AC: "There's a great need for education about the situation here in Iraq"

Length: 5:25

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Anderson asks Michael for the latest reality check from Baghdad; Fran Townsend still thinks al Qaeda is a playa there... which kind of undermines her credibility.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I will never surrender in Iraq, my friends.


MCCAIN: I will never surrender in Iraq.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: On issue after issue, John McCain is offering more of the same policies that have failed for the last eight years.


ANDERSON COOPER: Senators John McCain and Barack Obama speaking out today on the campaign trail, throwing some punches at each other as well.

Senator McCain has been slamming Obama on his Iraq policy. McCain says Obama is out of touch with what is really happening on the ground in Iraq. Obama paints McCain as, well, simply being out of touch.

Time for a reality check with CNN's Michael Ware, live in Baghdad, and, once again, Frances Townsend, former White House Homeland Security Adviser and CNN national security contributor.

Michael, Senator McCain invited Obama to travel to Iraq, saying he was looking for the opportunity to -- quote, unquote -- "educate Obama." Realistically -- I mean, obviously, there's a lot of policy involved. But what exactly would the two be able to see? How accurate is the information that is passed -- how beneficial are these kind of trips?

MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Anderson, I mean, obviously, there's a great need for education about the situation here in Iraq.

You cannot pull out without serious consequences, nor can you stroll the streets of Baghdad. So, there's questions to be raised with both campaigns there.

Now, like any U.S. officials that come to this country, any campaign members, anyone running for office who comes to this country is going to see the rooftops of houses as they fly over them, perhaps some desert as they whisk over the top of that, and the inside of U.S. bases and the U.S. Embassy, where they're bombarded with briefings and PowerPoint slides.

They will be totally divorced from the Iraqi reality. And any Iraqi officials they will talk to, they're certainly not going to be straight-shooting. They haven't been since the war began. Why would they start now? It's not in their interest to do so.

They certainly won't get a real feel for the fact that 90,000 former insurgents now on the U.S. payroll are protecting large chunks of the country for America, while other large chunks of the country are protected by Iranian-backed militias who are pursuing Iranian interests, as well as their own.

So, really, it's going to be a very skewed picture that anyone could hope to get -- Anderson.

COOPER: Frances, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, says al Qaeda in Iraq -- and I quote -- "has never been closer to defeat than they are now."

At this point, though, how much of the violence is really due to al Qaeda in Iraq, and how much is due to sectarian actors and other forces?

FRANCES TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR: Well, Anderson, it's important to be clear about the facts.

All violence, whether it's sectarian or al Qaeda, is down across the board. These are the lowest levels of security incidents in four years that they're seeing right now. This is progress.

Now, al Qaeda has said, in their own statements, that Iraq was the central battle and that they couldn't lose it. Well, they're back on their heels. It will take a sustained effort by Iraqi forces to maintain that. We have seen the recent progress by Iraqi forces. They are conducting clearing and holding operations on their own, without their American advisers. All of this is positive, but they have to do it over the long term.

COOPER: Well, I mean, in Basra, they needed serious backup from both British and U.S. forces. In fact, that was really instrumental in turning the tide there in Basra to the degree that it has been turned.

But the question is, I mean, the White House and John McCain and others like to focus on al Qaeda and talk about al Qaeda in Iraq. Do you have a sense of how much al Qaeda is really -- I mean, of a percentage of attacks, how much is al Qaeda? How much are other forces?

TOWNSEND: You know, I'm not really -- I'm not clear on what the actual percentage breakdown is.


TOWNSEND: I will say this to you, though. The large-scale attacks against civilians are down. But the important part to that success is going to be maintaining it.

COOPER: Michael, let me ask you the question. Al Qaeda, compared to the other forces killing folks in Iraq, where does -- what's the percentage; do you know?

WARE: Well, in terms of fighters in the field, they would be lucky to be 2 percent of those carrying weapons in this country, Anderson.

Yes, they're the guys responsible for the spectacular attacks, the suicide bombings and the car bombings that just slaughter innocent civilians. That's true. That's got great political impact. But, in terms of the day-to-day grind, they're virtually nonexistent. They're barely attacking U.S. troops. They're more focused on killing other Iraqis. They're too busy trying to launch a war with the Shia. They're too busy, under pressure, to be able to continue operating.

And, look, let's face it. They were given Iraq on a platter for their next platform after Afghanistan. They had their moment. Now they have been withered down to this gnarly operating series of terrorist cells that they were always designed to be. They're essentially going to be a stone in the shoe of this society, like they are in countless societies across the world.

They're not really the war here, and they haven't been for a long time, if they ever were. The real war here is the competition between America and Iran for influence and an attempt to hold this region together without fracturing it completely, Anderson.

COOPER: Frances, do you agree with Michael?

TOWNSEND: Well, to Michael's point, a successful end to the conflict in Iraq must be that Iraq is a stable democracy that can secure its people and its borders. That includes not only from al Qaeda but from Iran.

COOPER: Frances Townsend, we appreciate you being on the show, first time. Thanks for being on.

Michael Ware, always good to talk to you. Stay safe, Michael.