LE: "There's a very brief window right now for America to finally act decisively."
WOLF BLITZER: Welcome back to "Late Edition." I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting from Washington.
This week, Iraq's Shiite factions clashed in street battles that left dozens of people dead, while the country's Sunni politicians continue to boycott the government. All this happening as the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, is under intense pressure from Washington to meet major political benchmarks.
For some insight on what's really going on in Iraq, we turn to three guests: in London, the former Iraqi government spokesman, Laith Kubba; on the ground for us in Baghdad, as always, our correspondent Michael Ware; and here in Washington, The New York Times chief military correspondent Michael Gordon. He's also the author of the best-selling book "Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq."
Gentlemen, thanks to all of you for coming in.
Laith Kubba, I'll start with you in London. Can Nouri al-Maliki survive this political crisis he's facing right now?
LAITH KUBBA, FORMER IRAQI GOVERNMENT SPOKESMAN: I think he can. He is at the mercy of maybe a handful of heavyweight political players in Iraq. That is, the two Kurdish leaders, the leader, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the biggest Shia block. And I think so long as those key figures want him to stay in office and have not developed an alternative to his premiership, I think he will stay in office. But the minute they strike a deal, I think this will change.
BLITZER: All right. Let's bring Michael Ware in. You've been there for a long time, Michael. In recent days, the prime minister has made some very defiant statements about the criticism he's facing, especially from some politicians here in Washington.
He said this -- he said: "We will pay no attention. We care for our people and our constitution and can find friends elsewhere." He also said: "I will not abandon my legal and legitimate responsibility in serving Iraq. Neither do I see any legitimate patriotic reason to resign."
Give us your assessment right now on where he stands, Michael. Can he do what the U.S. really wants him to do and mainly crack down on the militias and get tough and achieve some of those political benchmarks?
MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: No. There's very little chance -- slim to none actually, Wolf -- of Nouri al-Maliki delivering now or ever. I mean, we know he's a lame duck prime minister. He has absolutely no power. It's not even in the interest of the true power blocs within this government to see these benchmarks met. They don't share U.S. agendas.
And Nouri al-Maliki, many senior commanders and American diplomats doubt whether he shares these agendas. And certainly they all agree that even if he wanted to, there's simply no way he can deliver.
Nonetheless, we hear Iranian officials here on the ground in Baghdad telling us that they still strongly support him and fully intend to see him remain in his post.
BLITZER: It's interesting, Michael Gordon, that what -- Michael Ware has been reporting consistently on this for some time, but in August, the National Intelligence Estimate had some very similar assessments: "The Iraqi government will become more precarious over the next six to 12 months."
It goes on to say: "The level of overall violence, including attacks on and casualties among civilians, remains high. Iraq's sectarian groups remain unreconciled. Al Qaida-Iraq retains the ability to conduct high-profile attacks. And to date, Iraqi political leaders remain unable to govern effectively."
You've spent a lot of time there over these years as well. You basically agree with that NIE, that National Intelligence Estimate?
MICHAEL GORDON, NEW YORK TIMES: Well, I think the NIE did make a pretty correct assessment, but there was another side to it, Wolf. It also said that if the U.S. was to withdraw its troops in a pretty short timeframe, that the security gains that have been achieved over the past several months would be forfeited.
BLITZER: And they would be forfeited almost -- some say within 48 hours or within days if the U.S. were to start withdrawing or reducing its force structure. What does that say, though, about the Iraqi military?
KUBBA: Well, it says that the Iraqi military is what it's been for the last several years: a work in progress and not really prepared, at this point, to step up to the plate. So the NIE was pointing to some security gains, the prospect of more, but also identified that political reconciliation is not really advancing.
BLITZER: What about this notion, Laith Kubba, that Nouri al-Maliki and his colleagues are really aligned, if you will, at least informally, with the Iranians?
In that NIE, it also said this. It said: "Over the next year, Tehran, concerned about a Sunni reemergence in Iraq and U.S. efforts to limit Iranian influence, will continue to provide funding, weaponry and training to Iraqi Shia militants. Iran has been intensifying aspects of its lethal support for select groups of Iraqi Shia militants."
As you know, Laith Kubba, seen from Washington, this alliance between the Iraqi government and the Iranian government is very disturbing.
KUBBA: There is no question about it, number one, that the concern is real. But also, I think all Iraqi politicians know very well that Iraq's neighbors will play a bigger role in Iraq's future, that ultimately America will withdraw its troops and the neighbors are there to stay.
They already have their inroads. That includes, of course, Iran, I think the biggest player in Iraq affairs today. And no question, they have their inroads to many Shia areas.
But having said that, I think highlighting the concern is one thing. Deciding how to deal with it is totally another. And I think where people differ is while most Iraqi Shias agree with that concern, they differ slightly on what is the best way to deal with it.
BLITZER: Michael Ware, how do you feel or how do you know that Iran is playing a significant role in Iraq right now? What tangible evidence is there that they are so deeply involved?
WARE: Well, certainly, we have Iraqi Shia militias who, in their quieter moments, will concede that, yes, they do have certain alignments with Iran. And then further, we have the evidence that U.S. military intelligence has compiled.
Now, chief among this, apart from the tons of ordinance that bears recent Iranian markings that is being used here in Iraq -- and given the nature of the state control of its munitions in Tehran we know simply haven't popped up on the black market -- there's also particular key individuals in U.S. custody who have confessed to very strong links to elite elements of Iran's military apparatus. And, indeed, they have a multitude of documents that tend to corroborate this. I think on the body of evidence that there is an extremely persuasive case to the point where there is not a single U.S. official in this country who shoulders any doubt that Iran is playing an active military hand in this country.
BLITZER: We're going to pick that up with Michael Gordon in just a moment. A lot more to discuss with our panel: Laith Kubba, Michael Gordon, Michael Ware. We'll take a quick break. "Late Edition" will continue right after this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
AYAD ALLAWI, FORMER PRIME MINISTER OF IRAQ: I don't see that we are getting closer to reconciliation. I don't see we are getting closer to getting rid of militias. I'm not seeing that we are getting closer to having assertive policies, foreign policies which would not allow Iran to intervene in Iraqi affairs.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Iraq's former interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, here on "Late Edition" last week with some strong words. Welcome back. We're getting insight into what's happening in Iraq right now, politically as well as militarily, from Laith Kubba, Michael Ware and Michael Gordon.
Michael Gordon, you have an important article in The New York Times Sunday magazine today which goes into great detail on this U.S. effort to work with Iraqi Sunnis. Former insurgents, but it's causing a lot of heartburn for the Iraqi Shiites.
GORDON: Right, Wolf. Well, there has been a change in the situation in Iraq, at least in the military domain. And it's partly a consequence of the surge. And when the Americans sent additional forces to Diyala north of Baghdad and south of Baghdad, what happened is a lot of the local Sunnis there who were basically turned against the Al Qaida of Iraq militants saw this as an opportunity to strike a marriage of convenience with the Americans. And as an embedded correspondent I was with one of the units that was carrying out raids with these insurgents.
BLITZER: But the Iraqi government doesn't like this, especially giving arms to these Sunnis, because they think it's simply going to enable them to kill Shiites down the road.
GORDON: Well, the American military does not give them arms. What it does is, it helps them get organized, it vets them and it pays them for some of their services. And they may take the money and buy arms.
But it's a double-edged sword, as you point out. This is a means to pacify and provide security for places like Baquba or Arab Jabour, different locations in Iraq. Not just Anbar. So, it's a very positive development. The problem is getting the Iraqi government, which is a Shiite-dominated government, to accept them and institutionalize this arrangement.
BLITZER: And the other problem, Laith Kubba, is that once the U.S. leaves those areas, whether the al-Anbar Province or Diyala or anyplace else where they've made some military inroads, the whole thing could collapse very quickly.
KUBBA: I think the concern is real. There are tactical benefits of creating or pushing a wedge between the local insurgents and al Qaida. There is tactical benefits in stopping them shooting at the Americans, but I think this does not address the real concern that basically the insurgency has a totally different political view, that within the Shias, there is heightened concerns.
And I do believe it is not the position of the U.S. Army to micromanage Iraq local wars. I think there ought to be a very clear strategy. One needs to stick to it. I am concerned about these emerging pockets that are reorganized that do not share the political view on how Iraq should proceed.
BLITZER: Button this up for us, Michael Ware, because you know this situation about as well as anyone. We're all waiting for General Petraeus's report, Ambassador Ryan Crocker's report. That's coming up in the next few days.
But for all practical purposes, what do you see happening on the ground in Iraq over the next six to nine months, let's say?
WARE: Well, it depends on a whole host of things, Wolf, as you can well imagine. I mean, in my opinion, there's a very brief window right now for America to finally act decisively. Where it's plodded and fumbled, now is a moment for it to recapture the momentum. It's whether they will take that opportunity or not.
What we could see if we look to, say, Basra in the south, for example, the key oil region, the oil-producing region, is that this place could simply disassemble into a region of militia blocs who will all be at great rivalry and essentially warring factions, as we saw in Lebanon in the '80s.
Clearly this is a concern that the Iraqi government cites when it criticizes the American program of backing these Sunni militias. Now, indeed, whilst we've all done embeds with U.S. forces who are working with the Sunni insurgents now, we've just returned from al-Anbar Province ourself, where we embedded, so to speak, with the insurgents.
We were the guests of the Islamic Army of Iraq, the Brigades of the 1920 Revolution, former members of al Qaida, and other groups of Baathists and Iraqi nationalists. Now, they are essentially America's insurance policy, an insurance policy to keep America's Arab allies on-side with the developments here and as a counterbalance to the Iranian-backed Shia militias which simply dominate this government.
BLITZER: Michael Ware reporting for us from Baghdad. Laith Kubba, thanks very much for joining us from London. Michael Gordon of The New York Times here in Washington.