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Interview With John McCain; Behind the Lines

Aired May 29, 2005 - 12:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: It's noon in Washington, 9 a.m. in Los Angeles, 5 p.m. in London, and 8 p.m. in Baghdad. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks for joining us for "LATE EDITION."
We'll get to my interview with Senator John McCain in just a few moments. And in our next hour, a special "LATE EDITION: Behind the Lines." It's based on my recent visit to Iraq and the Persian Gulf and offers an up close and personal look at the U.S. military effort. First though, let's get a quick check of what's making news right now.


BLITZER: Thanks very much. There is never any shortage of critical issues swirling around Washington. And that's certainly the case during this Memorial Day weekend here in the United States.

Joining us now to talk about some of those issues, a special guest, Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona.

Senator McCain, welcome back to "LATE EDITION."

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Especially this weekend, lots to talk about but Iraq tops the agenda, right now. More than two years after the start of the war, more than 1,600 U.S. troops dead, approaching $300 billion in U.S. expenditures. Is it worth it?

MCCAIN: I think it's worth it. I think we should have maybe prepared the American people a little better for the fact that it was going to be very tough and is going to be very tough. And I fear that maybe some of the lack of support has to do with the heightened expectations that we had after the initial victory. We are making progress. It's slow, tough.

Look, you just came back from there. I don't have to tell you that these suicide bombers are the most difficult kind of enemy because they're willing to give their lives up, and so therefore they have enormous advantages, and it's tough. But the key to it is the Iraqi government, and the Iraqi military and police taking over enforcement capabilities so that we can withdraw back into enclaves. And it's going to take some time. We're all disappointed.

BLITZER: Does the U.S. have the manpower in place now to get the job done? Because you've been among those who have suggested from the beginning, you need more troops on the ground.

MCCAIN: I think they may have enough now, but we made terrible and tragic mistakes early on by not having more people then, and we're paying a very heavy price for it.

BLITZER: What is going to be necessary to get the Iraqis up to speed so they can control their own security and allow the U.S. troops to go home?

MCCAIN: I believe that any insurgency that is carrying out the kind of tactics that this one is: killing innocent people, children, women, you know, with this incredible brutality, over time, loses the support of the people. I think the elections were a seminal moment in that it transferred it from an insurgents versus U.S. to insurgents versus the Iraqi government.

Were the Iraqis too slow in forming a government? Yes. Are they too slow in forming a constitution? Yes. But for us to go in and demand that they do certain things, risks a repeat of the Vietnam experience where the government in Saigon, which was revolving generals, never had the legitimacy that convinced the Vietnamese people to support them.

BLITZER: Here -- the missing link in this government, by all accounts, in the Iraqi government, is the lack of Sunnis. About 20 percent, maybe a little bit more, maybe a little bit less, of the population. They didn't participate by and large in the January 30th elections. How worried are you that there could be a civil war emerging between Iraqi Shia on the one hand -- and Kurds, let's say, and the Sunnis on the other hand? Most of those insurgents are Sunnis.

MCCAIN: That's what the insurgents are trying to foment now, and as you know, an incredibly complicating factor is this influx of Saudis, Yemenis, others, most of...

BLITZER: Foreign fighters.

MCCAIN: ... most of those are the suicide bombers. You know, it's not a natural thing for Iraqis, but the Saudis -- they're from all over, they're from Chechnya, even, so that's complicating it a great deal.

BLITZER: Some have suggested that for these jihaddists, these Islamist fundamentalists, Iraq today is what Afghanistan was for them during the Soviet occupation in the '80s.

MCCAIN: I think you can't draw that comparison too far because we're not occupying Iraq...

BLITZER: I know that, but for them...

MCCAIN: With the Russians...

BLITZER: But for them that's -- they see that analogy. MCCAIN: I think you could draw that analogy but I don't think it's a correct one. I believe the Syrians are facilitating a lot of this, which means we've got another problem, but...

BLITZER: So the Syrians are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

MCCAIN: Absolutely. Absolutely. And nobody knows where Bashar is and nobody knows how much power he has and who pushes his buttons and it's a very complex situation. The Saudis continue to fund the madrassas which turn out these kids that hate America and are willing to die for...

BLITZER: When you say the Saudis do this, do you mean the Saudi government or individual Saudis?

MCCAIN: What's the difference?

BLITZER: Because the Saudi government maintains they are doing the best they can to fight terrorism.

MCCAIN: You know, they keep saying that and they've said it for years and still we see the funding going to these madrassas all over the Middle East, particularly Pakistan and areas such as that and the Saudis have made this pact with the devil with the Wahhabis and I see no indication that that's been broken.

But back to your original question, I don't believe that you can maintain the support of the people with the kind of tactics they continue to employ and hopefully Chairman Mao's old adage about the fishes, the waters, the guerrillas, the people, that that water will start drying up because that distaste for it.

But the Sunnis have to be part of the government.

You have met and I have met with members of the Iraqi government. They are smart, they are tough, they are intelligent. It's a tough neighborhood. They know they have got to include the Sunnis. They have got to find a way to do it and let's hope they do.

BLITZER: This week there was a scathing report condemning the United States at Amnesty International put out, suggesting that the U.S. treatment of detainees at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, in their words, was becoming the gulag of this age, the gulag referring to former Soviet gulags -- also going on to suggest that high level Bush administration officials may have violated international law in major ways. Listen to what William Schultz, the executive director of Amnesty International, said on Wednesday.


WILLIAM SCHULTZ, AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL: Amnesty International calls today on foreign governments to uphold their obligations under international law by investigating all senior U.S. officials involved in the torture scandal.


BLITZER: The suggestion being if Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld or former CIA Director Tenet or Vice President Cheney traveled to various governments, those governments might want to pick them up and question them, maybe even arrest them for violating international law. MCCAIN: Well, that isn't going to happen but we do have a problem with this and we know and the "Newsweek" article in itself might have been innocuous but it was an incident in a long set of reports going back to Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, the renditions and all of that.

We need to have what the Defense Department has just adopted and that's uniform rules for the treatment of all prisoners of war. That has to, I think, apply in all agencies of government.

When I asked if that applies to other agencies of government, I didn't get an answer yet. It applies to the military but what you're suggesting is that the intelligence community, the CIA, it may not apply to them.

MCCAIN: Yes. I didn't get an answer.

I think Congress has a responsibility in a mature fashion to continue to hold hearings on this issue to make sure that we're exercising our proper oversight responsibilities and those of us who have traveled in the region cannot overstate the impact that Abu Ghraib and other things that have happened have damaged the image of the United States of America in the Middle East.

It isn't fair. Life isn't fair. We've got to repair that damage. And these latest pictures of Saddam Hussein in his underwear, some people laugh, but the fact is it is a violation of the Geneva Conventions and we were responsible for his security.

BLITZER: Protecting him, in effect.


BLITZER: Now you speak with some authority, a great deal of authority. You were a prisoner of war for more than five years during the Vietnam War.

MCCAIN: But I hate to use my personal experiences as any rationale for American policy. I would hope that my duties as a senator and my experience would be the primary factor.

But of course, I know one thing, that torture doesn't work and that's why, at the same time, if there is an imminent attack on the United States of America where millions of Americans might be killed by a terrorist than obviously you have to do whatever you need to do or you think you need to do.

But I would argue that decision has to be made at the highest level of government, not by a guard or an interrogator in a prison cell somewhere, particularly whether it's a foreign country or not.

I would hope that what we would do is maybe have some hearings in the Armed Services Committee and John Warner, Lindsey Graham and others are interested in this, and do it in a dispassionate manner. We're a little afraid that somebody might want to get some political advantage out of it, naturally, because we're politicians. But I hope that we can work more closely with the administration and exercise Congress' legitimate oversight responsibilities.

BLITZER: Some suggest now that especially since there were no weapons of mass destruction found in Iraq that the U.S. made a strategic blunder by three Axis of Evil countries, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, where Iran and North Korea really represented potential threats to the United States and Iraq really didn't.

MCCAIN: Well, I would argue that Iraq really did because Saddam Hussein had used weapons of mass destruction. He is the only one of the three that actually used them. He had attempted to acquire them. There was no doubt in anybody's mind that if he remained in power that he would continue that attempt and the sanctions were not -- the status quo wasn't prevailing. The sanctions were eroding very badly. American planes were being shot at, so it was a situation that was going to have to be addressed sooner or later.

Having said that, the failure of our intelligence is a failure that's got to be remedied, because it was as massive intelligence failure and we all know it and so the problem is obvious, that if you -- if the leaders of this nation decide we may have to go into another conflict, they are going to have a very tough job convincing the American people about the rational for doing so.

BLITZER: The next time the U.S. goes to the U.N. Security Council and points to intelligence evidence, you know there is going to be skeptics.

MCCAIN: We will hear about Colin Powell's appearance, yes.

BLITZER: All right. Senator McCain, I want you to stand by. We're going to take a quick commercial break.

Much more of our special conversation with Senator John McCain. I'll ask him about the new TV movie recounting his days as a United States prisoner of war in Vietnam. It's based on his book.

Then, the hunt for Osama bin Laden. We'll talk with Afghanistan's foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah. He's here in Washington. We'll ask him where the terrorist leader may be hiding out now and if he's any closer to being captured.

And later, behind the lines, our special look at how U.S. troops prepare for their missions in Iraq and the seemingly non-stop attacks by insurgents.

"LATE EDITION" continues right after this.


BLITZER: Welcome back to "LATE EDITION." We're continuing our special Memorial Day weekend conversation with Republican Senator and Vietnam War veteran John McCain.

You were part of a very important group of independent, moderate, traditional senators, 14 of them, seven Democrats, seven Republicans, that worked out a compromise on the president's judicial nominees. Do you get the sense that that's just a one-shot wonder, or is it part of a new effort to strengthen the, let's say, moderate middle?

MCCAIN: If this succeeds, I think it will strengthen the desirability of people from both sides of the aisle coming together in agreement on some course of action...

BLITZER: In other words, will it spill over on other issues, like Social Security reform, tax simplification, some of these other key issues facing the U.S. Senate?

MCCAIN: I think it could. I think it could, and maybe not necessarily that group, you know of 14. Maybe it could be another group, but maybe it might set an example that people with common interests and common values would come together and try to address a major issue.

What we're hoping will happen here is that we'd lower the temperature dramatically around here, go about the people's business, pass an energy bill, pass a highway bill, you know, do the things that they expect us to do -- which, by the way, they're very disapproving of nowadays. According to a CNN poll, only 33 percent of them approve of "Congress," unquote -- and then that will provide impetus for other efforts that are bipartisan.

That doesn't mean that we're not going to fight each other philosophically because we are a different party and different views. But there are issues such as Social Security that transcend partisanship that should cause us to be able to sit down and negotiate with one another.

BLITZER: You know, you and some of your other Republican colleagues are being hammered by some of the more, shall we say, conservative elements or religious conservative elements of the Republican Party.

The Rev. James Dobson saying Tuesday after your compromise was worked out, he called it "a complete bailout and betrayal by a cabal of Republicans and a great victory for united Democrats. We share the disappointment, outrage and sense of abandonment felt by millions of conservative Americans who helped put Republicans in power last November." Those are strong words from an influential evangelical leader.

MCCAIN: I wonder how Dr. Dobson really feels about it.


BLITZER: Yes. He didn't mince any words there.

MCCAIN: Look, we knew that the far left, and now the far left is weighing in also with, angrily, about the agreement, as well as the far right. They wanted the fight. They wanted the battle. They want to impose their will on the senate.

BLITZER: They could smell victory on the Republican side. They thought that the Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, had the votes.

MCCAIN: But, you know, that's not clear at all. In fact, I have some indications that he didn't. That was one of the reasons I think that brought us together, because, particularly on the Republican side, if they succeeded, then the minority rights in the United States Senate as an institution were basically on the downhill slide.

But if we lost the vote on the nuclear option, then that would have been a blow to the ability of Republicans to govern. Those were motivating factors.

Look, if we had passed this, 51 votes would now decide how the Senate functions. The Senate was designed to protect the rights of the minority. That's why Wyoming, with 500,000 inhabitants, has two votes, and California, with 25 or 30 million, have two votes.

And so to pass this, in my view, it would have been an erosion of ability of a minority to function in the Senate. And someday, the Democrats will be in the majority. And then the scenario would be, a liberal Democrat president, liberal Democrat judges -- liberal judges, and great damage.

So there was a lot at stake. People sat down with mutual trust and good faith and worked out this agreement. I don't know if it's going to sustain itself. I think it will. I believe it will. I know that the 14 of us are committed to have it hold.

I notice the senators who were critical of it on both sides were not part of that group.

So, I'm hoping we'll move forward. We affirmed Judge Owen yesterday. We're going to move forward with the other judges. And hopefully we're going to move on and lower the rhetoric.

BLITZER: A lot of people, though, think this was just a preliminary, a warm-up for the Supreme Court, once the president has an opportunity to nominate a new justice for the Supreme Court.

MCCAIN: Could I just reply on that real quick?

BLITZER: Yeah, go ahead.

MCCAIN: What our commitment is, that "extraordinary circumstances," unquote, would prevail for Supreme Court justices as well as appellate court justices, we also ask that the president -- and I say ask -- that the president consult more with members of Congress, both Republican and Democrat, so we can avoid that.

Look, the Democrats abused their filibuster rights, we all know, in the last couple of years, by filibustering all of these judges. They know that. They know -- at least the group we are with -- they know they overreached. Now they're trying to work out something where it won't happen with any kind of frequency, and only under extraordinary circumstances.

BLITZER: There was a long article in "The New Yorker" magazine, which I'm sure you've read. Gary Bauer was quoted in an article, a Christian conservative, friend of yours, a supporter of yours going back to when you ran for president, speaking about the Supreme Court. The article says, "Bush said he had no litmus test, and his judges would be strict constructionists. But McCain, in private, assured me he would appoint pro-life judges." Is that true?

MCCAIN: First of all, it was a private conversation. I won't talk about it. But I can tell you that there would be not litmus test for a judge if I were president of the United States. And obviously I'm going to wait a couple of years before I even make that decision.

BLITZER: Don't you have to start thinking about that kind of decision now? A lot of other people are sort of going up to New Hampshire and Iowa, testing the waters, getting maybe some informal advisers. It's a long, drawn-out process. You went through it before. You know what it takes.

MCCAIN: I do. But I really don't want to make a decision or make any explorations for a couple of years. It would impede my ability to function effectively in the Senate. And, Wolf, I just don't want to do it. So if come kind of penalty accrues from that, then I have to accept that.

BLITZER: There's an excellent new movie that is going to air Monday night on A&E here in the United States, "Faith in My Fathers."

MCCAIN: Wonderful movie.

BLITZER: Based on your book, the story, really, of your father and your own experience as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. We have a little clip. I want to run a little clip to talk about this, especially during this Memorial Day weekend in the United States.


BLITZER: Is that pretty accurate, the way it really happened?

MCCAIN: Totally accurate.

BLITZER: Now, tell our viewers the context of that little clip.

MCCAIN: The Vietnamese released three or four groups of prisoners of three at a time, and our code of conduct says that you will go in order of shoot-down, of capture, or the seriously injured would of course go ahead of that. And the Vietnamese -- and that guy was the head of all the camps, a guy we called "The Cat" -- offered me an opportunity to go home. And I was able to refuse -- I refused that offer. And don't think I didn't think about it. And I'm very glad I didn't know the war was going to last for three more years.

BLITZER: At the time.

MCCAIN: At that time. And then, as he said in the interview, things did get much worse.

BLITZER: And they clearly did for you, because at one point, you cracked.

MCCAIN: Yes. Yes. And I taped a confession, a war crimes confession, yes.

BLITZER: What led up to that, because it's very powerful in the film?

MCCAIN: Well, I was rather badly mistreated. But I also have to say that the important thing is that my comrades, who I love dearly to this day, picked me up where I had fallen. The encouraged me. They gave me strength and love and compassion. And for that, I will always be grateful.

BLITZER: You think about those days nowadays? I mean, do you wake up in the middle of the night sometimes and just have a cold sweat?

MCCAIN: No. But hardly a day goes by that one of those guys doesn't call me up to yell at me, or to ask how I'm doing. And, you know, I love them. And I'm always glad to hear from them. And the great joy of my life was to have formed the bond of friendship and love that I have with those old geezers that I was with a long time ago and far away. They're my heroes.

BLITZER: I remember...

MCCAIN: And they were a lot tougher than I was.

BLITZER: Over the years, on my occasions, I've heard you speak about forgiveness, forgiving those with whom you disagreed during the Vietnam War. When a mutual friend of ours, David Ifshin, died, you gave the eulogy for him, even though he was a radical in the '60s, SDS, and went to Hanoi while you were a prisoner of war.

MCCAIN: You know, but the fact is, David Ifshin reached out to me, and I reached out to him. And David Ifshin is a man of honor and a man of decency and a man of integrity. And I was grateful for the opportunity to call him a friend.

BLITZER: And you've even forgiven Jane Fonda.

MCCAIN: She said she was sorry. If people say they were sorry, then -- I'm a great believer in redemption. All the things I've done wrong in my life and all the times I've failed, I'm a great believer in redemption.

BLITZER: When she went -- while you were a POW, did you know she visited Hanoi?

MCCAIN: Oh, yeah. They played us the tapes and showed us the pictures. But also, they showed us -- when Ramsey Clark, former attorney general of the United States, came. I think he's far more responsible than a young actress. BLITZER: We're going to take another quick break, Senator McCain. We have more to talk about on this Memorial Day weekend in the United States. We'll continue our conversation with Senator McCain.

Then, Afghanistan's foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah -- he'll weigh in on concerns over the treatment of Afghan detainees at the U.S. Naval base at Guantanamo Bay.

Also ahead, a check of what's making news right now. Stay with "LATE EDITION", the last word in Sunday talk.


BLITZER: Welcome back to "LATE EDITION." We're continuing our conversation with Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona.


BLITZER: The whole Vietnam War became such a powerful issue during the last campaign. Swift Boat Veterans for Truth really went after John Kerry during the campaign. Looking back on it now, how fair were they in skewering him? He himself had served in Vietnam, was injured there.

MCCAIN: Well, first of all, he and I had worked together to try to heal those wounds -- normalization of relations; resolution of the POW-MIA issue. And John Kerry is a friend of mine.

I didn't agree with what John Kerry did after the war was over when he came home. I have that right to disagree, just like we all have a right to disagree with one another.

I thought it was dishonorable and dishonest to question the medals and citations that he had received in combat. Those medals and citations were reviewed up the line to the highest level in the Navy. He had earned them.

And to question those, in my view, was not only improper, but -- look, should we go back and examine everybody's medals and how they got them and under what circumstances?

I'll tell you a dirty little secret. It was much easier at the end of the Vietnam War to get a medal than it was at the beginning. That's true in every conflict. And I'm not saying no one deserved them. They all deserved them. They were brave Americans.

But I just thought it was wrong. And I know that some of my friends, including those I was in prison with, strongly disagreed with that view.

BLITZER: You want to be president of the United States?

MCCAIN: I'd love to be president of the United States. The question is, is do I want to run for it. I know of very few senators that wouldn't like to be... BLITZER: So what's the answer?

MCCAIN: I'm going to wait a couple years before making that decision. And there's a lot of considerations. One of them is, by the way, what happens in the 2006 election. That's going to determine a lot about the direction of the Republican Party. If we increase our majority, which I hope we do, we're on the right track. If we don't, then obviously there's going to be some re-evaluation.

As a Republican, I'm concerned about the low approval ratings that people have of Congress today. And I think the best way to cure that problem is to show them some results.

BLITZER: How do you feel?

MCCAIN: Oh, wonderful. .

BLITZER: Because you will be 72 years old in 2008.

MCCAIN: Nobody wants you when you're old and gray, Wolf. That means you, too.

BLITZER: That's not necessarily true. There have been American presidents who've been elected in their 70s, and relatively recently.

MCCAIN: No. I'm in very good health. My 93-year-old mother, who still drives herself around Europe, and sometimes at high speeds in America, is ample testimony to my excellent genes.

BLITZER: "Faith of My Fathers" was an excellent book. "Faith of My Fathers," the film, is going to be an excellent film. It airs Monday night here in the United States on A&E. We'll be watching.

MCCAIN: Yes, sir. Thank you, Wolf. And thanks for having me on.

BLITZER: Appreciate it.


BLITZER: Just ahead, a special conversation with Afghanistan's foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah. We'll ask him about his country's role in the war on terror and the search for Osama bin Laden.

"LATE EDITION" will continue after this short break.


BLITZER: Welcome back to "LATE EDITION." Earlier this week, President Bush denied Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai's request to assume more control over U.S. military operations in his country. But both leaders insist ties between the two countries remain very strong. Joining us now here in Washington is Afghanistan's foreign minister, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah.

Foreign Minister, welcome to Washington.


BLITZER: Let's listen to what the president said on this very sensitive issue of Afghan troops being involved with U.S. troops whenever the troops in your country, Afghanistan, go on raids. Because when President Karzai was on this program a week ago, he said he wanted Afghan troops involved every step of the way. Listen to what President Bush said.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: In terms of more say over our military, our relationship is one of cooperate and consult. Of course, our troops will respond to U.S. commanders. But our U.S. commanders and our diplomatic mission, there is a consultive relationship with the government.


BLITZER: All right. So what do you make of this development? Did the president rebuff you?

ABDULLAH: I wouldn't call what President Karzai had asked for as asking the United States to let the U.S. commanders under the command of Afghan commanders or anything of such interference in the line of command and control, when it comes to the U.S. Army. I wouldn't call it that way. I would say that what was asked was more coordination, consultation, which is being discussed and it is that.

BLITZER: Because on this program, exactly a week ago, President Karzai said that when U.S. troops in Afghanistan, for example, raid someone's home, they want Afghan troops to be present. Your government wants Afghan troops to be present.

I take it that there is no hard and fast commitment that you won from the administration that that would happen.

ABDULLAH: I think in terms of operations, it is one thing. U.S. launches operations on its own -- U.S. forces, as well as in combination with the Afghan national army. And there are certain rules of engagement which are in place. And we have no doubt about that, and nobody doubts it. And that's working.

Then when there are search operations, sometimes raids in the evenings in some parts of the country, there as well we have agreed with the U.S. military in Kabul on certain mechanisms, where there is consultation, there is cooperation as President Bush mentioned. And implementation of that mechanism is what President Karzai was asking for.

BLITZER: How is the Afghan military doing? Does it control all of Afghanistan or is it simply, as some suggest, a military and a government for that matter that controls Kabul but not much more than that? ABDULLAH: The purpose of having a military force is not to send it in every village to control the villages through the military. Of course, certainly you're not meaning that.

And in terms of raising the national army, which is now well over 20,000 of it and it should reach the level of 70,000 in some years to come. We are a long way from it. And then we have our national police force. In terms of the government reach, political reach is everywhere, in all villages of Afghanistan, all over the country. Then from the institutional point of view, we are away from a fact that the government will reach institutionally.

BLITZER: How worried are you that the Taliban will make a comeback, at least in parts of Afghanistan?

ABDULLAH: The Taliban are launching some operations (inaudible) in some parts of the country. A comeback of Taliban, in terms of reversing the process, it is out of question. That is over now.

In terms of the Taliban being able to enhance their military activities in some parts of the country, which is the perception in the past few weeks, I think with some more efforts and also working with our neighboring country Pakistan -- because extremism is also a problem in the other side of the border -- and Pakistan is fighting against extremist elements and terrorists which have bases in Waziristan, for example. That depends a lot on that aspect of it as well. The more we work together, the better will be the situation.

BLITZER: You've said flatly that you're absolutely convinced that Osama bin Laden is not hiding out in Afghanistan. How can you be so sure?

ABDULLAH: Personally, as the foreign minister of Afghanistan, I haven't seen any evidence to convince me that he is in Afghanistan at this stage. Perhaps in other phases, he was able to come back and forth, go back and forth.

BLITZER: Between Pakistan and Afghanistan?

ABDULLAH: Yes, but we all were witness to a situation where hundreds of Al Qaida, high-ranking people, including al-Libbi very recently, were arrested outside Afghanistan. So that's one of the evidences...

BLITZER: Where do you suspect he is?

ABDULLAH: Most probably in the areas where the other Al Qaida high-ranking people...


BLITZER: Well, some of them were found in Karachi or in other cities in Pakistan.

ABDULLAH: Well, when I used to say that perhaps some Al Qaida would be in Karachi or Lahore, it was rebuffed strongly in time. But later on, some were found in those areas.

But in terms of Osama bin Laden, I wouldn't say anything as a specific site, because it will be impossible for somebody to claim it.

BLITZER: Some experts have suggested they think the net is closing in on Osama bin Laden, that they're getting closer and closer to finding him. Is there any evidence that you've seen to suggest that?

ABDULLAH: As more Al Qaida being arrested, as Afghanistan being denied the sanctuary for Al Qaida, that is coming closer and closer. But then, in terms of, are we getting closer to arresting Osama bin Laden, that's also not a proposition that I would suggest.

BLITZER: The other issue, a very sensitive issue in U.S.-Afghan relations, the poppies, the opium that becomes heroin and sold on the streets of the United States, Europe, around the world. Afghanistan is the leading supplier of these poppies.

And there's been criticism from some in the U.S. government that you're simply not doing enough to eradicate this cultivation. What's your response?

ABDULLAH: Afghanistan is the victim in that field, as Afghanistan was the victim when terrorists were factioning within Afghanistan.

BLITZER: Can't you stop it? Can't you burn these fields?

ABDULLAH: We have made -- no, we have made several efforts, some major efforts, especially this year, hopefully there is something like 30 percent reduction. But this is something -- this is a phenomenon that you just cannot eliminate it by force.

There has to be a comprehensive strategy to deal with it. That includes law enforcement, which is already the thing that we have been doing, as well as providing alternative livelihood for the farmers, working with our neighboring countries to stop trafficking of it, and too many other aspects of it. But it will take time.

BLITZER: How much time?

ABDULLAH: Let's see the experience of other countries. I hope Afghanistan will not consume that much time in dealing with this issue, because it is an urgent issue. And it is an issue of high priority for us. But it will take time.

BLITZER: Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, thanks very much for spending a few moments with us on "LATE EDITION."

ABDULLAH: You're welcome.

BLITZER: Welcome back to the United States.

ABDULLAH: Thanks. BLITZER: Still ahead on our special "LATE EDITION", behind the lines. A U.S. Army captain's amazing story, how being severely wounded in combat didn't keep him from returning to his fellow warriors on the front line.

Our special "LATE EDITION" continues right after this.


BLITZER: Welcome to this special "LATE EDITION: Behind the Lines." I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

On this Memorial Day weekend here in the United States, the nation remembers those who died in military service to the country.

We're here on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. And for the next hour, we're taking you behind the lines of the current U.S. military effort in Iraq.

This hour, you'll meet the troops fighting the war, and hear their incredible stories. First, though, let's get a quick check of what's making news right now.


BLITZER: Thanks very much. On this Memorial Day weekend, we're joining you from the national mall in Washington, D.C., and taking you behind the lines of the war in Iraq.

I recently joined the commander of the military central command, General John Abizaid, on a visit with the troops in Iraq. We went to Baghdad, Fallujah, Mosul, Balad and the southern port of Um Qasr.

I also traveled to Kuwait, Qatar and into the Persian Gulf to meet American forces, men and women supporting the military effort. More than two years into the war, Iraq's fledgling democracy has a new government, and a permanent constitution is being drafted, but insurgent attacks remain a deadly event.


BLITZER: The violence in Iraq is unrelenting for U.S. troops, but it's become especially deadly for Iraqis. Dozens of Americans died in May, but it was the Iraqi security forces and the civilians that were targeted by a rash of insurgent bombings and assassinations, hundreds killed in recent weeks. Lieutenant General John Vines is the second-ranking U.S. commander in Iraq.

LT. GEN. JOHN VINES, U.S. ARMY COMMANDER: The numbers of these insurgents appear to be relatively small, but they are lethal, there's no question.

BLITZER: Attacks are numbering about 60 a day. In May, there were dozens of suicide car bombings, in addition to a continuation of the roadside bombings. The U.S. military says Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab Al Zarqawi is behind much of the violence. GEN. JOHN ABIZAID, U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND: People like Zarqawi and bin Laden are regarded by the whole region as being extremists. The people out there do not want them to win. They have no vision of the future. It's just a dark, dark way ahead.

BLITZER: Iraq's new government remains intent on showing it can control the country.

HOSHYAR ZEBARI, IRAQI FOREIGN MINISTER: We are confident we will be able to defeat them with more assertive security policies.

BLITZER: One question on everyone's mind: When will the insurgency end?

GEN. RICHARD MYERS, CHAIRMAN, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF: One thing we know about insurgencies, that they last from three, four years to nine years. These are tough fights.

BLITZER: That means U.S. troops will remain on the scene for the foreseeable future.


BLITZER: A huge challenge for those troops in Iraq and for the thousands of men and women supporting them in the region is certainly those IEDs, or improvised explosive devices.

It's a major concern for the so-called Iraqi Express.


BLITZER: It's one of the simplest and at the same time, most dangerous jobs in the U.S. military in Iraq. The job: driving a truck; the danger: avoiding getting killed or injured by a roadside bomb, a rocket, small-arms fire, or a suicide car bomber.

BRIG. GEN. WILLIAM JOHNSON, U.S. ARMY: There are attacks every day in someplace in Iraq.

BLITZER: Here at Camp Navistar at the northern Kuwaiti border with Iraq, U.S. troops are preparing for what they call the Iraqi Express: a 30-vehicle convoy that will head more than 400 miles deep into Iraq.

SGT. WENDY ORDWAY, U.S. ARMY: Enemy situations today. As you guys well know, stuff is getting a little hot and heavy down range. I'm headed north on ASR Detroit. Receive small arms fire, mortar fire and indirect fire. All right. We had some soldiers get hurt on that one. That's not good. We don't want to go there. We're going to make this a tight ship. We're going to make it happen and we're going to get everybody back safe.

BLITZER: Staff Sergeant Wendy Ordway is in charge of this mission.

Are you nervous? ORDWAY: It's all about the soldiers. If I'm scared, then they're going to be scared. Take them up and take them back and make sure they're safe.

BLITZER: The troops Staff Sergeant Ordway commands are certainly aware of the dangers.

Have you come under attack on any of those missions?


BLITZER: What was it like?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Gets scary at times. You get a big old adrenaline rush and you keep moving on.

BLITZER: Are you a little scared?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, I'm not scared.

BLITZER: Nothing wrong with being scared.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. There's no need to. You don't have time to be scared.

BLITZER: You're working all the time?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yeah. You have to constantly be alert.

BLITZER: Have you been attacked?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My last time over here, yes, we were hit.

BLITZER: And what happened?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We had an IED go off in a convoy. We handled it the proper way we that were trained, went to the rally point, and assessed the situation and kept rolling on with our mission.

BLITZER: A typical mission lasts eight or nine days. Unfortunately, many of the soldiers working the Iraqi Express have come face to face with IEDs. Here are some of their stories.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They had them buried in the asphalt and had actually painted over the line on the side of the road where they had buried them. So there was no clue that they were there at all.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A fellow got hit by a truck, and my ears were ringing, and it was really wild.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It sounded like a tire blowing out, except somewhat louder. And we really didn't have time to react too much.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They had a level two armor. And I augmented that with some ballistic steel on the undercarriage myself, which helped a lot. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The cab of the truck, or the Humvee rather, was engulfed in a small fire. A split second later, all you could see out the front windshield was flames.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: blew our windshield out, ballistic glass on the door stop, all the door stops.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The level two did its job. It was penetrated, but with the 155 millimeter shell at 11 feet, you know, there's not much you can do.

BLITZER: Does your family know what happened to you, back in Guam?


BLITZER: What did they say?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They're just happy that I'm alive and well and still standing here today.

BLITZER: So what saved your life?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Probably the good Lord and a lot of luck.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I would have to say without the up-armor kit, level two, we probably wouldn't be here today.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: My motivation when I go out there is home. So that's what keeps me alive out there.

BLITZER: So how does the U.S. military prepare the troops for such an encounter? Commanders have constructed elaborate training grounds in the hot Kuwaiti desert, just south of the Iraqi border. Realistic exercises mean everyone knows what to expect on the dangerous road to Baghdad and beyond.

Bullets flying all over the place, the training exercises here at the Udari (ph) range can themselves be quite dangerous.

BRIG. GEN. MIKE MILANO, U.S. ARMY: Things don't always go well during this. And that's the purpose of the after-action review. They talk about what was the plan, how'd you prepare for it, then what happened during execution.

BLITZER: The best way to prepare the troops for the dangerous drive through Iraq is to simulate on this training range what they might eventually encounter. To do that, the troops drive through a nearly 10-mile course, during which they come under simulated hostile fire.

MILANO: The whole principle here is, if there's a threat, return fire and get out of the area as quickly as possible.

BLITZER: It's a three-day program of instruction. On this day, I'm in the front seat of an armored Humvee, and our driver explains that one vehicle has come under attack and has been disabled.

MAJOR MATT FATH, U.S. ARMY: It's going to be a hasty evacuation. We have to get him in a vehicle and get him out of the kill zone. After you do that, then we'll recover the vehicle. Same thing, it will be a hasty recovery, throw a strap, and tow strap on there, pull it out of the kill zone, all while somebody else is suppressing the enemy, and then continue to move.

BLITZER: The military has built an overpass to show drivers how to evade grenades that could be dropped into their vehicles.

The key, I'm told, is to swerve rapidly either to the left or the right just before going underneath. Even though the insurgents already know this maneuver, it makes it tougher to hit the target.

At the same range, U.S. troops practice firing at an incoming vehicle, trying to maneuver it through barricades at the entrance to a camp. The objective is to avoid another Beirut, a reference to what happened in 1983, when a suicide truck driver simply approached the U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon, killing 241 Americans.

On this day, they assess how the trainees did.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There was a big lag from the time that thing started moving until your first round comes out right. You've got to remember, that vehicle's coming at you, he's trying to blow through your checkpoint, you've got to stop it.

BLITZER: Still to come on our special "LATE EDITION: Behind the Lines," a downed pilot in dangerous territory.

ZANE ZANENGHI, NORTH CAROLINA NATIONAL GUARD: It was the real deal. It still is the real deal.

BLITZER: We'll show you his incredible rescue.

Then -- Iraqi troops in training. They say they're eager to take over defense of their country, but how are they doing? And the U.S. Army captain who survived a roadside bomb attack in this Humvee. He's now making history. You'll meet him later on this special "LATE EDITION: Behind the Lines."

ABIZAID: I wonder why Americans are so arrogant as to think it can't happen here. It can happen here. It will happen here. The world is too interconnected. People want to live a better life. It won't be American-style democracy. But it'll be more participatory than they've ever seen before in an era where leadership of local nations will be held accountable. I'm certain of that.


CAPT. KEVIN DONEGAN, U.S. NAVY COMMANDING OFFICER, USS VINSON: Well, our responsibility for the Carl Vinson as a ship is to ensure that we're in the right place at the right time to launch the airplanes over the beach, so that when the troops are on the ground, if they need help, we're there all the time to help them for as long a period of time as we can be.

BLITZER: Up next, I'll take you aboard the USS Carl Vinson, where I talked with the Navy's top guns, the aviators risking their lives every day to patrol the skies over Iraq and protect the crucial shipping lanes of the Gulf.

The ready room is where naval aviators prepare for war: Intelligence assessment, mission analysis, course of action development, and, when they return from combat missions, debriefs.

But it's also a place to relax. There are reminders of home and pictures of loved ones on the wall. Each seat is designated for a naval aviator. But you don't want to be the one sitting under this. The bolt hangs over the head of the latest bolter, the aviator who, while attempting to land on the aircraft carrier, failed to catch the arresting wire and had to bolt off the flight deck back over sea.


BLITZER: Flying Blackhawk helicopters out of Balad Air Base north of Baghdad are the proud pilots of Alpha Company, First Battalion, 126th Aviation Regiment of the Rhode Island National Guard. I have a special bond with them. They call themselves "the brotherhood of the wolf."

The honorary member of the wolf pack is...


BLITZER: I can't hear you.

CROWD: Wolf Blitzer!

BLITZER: Thank you.


BLITZER: Good work.

Flying the Blackhawk, though, is serious business indeed. The Balad Air Base is the largest helicopter facility in the region. With hundreds of aircraft going in and out, there are bound to be some close calls.

The Blackhawk like this one was on a routine mission in Iraq when it began to experience transmission problems. It was forced to make an emergency landing in hostile territory. There were 14 U.S. and Iraqi troops on board.

LT. COL. CHRIS CALLAHAN, U.S. ARMY: We made a conscious decision to land the aircraft because eventually it would become unflyable if the transmission seized.

BLITZER: The 14 troops were quickly joined by reinforcements to guard the helicopter and its sensitive technology. CNN has obtained this nightscope video from the U.S. military, pictures that captured the recovery of the Blackhawk during a complicated and dangerous operation.

CALLAHAN: So what we ended up doing was putting together a mission where we would use one of the CH-47s, which is the Army's heavy-lift helicopter, to come in and literally pick it up off the ground and fly it back up here to the lot.

BLITZER: You can make out the much larger CH-47 helicopter lifting the damaged Blackhawk and literally carrying it back to the Balad Air Base, a flight that took about an hour and 15 minutes.

CALLAHAN: And I used what we call a long line, and they hooked it and very gently picked it up and brought it back.

BLITZER: The operation had to be carefully rehearsed. And a separate unit of commandos was sent in to secure the area. They were backed up by Apache attack helicopters, from which these pictures were taken.

CALLAHAN: And then what we see on the camera film, we see two snippets. Specifically, one is just simply the enormous length of the rope and how it flies, and then one is, as it comes in to touch down, where the crew did a real nice job of, between the ground crew and the flying crew to set the aircraft back here on its, you know, right side up, and no further damage, you know. And that was good news.

BLITZER: The mission was successful.

Helicopter pilot Zane Zanenghi was on that Blackhawk when it made the emergency landing in dangerous territory. He's keeping an audio diary of his tour of duty for his hometown radio station. Here is his dramatic account of waiting to be rescued.

ZANENGHI: We're still here, and right now we're waiting on a Guard team, which is the maintenance team, to try to determine what they're going to do with the aircraft, try to get us out of here.

But it was the real deal today. And it still is the real deal. But I just felt like I should get some audio. It's still kind of reeling through my head. And my anxiety is still way up. My stress is still way up.

BLITZER: And several days later, after he had a chance to catch his breath, he reflected on that experience.


ZANENGHI: That first hour that we were there in Karbala was probably the longest hour I've ever had. I was away from the helicopter, which is not good, and I was lying down on the ground with a rifle, just waiting for someone to come after me. And I had really had never thought about that situation, and, yet, I was put in that situation. After a few hours, after actually about an hour and a half, the quick reaction force came, which is also known as the QRF. And they were able to secure the site for us. We were there for another four or five hours on the ground, waiting to be picked up.

The maintenance team actually flew in and determined that the helicopter was not flyable out.

So it was actually sling-loaded, which means it was put underneath another helicopter and flown back to Balad, which was a sight, and of course they had to do it under the cover of darkness for security reasons, and it was done about 24 hours later. But it was a very stressful day, very tense night. I'm kind of coming down from all the events and reeling from all the tension, but I'm doing better.


BLITZER: Zanenghi is currently serving with the North Carolina National Guard. In civilian life, he flies a helicopter for the Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center. While those troops in the Blackhawk were stuck on the ground, there were U.S. fighter pilots most likely on standby, to fly in close air support if necessary. I spoke with the Navy's top guns, on board the USS Carl Vinson.


BLITZER: Their mission is incredibly dangerous, even under the best of circumstances. These are the Navy and Marine Corps top guns, the pilots who take off from and return to these giant aircraft carriers. Simply put, the aviators are the best of the best.

These planes behind us, they have two missions, combat support in Iraq. These pilots are flying over Iraq all the time. Also, what's called maritime security in the Persian Gulf, protecting shipping lanes, especially the oil shipping lanes.

I met with several pilots after they just returned from a mission over Iraq. Their nature is to play down the dangers.

So how do you feel doing this, flying over Baghdad? Because, potentially, you're in harm's way. You're in a war zone.

LT. IAN PADDOCK, U.S. NAVY: Well, we're not nearly as threatened as the guys are on the ground, so we're kind of just there to support them.

BLITZER: So you're not scared?

PADDOCK: I don't know I'd go and say that we're scared. Yes, there's definitely some apprehension. And more tension than in a normal training mission. But it's not like I saw in the earlier phases of this conflict.

BLITZER: The carrier-based aviators usually don't land in Iraq. Usually, but not always. Lieutenant Commander Chris Ford had to make a quick refueling stop during this most recent mission. LT. COMMANDER CHRIS FORD, U.S. NAVY: We only do it when we need to, usually to get fuel or some other, for some other reason. Normally, we try to do all of our refueling in the air.

BLITZER: So how do you feel flying over Iraq?

FORD: The mission we're doing, supporting the guys on the ground, the ones that are doing all the hard work. And we're there to help them.

BLITZER: This is Lieutenant Commander Ron Candiloro's fourth tour of duty in the region. He insists things are getting a little better.

LT. COMMANDER RON CANDILORO, U.S. NAVY: I would say they're not as dangerous, in the sense that there's not as much of a threat out there as there was, especially when Iraqi Freedom started back in '03.

BLITZER: Because they had surface-to-air capability.

CANDILORO: Yes, sir. They still have the capability out there. We're never going to underestimate that, but based on the training we have received and the intelligence that we get, we have minimized it to the point where we feel fairly secure the places we're flying and the altitudes we're flying and the tactics that we trained to.

So that we're pretty sure we're going to come back. But if it came down to it, whatever it takes to help the guys on the ground, I mean that's what we're here for.

BLITZER: Pretty sure they're going to come back. But as we learned this month, that's unfortunately not always the case. Not long after I visited the USS Carl Vinson and spoke to those aviators, a tragic accident occurred. I was jolted when I heard that two F-18 jet fighters had collided over Iraq in bad weather.

On this Memorial Day weekend here in the United States, Americans are paying their respect to those pilots and the other U.S. troops killed in action.

Marine Major John Sparr, 42 years old, from Cherry Hill, New Jersey. It was Major Sparr's second tour of duty in Iraq. Friends remember him as an exceptional athlete. He believes behind a wife, Diane, an 8-year-old daughter, Chandler.

And Marine Captain Kelly Hines, 30 years old, from Woodbury, Minnesota. The son of a former Navy pilot, Captain Kelly leaves behind his wife Molly and 7 month old daughter Abby.

There's much more ahead on our special "LATE EDITION: Behind the Lines." The latest technology to counter the insurgent threat -- we'll show you the latest devices helping to protect U.S. troops on the battlefield. Then, my trip to one of the war's biggest flash points, Fallujah. What's going on there now?

LT. GEN. JOHN SATTLER, U.S. MARINE CORPS: It's a completely different town, with smiles on the faces and a lot of enthusiasm and hope for the future.


BLITZER: Here's a first-hand look at the new Army combat uniform in the field. The U.S. Army is switching to a digital camouflage pattern similar to what the Marine corps fielded nearly years ago.

The new pattern is a mix of muted green, tan and gray. Unlike past patterns, there's no black. Experts say it will help soldiers blend into woodland, desert and urban environments better. Black boots are out, tan desert boots are in. Every soldier should be wearing the new uniforms by 2007.

From new uniforms to new technology. Welcome back to our special "LATE EDITION: Behind the Lines."

The U.S. military is always working on ways to give the troops the best tools possible to fight the insurgents. Here's a look at what's called Operation Iron Claw.

The U.S. military is fighting back, often very creatively with what it calls Operation Iron Claw.

What is the Iron Claw mission?

LT. DAVID SWISHER, U.S. ARMY: We are a team that's here to counteract the IED threat in the Baghdad area. We interrogate sites, we find the IEDs and we keep them from hurting anybody.

BLITZER: I got a good demonstration at an American military base near Baghdad.

SWISHER: Today we're going to be talking about Task Force Iron Claw, how we interrogate a suspicious IED. As you can see, ladies and gentlemen, the device has been exposed.

BLITZER: It's a huge armored vehicle designed to withstand huge blasts. What's critical is its reach: a mechanical arm that can inspect mysterious packages.

It's one thing to see something that looks suspicious, a bag or a box or some cans on the side of the road. You can go and check that out; what if these IEDs are buried a little bit under the ground and you don't see anything, what happens then?

SWISHER: Well, that's where we have faith in our equipment. Its why they give us the buffalo, that's why we're able to dig up the dirt, look for the wires, see if anything leads into the hole. And if it's there, we'll find it.

BLITZER: But while the buffalo makes American troops safer, operating the buffalo is a dangerous job.

Came into that buffalo?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hit right below the window. BLITZER: From the buffalo?


BLITZER: Did it get close to you?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It went through five layers of the window, five out of seven layers. So I was counting my blessings that day.

BLITZER: U.S. sappers use a high-tech metal detector to hunt down hidden explosives. The combat engineers are armored with a chest protector known as the "sappy plate" that breaks up the rounds of fire, and shoes that are especially designed to dissipate the impact of a blast. Sappers are always on the lookout for suspicious terrain, piles of dirt and trash where insurgents can hide bombs.

This looks like one of the most dangerous jobs anyone could ever possibly imagine. You realize how dangerous this is?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. It should be all right. I mean, as long as you don't step on it, then you should be OK.

BLITZER: It was more than a year ago when the world saw some very disturbing scenes from the war. Iraqi insurgents celebrating over the bodies of American contractors in Fallujah, a stronghold for the insurgency. I visited there with U.S. Marine Lieutenant General John Sattler to see what's going on now.

U.S. Marine Lieutenant General John Sattler led the battle against the insurgents called Operation Vigilant Resolve. I asked him how many were killed.

SATTLER: I will throw out the number of somewhere around 2,000. I'll just put that out as a benchmark.

BLITZER: The battle was intense and complete.

General Sattler says those insurgent who survived the Marine attack fled the area. The city, badly damaged during the fighting, is now making a comeback. Nearly one-third of the city's 300,000 people have returned.

Sattler insists that Fallujah today is one of the safest places in Iraq. But don't be misled. He and other U.S. commanders say the insurgency in Iraq is far from over. The Saddam loyalists, the Abu Musab Al Zarqawi terrorists, the foreign fighters and the common criminals continue their attacks, especially their increasingly sophisticated use of improvised explosive devices.

SATTLER: From types of cell phones, radios, there's multiple ways that as we figure out how to jam them or how to pre-detonate them, they continue to try to enhance their technology to get around us.

BLITZER: Top planners hope that a new Iraqi government and a new Iraqi military will increasingly take charge of events in their country and give the U.S. and its other coalition partners a chance to scale back and eventually leave. That will take time.

This note: Lieutenant General Sattler left Iraq the day after that interview. He and the First Marine Expeditionary force he commanded in Iraq are now back home at Camp Pendleton in California with their families. But already, they're preparing for a return deployment to Iraq.

Up next on our special "LATE EDITION: Behind the Lines," Iraqi troops in training -- when will they be ready to take over? I asked the top Iraqi commander at one of their strategic military bases.

And then, a bird's eye view of what could be the terrorists' top target in the region. Stay tuned to find out why this platform is so crucial to Iraq's future success.


CAPT. PETE GUMATAOTAO, U.S. NAVY COMMANDER, DESTROYER SQUADRON 31: I remind my sailors a lot that this isn't just a regular day working out in Southern California where you're cutting circles in the water. This is a place where there's a potential, obviously, for things like what happened to the Cole might happen. So we must always keep our guard. And that's the focus with the watch when we do that, is to maintain the guard.


GEN. GEORGE CASEY, U.S. ARMY COMMANDING GENERAL, MULTI-NATIONAL FORCE, IRAQ: Since the elections, the Iraqi security forces have gotten even more involved, and the Iraqi people have gotten more involved in giving us tips and telling us where insurgents are and where, insurgent weapons storage sites and things like that.

BLITZER: The question of when those Iraqi security forces will be ready to completely take over is forefront on the minds of U.S. military leaders. I toured the strategic Iraqi port of Um Qasr in southern Iraq, and saw some Iraqis in action. Getting there was easier said than done.

Imagine flying into Iraq's southern port city of Um Qasr sitting between two U.S. Navy helicopter gunners. As we approach the coastline, the pilots engage in evasive maneuvering, flying low and fast and zig-zagging to avoid sniper fire from the ground.

It's a harrowing experience, one made all the more nerve-wracking with the helicopter doors and windows wide open and the gunners' fingers steady on the triggers, poised to open fire. They are looking for insurgents who might feel lucky enough to take a shot at the incoming helicopter.

At the Um Qasr base, we're met by Iraqi troops who last year took charge of this facility.

They're deeply proud as they take us on a tour.

These are Iraqi soldiers. They're being trained by Iraqis themselves, but also U.S. and British forces. They're here. They're instructors. They're giving these guys behind me their first opportunity to train in security protection. They'll be the security force for the Iraqi base commanders here at Um Qasr.

So, what's your bottom-line assessment? How is it coming along where we are right now on this base?

CAPT. GILES WALGER, U.S. MARINE CORPS: They're doing a fantastic job, sir.

BLITZER: And how long do you think it will be before they really can take charge?

WALGER: I don't have an estimate of time on that, sir. It's not my job to determine that. But they're coming along a lot faster than we had probably anticipated.

BLITZER: The Iraqis take us on their fast patrol boats through the port.

We're heading out from the Iraqi port of Um Qasr on one of these small patrol boats into the harbor. This is an area that's going to be incredibly important to Iraq's future economic development. This port of Um Qasr is the major Iraqi port in the southern part of the country.

It's pretty empty now. But one can see the huge potential for growth. One day, Iraqis say, this harbor will be bustling with traffic. But not yet, largely because of the continuing insurgency.

Colonel Abil Yasin Al-Zadi (ph) is the Iraqi base commander. He had served in the Iraqi navy under Saddam Hussein, but is now loyal to the new Iraq. As a result, he and his troops know they're targets of the Iraqi insurgents, but they vow to fight on.

They hope it won't take long for the new Iraqi government to become strong and for the new Iraqi military to increasingly take charge of their security, enabling the Americans and the other foreigners to leave. But that for now is only their hope.

Iraqi troops are hoping to soon take over responsibility for what is certainly a most attractive target for terrorists: two huge oil platforms in the northern part of the Persian Gulf. Together, they process some 80 percent of Iraq's oil exports, worth billions of dollars. Here now a visit to what many call Iraq's economic engine.

As we approach the USS Rushmore, following a 45-minute flight, we spot the Al Basra oil terminal. It's our first glance of this critical source of income for Iraq.

On this day, three huge oil tankers are filling up, all anxious to move Iraqi oil around the world.

After landing aboard the ship, we board a fast speed boat for the quick ride to the terminal. It's huge -- 1.2 miles from tip to tip. But the walk, complete with the ups and downs of the jagged course, makes it seem even longer.

We're inside Iraq right now, inside Iraq's territorial waters, only about 11 miles behind me, Iraqi land. About 5 miles in this direction, Iran, Iranian territorial waters. This is a very, very sensitive part of the Persian Gulf, critically important to Iraq's oil pipeline. This oil terminal so valuable to Iraqi oil exports.

As a result, it's also become a very high-value target for insurgents.

LT. COMMANDER PATRICK FULGHAM, U.S. NAVY: Basically, all the money revenue that Iraq needs to rebuild flows from this terminal.

BLITZER: U.S. Navy Captain Michelle Howard knows security is priority number one.

CAPTAIN MICHELLE HOWARD, U.S. NAVY: This is the economic engine for the country right now. As they continue to build their infrastructure up on land, it will have less importance. But right now, this provides the money for them to fund everything they need to fund.

BLITZER: It was only about a year ago when insurgents launched a suicide boat attack against this Iraqi oil terminal and its sister terminal a few miles away. That attack killed three Americans and shut down the flow of oil for 24 hours. Two U.S. Navy sailors and one Coast Guardsman were killed when they tried to intercept the three small fishing boats packed with explosives.

The 2004 operation resembled the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000; 17 American sailors were killed in that incident.

U.S. troops live aboard this terminal and are largely responsible for security, though Iraqi civilians operate the facility. It's a cooperative venture.

For the U.S., the more Iraq exports oil, especially during times of high prices, the less money it will need from the U.S. and coalition partners.

It isn't easy living on the Al Basra oil terminal. In the northern part of the Persian Gulf, Marines and sailors live on these metal containers stacked three high during their six-month tour. Not many comforts of home here, but there is a muscle beach with an incredible view.

Up next, an inspirational comeback. A U.S. Army captain back in action. We'll tell you why his return to the battlefield is making history.

Plus, some special messages from the troops I met. Please stay with us.

HOWARD: I think we forgot how long it took us to go from the end of the Revolution to Constitution. And they've outstripped that measure. But we're here at their request, and we'll be here as long as they need us.



BLITZER: Although focused on their challenging mission, the warriors on the front lines never forget their missing brothers in arms. In many mess halls, a table is set to honor and await the return of POWs and MIAs.

An inverted glass is symbolic of the fact that those missing are unable to raise their glasses in a toast. The single rose is in honor of their families and loved ones.


BLITZER: We close our special "LATE EDITION" with a story of a man redefining the role of the wounded warrior.

U.S. Army Captain David Rozelle is back commanding his troops in Iraq, despite losing his right foot to an anti-tank mine in 2003, during his first tour of duty there. I caught up with him in Kuwait, just days before he left to go back into combat.


BLITZER: What's different now as opposed to then?

CAPT. DAVID ROZELLE, U.S. ARMY: It's actually really hard to tell what's different now than then. Because I'm in much better shape now. I've completely focused myself on being stronger and smarter. And because of all the physical activity that I've done and all the sports rehabilitation, I'm actually much fitter in a lot of ways.

There is a little bit of hindrance, I admit, especially in this kind of terrain with sand and rocks. Just for you to walk, it's difficult. It is even more difficult for an amputee.

So conducting operations, I have to consider things more, like what condition is my stump in and being able to change my stump socks, and things like that. Which is all pretty easy.

And you just become adaptive. It's like anything. Learning to shower again was hard at first. So, you know, it's going to take a few months. But I'll figure this thing out.

BLITZER: You're committed to keeping this career in the Army?

ROZELLE: Yes. You know, I took an oath of office. And I don't think an office of office is something that just lasts a couple years. This is how I can serve the American people and my country. And as long as I continue to do and serve like I am, I will continue to serve.

BLITZER: Troops you command, they know you are an amputee? ROZELLE: Oh, yes. Sometimes I surprise them. I'll show up to P.T. formation and challenge them to a run. And that gets them interested. They see me day to day. And hopefully I inspire them.

BLITZER: And you want to go work, eventually, with some other amputees?

ROZELLE: That's right. Actually, I have a great job. You know, if I get up here and do well, they're going to send me back to Walter Reed to be the program manager for the new amputee center which they're building, which should open sometime in the fall.

And I'm looking forward to getting back and basically just continuing to command, helping my fellow amputees make decisions on whether or not they want to go back and contribute in civilian life, or continue to serve. And I can be a role model for them.

BLITZER: David Rozelle, you are a role model for a lot of people.

ROZELLE: Hey, thank you very much Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks for your good work.

ROZELLE: Absolutely. My pleasure.


BLITZER: Captain Rozelle wrote about his experiences in his book, "Back in Action."

Thanks very much for joining us for this special "LATE EDITION: Behind the Lines," on the National Mall here in Washington, D.C., on this Memorial Day weekend. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

We leave you now with some special greetings from the troops.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hi, my wife Roxanne (ph) and my children, Samantha (ph), George (ph), Cody (ph), and my niece and nephew Mike (ph) and Stef (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I just want to say, hi, mom, and I love you, and I'll be coming home soon.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I would like to say hello to my family, especially my daughter Jalissa Henderson (ph). Hi. I'm all right.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'd like to say hi to my wife Joy (ph) and my kids in Virginia. I'm safe out here. And everything is fine. I'll be home soon. I love you guys.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Hi, dad. Hi, Andrew (ph) and Carrie (ph), I love you all very much and I miss you. I'm going to come home soon.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hi, mom. As you can see, I'm well and safe. I'll be home sometime in August.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'd love to say hi to my wife and my children and my church family back in (INAUDIBLE), North Carolina.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How are you doing, mom, dad, my wife Milly (ph), my new baby coming soon. Everybody in Newport News, Virginia, hello.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Hi, my name is Ellen Wong Martinez (ph), I'm from Whitter, California, and I just want to say hi to my baby girls back home. I miss you. And my husband.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Hi, my name is Janay Fone (ph), I'm from Rocksford Glening (ph). I want to say hello to my family back home, and also to my husband Travis (ph) and my daughter Lexi (ph) in Pinello (ph), California. Hi, I love you guys and I'll be home soon.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hello. My name is Ricardo de la Cruz (ph). I'm from Florida. And I want to say hi to my mom and dad, and my brother, Felix (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK. Hi. My name is (INAUDIBLE) Lucas Felons (ph), I'm from (INAUDIBLE), Illinois. And I'm enjoying this fine Navy chow on the Bonhomme Richard.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I am Steven McDonald (ph) from Kattahe (ph), Wisconsin. Just wanted to say hi, mom, hi, dad. I love you. And to the gang at the Harpin Chamrock (ph), voice one for me.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And I'd like to say hi to my son in New York, Mazir (ph), my family and friends, and everybody watching.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I just want to say hello to my mom and my dad, and to say I miss you, and I'll see you right soon. And of course, a special shout-out to my little baby boy, Darian (ph), and mommy loves you.



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