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Sistani Returns to Najaf; More Americans Uninsured

Aired August 26, 2004 - 22:00   ET


MILES O'BRIEN, GUEST HOST: Good evening from Atlanta. If all goes well and that's a very big if, the confrontation in Najaf and elsewhere may soon be over, if all goes well. And if it does, the United States will have an ayatollah to thank for it. Now think about that for a moment. The last ayatollah we remember by name, Ayatollah Khomeini, also spent years in Najaf for finding a mix of religion and politics that incited his country to revolution. The shah of Iran was ousted. Americans became hostages and a president of the United States lost his job as a result.
Now this time around, in addition to untold American troops who may owe grand ayatollah Sistani their lives, there's this -- if all goes well and Iraq finally begins to settle down, this American president may end up keeping his job, thanks in part to an ayatollah. And Iraq is where we start with CNN's Matthew Chance in Najaf on the video phone. Matthew, a headline, please.

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Thanks, Miles. And his return to Najaf spurred hopes that there could be some kind of peace process in the pipeline, but few believed it would come so quickly, grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani imposes or brokers a peace deal with Muqtada al Sadr and his Mehdi army. I'll have all the details for you.

O'BRIEN: All right. Thank you Matthew Chance. On to the campaign, the campaign ads and campaign issues, CNN's Joe Johns is traveling with Senator Kerry. A headline from you?

JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Miles, accusations of lying about his war record and flip-flopping have followed John Kerry all over the country. He's in California now. However, today he delivered a response and he also backed away from a confrontation from a Republican he counts as a friend.

O'BRIEN: Finally to an issue that for millions of Americans in a changing economy really hits home. We're talking about health insurance. CNN's Elizabeth Cohen with the story tonight, a headline, Elizabeth, if you please.

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Miles, these are new numbers out from the Census Bureau and it shows that more and more Americans are uninsured. We're going to talk about why this has been such an intractable problem for so many years.

O'BRIEN: Thanks, Elizabeth. Back to you in a moment. Also on the program tonight, the defining moment in John Kerry's political career, what he really said before a congressional committee.

And the return to space -- NASA's shuttle team gears up for return to flight. Still plenty to do, but lots of can-do hope for a spring launch all that and more in the hour ahead. Iraq is where we start off, of course.

After three weeks of bitter and bloody fighting in one of the most sacred cities of Islam, the siege of the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf appears to be over. It happened moments after a dramatic arrival, a convoy of 30 vehicles rolling into town escorting a holy man of few words. But when the grand Ayatollah Sistani spoke, the young firebrand at the center of the fighting listened and the battle was over. Judging by recent events in Najaf and Kufa, it couldn't have come at a moment too soon.

A bit later, the implications and complications, but first, CNN's Matthew Chance.


CHANCE (voice-over): Thirty cars long, the ayatollah's convoy entered the city ravaged by bitter fighting. Many hoped his return to Najaf from medical treatment in London would bring peace. Few believed it could happen so soon. There were brief talks with Muqtada al Sadr, the radical cleric at the center of the Najaf fighting, then a deal. U.S. forces are to withdraw from Najaf, the holy city and its Imam Ali mosque, as well as neighboring Kufa would be weapons-free zones. Compensation is to be paid to victims and elections are to be held. Muqtada al Sadr is to go free. But for the interim government, it's a face-saving truce.

KASIM DAOUD, IRAQ MINISTER OF STATE: I would like to use this opportunity to congratulate Iraqi people about the victory that the Iraqis achieved today. No more fights. Najaf and Kufa will be peaceful cities, free from arms, free from the militia.

CHANCE: Peace came too late though, for these people. The night before, more than 20 were killed in an apparent mortar attack on the Kufa mosque. Already overstretched hospitals turned away the wounded.

TRANSLATOR: There are innocent unarmed people. We are unarmed.

CHANCE: Later as demonstrators marched on Najaf, unidentified gunmen opened fire. An end to this chaos and bloodshed in Najaf could not come too soon.


CHANCE: Well, the speed with which this peace deal was reached after the arrival of the grand ayatollah underlined his authority in this country. When he speaks and gives orders in this country, people actually listen. But what does it mean for Muqtada al Sadr? Well, certainly he's had his wings clipped by the senior cleric in the country, but it's also emerged that he will no longer be charged with murder and it seems that the door to a political role in the mainstream politics of this country is still open, and so it seems that Muqtada al Sadr is far from finished. Miles?

O'BRIEN: Matthew, let's talk a little bit about what that role might be and perhaps remind us, what really was the goal of all this?

CHANCE: Well, the goals of Muqtada al Sadr seems to have been for him to bolster his position, his standing within the country and if that was the goal, then he seems to have managed it. For many people in this country, they look at Muqtada al Sadr now in an enhanced light. He certainly bolstered his position amongst the sort of minority of people who were opposed violently to the U.S. presence in this country, amongst the disaffected youth and so he's emerged from this as a sort of emboldened figure.

O'BRIEN: CNN's Matthew Chance in Najaf. Thank you very much.

As Matthew briefly touched on the day was momentous in several respects. The deal to end the fighting was born into a baptism of fire and bloodshed. About 90 Iraqis died in fighting in the holy city in just a 24-hour period before the ayatollah came to the rescue. Kianne Sadeq, a CNN producer, watched the day up close. This is how it looked to her and her crew.


KIANNE SADEQ, CNN PRODUCER (voice-over): We arrived at the Kufa mosque after what appears to be three mortar rounds landed there. Many people gathered inside and around the mosque to follow the call of the grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani to march to Najaf. We saw three craters. One round landed outside the mosque. Some people took us into the courtyard just inside the mosque walls, to show us where the other two rounds landed.

People were very angry over the attack. Some of the wounded were taken away by ambulances, others hauled away in carts. Speakers outside the mosque called on those gathered not to give up their march to Najaf and they did not. Not long after the mortar attack, we set out with a large crowd, all men, all ages, marching down the main road which runs the six miles from the mosque in Kufa, where the Imam Ali was killed to the shrine in Najaf, where he is buried.

Suddenly, the gunfire pelted the crowds from the abandoned buildings lining the roads. We took cover behind a truck on the side of the road. The crowds stopped moving forward and the gunfire stopped. Then the crowd started moving again and the gunfire resumed. Finally, the shooting stopped. The dead and wounded were carried away, spent rounds everywhere. The crowd, confused and angry that the peace march to save the holy place should become the target of such indiscriminate violence. Kianne Sadeq, CNN, Kufa, Iraq.


O'BRIEN: With us now in New York is Richard Holbrooke, former ambassador to the U.N., investment banker, author and in the interest of full disclosure, an adviser to Senator John Kerry. Good to see you Mr. Holbrooke.

Good to see you, Miles.

O'BRIEN: Let's talk about what Matthew Chance was talking about just a few moments ago, that Muqtada al Sadr's wings may be clipped but his profile is drastically improved, if you will in Iraq and perhaps he has succeeded in his goals as a result. Would you go along with that?

RICHARD HOLBROOKE, FMR. U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE U.N.: I am not clear as to exactly what's going on in Najaf. From what I understand, it looks like the fighting is over for the time being. That's good, but Muqtada al Sadr looks like he's won some kind of face-saving victory against the Americans. I don't understand, from Chance's report, where the American troops are, what they're doing, so I'd have to know more before I could comment more.

O'BRIEN: Well, and clearly, wherever they may be, they are probably viewing the Ayatollah Sistani as a bit of a savior at this juncture, the cavalry coming in if you will.

HOLBROOKE: For sure.

O'BRIEN: Give us a sense of his prestige and how he walks away from this. Clearly it must be increased.

HOLBROOKE: Sistani is an extraordinary man. He's an Iranian. He doesn't even speak very good Arabic. He's never met with an American. He may have bailed the Americans out of a disastrous situation in Najaf, but the United States' position in Iraq is getting progressively more difficult to sustain. Fallujah has now become a liberated zone, only 35 miles from Baghdad in which all sorts of the worst people in the world, terrorists, al Qaeda types, other people hostile to U.S. are pouring in. Najaf is now happened the same thing. The United States is in a disastrous situation in Iraq right now.

O'BRIEN: Would you...

HOLBROOKE: I would just say one more things, Miles. I think that Americans really ought to hear from President Bush as to what our policy is in Iraq. He hasn't explained in a long time what's going on. He tells the American public things like, well, we've turned the corner in Iraq or we're bringing democracy to Iraq or he praises Iraq's performance in the Athens Olympics, but he doesn't explain what our policy is, whether there's any exit strategy and our troops have turned into the military wing of the Allawi government and that's a very odd position to be in.

O'BRIEN: Mr. Holbrooke, is it possible though we witnessed a corner being turned today in what happened in Najaf?

HOLBROOKE: It doesn't sound to me like if we turned a corner, it was a corner that was in our interests to turn. On the other hand, it's a lot better than where we were yesterday, when we advanced on the holiest shrine in Shiism. Any way you cut this, Miles, Najaf is a setback for the United States politically.

O'BRIEN: And you say that still, even though it appears that there is a face-saving way out of this?

HOLBROOKE: I'm pleased that the fighting may appear to have ended, but I'm talking about the long range political settlement. What is the United States doing, acting as the military force for Allawi, a secular Shiite, in his brutal internal civil war against Muqtada al Sadr, a monstrous and brutal extreme Shiite? It's kind of like what happened in Somalia 12 years ago only magnified by 1,000 times.

O'BRIEN: To what extent can the Ayatollah Sistani play a political role in all this and somewhat mitigate what you just talked about?

HOLBROOKE: Ayatollah Sistani helped us out of a jam today, but anyone who thinks he is our friend has got a lot of learning to do about Islam, Iraq and Shiism.

O'BRIEN: Former U.N. ambassador Richard Holbrooke, adviser to the Kerry campaign. Thanks for your time. We appreciate it.

HOLBROOKE: You're welcome.

Back home, the Census Bureau delivered a double dose of bad economic news today. For the third straight year, the number of Americans living in poverty is on the rise. Those who don't fall below the poverty line are being squeezed another way. CNN's Elizabeth Cohen with more on the rising ranks of the uninsured.


COHEN (voice-over): You're looking at a hospital that won't be here four months from now. Northridge Hospital Medical Center in the Los Angeles area is scheduled to close by the end of the year. One reason? It loses about half a million dollars a month taking care of people who don't have health insurance.

TRACEY VEAL, VP, NORTHRIDGE HOSPITAL: After 75 years we're closing the hospital because we don't get reimbursement for the charity care we've been providing to the community.

COHEN: It's a problem that seems without end. New census data shows that for the third year in a row, the percentage of Americans without insurance is on the rise. 1.4 million Americans lost their health insurance in 2003, so now one in seven is without health insurance. Looking at it over the years, in 1987, there were 31 million uninsured Americans, In 2003, 45 million uninsured Americans.

Why is it that year after year, more and more American lose their insurance? Simply put, health care is getting more and more expensive and it's harder for employers to pay for it. The new statistics show fewer people are getting insurance from their jobs and more people are getting it from taxpayer funded programs like Medicare and Medicaid. Health care is more expensive partly because of new technology. KRISTINE GEBBIE, PHD, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF NURSING: We take more scans of whole bodies than other countries - we take more in a week than some other countries do in a month or a year. I'm not sure that we learn anything from doing them, but we keep the machines busy and somebody has to pay for them.

COHEN: And because the United States has more specialists than ever, far more than other countries.

GEBBIE: We have about two-thirds specialist, one-third generalists, whereas most countries are the reverse and specialists tend to use more fancy tests and use more equipment than generalists.

COHEN: And the fastest growing segment of health care costs, prescription drugs. Some blame commercials, which encourage viewers to ask their doctor for what they see on television, which are the most expensive drugs and not always life savers. Politicians have struggled with the problem of expensive health care and the uninsured for years, a problem to be inherited by whoever's elected in November.


COHEN: Both presidential candidates spoke about health care insurance today. President Bush touted some programs to get more people access to health care, but Senator Kerry said that there's no real Republican plan.

O'BRIEN: Let's talk about these ads for just a moment Elizabeth. We see them so much on the air waves now. It's almost to the point where people are prescribing for themselves, calling up a doctor, say, get me those pills and that really does have an effect on all that you're talking about here.

COHEN: That's right. Doctors don't like to say no to their patients. Doctors will say, sometimes, cow to that pressure and that the drugs that you see advertised on television, those aren't the cheap generic drugs. Those are some of the very most expensive drugs. So you get into the cycle. Someone sees an ad. They call their doctor. They gets these expensive drugs and studies have shown that that really can drive up health care costs.

O'BRIEN: We're always looking for the magic bullet solution, aren't we?

COHEN: That's right and hopefully finding it on TV, right.

O'BRIEN: Elizabeth Cohen, thank you very much. Ahead on NEWSNIGHT, the honest truth, John Kerry says he speaks it. But are those Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads having an impact on his campaign? A live report is next.

Also, Kobe Bryant jury selection begins tomorrow, the future of the basketball superstar hanging in the balance.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) O'BRIEN: More skirmishes today in the political battle over the Vietnam War but it no longer utterly dominates the agenda of either candidate. So in addition to the charges and counter charges on boats and ads and words from long ago, you're beginning to hear a bit more on that other campaign issue -- the economy. Imagine that. Here's CNN's Joe Johns.


JOHNS (voice-over): At the Minnesota state fair, it was corn dogs with Heinz ketchup, of course. A visit to a cow barn and big crowd for John Kerry. A couple of Republicans wearing giant flip- flops tried to draw attention to a favorite Republican attack line, while and a woman shouted "liar, liar." Supporters far outnumbered the protesters but the twin charges that Kerry lied about his war record and that he flip flops are getting a lot of attention.

At a town meeting in Anoka, Minnesota, a question from an audience of mostly undecided voters got straight to the point.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you waffle on issues? Are you telling the truth in Vietnam?

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'm absolutely telling the God's honest truth about what happened and what took place over there.

JOHNS: With respect to waffling, Kerry tried to turn the tables on the Bush administration.

KERRY: This telling us, Condoleezza Rice does not going to testify, then does testify? Is that a flip-flop? I mean, is telling you you're going to fund No Child Left Behind and then stripping it for $27 billion, is that a flip-flop? I mean you tell me, ladies and gentlemen. Let's get real here.

JOHNS: Republicans aren't letting go. After Kerry proposed weekly debates with the president until the election, Republican National Chairman Ed Gillespie revisited the flip-flop theme.

ED GILLESPIE, RNC CHAIRMAN: It is somewhat challenging to engage the Democratic nominee in a debate over the issues when he is constantly engaged in a debate with himself. But eventually, eventually, Senator Kerry is going to have to pick a position and stick with it. He can't have everything both ways from now through November.

JOHNS: Kerry has been increasingly responsive and aggressive in responding to challenges. However, on one potentially and troubling confrontation he backed off today. He pulled a Swift boat response ad featuring John McCain because there were press reports that John McCain did not like the ad. Miles?

O'BRIEN: Well and the other factor here to consider is the fact that John McCain sort of made up with the president on the whole issue of these 527 ads, vowing to work with the president to find either legislation or a court or a lawsuit to stop them. To what extent does that blunt that whole debate?

JOHNS: Well, one thing's pretty clear now, that is that neither side, neither of the people running for president want right now to get on the bad side of John McCain. Both have been trying to align themselves with him. So the question is whether this is going to go on. My guess is it will in part because of the FEC challenge. However, nonetheless as I said, they want to make good friends with John McCain.

O'BRIEN: And the Kerry campaign refuses to denounce these 527s, why?

JOHNS: Well, for one reason, they have been, they think, fairly effective. You're talking about the Bush campaign. It has been thought that those ads by the Swift boat vets have been fairly effective. Now, they've tried to back away from them to the extent possible. Nonetheless, there is a question of credibility here. John Kerry's credibility, he's had to defend his resume for quite some time. He's also had to spend a lot of money doing that, as you know, Miles. So that in some ways has had at least an indirect effect in helping the Bush campaign.

O'BRIEN: But what I was asking though, was the Kerry campaign refuses to denounce them as well.

JOHNS: Ah, the Kerry campaign, you're talking about the Swift boat ads?

O'BRIEN: No, just about 527s in general.

JOHNS: Right, of course. That's because Democrats, as you know, have been getting the lion's share of the benefit from 527s. These 527s set up some time ago, a number of them are pouring money into trying to get a Democrat elected president of the United States. The Republicans started much later and have raised much less money. So right now, Democrats are winning on the issue of 527s and quite frankly really wouldn't want them to go away because their ads and what they do really they say helps the cause, even though there's not supposed to be any type of coordination, Miles.

O'BRIEN: Of course, they are a two-edged sword, aren't they? Joe Johns, thank you very much in Santa Monica.

At the risk of beating the proverbial dead horse, we're only now beginning to get the full picture of why John Kerry draws fire like he does from certain quarters. Some of it stems from his curious role as war hero and then anti-war hero. It's a complicated role to have. Then again, it was a very complicated time. CNN's Judy Woodruff offers us something we frequently lack in this debate -- context.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This morning, the committee will hear testimony from Mr. John Kerry.

JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): April 22nd, 1971, a 27-year-old Vietnam veteran testifies before a rapt Senate Foreign Relations Committee, denouncing the very war he had helped fight.

KERRY: It's created a monster, a monster in the form of millions of men who have been taught to deal and to trade in violence.

WOODRUFF: A defining moment in the political evolution of John Kerry. For some, the young man's searing testimony was a harbinger of greatness. For others, it was the ultimate betrayal.

POLITICAL AD: And it hurt me more than any physical wounds I had.

WOODRUFF: A television ad from the Swift Boat Veterans for truth, recalling Kerry's critique of the American invasion of Vietnam.

KERRY: They had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads.

POLITICAL AD: The accusations that John Kerry made against the veterans who served in Vietnam was just devastating.

WOODRUFF: But Kerry was not speaking from personal experience. He was quoting from accounts he had heard at a meeting of veterans in Detroit earlier that year.

KERRY: Over 150 honorably discharged and many very highly decorated veterans testified to war crimes committed in southeast Asia.

WOODRUFF: He said the vets detailed atrocities they themselves had committed, confessing that they had --

KERRY: ...blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, raised villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan.

WOODRUFF: Kerry told the Senate committee the soldiers characterized their own actions as crimes committed on a day-to-day basis, with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command. Again, the charges were not Kerry's, but his words still stung and 30 years later in the heat of a very different campaign, the senator said he may have gone too far.

KERRY: I think some soldiers were angry at me for that, and I understand that and I regret that, because I love them, but the words were honest but on the other hand, they were a little bit over the top.

WOODRUFF: Still, now as then, Kerry insists his indictment was of the men who directed war, not the soldiers who fought it. Those on the front lines, he testified...

KERRY: ... returned with a sense of anger and a sense of betrayal which no one has yet grasped.

WOODRUFF: Many vets are still angry, some with those who directed the war and others with those who opposed it. Judy Woodruff, CNN, reporting.


O'BRIEN: So how does this all pay out in the eyes of the electorate? New polling gives part of the answer and it isn't exactly good news for Senator Kerry. The war was called a quagmire then and for John Kerry, the description may still be apt today as he puts his service in that war front and center in a presidential campaign.


O'BRIEN (voice-over): Vietnam, who went and who didn't, who protested and who felt betrayed is still a political hot button.

STANLEY KARNOW, AUTHOR, "VIETNAM: A HISTORY": Vietnam is with us. It's being debated. It's going to continue to be debated for 100 years to come. I think it ranks with the civil war as a really important turning point in American history. It's the longest war the United States ever fought. It's the first war America ever lost.

O'BRIEN: Vietnam was fought against the backdrop of a deep cultural divide, nearly identical to the rift that exists today.

STUART ROTHENBERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: It was in part it was about things like prayer in schools, and now we're talking about gay rights and gay marriages, questions of U.S. power internationally, about how U.S. power should be projected, the g-rounds for projecting it. Those are divisions that we saw in the '60s, and that we see now.

O'BRIEN: In this atmosphere, John Kerry's protest against the war could be as critical as his fighting in it. A new CNN/"USA Today" Gallup poll shows while half those questioned don't consider it important, a third find it a reason to vote against him. For many Vietnam veterans, Kerry's testimony is a deep and lasting wound.

CHARLES JAMES, VIETNAM VETERAN: I think that was tantamount to treason.

O'BRIEN: On this subject, even old comrades in arms disagree.

JAMES FIELDS, VIETNAM VETERAN: I think it's on the minds where people would like it off of their minds so they can get to the issues of the economy, of national security.

STEVEN VEDNIAK, VIETNAM VETERAN: I think someone who basically associated themselves with Jane Fonda and Vietnam Veterans against the War so vociferously when he returned from Vietnam, ought to either stand up and apologize to those servicemen and servicewomen.

O'BRIEN: The recent attacks on Kerry's credibility have also had a clear effect. Those who feel his military experience was a reason to vote for him have dropped by half since the Democratic convention.

ROTHENBERG: You have to remember that this is an election that will be won or lost at the margins. We're talking about small numbers of voters in a handful of states. Given that, the Kerry reputation among veterans but among Americans as a whole as well is absolutely critical. It could turn the election. (END VIDEOTAPE)

O'BRIEN: One other quick item out of Washington to tell you about. CNN's Suzanne Malveaux is reporting that the White House has drafted orders implementing some of the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, chief among them, the establishment of a director of national intelligence. As for details about the power this director might have over hiring, firing and budget, important details but we don't have them yet. The president is expected to make some sort of announcement in his weekly radio address on Saturday.

Coming up on NEWSNIGHT, more on the peace agreement in Iraq from a man who covered the war, CNN's senior international correspondent Nic Robertson is here. And Iraq's soccer team, chasing a medal at the Olympic games and winning the hearts and minds of a nation.


O'BRIEN: Returning to Iraq now and a very momentous day, possibly a turning point in the war, the grand ayatollah's homecoming, the dramatic convoy to Najaf, the deal with al-Sadr and all that accompanied, the good, bad and the ugly, a lot of the pieces on the table.

Here to help us put them together, flesh them out is CNN senior international correspondent Nic Robertson, here in Atlanta tonight, frequently in that part of the world.

Nic, good to have you with us.


O'BRIEN: Let's talk about the relative fragility of this arrangement right now. How will it be enforced. How does it go from here?

ROBERTSON: Well, it hasn't begun to play out properly yet. The deadline expires in about three and a half hours for all of the Sadr's al Mehdi Army to leave Najaf, Kufa, leave Najaf, put their weapons down. Then the Iraqi police go in.

But of course how strong are the Iraqi police? What happens the next time Sadr tell his guys to pick up their weapons? Are they strong enough and capable to put them down?

O'BRIEN: Big question. And he is of course free to do just that. Is it likely do you think that that will happen down the road?

ROBERTSON: It is certainly possible. His guys get to walk away with their weapons. They can store them. They can pick them up whenever they want.

Sadr has been trying to get power for a long time in Iraq. If you remember, the Coalition Provisional Authority, the day they announced the Governing Council last year, Sadr's name wasn't on the list of those 25 people. The very next day, Sadr was out canvassing in the mosques, calling on building a Mehdi Army. At that time, he said, no, these guys aren't going to be armed. They were. They're still there. He still has them. He gets to walk away with them still behind him.

O'BRIEN: So, by any measure here, if the goal was attaining power, he's a winner.

ROBERTSON: He's certainly going to see himself as having succeeded in a situation he got himself into, a hellaciously tight spot and he has got himself out of it with help from a very strong, powerful, influential religious Shia leader.

O'BRIEN: All right, so what kind of arrangement do you suppose has occurred between Sistani and Muqtada al-Sadr and how will that play out, that relationship?

ROBERTSON: This is going to be one to watch. A year ago, Sistani was afraid that Sadr was going to kill him. Does he really trust him at this time? Probably not. Certainly, Sistani has the upper hand in terms of support. Sadr perhaps maybe just has a million people behind him.

How is it going to play out? I would say precariously. Certainly, we're very likely to see Sadr if the disarming takes place, if the steps happen in the next few days, lie low and go quiet for a while. But what happens when he feels he's not getting his way next time? Will Sistani, will the government have to call on Sistani to come out again? What does that say about the government's power in the country?

O'BRIEN: It seems as if the government, and by extension the U.S., owes Sistani an awful lot right now.

ROBERTSON: They certainly do in many ways. But he's made problems for them in the past, the Coalition Provisional Authority unable to execute election plans the way they had wanted because of Sistani's views. There are pros and minuses there.

O'BRIEN: So certainly an ally that may not be dependable from their perspective.

ROBERTSON: They need him on their side right now. The government in Iraq needs them on their side. The United States, the whole of the coalition need Sistani on their side, but he's not on their side. He's playing his own game. The Shia community want to see political power inside Iraq. Sadr wants a slice of that. Is Sistani going to give it to him?

O'BRIEN: We're just seeing it unfold.

All right, Nic Robertson, thank you very much. Appreciate it.

Still to come on NEWSNIGHT, a look back at the moments in the Kobe Bryant case, as a court prepares to seat a jury to determine the future of the basketball superstar. It's been 14 months since the alleged crime. And the next mission to space is on the horizon. But will the ride into orbit rocket NASA into space history?


O'BRIEN: Jury selection begins tomorrow in the Kobe Bryant sexual assault case after more than a year and umpteen preliminary hearings, the latest of which came today. In it, the prosecution argued that DNA evidence the defense plans to present may have been tainted. A judge delayed a ruling on the subject, but not before chiding the prosecution in effect for delay of game, just one more chapter in a very long story.

Here's CNN's Gary Tuchman.


GARY TUCHMAN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): His fans will never forget these images, Kobe Bryant and his Los Angeles Laker teammates celebrating three straight NBA championships.

Just as unforgettable, though, this image from just a year ago, Bryant arrested on allegations of raping a woman, a 19-year-old concierge at this hotel in Eagle County, Colorado, where Bryant was staying following off-season knee surgery.

Two weeks after the July 4 arrest came a formal criminal charge.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Defendant was charged with one count of sexual assault. a class 3 felony.

TUCHMAN: Bryant faced the possibility of up to life in prison if found guilty, and mandatory branding as a sexual offender forever. With his wife sitting by his side, he admitted he was an adulterer, but insisted he was not a rapist.

KOBE BRYANT, DEFENDANT: I didn't force her to do anything against her will. I'm innocent.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How do you plead, not guilty or guilty?

BRYANT: Not guilty.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A plea of not guilty will be entered.

TUCHMAN: During month of hearings, Bryant's attorneys asked Judge Terry Ruckriegel to allow evidence that the woman had sex with other men in the same time period as her encounter with Bryant. This, they said, could explain her injuries.

The accuser herself testified, as did DNA experts, and some of the woman's acquaintances.

DET. DOUG WINTERS, EAGLE COUNTY SHERIFF'S DEPARTMENT: Well, sometime in early July, you can expect this critical ruling on rape shield. That may well determine the outcome of this case. TUCHMAN: The judge's decision was a victory for Bryant.

(on camera): and now, almost 14 months later, it comes down to this. Jury selection begins on Friday. Hundreds of Eagle County residents are expected to converge upon and possibly overwhelm this small mountain courthouse for the beginning of the jury selection process. Opening statements are expected to begin a week from Tuesday, the day after Labor Day.

Gary Tuchman, CNN, Eagle, Colorado.


O'BRIEN: A quick look at some other stories making news today, starting with the dramatic turn at a preliminary hearing for a Guantanamo detainee. A Yemeni poet accused of crafting terrorist propaganda first argued today to represent himself before the military court. He then admitted to being a member of al Qaeda.

The judge called a recess until a higher authority rules on the request. He is one of four detainees facing a U.S. military tribunal.

For the second time in three months, a federal judge ruled today a ban on a type of late-term abortion is unconstitutional. The reason? It doesn't provide an exception for cases in which the mother's health would be endangered. The ruling came in a New York lawsuit challenging the law that was passed by Congress last fall. A third challenge is pending in Nebraska.

The Justice Department said today its Operation Web Snare, aimed at cracking down on so-called spammers, phishers, hackers and other cyber criminals, has ended. In all, there were 160 investigations, 53 convictions for online crimes targeting 150,000 victims. The crackdown began June 1.

Ahead on NEWSNIGHT, the return to space. NASA has set a date. The crew is gearing up, but how safe will this space odyssey be?


O'BRIEN: A year ago today, NASA got its first look at a harsh indictment and a tall list of particulars that quickly became a blueprint for a return to flight for the space shuttle fleet after the Columbia tragedy. Today, NASA is in the midst of trying to meet the challenges laid out by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. And while there is much work ahead, the space agency vows it can be ready to fly again as soon as March 15.


O'BRIEN (voice-over): The trip back to space begins but does not end with the space shuttle's external fuel tank. As we all know now, a piece of brittle insulating foam the size of a briefcase fell off Columbia's tank, blowing a fatally big hole in a heat shield on the orbiter's left wing, dooming the crew of seven during their fiery reentry on February 1, 2003. NASA engineers have spent countless hours the past year trying to stem the shedding foam.

SANDY COLEMAN, EXTERNAL TANK MANAGER: We've done significant amount of testing and analysis and that testing and analysis has shown us that we are good. It's not going to lose foam larger than would be allowable.

O'BRIEN: The foam is there to create a giant thermos for the super cold rocket fuel. NASA used the same material during the moon race except in those days then it was inside the rocket's skin. But to save money, shuttle designers put the insulation on the outside, literally out of its element.

NEIL OTTE, NASA: That foam not only has to perform thermally, but it has to perform structurally. In other words, it has got to hold together. And that is not the design solution that this foam was really or design problem that this foam was meant to solve.

O'BRIEN: NASA does not have the luxury of starting over with a completely new design. So engineers at its Michoud tank production line near New Orleans have designed three major fixes for places on the tank most prone to shed big pieces of foam, including the crucial strut that links the orbiter's nose to the tank, the origin of the piece that inflicted the mortal room on Columbia.

Foam there will be replaced with heaters. Elsewhere, techniques for applying the foam are now improved and there is new shielding to stop ice from forming.

HAL SIMONEAUX, LOCKHEED MARTIN: Any time you are going to fly with foam, you do run the risk of losing foam. I don't think it's possible to totally illuminate debris.

O'BRIEN: And if a piece of foam made a hole like this once again, the crew will still have no way of fixing it. So far engineers cannot figure out how a spacewalker might patch the carbon panels at the leading edge of shuttle's wing.

RANDY AVERA, AEROSPACE ENGINEER: There's really not a lot that can be done in orbit to repair it to make it safe for reentry. And then we find ourselves back at the same spot that Columbia was during its 16-day mission in 2003.


O'BRIEN: NASA's head of manned spaceflight, astronaut Bill Readdy, told reporters a years ago he knew it would be difficult to get back into space. He just did not know how difficult it would be.

Ahead on NEWSNIGHT, they may not win the gold, but Iraqi's soccer team has lifted the emotions of a country and the spirits of a nation.


O'BRIEN: In Athens, it was a victory and swan song wrapped into one, the U.S. women's soccer team beating Brazil 2-1 today to win the gold. It was the final competitive appearance today for Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain, and the rest of the fab five, who helped bring their sport to national prominence in 1999, when they won the World Cup. They've had quite a run.

And so has Iraq, whose men's soccer team lost its shot at the gold on Tuesday, but tomorrow plays Italy for the bronze. That they got this far is the stuff of storybooks.

CNN's Doug Carroll (ph), one of our photojournalists, has been following their Olympic journey.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is a great moment for the Iraqi people, because after 15 years of war and genocides by Saddam and by the other powers, we can separate and we can come here and play with all the other people.

And this team, I think for me, it's the best in the world, because they had no training, nothing, no money. They come without money here. And this is a great thing. And they show us that they have abilities to be a great team for our future, for the free Iraq.

The people was very happy. They forget all the things that they had all these years, maybe for five or 10 minutes, but they forget. The best thing is that, on this team, we have many Kurds that they are playing. So this is the first time in the history that Kurds came and played in the Olympic Games.

The important thing is that they are here, and after all these years of massacres, they can play with all the other people. They can for one hours or for two hours in the Olympic Games, in the mother of the Olympic Games in Greece, celebrates, hear song and play music and dancing on the streets free, like all the other people.

All the Iraqi peoples now are very, very happy. And this is a great moment for us.


O'BRIEN: Once again, the Iraqis play the Italians tomorrow for the bronze medal. And while we probably shouldn't choose sides, it's hard not to root for them, isn't it?

Back with more in a moment.


O'BRIEN: Before we go, a quick look ahead. Tomorrow on the program, you know that expiration date on milk cartons? Of course you do. Should they also apply to predictions about the presidential campaign? Maybe so. Jeff Greenfield takes a look at the conventional wisdom as a perishable commodity. Of course, it all goes down smoother if viewed no later than tomorrow right here, 10:00 p.m. Eastern time, that and all the day's news, because this is NEWSNIGHT. For the vacationing Aaron Brown, I'm Miles O'Brien. Thanks for being with us. We'll see you tomorrow.


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