Top U.S. officials expressed confidence yesterday that no Iran-style Islamic government would take hold in Iraq despite the expected rise to power there of religious Shiite parties following last week's elections.
With the Shiites widely predicted to dominate a new constitutional assembly, Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld played down reports that leading Shiite clerics are pushing for strong Islamic terms to be incorporated into the new constitution. They cautioned against predictions at this early stage, noting differences between the situations in Iraq and Iran.
"The Shia in Iraq are Iraqis, they're not Iranians," Rumsfeld said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "And the idea that they're going to end up with a government like Iran with a handful of mullahs controlling much of the country, I think, is unlikely."
Rumsfeld pointed to news reports that Shiite leaders in Iraq are making overtures to the country's Sunni minority, many of whom boycotted last week's elections.
"The Iraqis are going to have a solution for Iraq that's an Iraqi solution," he said, adding that "the Shia in Iraq are Iraqis first and Shia second."
Cheney, speaking on "Fox News Sunday," said he doubted that Iraqi Shiites would be strongly influenced by what he called the failed theocratic approach of Shiites in Iran. He noted with approval the public pronouncements of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's revered Shiite cleric, who had made clear that "he doesn't believe clerics should play a direct role in the day-to-day operations of government."
"I don't think, at this stage, that there's anything like justification for hand-wringing or concern on the part of Americans that somehow they're going to produce a result we won't like," Cheney said.
As for U.S. policy on Iran, Cheney sought to dampen speculation about possible military action on suspected Iranian nuclear targets. He expressed a strong preference for a diplomatic resolution of current tensions over the Iranian nuclear program.
Rumsfeld, in turn, said on CBS's "Face the Nation" that he thought Iran was still years from building a nuclear weapon -- although he added that "intelligence has been wrong before on things like that."
Asked whether he thought diplomatic efforts will be able to forestall Iran's development of nuclear weapons, Rumsfeld responded, "Time will tell."
In an interview on the ABC's "This Week," Rumsfeld was questioned about a report in the New Yorker last month saying that Pentagon officials believed a limited strike could cause the Tehran government to topple.
"That's fiction," he said.
But pressed on his own view about the likely effectiveness of a limited strike against Iran, he replied: "Who knows? I mean, I've been amazed many times in my life. I was amazed at how rapidly the shah of Iran fell and the ayatollahs took over that country. . . . So we can't predict these things."
Asked whether any U.S. military operations were underway in Iran at the moment, Rumsfeld said, "Not to my knowledge."
He also provided new details about his acknowledgment last week that he had submitted his resignation to President Bush twice in connection with the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal. The first time, he said, came during a meeting in the White House shortly after the scandal erupted last spring. He did so again about 10 days later, during a visit by Bush to the Pentagon.
"I had migrated in my thinking that, from [the president's] standpoint, it might be wiser . . . if he were able to step off fresh," Rumsfeld said on NBC. "And so I tried to persuade him that that was the case. And I failed."
With regard to the military situation in Iraq, Rumsfeld declined to predict when Iraqi security forces would be capable enough to begin to allow for the withdrawal of U.S. forces. But pointing to better protection for U.S. troops, he said he had been told by the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., that by Feb. 15, all U.S. military vehicles moving outside a protected compound will have "appropriate armor."
On the possibility of a change in the policy limiting to 24 months the total time a military reservist can be called to active duty, Rumsfeld appeared inclined against it, although he did not rule it out. Senior Army generals have indicated recently that they are considering asking Rumsfeld to raise the limit in order to meet demands in Iraq. But the move carries political risks, and lawmakers have privately warned the Pentagon it would meet strong resistance in Congress.
"We have no plans to change the rulings and the methods that we're operating on at the present time," Rumsfeld said on NBC.