CNN's Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer

: President Bush, resisting calls to set a deadline or timetable to start drawing down U.S. troops in Iraq. Welcome back to "LATE EDITION."

Joining us now here in Washington, two guests: the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Richard Lugar of Indiana and, in his home state of Delaware, the committee's ranking Democrat, Joe Biden.

Senators, welcome back to "LATE EDITION."

Senator Lugar, let me start with you. Our sister publication, Time Magazine has a new poll just coming out today: "Does President Bush have a plan that will achieve victory in Iraq?"

Only 41 percent say yes; 55 percent say no.

"How do you think the president is helping Iraq?"

Only 38 percent approve of the way the president is handling Iraq; 60 percent disapprove.

And "How is President Bush handling his overall job as president?"

Forty-one percent approve; 53 percent disapprove -- this after his big speech at Annapolis this past week. He has a huge, uphill struggle to convince the American public he knows what he's doing in Iraq.

SEN. RICHARD LUGAR (R), INDIANA: Yes, he does. Clearly, those poll figures are demonstrable to that. But, at the same time, it's not just the president's problem. It is the problem for our country, how we're going to be successful.

And the president tried to define success, as some of the rest of us tried likewise, to say a stable, Democratic Iraq. We have had modest expectations as to what that democracy might look like. And the stability may be relative.

But, nevertheless, a stable, Democratic Iraq is, at least, a change in the area that would be helpful in a war against terror.

BLITZER: But you'll agree it doesn't look like it is becoming more stable, at least based on the day-to-day reports we're getting -- the insurgency, the improvised explosive devices, the casualties.

In effect, it seems like there could be a civil war if not already.

LUGAR: There could be a civil war. But that would be catastrophic, not only for Iraq but the Middle East and for our interests. And so we have to make certain that that doesn't occur to the greatest extent we can.

I think there has been very substantial progress on security and, likewise, perhaps in the course of this program, can talk about the elements of the economy and the oil situation and how they're going to pay for all of it.

But I think there is progress. The question is, obviously: Is it likely, at the end of the day, that Iraqis will want to be Iraqis, that there will be a nation state that can be formed?

And the election is crucial to that, so there is a permanent government. And then the 40 days or so after revisions in the constitution so that Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds can decide they really want to work together.

And, if they have a prime minister in a chain of command, then they have real possibilities of solving the rest of their problems.

BLITZER: Do you agree, Senator Biden, that there is significant progress going on in the Iraqi security front?

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN (D), DELAWARE: I think there is progress going on in the Iraqi security front. But I think that as, usual, Dick put his finger on the most critical element here.

When the president made his speech in Annapolis, he identified our enemies as rejectionists, Saddamists and terrorists.

But the overwhelming, big enemy we have is, if this ever devolves, this sectarian violence backed up by very powerful militias in the North and South, ends up being a civil war, then all the king's horse and all the king's men aren't going to be able to put Iraq together.

And so, that's why, to me, the overwhelming priority -- the overwhelming priority is getting buy-in from the Sunnis on the constitution that's going to be voted on, as Dick said, in about 40 days after this election on December 15.

And what I haven't heard from the president is: What are we doing in order to get what everybody knows has to be done? There has to be some concessions on the part of the Shia, some concessions on the part of the Kurds to get buy-in from the Sunnis. And that is the number one overwhelming requirement.

BLITZER: Senator Biden, here is a quote from Wael Abdul-Latif, an Iraqi parliament member, cited in the Washington Post on Thursday: "I think there are 60 to 70 assassinations every day and most of these are sectarian killings. The Sunni, Kurd and Shiite militias are the ones that control the street. If the multinational forces withdraw in such a situation, there will be even more assassinations and the government will get weaker." The Democrats are pretty seriously divided now on whether or not there should be a quick withdrawal from Iraq. Representative John Murtha, the other day, called for withdrawal over the next six months. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the House of Representatives now supports that Murtha position. You oppose it. Why?

BIDEN: Well, I oppose it because we have two seminal events coming up -- one, this election on December 15th and then the constitution.

Secondly, what -- there is not nearly the division everybody is trying to make out among the Democrats. The reality is, and the president in his speech acknowledged it -- what the president said in his speech that didn't get much coverage -- that quote, "we're going to change the mission in Iraq in 2006."

That's code word for saying there is a reality. We're going to draw down 50,000 troops in Iraq next year because we're going to be about three brigades short. And there is no way, unless you are going to eliminate any prospect of a volunteer army continuing, no way to be able to rotate the existing troops we have now.

So, the real question here is: What do we do between now and the summer in order to put us in a position that the conditions warrant withdrawal -- that when the withdrawal occurs of those roughly 50,000, we're in better shape, our interests are better preserved and not more in danger.

And that relates to everything from standing up their ministries -- that is, their Department of Defense, their Department of Education, their Department of Public Works, et cetera, as well as, most importantly, making sure that vote in the constitution, Wolf -- that's either going to be a rallying cry for division or a rallying cry for a unified Iraq.

And it's all going to rest on that.

BLITZER: Senator Lugar, let me read to you a quote from Ayad Allawi. There was an apparent assassination attempt against him in Najaf earlier today.

We have been reporting it here on CNN. A week ago, he was quoted in The Observer in London as saying this: "People are doing the same as [in] Saddam's time and worse... It is an appropriate comparison. People are remembering the days of Saddam. These were the precise reasons that we fought Saddam and now we are seeing the same things."

He's the former interim prime minister of Iraq. And he's saying that, based on what he's seeing, that some of the situation is as bad as it was under Saddam Hussein.

LUGAR: Well, Allawi is a Shiite but nevertheless a Shiite who respects the law and has had an outreach to Sunnis. This may have been an approximate cause for his difficulty today, as people went after him who might have been more extreme Shiites. It is not popular with some Shiites to talk about this reconciliation or this inclusion of Sunnis.

BLITZER: But he's pro-American. And he's a secularist.

LUGAR: But Allawi is a strong leader. And he had demonstrated that before. He's been courageous. But that type of courage is going to have to be there.

If, as Senator Biden points out, we don't have leadership that is inclusive, and not only that, but convincing, that there ought not to be civil war and massive assassinations -- the specific problem comes that the militia of some of the Shiites, the Badr militia, for example, have been going after Sunnis.

Now, sometimes they go after them because they're rejectionists, as the president points out. Sometimes maybe they have old scores settled.

Well, whatever the reason -- the president was set up and exposed and so forth -- comes really out of the fact that we're training people but some of the people we're training may in fact have tendencies to be more respectful of their religious situations than of a secular Iraq.

BLITZER: And, in fact, Senator Biden, when I interviewed the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad earlier this week, he expressed concern that these militias, whether Shiite-based militias, loyal to Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Sadr militia or the Mehdi militia that supports Muqtada Al-Sadr -- someone the U.S. used to regard as a terrorist in Iraq but now someone who is dealing with the U.S. -- he's expressing concern that these militias, including the Kurdish militia, may be totally loyal to themselves and not loyal to a new national Iraqi government or military.

BIDEN: Absolutely, positively. And this a consequence of the vacuum that's been filled by these militias. Most of these militia members are not trained by anybody but themselves.

Most of these militia members are no part of the Iraqi central army. This is the reason why, about a year ago -- actually two year ago -- I and others called for more American forces in there to arrange for stability.

Remember the original plan. The military originally said we were going to eliminate the militias. The militias had to be integrated into the military.

We changed that view. We changed our position on that because we didn't have enough forces in there and we weren't training the Iraqis quickly enough.

And, so now we're paying a big price for that. And let me make it clear. Some of these militia members are part of an Iraqi army.

In my fifth trip back there this Memorial Day, I met with the defense minister, the speaker of the parliament, and others.

And they said, look, Joe, having folks come in and clear out our areas and bring peace, we're not at all happy about it, because they're either Badr Brigade, or they're Peshmerga. And we don't like either one of those guys coming in on our territory.

We're paying a price for the vacuum fill. The question is, what do we do about it quickly? And that gets back to the political, the political consensus needed to have a constitution they can all buy into. If we don't do that, Wolf, we are in real trouble.


BLITZER: Let's continue our discussion now with the two top members of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee: the Republican chairman, Richard Lugar of Indiana; the ranking Democrat, Joe Biden of Delaware.

Muqtada Al-Sadr, Senator Biden, I remember when he was once terrorist number one in Iraq. He had blood on his hands. But now in the past several months, the U.S. coalition partners, the Iraqi government, they're trying to deal with this guy. Are you comfortable that?

BIDEN: They have no choice but to deal with him. You have to deal with all these guys. There needs to be a political settlement. That's the recognition here.

You asked earlier, are we safer or less safe with Saddam gone? The question is are we going to trade Saddam for chaos or Saddam for stability?

And that stability portion comes with trying to figure out how to get a consensus on how to govern here. And so they got to talk to all these guys. A lot of them are bad guys.

BLITZER: And then we heard, Senator Lugar, earlier from Stephen Hadley, the president's national security advisor, here on "LATE EDITION" that the U.S. ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, is authorized to meet with -- to have discussions with these insurgents, these Sunni groups that are fighting the U.S., and also authorized to meet with Iranian diplomats in Baghdad.

Are you comfortable with that?

LUGAR: Yes, I am. I would advise seeing them all, of the above, as frequently as possible.

I think our ambassador is a remarkable diplomat. But he will really have to have a virtuoso performance to try to bring some convincing evidence to all of these people that Iraq in chaos is going to be bad for all parties concerned.

And I don't really believe that right now as they try to carve out their space, whether it be the Kurdish autonomy, or six provinces for the Shiites, or sort of let everybody take a chance. Our position has got to be very forthright and really aggressive in trying to point out to Iraqi leadership this is it in a very small time frame.

BLITZER: Senator Biden, you comfortable with these discussions that the ambassador, the U.S. ambassador, might be having with insurgent representatives as well as Iranians?

BIDEN: Absolutely, and they should have taken place a year ago.

Look, this is what we did in Afghanistan, Wolf. We had the "six plus two" talks. We got Russia involved. We got Iran involved. We got Pakistan involved. We got them all involved. We ended up with a guy named Karzai, and as you -- and the Loya Jerga. That -- there's not -- it's not the best of all worlds in Afghanistan, but there is not a civil war right now.

And Dick Lugar is absolutely right.

The only thing I would add to this is that I've been calling for, and Schulz called for, and Kissinger called for over the last year and a half -- we need essentially a contact group. We need the people who can influence, influence the Shia, influence the Kurds, influence these people from outside bringing pressure to bear.

Because the bottom line -- Dick is right. They don't want in Tehran now a full-blown civil war. They're not sure how that's going to affect their equities. They don't want one in Ankara. They don't want one in Jordan. They don't want one anywhere.

So, it's in everybody's interests -- everybody's interests, even the bad guys interests, for their to be stability right now.

BLITZER: Senator Lugar, at the end of November, late last month, there was a conference of Iraqi leaders from all factions in Cairo put together by the Arab League. They released a two-page, single-spaced document expressing their views saying resistance is a legitimate right for all nations; demanding the withdraw of foreign forces upon a schedule.

I read the whole thing. What was most alarming to me was there was not one word of appreciation to the United States for liberating Iraq from Saddam Hussein in this document.

There was an expression of support for all these other Arab countries but no appreciation to what the United States people have done more than 2,000 American casualties, $300 billion and growing.

Isn't that pretty alarming? Isn't that depressing to you as well?

LUGAR: It's depressing but not unexpected.

Until we have success in Iraq -- and by that I mean we and the Iraqis and the region -- there's not going to be a lot of hoorays for the United States. Now, in fact, if we have no success and we have civil war, the ratings will go down even further, if that's possible.

This is a situation right now that is extremely crucial and the turnaround is not certain.

This is why presidential leadership -- but I would add some congressional leadership, and I would be so bold once again and suggest the president would be well-advised to gather around him, even at this late date, some Democrat and Republican senators and congressmen and reveal to them really what the strategy is, and take their criticism and constructive advice from them, and do so frequently.

This is something in which we are all involved, and it will not be helpful to have partisan sniping at the president, quite apart from the Arab League, from the far distance.

BLITZER: Were you disappointed by that statement that was put out by the Iraqi political factions? The president of Iraq, Jalal Talabani, was in Cairo for that meeting. He's a good friend of the United States, but there's no appreciation in that statement to the United States, Senator Biden.

BIDEN: In the interests of time, I will associate myself with the remarks of Dick Lugar. I'd point out one thing. One of the best generals I ever met in my trips to Iraq, General Petraeus, the guy in charge of training. Let me read what he said. He said, "Every liberation force has a half-life before it becomes seen as a force of occupation."

We used up that half-life. We dug the hole. We squandered it. Now we've got to figure out how we deal with it from there. And I couldn't agree more with Dick. Dick will remember, during the Kosovo war, everyone thought it was a loser from day when the bombing started. President Clinton had 25 congressional leaders, roughly, every single week up in his residence, laid out his people in front of us, took criticism, included us in the entire deal.

That's what the president should be doing now with Democrats and Republicans, both the House and the Senate. He's got to clue us in if he wants us to help him. It seems as though he had, to me, he has no strategy other than goals. How do you accomplish the goals? I don't know what his plan is that's changed to do that.

BLITZER: Senator Lugar, does the United States operate secret prisons for terror suspects in Europe?

LUGAR: I don't know. I've listened to your program today. Certainly Secretary Rice is going to be discussing this, but I have no knowledge.

BLITZER: Because you know the Europeans are all up in arms. The EU is very worried about this. They're asking some of the most sensitive questions to the U.S. government.

LUGAR: Yes, they are. And as I understand it, Secretary Rice will say, now listen, we are in this together, and we have talked about whatever is occurring there a long time ago. So in essence, cool it. Now whether that's going to be very satisfying at this point, we'll have to see.

BLITZER: But as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, shouldn't you be briefed on these kinds of matters?

LUGAR: Probably. But nevertheless, no time like the present to begin. You know, this is what Joe Biden and I are both saying. This is a situation in which the president's ratings are way down. They're not going to get better. And furthermore, it's going to get worse in terms of the partisan sniping.

We had this, as Joe said, during Kosovo, one resolution after another to get out. Five thousand forces out by some date. Again and again, a bipartisan coalition at least gave President Clinton an opportunity to move, and thank goodness, ten years later with the Dayton accords, we have some headway.

BLITZER: Do you support, Senator Lugar, Senator McCain or the White House on this issue of this torture legislation that McCain wants included as part of this defense appropriation?

LUGAR: I support Senator McCain. I think he's on the right track, and I'm hopeful that that position prevails.

BLITZER: Are you comfortable, Senator Biden, with these reports that the U.S. may be operating secret prisons in Europe?

BIDEN: Absolutely not. I support McCain's position. We have had one foul-up after another, from Abu Ghraib on. I quite frankly think the way we've approached the whole issue of prisoners and treatment of them has caused us more problems than any information we could possibly have gotten, unless there's something I don't know, and there may very well may be. But it seems to me it's been the single most disastrous aspect of our policy in terms of convincing the rest of the world, the part of the world we need some help in, that we aren't the good guys.

BLITZER: We have to leave it there. Senator Biden, Senator Lugar, thanks to both of you for joining us here on "LATE EDITION."

LUGAR: Thank you, Wolf.

BIDEN: Thank you so much.

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