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Pollack: U.S. must keep Iraqis the top priority

CNN analyst Ken Pollack
CNN analyst Ken Pollack

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Capturing Saddam Hussein was a major victory for the U.S.-led coalition after a nine-month manhunt. But now the question arises: What is the next step for the United States in Iraq?

CNN analyst Ken Pollack, a former CIA staffer, discussed the issue with CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer.

BLITZER: What are the most important things that U.S. policymakers should be keeping atop their agenda in the hours and days after Saddam's capture?

POLLACK: It's very important to keep in mind a few things. Most important of which is going to be the psyche of the Iraqi people. They are the ultimate audience. Obviously, President Bush has a domestic audience he plays to, he also has an international audience.

And we've been talking all day about how former Secretary of State James Baker is going to be showing up in European capitals to try to get other countries to forgive Iraq's debts.

But the most important audience out there are the Iraqis. This is a major event in Iraqi history. How the United States handles this event is something that could be a defining moment for the future of the U.S. reconstruction effort in Iraq. If we make the Iraqis feel like we are doing this on their behalf, we are doing it in their best interest, we are taking their interests in account and we want to make this entire process work I think it could go very well.

On the other hand, this is one of those moments where the Iraqis are going to be watching us very carefully and if we seem arrogant, if we seem high-handed, if we suggest to them that we're not taking their interests into account that's the kind of thing that could sour a lot of people who are already kind of ambivalent about how things are going.

BLITZER: I don't think that so far any way that President Bush, (civilian Iraqi administrator) Ambassador Paul Bremer or any of the generals seem to be coming across as arrogant to the Iraqi people in the hours since the capture of Saddam.

POLLACK: I think that's right. I actually give pretty much all the administration officials very high marks on how they've handled things. I think (civilian administrator in Iraq) Paul Bremer struck exactly the right set of tones in his remarks. I thought the president also did a very good job in not patting himself and his administration on the back too much -- really stressing the importance that this is about Iraq and what a great moment this is for Iraqis and talking about how he wants to move forward.

The one thing as an old White House staffer the one thing I would have liked to have seen in the president's remarks was a much stronger statement by the president of how committed the United States is over the long term to sticking with the Iraqi people, not abandoning them, making this work. When I was out in Baghdad, that was the thing I heard most from Iraqis: a fear of abandonment.

BLITZER: You think there is a fear the United States is going to cut and run?

POLLACK: Absolutely. They heard Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld say he was considering cutting U.S. troop levels from 130,000 to 100,000 it panicked them. They saw this as a first step in a year-long exit strategy.

BLITZER: Ken, you're concerned about the electricity, the water the daily lifestyle operations in Iraq which you believe could have much greater impact on the U.S. military operation there than from the Fedayeen, the Saddam loyalists or the outside terrorists.

POLLACK: Clearly the insurgency is an issue they are trying to kill Americans, they're also trying to kill Iraqis. But when you talk to Iraqis, the biggest concern they have are these day-to-day issues.

The fact that the streets aren't safe, just from criminals and outright lawlessness. The fact that they aren't getting 24-hour-a-day electricity although I will say electricity has gotten a lot better in the last three or four months. The fact that not all Iraqis have clean water. The fact that so many are out of work without any kind of a livelihood. These are the problems the Iraqis feel.

They are getting more and more angry and frustrated that things are not improving faster. And it's what you hear from Iraqis in terms of if these things are not about to improve, our leaders are starting to talk about taking matters into our own hands. That would be death for the U.S.-led reconstruction.

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