(APPLAUSE)

In the last 32 months, history has placed great demands on our country and events have come quickly.

Americans have seen the flames of September 11th, followed battles in the mountains of Afghanistan and learned new terms like orange alert and ricin and dirty bomb.

We've seen killers at work on trains in Madrid, in a bank in Istanbul, in a synagogue in Tunis and at a nightclub in Bali. And now the families of our soldiers and civilian workers pray for their sons and daughters in Mosul, in Karbala, in Baghdad.

We did not seek this war on terror, but this is the world as we find it. We must keep our focus.

We must do our duty.

History is moving and it will tend toward hope or tend toward tragedy.

Our terrorist enemies have a vision that guides and explains all their varied acts of murder. They seek to impose Taliban-like rule country by country across the greater Middle East.

They seek the total control of every person in mind and soul; a harsh society in which women are voiceless and brutalized. They seek bases of operation to train more killers and export more violence. They commit dramatic acts of murder to shock, frighten and demoralize civilized nations, hoping we will retreat from the world and give them free reign.

They seek weapons of mass destruction to impose their will through blackmail and catastrophic attacks.

None of this is the expression of a religion. It is a totalitarian, political ideology pursued with consuming zeal and without conscious.

Our actions, too, are guided by a vision.

We believe that freedom can advance and change lives in the greater Middle East as it has advanced and changed lives in Asia, in Latin America, in Eastern Europe and Africa. We believe it is a tragedy of history that in the Middle East, which gave the world great gifts of law and science and faith, so many have been held back by lawless tyranny and fanaticism.

We believe that when all Middle Eastern peoples are finally allowed to live and think and work and worship as free men and women, they will reclaim the greatness of their own heritage. And when that day comes, the bitterness and burning hatreds that feed terrorism will fade and die away.

America and all the world will be safer when hope has returned to the Middle East. These two visions -- one of tyranny and murder, the other of liberty and life -- clashed in Afghanistan. And thanks to brave U.S. and coalition forces and to Afghan patriots, the nightmare of the Taliban is over and that nation is coming to life again.

These two visions have now met in Iraq and are contending for the future of that country.

The failure of freedom would only mark the beginning of peril and violence. But, my fellow Americans, we will not fail. We will persevere and defeat this enemy and hold this hard won ground for the realm of liberty.

May God bless our country.

(APPLAUSE)

ZAHN: And there you have it, a resolute president tonight speaking a shade over 31 minutes, trying to reassure Americans that he has a plan that works in Iraq, warning Americans that there are difficult days ahead, saying the terrorists are likely become more active and more brutal, and as the process moves on, it may be -- appear to be chaotic at times. But he said the coalition is strong and resolute.

Let's turn to John King, who is standing by at the White House. We also have Jamie McIntyre on duty at the Pentagon tonight for some quick reaction.

John, let's talk for a moment about what the president did not say. He did not propose a change of course in Iraq, and he did not offer a timeline for withdrawal of U.S. troops. Is this a speech that will have much resonance with the American public?

KING: Well, the president hopes so, certainly, Paula. We are five weeks from the transfer of sovereignty and five months from the election. And if you look at the polling, the American people, a clear majority, think this president's Iraq policy has gone awry or gone adrift and that the president does not have a clear path out. Now, he did not give a date certain for pulling out U.S. troops. His critics will say that is proof he has no exit strategy. You heard the president saying we must keep our focus, the president hoping to reinspire, if you will, get the American people to recommit to this mission, even though there are so many unanswered questions.

The president also said if the generals want more troops, they will get them. The reason the president has to say that, Paula, is because there is still such an uncertain security environment. This president is not in a position to make clear-cut promises about when the troops will come home.

ZAHN: And John, to make it perfectly clear to our audience, a lot of what we heard tonight had been repackaged from other public appearances. Did you hear anything new tonight? KING: There are no new policy proposals in this at all. The timelines laid out for the transfer of sovereignty and the elections have all been in the public realm. The one new thing from the president is what he himself called a symbolic gesture, the promise that the United States, if the new Iraqi government goes along, to bulldoze the Abu Ghraib prison. That, of course, is where Saddam Hussein tortured many Iraqis. It is also, of course, where those U.S. soldiers had the prisoner abuses of the Iraqis that have so soured the already anti-American sentiment not only in Iraq but across the Arab world.

ZAHN: John King, thanks so much.

Let's turn to Jamie McIntyre at the Pentagon now for his reaction to what he heard tonight. Good evening, Jamie.

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, good evening, Paula. Before the president's speech, I talked to a lot of the military people here in the Pentagon about what they hoped to hear from their commander-in-chief. And to a man, they mostly -- or woman, for that matter -- they mostly said that what they wanted to hear was context -- that is, that while this has been a very difficult period for the U.S. military, that things are not as bad as they might seem. The sky is not falling.

Various people around this building pointed me, for instance, to what happened in Fallujah, which some people thought would be the Iraqi Alamo, rallying the insurgents. Instead, they say, that situation has been largely defused. The same thing with the forces of Muqtada al Sadr down in the south. Again, a problem, but not enjoying widespread support among the Shia. And they do believe that they're make progress toward this transition.

So what they wanted to hear was that -- that there are achievable goals, there is a plan to achieve them. Not sure if the president's speech will meet that criteria because he spoke very generally of the plan ahead. But the general feeling at the Pentagon is while this has been a very tough time, that there is a path ahead. There are achievable goals. The key has got to be returning security to Iraq, and that's something that's ultimately going to have to be done by Iraqis.

ZAHN: Jamie McIntyre, thanks so much for that update from there.

Let's turn now to Madeleine Albright, who was the secretary of state during President Clinton's presidency. Good of you to join us. Welcome. First of all...

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: Nice to be with you.

ZAHN: ... how plausible is this plan that the president laid out tonight?

ALBRIGHT: Well, he laid out five points, but they raise as many questions as he provided ideas about. First of all, there's still no guarantee that the Iraqi people will accept whatever interim government, the sovereignty that we are going to turn over something to somebody, but we're not clear yet what is what.

The other question is whether the security will really be adequate because this is the same points that were made before: the Americans will train the Iraqis. How long will that take? Will there be help, in terms of the reconstruction of Iraq? Where will it come from? Who will do it? We have to let contracts to somebody other than American companies. Will there, in fact, be international assistance, generally, on providing a multi-national force? And will these elections really take place?

So there are many, many questions, and I don't think there was anything particularly new. It was a little bit more organized than the ideas that we've heard before. And I'm glad that the president decided that he had to talk to the American people. But there is no timeline. And just because the president says it is so, doesn't mean that it really is based in reality. So I think there are a lot more questions that we still have to answer, Paula.

ZAHN: Was there anything you heard from the president tonight that you agreed with?

ALBRIGHT: Well, I agree with the overall approach. And I'm very, very glad that he finally has figured out that the United Nations can be hopeful to us. It would have been more helpful had we not tried to figure out how to undermine it first. And so I'm glad that he has, in fact, now realized the importance of the U.N. The question is whether the president now has the credibility to bring about the kind of international cooperation that he's calling for. And I think that's where we have to focus our attention.

ZAHN: And don't you agree that a large part of the onus now falls on the United Nations in making that all come about, as well?

ALBRIGHT: Absolutely. And a United Nations which I happen to believe in, but in fact, has been severely weakened by our lack of attention to it. And so just because we are saying, all of a sudden, that the U.N. Security Council will give us a resolution we want -- some of the earlier comments that I heard from the ambassadors up there is that there still needs to be a lot of work on this resolution, and Secretary Powell has his work cut out for him.

And I think we have to recognize the fact that things are very tough. The president said they appear chaotic. Believe me, they -- it's more than appear. And I think that he's right to warn us about the fact that there will be even more violence and that this is still a long slog. This was -- Paula, I've said this was a war of choice, not of necessity. Trying to get peace there now, however, is a necessity and not a choice. And the president does have to remain focused, but he has to have more specifics in his plan.

ZAHN: I need a brief answer to this. You say you worry about not only the appearance of chaos but the chaos that actually does exist in Iraq. Do you fear a civil war in that country? ALBRIGHT: Well, I think we have to avoid it. But all the elements are there for an internal fight, and that's why the U.N. really does have an important job. And Mr. Brahimi's job to select the right mix of ethnic representatives for this interim government is absolutely key.

ZAHN: And of course, a lot of people are wondering tonight if anyone can actually unite Iraq's three disparate factions, which we'll address a little bit later on this evening. Madeleine Albright, thank you very much for your time. We appreciate it.

And moving on to the politics of all of this, just exactly that did the president accomplish politically with his speech? We're going to dig into that next with "Time" columnist Joe Klein. Be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: We turn now to the politics of the president's speech. Regular contributor and ""Time" columnist Joe Klein joins us once again.

Welcome back. We talked about this at the top of the broadcast. This speech tonight is part of a wider PR strategy to try to reassure Americans that this is the right path in Iraq. You just heard Madeleine Albright, secretary of state under Bill Clinton. She said this plan that the president set out tonight is not realistic. What's your take on it?

JOE KLEIN, "TIME" MAGAZINE, PAULA ZAHN NOW CONTRIBUTOR: Well, I think there's a lot of wishful thinking here. And I can speak to one thing very directly. The president said that Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. special envoy, was going to announce the transitional government this week. Well, that was the plan, but I am told by high-ranking diplomatic sources at the U.N. that Brahimi is having a very difficult time getting the Iraqis to agree on a roster of candidates. It may go into next week, it may go into the week after. There's all kinds of haggling going on at this point, and...

ZAHN: Will the U.S. make the deadline on June 30? Or will he make the deadline?

KLEIN: Well, I mean, you know, the thinking is that, probably, at the end, you know, there will be some sort of compromise. But you have to bear in mind that there's one other person who has to vote in Iraq, and that is Ayatollah Sistani, the most powerful Shi'ite cleric. Now, about a month ago, when we were putting together the transitional constitution, he was quiet throughout. And then when it was announced, he said, No, this won't do. And you don't hear very much about that constitution anymore.

What I'm hearing from my sources is that Sistani is being informed about the process. He's being told the names that Brahimi is proposing. But the U.N. isn't hearing anything back from Sistani. He's waiting until this is announced to make his views known.

ZAHN: So you're not only saying the U.N. is in his hands, the president is, as well. How boxed in is the president? Does he have any control now over what happens between now and June 30, in terms of the formation of this government?

KLEIN: Well, that -- I mean, that's the remarkable thing about this situation, and it was the great unstated tonight. The president has given control over the political process in Iraq to the United Nations. The United Nations, at this point, has very tenuous control. And so the president of the United States of America doesn't have control over the political component here, and as we know, the security component is in the hands of the opposition, in the hands of the terrorists, who can strike anytime, anywhere, in any way.

ZAHN: A lot of the president's opponents have said all along this June 30 date is arbitrary. What are the consequences for the president if it is not met? I know the president just says that cannot happen, it will be met.

KLEIN: Well, I think...

ZAHN: Is there a shot it won't be?

KLEIN: I think there's -- there's always a shot. I mean, every -- every last turn of events in Iraq seems to have taken this administration by surprise. But it is a very important date to meet now because we have pledged to do it and the Iraqi people are expecting it. The question is, what kind of sovereignty are we going to give them, at that point. And that's still fairly wide open, given what the president said tonight, as well.

ZAHN: The president saying for first time publicly that the Abu Ghraib prison will be torn down and replaced with a new modern prison. Does that effectively shift, then, the attention away from the prison abuse scandal for a couple of days here?

KLEIN: Well, I think that there are events going on in the prison abuse scandal that are indicating that the authority went up the chain of command, which is -- which is difficult for the president. But this is an indication of how the planning wasn't done for this war. You had this notorious prison, where the worst torture -- everybody in Baghdad, everybody in Iraq knew about Abu Ghraib. Now, if there had been real planning before the war, someone would have said in a meeting with the president, What are we going to do about that terrible prison? And someone else in that meeting would have said, Maybe we should knock it down as a symbolic gesture before anything else happens. And now we're knocking it down after we have been disgraced there, and that, in a nutshell, is the story of how difficult this has been.

ZAHN: Joe Klein, thank you for your thoughts tonight. Appreciate it.

We're going to take a short break here. On Capitol Hill, Democrats and Republicans have been demanding more details from the president about his plans for Iraq. When we do come back, I will ask two influential members of the Senate what they thought of the president's speech. We'll be right back. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: Did President Bush's speech tonight give lawmakers what they wanted to hear? Democratic senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut is a member of the Armed Services Committee. He joins us tonight from Hartford. And Republican senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky chairs the Appropriations Committee's Foreign Operations Subcommittee. Tonight he joins us from Louisville. Good to see both of you. Welcome.

SEN. JOE LIEBERMAN (D), CONNECTICUT: Thank you.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R), KENTUCKY: Good to see you.

ZAHN: Senator McConnell, I'm going to start with you this evening. The president warning Americans that there are some difficult days ahead. He said there not only will be the appearance of chaos but he fully expects the terrorists to become more active and more brutal. What is it that you think the American public should be prepared for between today and the turnover date of June 30?

MCCONNELL: Well, Paula, I think the most important thing is that the president, unfortunately, has to keep repeating over and over again some facts that the American people need to bear in mind: 15 NATO countries have 17,000 troops there, 37 countries have pledged either direct assistance or debt relief. We've got significant international cooperation, both during this phase and looking down the road. And it's also important to remember that this whole transition that the president laid out will occur over about a thousand days. It took us in this country 12 years to get from the Declaration of Independence to the U.S. Constitution.

We're so impatient. But there is a plan in place. There has been for some time. The president tonight reiterated it. And I hope more people listen to it because the plan is clearly in place and will work.

ZAHN: Senator Lieberman, will the plan in place work? We just had Secretary Albright on, who more or less suggested that it is unrealistic.

LIEBERMAN: There are obviously no guarantees here. But I do think tonight that the president did what he has to do in this speech and in the ones that will follow in the next weeks, which is to shore up American support, to remind the American people why we must win this battle against the terrorists and the Saddam loyalists and to remind them that he has done some of the things that his critics asked him to do, including me.

He has now gone to the United Nations. He has now increased the number of American troops there and is prepared to send more to keep the security so that democracy can take hold. So I hope that all of us in both parties who have said that we have to stay in Iraq and finish the job in pursuit of our own values and of our own security will pull together and make it happen and not be part of a chorus of doubters that will undermine the support of the American people more. We've got to stay united here as best we can to support our troops, but to support our cause. In my opinion, this is the test of our generation. And if we don't win it in Iraq, we're going to face it much closer to home in the years ahead.

ZAHN: No, I don't think anybody doubts that conclusion of what you just said there, Senator Lieberman. But I guess the question I have for you, Senator McConnell -- how disturbing is it to you, some of the reporting that Joe Klein just shared with us earlier, that a high-ranking U.N. official has told him that they're having a great deal of trouble putting a government together? Now, that's one of the points the president mentioned tonight, saying that he had hoped to even hear some of the names, perhaps, sometime soon in advance of the turnover. Is that disheartening to you?

MCCONNELL: It sounds like some of the arguments we had in trying to put our country together. These are people who have different opinions, but they are working hard to come together and create something brand-new for Iraq, which is a constitution and an opportunity to choose their own leaders for the first time in the history of the country.

Whoever said that was going to be easy, particularly when you have a security problem on top of it -- look, you can view with alarm every single thing that goes wrong, but I think the best thing to do is to keep in mind the long-term view here. The plan is in place. We're moving through it step by step. The transition will occur on the June 30. Elections will occur. A new constitution will be drafted. And there will be new leaders elected in Iraq, all within a thousand-day period, which is really a remarkable timeline, particularly in this day and age.

ZAHN: And yet, Senator Lieberman, there are obviously three disparate factions that this government has to worry about uniting, the Shias, the Kurds and the Sunnis. Do you have concerns about that, short-term and long-term?

LIEBERMAN: Well, it's -- democracy is not easy. It's sometimes messy, you know? But the folks in Iraq, thanks to the courage and skill of the American military, have options before them that they never would have dreamed they would have today, and that's because Saddam, that brutal dictator is gone.

And we have the United Nations in there now, through ambassador Brahimi, trying to negotiate an agreement between the Shias the Sunnis and the Kurds. I believe he can do it.

ZAHN: All right...

LIEBERMAN: But what's most important is that before long, the Iraqi people are going to get to do it. They're going to get to vote. And I think if the American people don't lose -- if we don't lose our will, we're going to look back with real pride at what our troops have done and what we can do together for the Iraqis, but also to secure...

ZAHN: All right... LIEBERMAN: ... our values and our security.

ZAHN: Senators, we thank you both for joining us tonight. Senators McConnell and Lieberman, appreciate your time.

MCCONNELL: Thank you.

LIEBERMAN: Thank you.

ZAHN: We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: And that wraps it up for all of us this evening. Thank you very much for spending some time with us, as we share the president's address with you this evening, the first of several he will be making in advance of the June 30 deadline for turnover for sovereignty to Iraq. Tomorrow night, more on Iraq, and what is driving the price of gasoline sky-high. How much higher will it go? And what are the alternatives? Join us for the first in a series of special reports called "Crude Awakening." That starts tomorrow night. Again, thanks so much for joining us tonight. Appreciate your dropping by. "LARRY KING LIVE" is next. Have a good night.

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