Vice President Cheney today rejected a demand from Iraq's minority Sunni Muslim leaders that a timetable be established for the withdrawal of the 150,000 U.S. troops there. But he indicated that the administration is pleased with the early outlines of a new Iraqi government and believes that the two major religious factions in the country will be able to work together to form a strong government.
"Once we've completed the mission, we've stood up an effective Iraqi government and they have security forces in place to be able to take care of their own, then we're out of there . . . ," Cheney said in an interview on Fox News Sunday. "But the test for our departure has to come with respect to when we've completed the mission, not some artificial deadline we might decide on now as part of a political compromise. And I think we'll find that, in fact, that will be the view that will prevail in the new Iraqi government.
Vice President Cheney speaks on FOX News this morning.
(Fox News Sunday - Reuters)
Preliminary returns from the Iraqi election on Jan. 31 suggest that the new parliament will be controlled by Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority and representatives of the Kurdish minority in the north. The United Iraqi Alliance, a slate endorsed by Iraq's leading Shiite Muslim cleric, has been well ahead of its closest competitor, the Iraqi List, which is led by interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite.
The minority Sunni Muslims boycotted the elections in large measure but in recent days some Sunni leaders have suggested that they would like to work with the parliament in writing a new constitution for the country if they could get assurances that the U.S. forces will be leaving.
"I think the Shia are very interested in getting the Sunnis involved" in the process of establishing a new government, Cheney said. "But I would be surprised if they would agree to anything that was suggested that, for example, required the withdrawal timetable for U.S. forces."
He said U.S. officials believe that the Iraqis will be able to work out a political process that fits their culture.
"We need to step back a bit now, since this is not just an appointed government," he said. "This is the first democratically elected government in Iraq in a very long time. It's now up to Iraqis to take the next step. . . . I'm saying I've got a lot of confidence in the players in this process, with respect to watching the Iraqis put together their government."
Cheney said he was not concerned that the Shiite leaders in Iraq will be overly influenced by their fellow Shiites in Iran, a country that the Bush administration has accused of supporting terrorists elsewhere in the Middle East and that has raised concerns because of its potential to develop nuclear weapons.
The vice president pointed to the leading Shiite cleric in Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, as a moderating force there.
" If you're looking for guidance in terms of what the relationship is likely to be between the religious faith, Islam, and the secular side of the house, the government, you really need to look at the top cleric, Sistani," he said. " . . . He also has been very clear, from the very beginning, that he did not want to play a direct role and doesn't believe clerics should play a direct role in the day-to-day operations of government. . . ."
"I think the Iraqis have watched the Iranians operate for years and create a religious theocracy that has been a dismal failure, from the standpoint of the rights of individuals. . . . And I think there are a great many people involved in the political process in Iraq who will seek some kind of balance."
That sentiment was echoed today by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who was interviewed on NBC's "Meet the Press." Much like Cheney, Rumsfeld stressed that "the Iraqis are going to have a solution for Iraq that's an Iraqi solution. They're not going to have an American solution or an Afghan solution."
Finding a political system for Iraq, he said, may involve some trial and error, but Rumsfeld pointed out that such efforts were also part of the American experience and noted that the Constitution originally excluded rights for women and blacks.
"So you don't get from where they were to where they're going on a featherbed, as Thomas Jefferson said. You get there through tough discussion, trial, error, mistakes, good things," Rumsfeld said. "And they're on that path. And I think people ought to step back and say, isn't that amazing? Isn't that a wonderful thing for that region?"