TSR: "Lebanon on steroids"
Wolf talks to Michael about the Basra situation, including a clip from Michael's recent interview with Ambassador Ryan Crocker. (How does Wolf manage to sound surprised that the outlook for Iraq is "gloomy"?)
WOLF BLITZER: Attacks on his patriotism -- conservatives may already be testing the waters for a strategy to torpedo Barack Obama's presidential run. How would the candidate fight back?
Also, "like Lebanon on steroids" -- that's how our Michael Ware is describing an all-out proxy war that could explode in Iraq. As we'll hear, he's not the only one with that grim scenario.
And the day after he took office, he admitted to a series of affairs. Now he's owning up to past drug use. Does all of this somehow help New York's new governor?
Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: Bloody clashes raged today between Iraqi security forces and followers of the anti-American Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr. At least 50 people died after Iraqi forces moved against al-Sadr's Mahdi Army in the southern city of Basra. The fighting has spread to Shiite districts, as well, in Baghdad. And there are now grim suggestions that clashes like these could foreshadow what would happen when U.S. troops leave Iraq.
And joining us now from London, our own Michael Ware.
Michael, thanks very much for coming in. I want to play a little clip of an interview you did with the U.S. ambassador in Iraq, Ryan Crocker. This exchange -- listen to it and then we'll talk.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
RYAN CROCKER, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO IRAQ: I think the fight would be on, and on at a level that we just haven't seen here before.
MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, we're talking, like, a regional proxy war?
CROCKER: I think that's the possibility you have to look at, because as bad as it was in 2006 -- and no one knows better than you how bad it was -- we were here. If we spiral into conflict again and we're leaving, everybody knows we're not coming back.
CROCKER: So I think the gloves then come completely off. And it's in that environment that the risk of regional involvement in the conflict, particularly from Iran, becomes very grave, indeed.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: All right, Michael, describe the scenario -- that worst-case scenario that he was talking about. What was he referring to?
WARE: Look, Wolf, what we're talking about is a crystal ball into an Iraq in a post-American withdrawal vacuum. Now Ambassador Crocker, like any U.S. commander on the ground in Iraq, does not speak in term of timetables. They simply do not exist nor can they work.
What we're talking about here is that right now, America, at the force levels it has, though it is unable to really project the power, perhaps, America would like, it is nonetheless a stabilizing influence as far as it goes.
What we're looking at is perhaps something that we're seeing like today, in the Southern oil-rich city of Basra, where faction upon faction is battling it out in the streets. Now, one of them happens to be in government uniforms and another faction is not.
What Ambassador Crocker is saying is that without America in the middle, the grave potential with a premature withdrawal from Iraq or any pre-set timetable is a regional proxy war. We're talking about Lebanon in the 1980s writ large -- Lebanon on steroids. We already have the militia factions in place. We're going to see Iran funding and backing, as it is now, its forces in Iraq. We're then going to see America's Arab allies, such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and even Egypt and Kuwait, backing its Sunni allies.
All of this atop some of the largest oil reserves in the world. And, at the same time, whatever economic impact a conflict like that will have on the world markets and in America at the bowser [gas pump], let's not forget, in such chaos there will be more terrorist camps than you can shake a stick at.
BLITZER: So basically --
WARE: And if you don't think that will come back to bite America, you're deluding yourself. So that's what Ambassador Crocker is talking about, a regional proxy war whose aftershocks will come back and affect America -- Wolf.
BLITZER: And this presumes that the Iraqi government -- the Iraqi military would simply not be able to do what the U.S. military presence does any time soon, is that right?
WARE: Well, certainly, the Iranian ambassador -- with whom I spoke last week, as well, in an interview -- is of the belief that the Iraqi security forces are more than ready to take over the security environment that currently exists in Iraq. Indeed, the Iranians believe that it's the American presence that's fomenting terrorism and violence.
However, what you need to be aware is that this Iraqi government does not share U.S. agendas. It's much more closely related to Tehran than it is to Washington. And these are Iraqi security forces. These are -- by American military commanders' own admissions, essentially militia forces in uniform. The American commanders on the ground make no bones about the fact that what they're doing right now, today, in Iraq -- hopefully for the better, but perhaps for the worse -- is already training militias. Now they might be in police outfits. They might be in Iraqi Army training camps.
But where do you think these security forces come from? They're given by the most powerful factions in the country. And they are paramilitary or militia forces.
And then you have those forces working outside of the government who are now on the U.S. payroll. They're the Sunni insurgents. Now, out of the 90,000 in total, of whom 70,000 are being paid by Washington, only about 9,000 have been integrated into the official Iraqi security forces. And that 9,000 aren't working for Prime Minister Maliki. They're working in their own neighborhoods answering to their own sheikhs. So that is the future Iraq that we're talking about -- Wolf.
BLITZER: It sounds so gloomy.
Michael, thanks very much. We'll see you here in Washington.
WARE: Thank you, Wolf. I look forward to it.