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National Defense
With Vernon Loeb
Washington Post Staff Writer

Thursday, April 10, 2003; 1 p.m. ET

Post military reporter Vernon Loeb was online Thursday, April 10 at 1 p.m. ET, to talk about the latest developments in national security and field questions and comments about the role of intelligence in the war on Iraq. Dana Priest was unable to join today's discussion, but will return next Wednesday.

Loeb covers military defense and national security issues. Priest covers intelligence and recently wrote "The Mission: Waging War and Keeping Peace With America's Military" (W.W. Norton). The book chronicles the increasing frequency with which the military is called upon to solve political and economic problems.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Vernon Loeb: Greetings all. Some amazing events have taken place this week in Iraq, so we certainly have a lot to talk about.

Winchester, Va.:
How do you think the murder of the Ayatollah Al Khoie in Najaf today is going to affect the stability of Iraq?

Vernon Loeb: It's far too early to tell. I'm still not sure who killed him and why. But in a more general sense, I think a lot of what we're seeing in Iraq suggests that stability throughout the country is going to be a huge issue in the months ahead, and one that will probably require an extensive U.S. troops presence.

Cumberland, Md.: Do you think that the UN authority will be permanently damaged as a result of their non-action vis-a-vis Iraq?

Vernon Loeb: That remains to be seen. It certainly seems to have been damaged in the short run. It will be interesting to see what role the U.N. ends up playing in post-war Iraq, with Britain pushing for far greater U.N. involvement than the Bush administration. I think there are ways for the U.N. to assert a new relevance. And I think it's clear that the Bush administration remains quite skeptical. I know that's not a very definitive answer, but it's the best I can do. Like Don Rumsfeld likes to say, certain things are just not knowable right now.

Little Rock, Ark.: We Americans like to think of ourselves as being more sophisticated and enlightened than people living in the "Arab world" and could point to public opinion surveys which indicated that sizable numbers of Arab people believed that 9/11 was an Israeli plot and that thousands of American Jews were warned not to go to work that day. However, here in America, where we have free access to unprecedented amounts of information from countless sources significant numbers of Americans have the misguided belief that Iraqis were on the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center. How do you account for this?

Vernon Loeb: Is that really true? I'm not aware that significant numbers of Americans believe Iraqis were on the 911 planes. I think many people in America know far too little, and care even less, about events in other parts of the world. And it's all too easy for people here and in the Arab world to believe what they want to believe or believe what makes them feel comfortable or reinforces their own prejudices. I'm just not certain those tendencies are leading large numbers of people to equate Iraq and the Iraqis with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Athens, Ga.: Mr. Loeb, You always do a great job with these chats, and I respect your reporting immensely.

The administration seems eager to lowball the number of troops required to assemble and maintain some stability in Iraq. What are your thoughts about the number of U.S. servicemen that will be needed over the next 12 months?

Will the U.S. set up a permanent base in Iraq?

Vernon Loeb: Thanks for the compliment. I appreciate it very much. The U.S. military will most assuredly set up a permanent base in Iraq, if by permanent we mean a base that will remain for a year or two or three. As a round number, I'd say 100,000 troops are probably going to be necessary for a year, at a minimum. Gen. Eric Shinseki, the Army's chief of staff, recently said "several hundred thousand." While Dep. Sec. of Def. Paul Wolfowitz called that estimate "way off the mark" before the war began, many are now saying Shinseki appears to be on the mark, not way off it. Keep in mind, several hundred thousand troops doesn't necessarily mean that all, or most, of them have to be American. Clearly, the Rumsfeld Pentagon believes that the appropriate role for U.S. forces is the combat role, and that stability/peacekeeping operations are best left to others, like NATO allies. Undoubtedly, the Pentagon will be looking for lots of allied support in post-war Iraq.

London, England: Mr. Loeb,Why has there not been a more "critical" assessment of the Bush administration's decision to go to war in the U.S. media? Are you and your colleagues intimidated?

Vernon Loeb: Not at all. I can only speak for the Washington Post. But that being the case, I can easily walk you through our coverage that explored all of the criticism of going to war, and then all of the criticism of the way the war was executed. I wrote some of it myself. I think if you compare U.S. and European press coverage, the big difference is, we have neither the luxury nor the inclination toward reflexive anti-Americanism. I think neither President Bush nor Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld believe The Washington Post is intimidated by them.

Hyattsville, Md.: Do you think the Administration really believes what its been saying about popular support for the regime change? Aren't the same people shouting "Bush, Yes" those that were shouting "Saddam, Yes" when his guns were in control?

And how do you induce this apparently easily swayed populace to ultimately take responsibility for their own governance?

Vernon Loeb: I do think the administration believe there is popular support in Iraq for regime change, with good reason. With people stomping on Saddam's statute, there seems to be some level of popular support to me. But it's the second question you ask that's far more interesting, particularly in a country where people have never had anything to do with their own governance. Who knows how that's going to go.

Cumberland, Md.: What do you think will be the future of U.S.-Syria relations especially if Syrian grants asylum to leading Baath officials who might be wanted for war-crimes?

Vernon Loeb: Not good. If Rumsfeld's comments yesterday about how "unhelpful" Syria is being in taking Ba'ath Party officials in and letting military supplies out to Iraq, I'd say Syria has a major foreign policy problem on its hands.

Silver Spring, Md.: There appear to be persistent rumors flying that Syria may be sheltering significant numbers of high-level Iraqi officials, even --possibly -- Saddam and/or members of his family. If this is established to be the case, would you expect a U.S./British military move against Syria in some form (anything from special ops raids up to a full blown invasion)?

Vernon Loeb: A Special Operations strike is certainly a possibility, I would say.

Washington, D.C.: I just did a quick google search on Ayatollah Al Khoie, couldn't find anything about him being assassinated, but did find that he apparently was imprisoned by Saddam at some point. He seems to have been (1) a fairly moderate Islamic religious leader, and (2) someone we were counting on to help restore order. If leaders like him get assassinated, it will put more burden on the U.S. to restore order, and thus make it easier for those who don't like us in Iraq to say we are an occupying force. This begins to look a tad like Arafat's Palestine, where moderate Palestinians are assassinated, and Hamas and Hezbollah have seemed to actually control events. Way too early to come to any conclusions, but these are the possibilities I am now considering. Your thoughts?

Vernon Loeb: Forget my thoughts. I'll go with your thoughts. Thanks for that background, and your insightful analysis.

Terryville, Conn.: Mr. Loeb: Seems to me that much of The Post's coverage was misguided -- particularly about the early course of the war and the effect of the Saddam Fedayeen. Is The Post reevaluating its coverage in light of the fantastic success of this operation?

Vernon Loeb: I don't think we are, and I don't think we need to. The tactics of Saddam's Fedayeen were indeed a surprise, and we reported them as such--but we certainly never said they represented any kind of important military threat to the overall plan. I myself, in an article about the controversy between Rumsfeld and some of the retired general about the overall troop sufficiency, said something like, Rumsfeld's plan may turn out to be brilliant yet. Which in fact it has turned out to be. I don't want to protest too much here--I understand the point you're making, and it's true that we in the press tend to be reactive and short in our focus, and part of that is because we come out every day. Were all of these quick assessments perfect? Of course not. But I think if you look at our overall coverage, it left our readers with the impression of a military juggernaut that, despite some problems, was on plan and succeeding.

Winston-Salem, N.C.: The former head of Iraq's nuclear arms program indicated yesterday on NPR that now that Iraqi scientists are free to speak without repercussions, significant findings about Iraq's nuclear and chemical programs are imminent (rather important, since that was a cornerstone of the coalition rationale for invasion). Do you know whether these scientists are being specifically rounded up, and whether there is any movement on the WMD discovery front?

Vernon Loeb: One of the points Rumsfeld made yesterday was that rounding up Iraqi scientists and debriefing them about nuclear, biological and chemical capabilities is high on the Pentagon's to do list.

Pickens, S.C.: Well, here we are with US troops crawling all over an Iraq we invaded out of fear of proliferation of "Weapons of Mass Destruction". Such weapons, thankfully, so far have not been used against the coalition, but neither have any been discovered. In your opinion, Short of a "throw down piece", what are the continued ramifications of not finding anything, to Americans and to the Arab world?

Vernon Loeb: First of all, I think we're going to find some. My belief--and maybe I've been spending too much time over at the Pentagon--is that they're well hidden, and thus it will take a while to find them. If we don't, I'm not sure it matters all that much. I'm not sure it's possible to make the Arab world hate the U.S. any more than it already does. Most Americans, I believe, could care less about this issue. And the Bush administration, if no WMD are found, will simply say, Iraq moved them all to Syria, and we're glad to be rid of this regime, and its links to terrorism, in any event.

Florianopolis, Brazil: Do you see a postwar/peacekeeping role for NATO in Iraq?

Vernon Loeb: Absolutely. I would be amazed if a number of NATO countries do not end up contributing peacekeepers in Iraq.

Washington, D.C.: Where is Mr. Al-Shahaf? the Ministry guy. All of a sudden you are not hearing from the "big mouth" and "bogus liar." Is he, too, dead or has he realized that the regime has fallen. Maybe he know for sure that Saddam is dead so the game is over?

Vernon Loeb: Don't know. Perhaps now he believes the Americans are, in fact, in Baghdad.

Greenwood Village, Colo.: Re Hyattsville's question and your response: Are both of you saying that Iraqis are incapable of governing themselves? This comes across as American arrogance and will keep us from ever understanding what's going on in the Middle East and around the world.

Vernon Loeb: I don't know about Hyattsville, but I'm not saying that. I'm just saying it's a bit farfetched to believe that Iraq will neatly become some kind of Jeffersonian democracy in a year or two. If the former Soviet Union is any guide, many of the corrupt elites could end up back in power down the road. We take electing our leaders for granted. But very few people in Iraq, where tribal, ethnic and village loyalties are very strong, have ever voted for a leader of any kind.

Hillandale, Md.: It has been some time since H2 and H3 in western Iraq were captured, but we have heard little from them. Were the roads to Jordan and Syria blocked? Were any scuds found?

Vernon Loeb: I think some Scuds were found and destroyed, and most importantly, none were fired at Israel or anybody else. And the roads to Jordan and Syria were being interdicted by U.S. Special Forces. But you're right, we really don't have a very clear picture about what's going on out at H2 and H3. In fact, there's a fascinating story that will emerge about the Special Operations war, which I think has been far more extensive than most people realize.

Cumberland, Md.: There is a report coming out from Pittsburgh Tribune that Weapon's Grade Plutonium has been discovered in an underground complex at the Al Tuwaitha nuclear complex.

washingtonpost.com: This story mentions high radioactivity readings, but not weapons grade plutonium: Marines Hold Nuclear Site, (Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, April 9)

Vernon Loeb: I have no first hand knowledge of that. But I'm skeptical of these reports of uncovered caches of WMD--all of which, to date, have turned out to be false.

Alexandria, Va.: Hope this gets in before the chat ends, but did you see recent (today) reports of high levels of radiation in sections of the underground tunnel network that UNSCOM never touched? I think this "subway system" that Hussein had commissioned is going to yield significant finds.

Vernon Loeb: This is probably related to the last question, and I just haven't heard anything about that yet. If true, it would be a real blockbuster.

Winston-Salem, N.C.: Mr. Loeb,
Do you know if there is any plan to use any of the existing Iraqi security services or police to maintain order, or to start forming a new police service? Are there any American or international organizations that might be able to fulfill this role?

This might be the best way of keeping American combat soldiers off of city streets as much as possible, to everyone's benefit.

Thanks for you answer!

Vernon Loeb: I'm sure at some point down the road some attempt will be made to determine what parts of the Iraqi military and police can be rehabilitated, but I don't see that happening any time soon. There's a whole lot that will need to be sorted out in that country. And for the forseeable future--at least the next several weeks--it will be U.S. and British troops maintaining order.

Washington, D.C.: Vernon Loeb: First of all, I think we're going to find some. My belief -- and maybe I've been spending too much time over at the Pentagon -- is that they're well hidden, and thus it will take a while to find them. If we don't, I'm not sure it matters all that much. I'm not sure it's possible to make the Arab world hate the U.S. any more than it already does. Most Americans, I believe, could care less about this issue. And the Bush administration, if no WMD are found, will simply say, Iraq moved them all to Syria, and we're glad to be rid of this regime, and its links to terrorism, in any event.

Jawdrop. So you folks have gotten so cynical that you will blow off a lie from your own government and take it at face value? I'd like to think our Constitutionally protected press might just actually care to investigate that story re: "they're all in Syria, rather than "Okay, Mr. Bush, sure, yep whatever you say!" Sheesh.

Vernon Loeb: I think there is substantial evidence pointing to Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction, so I think your characterization of the administration's "lie" is a bit cavalier. At the same time, I would, once again, point to The Post's coverage of this issue to show that we have indeed expressed a ton of institutional skepticism about the administration's claims about Iraqi WMD. But thanks for your question. You're certainly right in insisting that we, in the constitutionally protected press, do our jobs as government watchdogs. I'm certain people like you will keep us honest when we fall short of the mark, and that's a good thing. Nobody's perfect here.

Vernon Loeb: And on that note, now that I have been duly chastised, I've got to run. I think we're on for next week. See you then.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company