October 21, 2003 | Broadcast

News From CNN with Wolf Blitzer

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It’s all hustle and bustle on Rasheed Street in the heart of Baghdad, a frenetic hive of activity. Trucks are loaded with all manner of goods for sale around the country. There are orders to be filled and money to be made.

Karim Tamimi (ph) has sold electrical appliances here for 25 years. He told me business is booming in Baghdad. “But if you go to the provinces,” Karim (ph) says, “you’d think you were in Somalia or Eritrea. People have nothing. You wouldn’t know this country has so much oil.”

To clothing merchant Hamid Muqtar (ph), the appearance of normalcy is deceiving. “The Americans,” he says, “have come to buy Iraq, and we’ll be their servants. The only work for us now is as guards or street cleaners.”

The burden of getting by still weighs heavy on most Iraqis, regardless of who is running the show.

Saddam no longer watches over everyone and their every move. New faces adorn Baghdad’s walls.

The old draconian order replaced by an often untidy work-in- progress. It sometimes looks like an improvement, but others like chaos in-the-making.

“Things are better,” says merchant Amad Famur (ph), “but it’s not safe. People are afraid. We recently sent two trucks down south, and they were stolen.”

On an alley off Rasheed Street, a game of dominoes, and skepticism over America’s experiment at nation building. “American officials who insist things are getting better are just trying to soothe people’s nerves,” says Adnan (ph). “At night, we still have to hide in our homes.”

“I’m afraid to take my car out because someone might steal it,” says workshop owner Jamad Jaffa (ph).

Up another alley, metal workers bang out their wares — the need to earn a living, a welcome distraction from a life so full of uncertainty.

Ben Wedeman, CNN, Baghdad.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And that report sets the stage for today’s debate. We’ve just seen that Iraq is a nation of contrast. There is violence and there is freedom, fear as well as hope.

But what’s the bottom line? Is life any better in Iraq today?

We’re joined now by two guests. Eleana Gordon from the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy, she’s just back from Iraq. She got back on Sunday. And Congressman Harold Ford of Tennessee, he’s a Democrat. He was in Iraq in August.

Thanks to both of you for joining us.

Eleana, your bottom-line assessment, spending the weeks that you were there, is what?

ELEANA GORDON, FOUNDATION FOR DEFENSE OF DEMOCRACY: Oh, the bottom-line assessment is the overwhelming majority of Iraqis are thrilled that Saddam is gone. And while they may have complaints, if you ask them point blank, does that mean that you want the United States to leave? They will say, oh, no, no, no, don’t misunderstand us. We’ve got complaints. We think the coalition should be doing a lot of things differently. But we want you to stay.

And that’s not just my personal experience. Every opinion poll that’s been taken — four different major polls by Gallup, Sagbi Associates — have come with the same result: an overwhelming majority, 70 percent, wants the United States to stay for two to 10 years. The Kurds say forever.

BLITZER: All right, what about that, Congressman?

REP. HAROLD FORD (D), TENNESSEE: I think a lot of that is true. The challenge we face now, though, is that on our end, I don’t think the planning was as sufficient as it should be. And the steps we’re taking now, in terms of reaching out and trying to bring more credibility and legitimacy to our efforts, I happen to believe that you have to have Arab-speaking and Muslim nations as a part of this coalition. I’m encouraged by the 15-0 vote in the Security Council, encouraged that Secretary Powell will have momentum as he goes into the Donor Conference there in Madrid.

And, secondly, you know, we in the Congress are now debating this $87 billion package. It passed the House and Senate, but there are different provisions. The Senate calls for part loan, the House does not. I think we should seriously consider that. So, these issues can’t be…

BLITZER: You want loans instead of all just grants.

FORD: I think part of it should be. I think just from the standpoint of saying to American taxpayers, we’re not going to drain you in light of the challenges — in the face of challenges we face. I know we’re not here to talk about that.

BLITZER: Right.

FORD: I tend to agree with…

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: But, Eleana, getting…

FORD: I would agree with Eleana on all of that.

BLITZER: Getting back to the point the congressman makes, there should be some Arab-speaking groups in there. As far as I can tell, while some Muslim nations, like Turkey and Pakistan, may be willing to participate, not one Arab state is willing to send peacekeepers or troops in to help the U.S. Is that your understanding?

GORDON: Well, there is a more relevant question: Do the Iraqis want Arabs in there? And I would say no. The biggest fear the Iraqis have is their own neighbors — Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran — no, they’re not Arabs, they’re Muslims.

BLITZER: They don’t want the Turks, we know that.

GORDON: And we know they…

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: But the U.S. wants the Turks in there.

GORDON: They don’t want the Pakistanis. In fact, the No. 1 reason they want the United States to stay is to protect them from their neighbors. They understand that their neighbors do not want democracy to succeed in Iraq. And they understand that their neighbors are playing a role in at least enabling terrorists from the outside to come in. And they also understand that the terrorists are hurting them. They’re the ones who are thwarting the…

BLITZER: Let me let the congressman respond to that.

FORD: I disagree slightly. I do think that there is, at least when we were there, there was some yearning that there might be some Arab-speaking countries there. And, too, to accept the premise by Ms. Gordon would suggest that we would be there indefinitely, because I don’t know how that would ever change them not wanting to work with their neighbors or even allow their neighbors to interact with their government.

I think everyone is on the same page here. No, 1, how do we turn more power over to the Iraqis? And, No. 2, how do we create stability? And I have to plug the 101st Airborne from Tennessee for what they’re doing in northern Iraq.

BLITZER: That would be Fort Campbell?

FORD: Yes, sure, that would be Fort Campbell. How do we accelerate these things? And I just happen to think that if you look at the estimates we made early on, they’re way off. Mr. Wolfowitz and others have said we wouldn’t need as many troops as we need. General Sheneski (ph) said we need 200,000.

I think there needs to be an honest assessment of where we are and how we get to the point that Eleana wants…

BLITZER: All right, let’s…

FORD: … and I think the coalition of the Defense of Democracies as well.

BLITZER: We have a lot of callers who want to ask some questions and make some comments. Go ahead, caller. What do you got?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Hi, Wolf. I think that the people in Iraq have it worse. They don’t have jobs. And, you know, when you don’t have a job, you have time on your hands, and that leads to lawlessness.

BLITZER: Well, Yvonne makes a point, and you were shrugging, Eleana. But was it a mistake for the U.S. to disband the 400,000 member Iraqi army? The troops could have been used to prevent looting, for law enforcement, for police work. They could have been used for a lot of stuff, but there was that quick decision to disband them right away, let them go and move on. Was that a mistake?

GORDON: I think the jury is still out on that. It was a very difficult decision, because those same troops were not necessarily trusted by the Iraqi people. And I would say today, lawlessness is not the problem that it was six months ago. Most of the situation is secure. Crime has gone down, and you do see Iraqi police in the streets.

One thing that struck me when I was in Iraq is the U.S. forces are not that visible. They’re really more in the background, and that’s changing. The problem that is really now keeping — holding Iraq back are the terrorists, and they’re the fighters who are coming from the outside. It’s sucking in all the terrorists from around there. That’s tricky, and we do have to build an army as fast as possible.

BLITZER: And we’re going to take a quick break, Congressman, so I want you to hold your fire, because we’re going to come back.

The pentagon U.S. military officials and others point out that they didn’t actually disband the Iraqi military. They insist the Iraqi military simply melted away, that these troops seeing what was happening decided to go back to their homes. And they just fled, as the U.S. forces and coalition forces were moving in.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back. We’re continuing our debate: is Iraq better or worse off these days? Our guests, Eleana Gordon from the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, she’s just back from Iraq; Democratic Congressman Harold Ford of Tennessee, he was there in August.

We have a caller, Fraz in Alabama. Fraz, I hope I’m pronouncing your name right. Go ahead with your question.

CALLER: Hi, this is a question for Ms. Gordon. When you were traveling in Iraq, or when other non-military personnel are traveling in Iraq, do you need to go around with security, or, you know, military escorts?

BLITZER: Good question. Go ahead.

GORDON: Well, I was actually traveling with Iraqis and I was traveling as an Iraqi. Most people thought I was Iraqi and spoke to me in Arabic. So I got a feel for what it’s like as an Iraqi. And most of the time…

BLITZER: Do you speak Arabic?

GORDON: I don’t speak Arabic. When they spoke to me, they realized I wasn’t.

BLITZER: Yes.

GORDON: But I was surrounded with Iraqis at all times. And half the time we traveled in rickety cars. We looked like we were just sort of ordinary Iraqis traveling around, and it was fine.

There were other times when we went on major roads. Even with the Iraqis, they did have security with them. And mostly in the north it was because of the terrorists. It’s because Ansar Al-Islam is conducting attacks and they are concerned. So we had a lot of security.

BLITZER: Were you ever scared?

GORDON: I was never scared. But I will point out that, for the coalition, the people who work for the coalition and the ex-patriots and humanitarian workers, it is a very difficult environment. They don’t travel around without security if it is clear that you don’t look Iraqi.

Unfortunately, it is not secure and you don’t see foreigners walking in the streets. It’s not an easy relationship.

BLITZER: What about you, Congressman? Were you scared when you were in Iraq?

FORD: No. We were with a delegation of my colleagues and the Congress led by John McCain. So most of our meetings were held in the coalition headquarters. We were there when the U.N. mission exploded. And, as a matter of fact, had we arrived in Baghdad on time…

BLITZER: But did you get out quickly because of that?

FORD: No. We continued with the day. And the only time there was a bit of unease is when we helicoptered from the headquarters to the airport. And I guess there was some concern on the part of some of my colleagues that the shoulder-hoistered…

BLITZER: Shoulder-fired missiles.

FORD: .. the shoulder-fired missiles that we might be a candidate for that. Fortunately, we were not. But other than that, no.

BLITZER: What is the most important thing that you learned, Eleana, in Iraq right now that you think the American public doesn’t know?

GORDON: I learned three things, I think. First of all, life is much more normal for Iraqis than people think. I thought you wouldn’t see women walking in the streets. I had heard so many reports about kidnappings and so forth.

Streets are bustlinging, commerce is bustling, Internet cafes are opening everywhere. People are going back to school. Women are in the streets. There were 30 weddings in the hotel where I was staying. Life is normal for the majority of Iraqis, although there is a terrorist problem.

The second thing I learned that I don’t think we fully realize is the yearning for democracy but the ignorance about it at the same time. People want freedom, they want to learn, and personally, I believe we’re not doing enough to teach them about democracy in a mass level in the media, in the schools and in the curriculum. I think we should be a lot more aggressive about it.

BLITZER: Congressman, I’m going to give you the last word. What do you think the American people need to know right now about Iraq that they might not necessarily know?

FORD: We need a clear and coherent plan from administration now in terms of what our goal is, in terms of bringing other countries and other people to the table, how quickly we can hand power over. The reality is, I would agree with Eleana and many others. We can’t exit Iraq right now.

If we do, we’ve laid out the recipe or map to defeat us. But if we’re serious about bringing about the stability and security, it’s going to take a little bit different approach than what we’ve put on the table now. There’s a lot of progress, but I can tell you, morale among our troops is not depressed, but it’s in decline. And if we don’t show some progress in providing people with basic infrastructure, be it electricity and water and helping them get jobs and so forth, we’ll begin, I think, to lose even the confidence of the Iraqi people.

We’re on a good pace. Progress is being made, but the administration, I think, needs to be forthcoming with the American people and the Congress.

BLITZER: Congressman Harold Ford, thanks very much.

FORD: Thank you.

BLITZER: Eleana Gordon, welcome back.

GORDON: Thank you.

BLITZER: Good to have you back safe and sound. You might not have been scared, but I’m sure your family was. Thanks very much.

FORD: I was scared listening to her.

BLITZER: Me too.