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CNN LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER

Interview With Stephen Hadley; Interview With Hoshyar Zebari

Aired December 4, 2005 - 11:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: It is 11:00 a.m. in Washington, 8:00 a.m. in Los Angeles, 7:00 p.m. in Baghdad, and 9:00 p.m. in Islamabad, Pakistan. Wherever you're watching, from around the world, thanks very much for joining us for "LATE EDITION."
We'll get to my interview with President Bush's national security advisor, Steve Hadley, in just a few minutes. First, though, let's get a quick check of what's in the news right now.

(NEWSBREAK)

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Fred. We begin with an apparent assassination attempt today against Iraq's former interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi. The violence occurred outside a mosque in Najaf. Our senior international correspondent, Nic Robertson, was traveling with Allawi when the incident occurred. He's joining us now live from Baghdad. Nic, what happened?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Ayad Allawi had gone to one of the most holy cities of Iraq, he'd gone into the shrine. He had been in there for about 10 minutes. I could hear chanting coming from the shrine. I was looking down the avenue into the shrine area.

Then I could see shoes being thrown, and Ayad Allawi and his security team and the rest of his politicians were being almost physically ejected, forced out. They were running out of the mosque. There were shoes being thrown at them, which is a very derogatory thing to do here in the Middle East.

And then as he got out to his cars, the security team began to open up with automatic weapons, fire his -- his team literally burnt rubber on the street outside the shrine, and hightailed it out of town, firing shots into the air.

Allawi says this was an assassination attempt on himself. Indeed, he says he saw somebody drop their pistol as they were about to shoot him. He also says that he saw people with machetes out to get him inside the shrine, Wolf.

BLITZER: He's a secular Shiite, Ayad Allawi, Nic. Was it the fact that he's secular, or someone who supports the United States and the U.S. involvement in Iraq that apparently angered those who may have been trying to kill him?

ROBERTSON: Allawi blames this alleged assassination attempt on the -- on Shia religious militias here in Iraq. He says that this was an organized, orchestrated event.

Now, it could be that they were trying to disrupt his political campaign. I spoke to an independent witness who supported that idea, that it was these -- that it was a militia type of group. Allawi could have done any number of things to trigger their anger. Last year in August, when this militia, one of these militias took over that mosque, Allawi was very robust in dealing with them.

Allawi has a reputation here as being a strong man, someone who can deal with the insurgency. That is the image he likes to portray. That is why he has the secular appeal across the Sunni-Shia divide here. He appeals to Sunni Muslims who want an end to the insurgency, and he also appeals to the middle ground in the Shias.

Today, it appears as if the sort of extreme Shia side, if you will, is trying to disrupt his campaigning, Wolf.

BLITZER: And briefly, before I let you go, Nic, the trial of Saddam Hussein, scheduled to resume tomorrow. There has been more violence, more threats. Is it likely to resume tomorrow?

ROBERTSON: It does appear likely at the moment. Wolf, nothing we've heard contradicts that. These alleged or believed to be attack -- mortar attack from the suburbs of Baghdad on the courthouse, that seems to have been foiled. And at this date, we're expecting the trial to go ahead.

BLITZER: Nic Robertson, our man on the scene in Baghdad. Nic, thanks very much for that report.

Back here in the United States, with dismal poll numbers over his handling of Iraq, President Bush is making a major push to try to regain the American public's confidence about the U.S. military mission there. Just a short while ago, here in Washington, I spoke with his national security advisor, Stephen Hadley, about the president's plan for victory, the war on terror and more.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Stephen Hadley, welcome back to "LATE EDITION."

STEPHEN HADLEY, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: Nice to be here.

BLITZER: Abu Hamza Rabia, supposedly the number three Al Qaida operative in Pakistan. Is he dead?

HADLEY: We've seen the reports out of Pakistan. We are looking at it. We are not in a position at this point to publicly declare that he has been killed. If he has been killed, it's a very good development. He was the chief operational planner for Al Qaida after the capture of Abu Faraj al-Libbi.

He was involved in planning assassination attempts against Musharraf. We believe he was involved in planning attacks against the United States. If he is indeed dead, it's a very good thing for Pakistan and for the United States. BLITZER: If he's dead, how was he killed?

HADLEY: There have been a number of press reports. This is something that occurred on Pakistani soil. They obviously will be the ones who come forward and indicate how this occurred. BLITZER: We have pictures that seem to show a U.S. Hellfire missile, an American CIA operated drone, a Predator drone, was involved in this killing of this terrorist. Did the CIA, the U.S. government, get involved in killing him on Pakistani soil?

HADLEY: There are conflicting reports as to what happened. Obviously, the United States works very closely with Pakistan. Pakistan has been very aggressive, President Musharraf has been very aggressive going against Al Qaida in Pakistan.

He's been increasingly aggressive at going against Taliban, and we, obviously, are supporting him. But obviously, the details of these kinds of things are things that is best left for the Pakistanis to talk about.

BLITZER: Because they're suggesting it was an explosion, may have been an accidental death.

HADLEY: There are a number of reports at this point that are out there, and obviously, the key question is has this man been killed? Because if he has been killed, it's a real accomplishment in terms of the war on terror.

BLITZER: You say it's a real accomplishment, but some terrorism experts say it represents sort of a failure, because it would have been a lot better to capture him alive and then interrogate him and find out what was going on.

HADLEY: What we've tried to do is either kill or capture the senior Al Qaida leadership. It depends in some sense at the circumstances. Abu Faraj al-Libbi was captured, is in custody. This was a case where it appears that Hamza Rabia may have been killed.

The good news is that a senior principal operational planner for Al Qaida is now no longer in a position, hopefully, to mount attacks against Pakistan or against the United States.

BLITZER: But all things being equal, it would have been better to capture him and then at least have an opportunity to interrogate him.

HADLEY: Obviously, when we capture people, when we have an opportunity to capture them, we do interrogate them. Interrogation of detainees is one of the principal sources of information about operations that may be mounted and also about the structure and operation of terrorist groups.

So when we have an opportunity to capture someone who's senior, obviously we do that. But the most important thing, of course, is to be able to interdict people involved in potential terror plots against the United States before those plots can go further. BLITZER: I'm going to wrap this part up, but one just general question. If, in fact, a U.S. drone, a Predator drone with a Hellfire missile, is used, does that require presidential authorization to assassinate a terrorist target? HADLEY: This, obviously, you know, you're going into areas we do not talk publicly, for obvious reasons, about any intelligence operations.

HADLEY: So if there were an intelligence operation, I could not talk about it. But this is not an assassination. That is a different issue about political leadership.

This is someone who is actively planning, is part of the war against terror -- war against the United States, a declared war on behalf of Al Qaida. This is not law enforcement, this is not assassination. This is going against the leadership of an organization that has declared war on the United States.

BLITZER: Any progress on looking for his bosses, Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Mullah Mohammed Omar, the former Taliban leader? Any progress in finding any of them?

HADLEY: This is something that is obviously a priority. We are working it very hard. The president asks about it, he is concerned about it. A principal focus, as you know, Wolf, for us is getting the senior Al Qaida leadership and putting them out of commission by kill or capture.

And the intelligence community and the military is doing everything they can to get at the rest of the senior leadership. We made great progress. We probably have close to three-quarters of them out of commission, but obviously, we have more work to do.

BLITZER: Obviously, the top ones are still at large.

HADLEY: We have not, at this point -- we cannot tell you that we have either killed or captured those top two, that is correct.

BLITZER: You believe they're still alive?

HADLEY: At this point, we have no reason to think they aren't.

BLITZER: Let's talk about Afghanistan briefly before we move on and talk about Iraq. "The Washington Post" had an item the other day in which it said this: "The recent attacks, including at least nine suicide bombings, have shown unusual levels of coordination, technological knowledge, and blood lust. The attacks have been particularly noteworthy for their use of suicide bombers. Some have struck in waves with one explosive-laden car following the next in an effort to maximize casualties. That sort of attack has been a hallmark of Al Qaida." Is the security situation in Afghanistan right now getting worse?

HADLEY: One of the things we've said some months ago, that as we went into this election period of the referendum on the constitution on October 15th, and then the election for a new government December 15th that will have a four-year mandate, we said very clearly that we expected the violence would go up as the terrorists, as the Saddamists, as the rejectionists, tried to get in the way of the democratic process.

So it is regrettable. Regrettably, it is not surprising the violence is up. But one of the things that's very important, and you began to see some of that in the press today, is particularly the attack in Jordan has turned large number of Sunnis against Zarqawi. There are demonstrations against him in Jordan. There were people talking from the mosques, religious leaders denouncing him throughout the Arab world.

And in some sense, the willingness of the Sunnis to engage in the political process in Iraq, and for every election for more and more Iraqis to vote in the democratic process, is an indication that people are turning against Zarqawi and they're turning against him because of the senseless violence.

BLITZER: We're going to get to Iraq momentarily, but let's wrap up a couple other loose ends first. Does the United States government operate secret prisons for terror suspects in Europe?

HADLEY: This is an issue that's been in the press. Secretary of State Rice is going to Europe this week. She leaves tomorrow. She will be addressing this issue. Let me just say here a couple of things. The terrorists threaten all of us. You had seen terror attacks in Britain, in Spain, in Italy, in Turkey, in Russia, in Egypt, in Jordan, in Saudi Arabia.

This is a threat, really, to the civilized world. We need to cooperate together to deal with this terror threat that threatens all of us. We are cooperating with a number of countries.

Let me just say, that cooperation, though, is characterized by three things. One, we comply with U.S. Constitution, U.S. laws, and U.S. treaty obligations. Secondly, we respect the sovereignty of those countries with whom we cooperate. And three, we do not move people around the world so that they can be tortured.

BLITZER: The question, though, on prisons. Does the U.S. operate secret prisons in Europe?

HADLEY: This is an issue that Secretary Rice is going to address, and all I can say is that there is a lot of cooperation at a variety of levels on the war on terror, and all of that cooperation is done in the way that I described.

BLITZER: Based on what you're trying to say, can I confirm that the answer is yes?

HADLEY: No, you cannot. Obviously, if there are these kinds of intelligence operations going on, they're the kinds of things that one cannot talk about. Why? Because the information would help the enemy, it would compromise the operations, and it would put countries who are cooperating with us at risk. So you cannot infer that it's a yes. These are the kinds...

BLITZER: Europeans...

HADLEY: If there were such operations, these are the kinds of the things we could not talk about publicly.

BLITZER: Because the European Union, the Europeans, are very nervous about this, upset about it. They're worried about it. They want answers. By neither confirming nor denying the existence of the prisons, a lot of people are going to come to the conclusion that they're there.

HADLEY: There are things that are obviously going to be said and cannot be said publicly. There are things that are going to be said and can be said privately in communications with governments.

BLITZER: The other thing that the Europeans are very nervous about are, supposedly, the U.S. government, the CIA, perhaps other agencies, moving terror suspects around on planes in Europe.

"Der Spiegel," the German magazine, today has this item: "The German government has just released a detailed list of CIA flights that have landed in Germany. On those flights were terror suspects that had supposedly been kidnapped and were being sent to secret camps. There are at least 437 cases." Is that true?

HADLEY: As I said, there is a lot of cooperation that is going on in governments. Let me talk a little bit about these renditions. This is something that has been a practice before 9/11, before this administration. It is something that is a practice engaged in by a number of countries.

For example, Carlos the Jackal, who was responsible for a number of terrorist attacks in Europe and the Middle East, is someone who was rendered from a third country to France, where he is in prison. The architect of the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, again someone who was rendered to us, is now in prison.

Renditions are something that we do as a tool in fighting the war on terror. They were done before 9/11, before this administration. They're done by other countries.

BLITZER: And just to define what rendition is, define that for us.

HADLEY: I'd be glad to. This is someone who is a terrorist, who is found in a...

BLITZER: Is a suspected terrorist.

HADLEY: Who is found in a country that is not his country of origin, and where many times, that country does not have charges pending against him and cannot hold him. And therefore, rendition is a way of getting that person back to the country of origin, back to a place where they can be held, and where they can be brought to justice. BLITZER: And to send them to Egypt or to Saudi Arabia or Morocco, other countries where they could be questioned. But I think you will acknowledge that there have been mistakes that have been made. Innocent people have been picked up, sent to these countries, whether Syria, and supposedly tortured and then let go, and that's a problem.

HADLEY: The folks who are fighting the war on terror have a difficult job. They are charged to be both aggressive, to defend the country against attack, and at the same time to comply with U.S. Constitution, law, and treaty obligations. That is a difficult line to walk.

And sometimes, mistakes get made and people go over the line. And when they do, the pattern is very clear. We investigate them aggressively where appropriate charges are brought and people are punished...

BLITZER: Do you know how many mistakes have been made?

HADLEY: ... and procedures are changed to try and reduce likelihood of mistakes in the future.

BLITZER: Do you know how many innocent people have been mistakenly sent off in these renditions?

HADLEY: I do not. These are the kinds of things that the general counsels look at, IGs, inspector generals look at. And they investigate them, they hold people responsible, they make recommendations to change procedures.

BLITZER: You've been meeting with Senator McCain on this issue of torture, to try to avoid torture. Here's what the language says that he's proposing: "No individual in the custody or under the physical control of the United States government, regardless of nationality or physical location, shall be subject to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment." What's wrong with that?

HADLEY: The president has said that in the war on terror, we will be aggressive against the terrorists, but we will do it in a way, as I said, where we comply with U.S. law. We do not torture, and we comply with U.S. treaty obligations.

BLITZER: What's wrong with this language?

HADLEY: To the extent that the United States has obligations under the convention against torture to ensure that any dealing with detainees does not result to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. We are already under direction from the president to ensure that we comply with that obligation. Senator McCain's legislation would codify it.

It's one of a number of issues that are involved in balancing this need to be aggressive against the terrorists and still comply with law. We are in conversations with various levels with the Congress to try and come up with formulations that strike the right balance and that both the president and the Congress can embrace, and that's what we're working on with Senator McCain.

BLITZER: But you still don't support this language? HADLEY: We're working on the specifics of the language, but the principle we're all agreed on, because the principle has been very clear from the president, we don't torture. We comply with our laws and treaty obligations.

BLITZER: And you don't have a deal yet with McCain?

HADLEY: We do not. We are working hard. The conversations have been good. I think we're both dealing in good faith, trying to find a common way forward here.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And just ahead, Stephen Hadley talks about the war in Iraq. It the U.S. winning the battle against the insurgents in Iraq?

Then, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Richard Lugar and the panel's top Democrat, Joe Biden weigh in on President Bush's plan for victory in Iraq.

And later, are Iraqi troops ready to fight? We'll hear from that country's foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari.

"LATE EDITION" continues right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to "LATE EDITION." Here is part two of my interview with President Bush's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Let's talk a little bit about what's happening in Iraq right now -- a lot of sensitive issues. The president delivered a major speech this past week at the Naval Academy. Listen briefly to what the president said. I want you to hear this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Against this adversary, there is only one effective response. We will never back down, we will never give in, and we will never accept anything less than complete victory.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Define complete victory.

HADLEY: The plan for victory in Iraq has a subtitle and it's interesting. It says, "To help the Iraqis defeat terror and establish an inclusive democratic state."

BLITZER: Is that complete victory?

HADLEY: That is complete victory. BLITZER: Because in the document that's available...

HADLEY: Let me be clear about that.

BLITZER: National strategy for...

HADLEY: Let me be clear about that. What does that mean? It means we need to defeat the terrorists in Iraq because otherwise, they will use Iraq as a base to destabilize their neighbors and as a base to plant attacks against the United States.

We need to do that. That involves effort by us. It involves, increasingly, effort by the Iraqis.

We need to also deal with the rejectionists and the Baathists. We need to bring Sunnis, in particular, into the political process. That is now going on through this electoral process.

We think, as that occurs, we will make progress toward building a democratic Iraq, a stable Iraq and one in which we'll be a partner in the war against terror.

BLITZER: All right. In this national strategy for victory in Iraq, there is a line that sort of jumps out at me because we're talking about complete victory: "It is not realistic to expect a fully functioning democracy, able to defeat its enemies and peacefully reconcile generational grievances." That sounds like the bar is being set very low.

HADLEY: What we said from the very beginning, what the president said, is we need to ensure that, obviously, Iraq cannot be a safe haven for terror to attack the United States.

And we need to get the Iraqis on the road toward the kind of democratic state, inclusive state, unitary state, in which all communities participate because that is the way to have a stable Iraq, an Iraq that will not support terror and that will be an ally in the war on terror.

But we need to get them started along that process. It's going to take a long time. Once we do, as the president said, we will stay there as long as necessary to reach that objective and not one day longer.

BLITZER: How long?

HADLEY: It will depend on conditions on the ground. We're seeing progress.

We're seeing progress against the terrorists; we're seeing progress in the political arena of increasing numbers of Iraqis voting and participating in the process to develop a government; we're seeing progress on security forces.

And I think what the president has said is, as these things occur, he will look to his military commanders to come to him and say when we can change the focus and make adjustments to our forces. BLITZER: In October of this year, there were 3,100 insurgent attacks. In March of this year, there were 1,400. It looks like it's getting worse.

HADLEY: As we've said, we thought -- and General Casey was very clear -- that in this period, the run-up to the elections on December 15th, and probably for a period after until a government is formed, you are seeing the terrorists, the Saddamists and the rejectionists trying to derail the political process because they know the political process will be the end for them.

And let me emphasize that point. Zarqawi's attack in Jordan has been a real catalyst in making clear the true methods of the terrorists.

And it has resulted in demonstrations against him in Jordan, denunciations from mosques throughout the Arab world and increasing rejection of Zarqawi and the terrorists by Iraqis. That's a very good thing. That's progress.

BLITZER: Let me just wrap it up because we're almost out of time. You once worked for Brent Scowcroft, who was the national security adviser for the first President Bush.

In The New Yorker Magazine a few weeks ago, he was quoted as saying this and expressing his irritation with some of the U.S. policies toward Iraq right now: "The real anomaly in the administration is Cheney," Scowcroft said. "I consider Cheney a good friend. I've known him for 30 years. But Dick Cheney I don't know anymore."

You read that article. You know what Brent Scowcroft's attitude is. How do you feel about this?

HADLEY: Well, the Dick Cheney I know is a fabulous vice president. And one of the things that makes him such a fabulous vice president is he is completely supportive of the president.

What he says all the time is we need to get the information to the man, to the president, so that he can make decisions. And once he makes those decisions, there is no one more loyal to those decisions than the vice president. He is a terrific resource for the president of the United States.

BLITZER: All right, let's talk, briefly, before I let you go, this Time Magazine story that's just coming out today, quoting the United States Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, in Baghdad, as saying that he is now having talks with insurgents in Iraq. "We want to deal with their legitimate concerns...We will intensify the engagement, interaction and discussion with them.

HADLEY: Let me add a little clarity to that. We have said that, obviously, we're not going to have contact with people who have blood on their hands.

But we have, for a long time, had contacts with a variety of Sunni groups, some of which are believed to have ties to those who are part of the -- as you used the word, insurgents, what we would say is rejectionists -- and some of the Saddamist elements.

That's gone on for a long time. Why? Because there are a lot of Sunnis who are sitting on the fence, who have not decided whether the project for democratic Iraq is going to succeed.

And his effort is part of convincing Sunnis that it is going to succeed, that the Sunnis have a place in a democratic Iraq and they need to step forward now, to take that place by participating in the elections.

HADLEY: And that's what we're seeing on the ground. It's very much to be encouraged, and Ambassador Khalilzad is working very hard on that at the direction of the president.

BLITZER: Is he also authorized to have talks with Iranian officials in Baghdad?

HADLEY: When he was ambassador to Afghanistan, he was authorized to have very low-level and discreet conversations with the Iranian ambassador in Afghanistan. He is authorized to do the same thing in Iraq. But it is very low-level, for the very limited purpose of making clear to the Iranians that we are seeing Iranian equipment and technology showing up, in Iraq, in the hands of people that are attacking the coalition, and that this is unacceptable.

It is a low-level discussion to make that point to the Iranians. He is not going to talk about the other broad objections and problems we have with Iran, its support for terror generally, its nuclear programs, and its oppression of its own people. We have major problems with Iran, and these are being pursued in other ways.

BLITZER: On the issue of Syria, Seymour Hersh wrote in The New Yorker a couple of days ago, "The covert war in Iraq has expanded in recent months to Syria. A composite American Special Forces team, known as an SMU, for 'special-mission unit,' has been ordered, under stringent cover, to target suspected supporters of the Iraqi insurgency across the border." Is that true?

HADLEY: Look, Syria has been a problem for some time. Syria is a principle assembly report point for terrorists and foreign terrorists to be moved into Iraq. This is something we have raised with the Syrians.

They need -- it is something the Iraqis have raised with the Syrians, and the Syrians need to be supportive of the democratic process in Iraq, not supporting those who are trying to subvert it. We have been very clear to the Syrians about that.

BLITZER: Are U.S. forces going into Syria to kill insurgents?

HADLEY: We are trying to conduct operations up near the border -- You've seen those reported in the press -- because we are trying and our military force is trying to interdict the flow of people across that border into Iraq. That's the principal focus of our military operations. And that's really all I can say. BLITZER: One final question on a totally unrelated matter, the CIA leak. Your name came up. Supposedly Karl Rove had sent you an e- mail about a conversation he had with Time magazine's Matt Cooper involving the wife of former U.S. Ambassador Joe Wilson. What can you tell us about your role in the CIA leak investigation?

HADLEY: I've seen press reports of that, the e-mail. The question puts me in a difficult position because there is an ongoing investigation. We have all at the White House have gotten instructions from the president that we are to fully cooperate with that investigation.

And we all are. And that we are also not to talk about it publicly until it is concluded. And that's really all I can say.

BLITZER: Stephen Hadley, thanks very much for joining us.

HADLEY: Thank you. Nice to be here.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And still ahead, President Bush's plan for victory in Iraq. Is it the right course for success? We'll ask the two top members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Republican Richard Lugar and Democrat Joe Biden.

But up next, a quick check of what is in the news right now, including a plot to attack Saddam Hussein's trial, scheduled to resume tomorrow. Stay with "LATE EDITION."

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: Setting an artificial deadline to withdraw would send the message across the world that America is weak and an unreliable ally.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: President Bush, resisting calls to set a deadline or timetable to start drawing down U.S. troops in Iraq. Welcome back to "LATE EDITION."

Joining us now here in Washington, two guests: the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Richard Lugar of Indiana and, in his home state of Delaware, the committee's ranking Democrat, Joe Biden.

Senators, welcome back to "LATE EDITION."

Senator Lugar, let me start with you. Our sister publication, Time Magazine has a new poll just coming out today: "Does President Bush have a plan that will achieve victory in Iraq?"

Only 41 percent say yes; 55 percent say no.

"How do you think the president is helping Iraq?"

Only 38 percent approve of the way the president is handling Iraq; 60 percent disapprove.

And "How is President Bush handling his overall job as president?"

Forty-one percent approve; 53 percent disapprove -- this after his big speech at Annapolis this past week. He has a huge, uphill struggle to convince the American public he knows what he's doing in Iraq.

SEN. RICHARD LUGAR (R), INDIANA: Yes, he does. Clearly, those poll figures are demonstrable to that. But, at the same time, it's not just the president's problem. It is the problem for our country, how we're going to be successful.

And the president tried to define success, as some of the rest of us tried likewise, to say a stable, Democratic Iraq. We have had modest expectations as to what that democracy might look like. And the stability may be relative.

But, nevertheless, a stable, Democratic Iraq is, at least, a change in the area that would be helpful in a war against terror.

BLITZER: But you'll agree it doesn't look like it is becoming more stable, at least based on the day-to-day reports we're getting -- the insurgency, the improvised explosive devices, the casualties.

In effect, it seems like there could be a civil war if not already.

LUGAR: There could be a civil war. But that would be catastrophic, not only for Iraq but the Middle East and for our interests. And so we have to make certain that that doesn't occur to the greatest extent we can.

I think there has been very substantial progress on security and, likewise, perhaps in the course of this program, can talk about the elements of the economy and the oil situation and how they're going to pay for all of it.

But I think there is progress. The question is, obviously: Is it likely, at the end of the day, that Iraqis will want to be Iraqis, that there will be a nation state that can be formed?

And the election is crucial to that, so there is a permanent government. And then the 40 days or so after revisions in the constitution so that Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds can decide they really want to work together.

And, if they have a prime minister in a chain of command, then they have real possibilities of solving the rest of their problems.

BLITZER: Do you agree, Senator Biden, that there is significant progress going on in the Iraqi security front? SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN (D), DELAWARE: I think there is progress going on in the Iraqi security front. But I think that as, usual, Dick put his finger on the most critical element here.

When the president made his speech in Annapolis, he identified our enemies as rejectionists, Saddamists and terrorists.

But the overwhelming, big enemy we have is, if this ever devolves, this sectarian violence backed up by very powerful militias in the North and South, ends up being a civil war, then all the king's horse and all the king's men aren't going to be able to put Iraq together.

And so, that's why, to me, the overwhelming priority -- the overwhelming priority is getting buy-in from the Sunnis on the constitution that's going to be voted on, as Dick said, in about 40 days after this election on December 15.

And what I haven't heard from the president is: What are we doing in order to get what everybody knows has to be done? There has to be some concessions on the part of the Shia, some concessions on the part of the Kurds to get buy-in from the Sunnis. And that is the number one overwhelming requirement.

BLITZER: Senator Biden, here is a quote from Wael Abdul-Latif, an Iraqi parliament member, cited in the Washington Post on Thursday: "I think there are 60 to 70 assassinations every day and most of these are sectarian killings. The Sunni, Kurd and Shiite militias are the ones that control the street. If the multinational forces withdraw in such a situation, there will be even more assassinations and the government will get weaker."

The Democrats are pretty seriously divided now on whether or not there should be a quick withdrawal from Iraq. Representative John Murtha, the other day, called for withdrawal over the next six months. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the House of Representatives now supports that Murtha position. You oppose it. Why?

BIDEN: Well, I oppose it because we have two seminal events coming up -- one, this election on December 15th and then the constitution.

Secondly, what -- there is not nearly the division everybody is trying to make out among the Democrats. The reality is, and the president in his speech acknowledged it -- what the president said in his speech that didn't get much coverage -- that quote, "we're going to change the mission in Iraq in 2006."

That's code word for saying there is a reality. We're going to draw down 50,000 troops in Iraq next year because we're going to be about three brigades short. And there is no way, unless you are going to eliminate any prospect of a volunteer army continuing, no way to be able to rotate the existing troops we have now.

So, the real question here is: What do we do between now and the summer in order to put us in a position that the conditions warrant withdrawal -- that when the withdrawal occurs of those roughly 50,000, we're in better shape, our interests are better preserved and not more in danger.

And that relates to everything from standing up their ministries -- that is, their Department of Defense, their Department of Education, their Department of Public Works, et cetera, as well as, most importantly, making sure that vote in the constitution, Wolf -- that's either going to be a rallying cry for division or a rallying cry for a unified Iraq.

And it's all going to rest on that.

BLITZER: Senator Lugar, let me read to you a quote from Ayad Allawi. There was an apparent assassination attempt against him in Najaf earlier today.

We have been reporting it here on CNN. A week ago, he was quoted in The Observer in London as saying this: "People are doing the same as [in] Saddam's time and worse... It is an appropriate comparison. People are remembering the days of Saddam. These were the precise reasons that we fought Saddam and now we are seeing the same things."

He's the former interim prime minister of Iraq. And he's saying that, based on what he's seeing, that some of the situation is as bad as it was under Saddam Hussein.

LUGAR: Well, Allawi is a Shiite but nevertheless a Shiite who respects the law and has had an outreach to Sunnis. This may have been an approximate cause for his difficulty today, as people went after him who might have been more extreme Shiites.

It is not popular with some Shiites to talk about this reconciliation or this inclusion of Sunnis.

BLITZER: But he's pro-American. And he's a secularist.

LUGAR: But Allawi is a strong leader. And he had demonstrated that before. He's been courageous. But that type of courage is going to have to be there.

If, as Senator Biden points out, we don't have leadership that is inclusive, and not only that, but convincing, that there ought not to be civil war and massive assassinations -- the specific problem comes that the militia of some of the Shiites, the Badr militia, for example, have been going after Sunnis.

Now, sometimes they go after them because they're rejectionists, as the president points out. Sometimes maybe they have old scores settled.

Well, whatever the reason -- the president was set up and exposed and so forth -- comes really out of the fact that we're training people but some of the people we're training may in fact have tendencies to be more respectful of their religious situations than of a secular Iraq. BLITZER: And, in fact, Senator Biden, when I interviewed the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad earlier this week, he expressed concern that these militias, whether Shiite-based militias, loyal to Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Sadr militia or the Mehdi militia that supports Muqtada Al-Sadr -- someone the U.S. used to regard as a terrorist in Iraq but now someone who is dealing with the U.S. -- he's expressing concern that these militias, including the Kurdish militia, may be totally loyal to themselves and not loyal to a new national Iraqi government or military.

BIDEN: Absolutely, positively. And this a consequence of the vacuum that's been filled by these militias. Most of these militia members are not trained by anybody but themselves.

Most of these militia members are no part of the Iraqi central army. This is the reason why, about a year ago -- actually two year ago -- I and others called for more American forces in there to arrange for stability.

Remember the original plan. The military originally said we were going to eliminate the militias. The militias had to be integrated into the military.

We changed that view. We changed our position on that because we didn't have enough forces in there and we weren't training the Iraqis quickly enough.

And, so now we're paying a big price for that. And let me make it clear. Some of these militia members are part of an Iraqi army.

In my fifth trip back there this Memorial Day, I met with the defense minister, the speaker of the parliament, and others.

And they said, look, Joe, having folks come in and clear out our areas and bring peace, we're not at all happy about it, because they're either Badr Brigade, or they're Peshmerga. And we don't like either one of those guys coming in on our territory.

We're paying a price for the vacuum fill. The question is, what do we do about it quickly? And that gets back to the political, the political consensus needed to have a constitution they can all buy into. If we don't do that, Wolf, we are in real trouble.

BLITZER: All right. Senators, stand by. We're going to have to take a quick break, but we have a lot more to talk about, Iraq, the war on terror, and more. Senators Lugar and Biden standing by. Also, I'll ask them if the U.S. is safer since the war in Iraq. Much more "LATE EDITION" straight ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Don't forget our web question of the week: Will Saddam Hussein be convicted? Log on to cnn.com/lateedition to cast your vote. We'll take a quick break. But first, this.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) BLITZER: Stanley "Tookie" Williams, what's his story? The co- founder of the notorious street gang the Crips is on California's death row for the murder of four people. During his 24 years in prison, Williams has written nine anti-gang books for children and received several Nobel Prize nominations for his work.

Although California's Supreme Court denied the convicted murderer's request for clemency, the governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger will consider whether to commute Williams's sentence to life in prison without parole. His execution by lethal injection is scheduled for December 13.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: There's much more ahead on "LATE EDITION," including our conversation with Senators Richard Lugar and Joe Biden. Then a special interview with Hoshyar Zebari. I'll ask him when he thinks U.S. troops should start withdrawing from his country. Also, we'll talk about the upcoming national elections. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: This is "LATE EDITION". The last word in Sunday talk.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: Our goal is to train enough Iraqi forces so they can carry the fight. This will take time and patience.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), MINORITY LEADER: The president has dug us into a deep hole in Iraq. It is time for him to stop digging.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Debating a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. When will Iraqi forces be ready to stand up so that American troops can stand down? We'll ask Iraq's foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: To all who wear the uniform, I make you this pledge, America will not run in the face of car bombers and assassins so long as I am your commander in chief.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: President Bush outlines his plan for victory in Iraq. We'll assess the war strategy with former NATO supreme allied commander, retired general George Joulwan, retired Brigadier General James "Spider" Marks, and retired Brigadier General David Grange.

Welcome back. We'll go back to Senators Richard Lugar and Joe Biden in just a moment next as well.

First though, let's get a quick check on what's in the news right now.

(NEWSBREAK)

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Fred.

More details now on today's attack, an apparent assassination attempt against Iraq's former interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, in the city of Najaf. Our senior international correspondent, Nic Robertson, was on the scene when the incident occurred. He's joining us now live from Baghdad.

I assume you were that close -- you were pretty scared yourself, Nic. What was going on?

ROBERTSON: Wolf, when we saw Ayad Allawi go into the mosque, we weren't allowed in.

Then when we heard the chanting and saw him and his supporters being chased out by the mob with a -- with the shoes being thrown and see Ayad Allawi being forced into his armored vehicle by his security escort, we realized at that moment that we needed to get in our vehicles with his convoy; otherwise we'd be left behind.

And that's when the gunfire broke out. We ran and jumped into the vehicles. The police, the Iraqi army as well, Ayad Allawi's own private security contractors, riding -- sort of shotgun on the side of the car, shooting in the air, shooting back towards where that crowd was to try to get him out of, what he said was a very dangerous situation.

He said somebody had a gun and dropped it in front of him. He said people had machetes. And he said it was an assassination attempt.

BLITZER: Nic, was this basically -- were these supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite leader, the cleric, in the southern part of Iraq? Is that the suspicion?

ROBERTSON: That's what Allawi's people are hinting at. That's what they'll tell you off camera.

On camera, Ayad Allawi alluded to another assassination in that same mosque just over two years ago. That one was widely believed to have been the responsibility of Muqtada al-Sadr.

Another eyewitness I talked to who was inside the mosque praying next to Ayad Allawi told me he believed that he it was Muqtada Al- Sadr's Mehdi Army, or Mehdi Militia, who were responsible, organized chanting.

On camera, Allawi will not say Muqtada Al-Sadr's name or the Mehdi Army, but everything else he says implies that's who was responsible, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, thanks very much. Nic Robertson, thankfully you got out OK, appreciate it very much. Let's continue our discussion now with the two top members of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee: the Republican chairman, Richard Lugar of Indiana; the ranking Democrat, Joe Biden of Delaware.

Muqtada Al-Sadr, Senator Biden, I remember when he was once terrorist number one in Iraq. He had blood on his hands. But now in the past several months, the U.S. coalition partners, the Iraqi government, they're trying to deal with this guy. Are you comfortable that?

BIDEN: They have no choice but to deal with him. You have to deal with all these guys. There needs to be a political settlement. That's the recognition here.

You asked earlier, are we safer or less safe with Saddam gone? The question is are we going to trade Saddam for chaos or Saddam for stability?

And that stability portion comes with trying to figure out how to get a consensus on how to govern here. And so they got to talk to all these guys. A lot of them are bad guys.

BLITZER: And then we heard, Senator Lugar, earlier from Stephen Hadley, the president's national security advisor, here on "LATE EDITION" that the U.S. ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, is authorized to meet with -- to have discussions with these insurgents, these Sunni groups that are fighting the U.S., and also authorized to meet with Iranian diplomats in Baghdad.

Are you comfortable with that?

LUGAR: Yes, I am. I would advise seeing them all, of the above, as frequently as possible.

I think our ambassador is a remarkable diplomat. But he will really have to have a virtuoso performance to try to bring some convincing evidence to all of these people that Iraq in chaos is going to be bad for all parties concerned.

And I don't really believe that right now as they try to carve out their space, whether it be the Kurdish autonomy, or six provinces for the Shiites, or sort of let everybody take a chance.

Our position has got to be very forthright and really aggressive in trying to point out to Iraqi leadership this is it in a very small time frame.

BLITZER: Senator Biden, you comfortable with these discussions that the ambassador, the U.S. ambassador, might be having with insurgent representatives as well as Iranians?

BIDEN: Absolutely, and they should have taken place a year ago.

Look, this is what we did in Afghanistan, Wolf. We had the "six plus two" talks. We got Russia involved. We got Iran involved. We got Pakistan involved. We got them all involved. We ended up with a guy named Karzai, and as you -- and the Loya Jerga. That -- there's not -- it's not the best of all worlds in Afghanistan, but there is not a civil war right now.

And Dick Lugar is absolutely right.

The only thing I would add to this is that I've been calling for, and Schulz called for, and Kissinger called for over the last year and a half -- we need essentially a contact group. We need the people who can influence, influence the Shia, influence the Kurds, influence these people from outside bringing pressure to bear.

Because the bottom line -- Dick is right. They don't want in Tehran now a full-blown civil war. They're not sure how that's going to affect their equities. They don't want one in Ankara. They don't want one in Jordan. They don't want one anywhere.

So, it's in everybody's interests -- everybody's interests, even the bad guys interests, for their to be stability right now.

BLITZER: Senator Lugar, at the end of November, late last month, there was a conference of Iraqi leaders from all factions in Cairo put together by the Arab League. They released a two-page, single-spaced document expressing their views saying resistance is a legitimate right for all nations; demanding the withdraw of foreign forces upon a schedule.

I read the whole thing. What was most alarming to me was there was not one word of appreciation to the United States for liberating Iraq from Saddam Hussein in this document.

There was an expression of support for all these other Arab countries but no appreciation to what the United States people have done more than 2,000 American casualties, $300 billion and growing.

Isn't that pretty alarming? Isn't that depressing to you as well?

LUGAR: It's depressing but not unexpected.

Until we have success in Iraq -- and by that I mean we and the Iraqis and the region -- there's not going to be a lot of hoorays for the United States.

Now, in fact, if we have no success and we have civil war, the ratings will go down even further, if that's possible.

This is a situation right now that is extremely crucial and the turnaround is not certain.

This is why presidential leadership -- but I would add some congressional leadership, and I would be so bold once again and suggest the president would be well-advised to gather around him, even at this late date, some Democrat and Republican senators and congressmen and reveal to them really what the strategy is, and take their criticism and constructive advice from them, and do so frequently.

This is something in which we are all involved, and it will not be helpful to have partisan sniping at the president, quite apart from the Arab League, from the far distance.

BLITZER: Were you disappointed by that statement that was put out by the Iraqi political factions? The president of Iraq, Jalal Talabani, was in Cairo for that meeting. He's a good friend of the United States, but there's no appreciation in that statement to the United States, Senator Biden.

BIDEN: In the interests of time, I will associate myself with the remarks of Dick Lugar. I'd point out one thing. One of the best generals I ever met in my trips to Iraq, General Petraeus, the guy in charge of training. Let me read what he said. He said, "Every liberation force has a half-life before it becomes seen as a force of occupation."

We used up that half-life. We dug the hole. We squandered it. Now we've got to figure out how we deal with it from there. And I couldn't agree more with Dick. Dick will remember, during the Kosovo war, everyone thought it was a loser from day when the bombing started. President Clinton had 25 congressional leaders, roughly, every single week up in his residence, laid out his people in front of us, took criticism, included us in the entire deal.

That's what the president should be doing now with Democrats and Republicans, both the House and the Senate. He's got to clue us in if he wants us to help him. It seems as though he had, to me, he has no strategy other than goals. How do you accomplish the goals? I don't know what his plan is that's changed to do that.

BLITZER: Senator Lugar, does the United States operate secret prisons for terror suspects in Europe?

LUGAR: I don't know. I've listened to your program today. Certainly Secretary Rice is going to be discussing this, but I have no knowledge.

BLITZER: Because you know the Europeans are all up in arms. The EU is very worried about this. They're asking some of the most sensitive questions to the U.S. government.

LUGAR: Yes, they are. And as I understand it, Secretary Rice will say, now listen, we are in this together, and we have talked about whatever is occurring there a long time ago. So in essence, cool it. Now whether that's going to be very satisfying at this point, we'll have to see.

BLITZER: But as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, shouldn't you be briefed on these kinds of matters?

LUGAR: Probably. But nevertheless, no time like the present to begin. You know, this is what Joe Biden and I are both saying. This is a situation in which the president's ratings are way down. They're not going to get better. And furthermore, it's going to get worse in terms of the partisan sniping.

We had this, as Joe said, during Kosovo, one resolution after another to get out. Five thousand forces out by some date. Again and again, a bipartisan coalition at least gave President Clinton an opportunity to move, and thank goodness, ten years later with the Dayton accords, we have some headway.

BLITZER: Do you support, Senator Lugar, Senator McCain or the White House on this issue of this torture legislation that McCain wants included as part of this defense appropriation?

LUGAR: I support Senator McCain. I think he's on the right track, and I'm hopeful that that position prevails.

BLITZER: Are you comfortable, Senator Biden, with these reports that the U.S. may be operating secret prisons in Europe?

BIDEN: Absolutely not. I support McCain's position. We have had one foul-up after another, from Abu Ghraib on. I quite frankly think the way we've approached the whole issue of prisoners and treatment of them has caused us more problems than any information we could possibly have gotten, unless there's something I don't know, and there may very well may be. But it seems to me it's been the single most disastrous aspect of our policy in terms of convincing the rest of the world, the part of the world we need some help in, that we aren't the good guys.

BLITZER: We have to leave it there. Senator Biden, Senator Lugar, thanks to both of you for joining us here on "LATE EDITION."

LUGAR: Thank you, Wolf.

BIDEN: Thank you so much.

BLITZER: Just ahead, the Iraqi foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari. He's standing by to join us live. I'll ask him about his country's security concerns and today's attack against the former interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. Then challenges for U.S. and Iraqi forces fighting insurgents.

We'll dissect the battle plan with the former NATO Supreme Allied Commander, retired U.S. Army General George Joulwan and retired U.S. Army Brigadier Generals James Marks and David Grange. And later, in case you missed it, our highlights from the other Sunday morning talk shows. "LATE EDITION" continues right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: There's still time for you to weigh in on our web question of the week: Will Saddam Hussein be convicted? You can cast your vote. Go to cnn.com/lateedition. Straight ahead, Iraq's foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari. He's standing by to talk with us live about the insurgency plaguing his country and a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal. You're watching "LATE EDITION," the last word in Sunday talk.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: In less than two weeks, Iraq faces another key test, the election of a new national assembly. But the upcoming vote is being overshadowed, at least for now, by a daily deadly insurgency and the debate over the presence of United States military forces in Iraq. Joining us now from Baghdad is Iraq's foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari.

Minister Zebari, welcome back to "LATE EDITION." Always good to have you on our program. Let's talk about some news of the day. First of all, apparently an assassination attempt against the former interim prime minister or Iraq, Ayad Allawi. What can you tell us about what happened in Najaf?

HOSHYAR ZEBARI, IRAQI FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, this was an unfortunate incident where an angry crowd at the holy shrine in Najaf attacked Dr. Ayad Allawi while he was visiting the city, and there was gunfire afterward. We don't know exactly whether it was an attempted assassination attempt or just a disruption by the angry crowd who might not agree with Dr. Allawi's policy.

BLITZER: Have you seen lately what he's been saying, Ayad Allawi, the statement he made in The Observer last week about the situation now in some respects even being worse than it was under Saddam Hussein? Have you seen some of those comments he's been making?

ZEBARI: I have seen that statement, and it was unfortunate, actually. Many of us disagree with that characterization. There is no comparison, Wolf, whatsoever between the status of human rights now and under Saddam Hussein, where he used to bury thousands of people in the sands and gas them and kill them en masse.

I think there are some violations we have to admit, and we are prepared to look into them to investigate, but that comparison was part of the election campaign, but it went beyond that, really. It did not do any good to us or to our friends.

BLITZER: Do you expect the trial of Saddam Hussein to resume tomorrow?

ZEBARI: Yes. It's planned tomorrow. This would be the third session. And again, the court will start the proceeding to charge them with that incident in Dujail, and we are all looking forward to tomorrow's third session to see what new he has to bring Saddam Hussein to this court.

BLITZER: The lawyers representing Saddam Hussein and the other -- his co-defendants say that they're so concerned about their own personal security that they really can't go forward with this right now until they get better protection.

How concerned are you about the security for the defense attorneys representing these defendants?

ZEBARI: Well, we are concerned and the government has offered its assistance to provide security and protection for the defense lawyers.

They deserve to be protected well by the government. And we are concerned, actually. And a couple of incidents have happened. But this did not deter the defense lawyers to continue their defense of Saddam Hussein and his lieutenants.

BLITZER: Let's talk about the militias in Iraq for a moment. I want you to listen to what the U.S. Army Lieutenant General Martin Dempsey said about in recent days about the existence of these Shiite militias, the Kurdish militias, some of the other militias that are operating in Iraq right now. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY, MULTINATIONAL SECURITY TRANSITION: The seriousness of it is more or less in that it undermines the Iraqi security forces that we're training and equipping as the sole provider of the legitimate source of authority and force in Iraq.

And, so it is a serious problem and one which we all work on.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: What are you doing about these independent militias that are operating all around Iraq?

ZEBARI: Well, according to the constitution, there would be only one national army. And all the illegal militias would be dissolved. And members of this militia have been incorporated into the new Iraqi security units, whether in the army or in the police force. And this is an ongoing process.

I believe the slow pace of building the Iraqi army and the lack of confidence, even, in some of the units led some of the political leaders to maintain a level of these militia. But the attitude is really to integrate them all in the new Iraqi army. And this is an ongoing process. Many of them, I know you see, whether from the Badr militia, whether from other militias, have been included in the new army and police units.

BLITZER: What about the Mehdi militia of Muqtada Al-Sadr? Is that part of the solution or part of the problem?

ZEBARI: Well, they have been problematic, in fact and disruptive in the political process. But now, they're part of it, which we have welcomed -- their participation to be in the political process.

They are standing for this election within the Iraqi united coalition. And we hope that they will also be brought under control or included in new formation of the Iraqi army unit.

BLITZER: Let me ask you, since you're the top diplomat of Iraq, some questions about this Cairo declaration that was delivered at the end of November by the various Iraqi factions -- the Kurds, the Sunnis, the Shia, as part of an Arab League conference that was going on. One line that raised some alarm bells here in Washington: "Resistance is a legitimate right for all nations."

That seemed to be an attack against the U.S. military authorizing this so-called resistance against the U.S. military. Was that what you were saying?

ZEBARI: No. In fact, I think this was a general compromise between all the parties who attended that preparatory meeting. And it was unspecific. I mean, as resistance to occupation is a legitimate right for any nation to do.

But here in Iraq, actually, the multinational forces, the American forces are working and operating under international mandate and the Security Council resolution, 1546 or 1657 and, also, with the invitation and the consent of the Iraqi government.

So, that characterization description does not apply to the multinational forces here. But it was included in order to satisfy those Sunni leaders who participated actively in this conference.

And we think that the final outcome was a successful outcome for all of the Iraqis and even for the Arab league and Arab countries who have been waiting for the last two and a half years, not doing much about helping or lending a helping hand to Iraq.

This is the first indication that they are willing to come and support the political process, to do their part in helping the Iraqi people overcome the current difficulties. In fact...

BLITZER: I was going to say: What about this other line, demanding the withdrawal of foreign forces upon a schedule? That seems like you want a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. and coalition forces. Is that what you want?

ZEBARI: No, again, Wolf, actually, I participated in the preparation and organizing this meeting very, very closely. And even that line, again, was unspecific.

There is no timeline or timetable that is set for the withdrawal of U.S. forces. It was included that there should be a request for a timetable, but this was pending or linked to the capabilities of the buildup of the Iraqi forces and to the stability on the ground.

So, it was a qualified request, but without specifying or identifying any specific date of this. And, as we discussed, in fact, again, this was included to encourage the Sunni Arabs to endorse the final communique and to come out with a complete result for the upcoming conference that will be held after the election in Iraq sometime at the end of February 2006.

BLITZER: I'll ask you what I asked the senators, Biden and Lugar just a few moments ago. There was a thunderous silence in this declaration as far as appreciation to the United States and the coalition partners for liberating Iraq from Saddam Hussein. There was no mention of that at all, no appreciation to the American people for what the United States has done for your country. And there's some people wondering why this document, issued in Cairo at this Arab League summit involving all the Iraqi factions, was so silent on that sensitive matter.

ZEBARI: Yes. But remember, Wolf, actually, the Iraqi government has expressed numerous times -- and Iraqi leaders about their deep appreciation for the sacrifices of the American men and women in uniform here and for the American leadership for the American administration for liberating us.

This composition in Cairo was a different format and different parties participated. But all the goals that the United States upholds and defend in Iraq were included.

There was a clear condemnation of terrorism. There was a support for building democracy. There was a support for reforms in Iraq. There was a confirmation, for the first time, that this is a new Iraq; the old Iraq of Saddam Hussein is gone.

So, that's why I think it was in line definitely with what the American government and administration is supporting.

It supports the political process; it encourages people to participate in the election; that there should be a difference between those terrorists and Baathists who want to bring down this process and those Iraqis who are willing to participate peacefully in the process.

So, in that sense I think it was good.

BLITZER: We are all out of time, but a very quick question and a response, hopefully, on these reports that the United States military is planting and paying for articles favorable to the U.S. military to be published in the Iraqi news media. What can you tell us about this?

ZEBARI: Well, it looks like, from the reports we have seen and the media, that some military commanders wanted to implant certain stories in the Iraqi papers.

I'm really not in a position to confirm or not confirm this incident. But the Iraqi press and the media has been open and has been free, really. And there hasn't been much censorship as it used to be in the past.

I mean, I'm not in a position to confirm these reports or to deny them, at the same time.

But I know that there is a debate, an ongoing debate, in Washington about this incident and this planting of these stories in the Iraqi press.

BLITZER: We have to leave it right there. The Foreign Minister of Iraq, Hoshyar Zebari.

Thanks, as usual, for joining us on "LATE EDITION."

ZEBARI: You're most welcome.

BLITZER: We appreciate it. Still ahead: Is the U.S. military stretched too thin to carry out President Bush's victory plan? We will get the views of three top retired U.S. Army generals.

And up next: We will also get a quick check on what's in the news right now. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back.

President Bush this week detailed his vision for the U.S. military mission in Iraq. Is his plan on target?

Joining us, the former NATO supreme allied commander, retired U.S. Army General George Joulwan; retired U.S. Army Brigadier General James Spider Marks, he's the CNN military analyst; and in Chicago, retired U.S. Army Brigadier General David Grange, he's also a CNN military analyst.

Generals, thanks very much for joining us.

General Joulwan, you're the four star. I'll start with you as is appropriate.

Listen to what General Martin Dempsey, commander, multi-national security transition command in Iraq said this past week. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DEMPSEY: Progress is uneven, and it's uneven across the country. It's uneven in units. It's uneven between the army and the police.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Pretty blunt statement from General Dempsey, "progress is uneven." What do you make of what's going on?

GEN. GEORGE JOULWAN (RET.), FORMER NATO ALLIED SUPREME COMMANDER: It's the sort of statement we drastically need from our military commanders: clarity in terms of what really is happening, no spin but clarity.

And he's giving you a clear assessment. He's giving our political leadership a clear assessment.

It is uneven, and we have to paint it that way and understand what does it take to get the job done.

And I applaud him Marty Dempsey for doing that.

BLITZER: What about that, General Grange? I assume you know General Dempsey, but what do you make of his statement, which is not as rosy as some of the political statements that we see coming out of Washington?

BRIG. GEN. DAVID GRANGE (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, I mean, it's a fact on the ground. I mean, he's there and he knows. He gets the reports.

It's not much different than U.S. military units on an operation, either their readiness ratings or their -- how well they're doing in certain areas of operating and responsibility.

And so it makes sense. That's the way it is in combat.

BLITZER: Here's the list of Iraqi battalions, about 500 to 700 or 800 soldiers per battalion. According to the Defense Department report of October 13, only one is at what is called level one, meaning it can operate without any U.S. military backup assistance. Thirty seven are at level two where they can take the lead, but they still need U.S. help. And 78 at level three, which is not as good.

General Pace, the U.S. Marine Corps general, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said this the other day in referring to that level of specificity. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEN. PETER PACE, CHAIRMAN, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF: In an attempt to be very precise with ourselves, to give ourselves metrics that we can all understand, we have done ourselves and everyone listening to us a disservice.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: The point he's trying to make, General Marks, is that if there are only -- what, 500 or 700 Iraqi troops that can operate by themselves after the U.S. has spent $200 billion, two-and-a-half years of training these guys, that doesn't speak well for the state of Iraqi military readiness right now.

GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: What the chairman is saying and Dave Grange mentioned it, is that we've established a very high bar for how we're going to evaluate and put metrics against the units that are being trained.

I would tell you that in terms of a level one evaluation, what General Pace went on to say was when he commanded his battalion, he would have evaluated his battalion at a level two.

And what that means is that that organization has an ability from soup to nuts, top to bottom, to conduct independent operations.

And that includes applying force through a whole bunch of different means: intelligence as well as artillery and aviation and fixed wing. And his evaluation of his unit was he couldn't have done that when he was a battalion commander. So it's not unusual, again to emphasize Dave Grange's point. We are very, very critical on ourselves. When we're in those military formations, we look our boss' in the eye and we tell them what we can and cannot do.

BLITZER: General Joulwan?

JOULWAN: I think, though, it gets to your -- what you started to say about this report that's come out, "Victory in Iraq."

And if I could refer to there...

BLITZER: This is the booklet, the 30-odd page booklet, "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq," that accompanied the president's speech this past week at the Naval Academy.

JOULWAN: And I applaud, for example, General Pace for saying the military must speak out more on what needs to happen. But their second pillar of the eight pillars they talk about is, "Our strategic objective is transition Iraq to security self-reliance. The government of Iraq provides for the internal security of Iraq, monitors and controls its borders, successfully defends against terrorists and other security threats." I would think that would mean insurgencies.

And down here in the tasks to be done, it talks about help to train and equip the Iraqi security forces so they can combat terrorism and maintain a secure environment in Iraq. What we're seeing here is an evaluation of those units, Iraqi units that can do that. Now some are going to progress at different rates. But the time element is what is important here. When will Iraqi forces with, on our side, prudent risk, be able to assume this responsibility for their country?

BLITZER: And do you see, General Joulwan, progress being made on that front?

JOULWAN: Progress is being made, but we got mixed up here on the withdrawal of U.S. forces without being specific about how much progress needs to be made, and how much time. And that is the responsibility of the military commanders to report to their political authorities with specificity and clarity when the Iraqi forces can do that.

BLITZER: General Joulwan, do you see evidence -- and you've been a four-star, you were Nato Supreme Allied Commander -- that generals are afraid to tell the truth to their political leaders?

JOULWAN: I would hope not. I see some concern here, what I would call intimidation at times. I hate to say that, but I've gotten reports that that does take place. But they're now speaking out. They must speak out.

They've been given some clarity here on these objectives, and they need to tell with clear military advice to our political leadership, both in the executive branch and the Congress, of where we are and what it's going to take. We all want success in Iraq, and the military has to stand up and be counted, have the moral courage to tell it like it is.

BLITZER: Wait. Hold on one second. Hold on one second. I want to bring General Grange in and ask him the same question. Do you see evidence that military commanders have been intimidated and are afraid to speak truth to power?

GRANGE: I don't see that now, and I didn't see that when I served. Most of my comrades sounded off when there was an issue on readiness or ground truth in an area of operations. I think there's a lot of backbone out there, and the commanders I know call it as it is.

BLITZER: What about that, General Marks?

MARKS: Clearly, Marty Dempsey is sounding off, and he's getting a lot of press. That indicates that he has a vision of what needs to take place, and he is giving an assessment, a true assessment of what he sees on the ground.

BLITZER: There was this report last week that the chairman, John Warner, of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and the ranking Democrat, Carl Levin, brought in a bunch of lower-level generals in for one of these sessions with the committee to hear what they have to say, and they got a different line from what they're hearing from the top generals.

MARKS: I can't comment to the difference in terms of how that, you know, what was the makeup in the room and what were the pressures. But when you see Marty Dempsey, or when you listen to John Abizaid, the commander at Central Command, or General George Casey on the ground in Iraq, you hear their assessment and their personal professional assessment of what's taking place on the ground.

BLITZER: So much of U.S. troop withdrawal, General Joulwan, will depend on when the Iraqi security forces can meet their own security needs and take the job over themselves. Senator Jack Reed, a member of the Armed Services Committee from Rhode Island, a Democrat, a former member, I believe, of the 82nd Airborne, very close to the military, said this the other day. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

U.S. SENATOR JACK REED (D), RHODE ISLAND: There are ethnic divisions. There are battalions that are almost exclusively Kurdish or Shia. It is not yet a coherent, fully integrated national army. That's a long task ahead.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Is he right?

JOULWAN: Absolutely. I think you need -- let me, having some experience in this, a ten-year plan. Where do we want to be in ten years? And I think you need to have that perspective on this, so you have some idea of how to measure where you're going. It can't all happen in the next six months. You have to show some sort of perspective. And I think you need a ten-year strategy. That doesn't mean that you have to have troops in there for ten years. But you need to have some understanding of where the Iraqi security forces will be, how do we get their neighbors involved, how do we get our allies involved, broaden the political base diplomatically and politically, and I think that's going to take a long plan, a five, ten, maybe even longer.

BLITZER: I hear that, General Grange. Five, ten years. That's not necessarily what a lot of Americans want to hear as far as the U.S. troop involvement in Iraq is concerned.

GRANGE: Well, of course not. I mean, we like things to happen very quickly. It's our lifestyle. But counter-insurgency is a transition, a culture in the military. I mean, just think about, you're taking the military and changing it from one that took care of themselves and served a dictator and was very corrupt, to one that is more on a western military cultural basis. That doesn't happen in a year.

It takes a long time, especially on the leadership side. And so, it's going to take a decade. I think we will have some people there, actually, in ten years in a training mode, what you call a mobile training team mode, because we'll have that training responsibility still to continue to develop it. It doesn't happen right away and ends. It's a continuous requirement.

BLITZER: General Marks, you were there at the beginning when the U.S. launched the invasion. You were involved deeply in the intelligence operation. Based on what you experienced firsthand then when you were on the ground and what you see happening now, is the security situation in Iraq better today or worse today than when it was in 2003 and 2004?

MARKS: Well, the security situation in 2003, immediately upon the coalition liberation of Iraq, certainly was in place and very strong. Over the period of time, there was a gap in terms of the number of forces that should have been on the ground and what I call the incipient growth of this insurgency. The insurgency was not inevitable.

So the comparison of what we saw in early '03 and what you see today is clearly a challenge with an insurgency that does require a large military presence to handle. The solution has been, both coalition forces, predominantly U.S. forces and Brits, and the growth of the Iraqi security forces across the board. And what Dave Grange is talking about is a professional ethos that has to be put into place before you can draw comparisons about what is and what should be.

BLITZER: General Joulwan, Congressman Murtha, who is now calling for a six-month withdrawal of U.S. forces to redeploy over the horizon in Kuwait and other neighboring states, just get out because the footprint has become, in his opinion, even, is attracting, is expanding this insurgency. Listen to this other point that Congressman Murtha, a strong supporter of the military, made this past week. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

U.S. REPRESENTATIVE JOHN MURTHA (D-PA): Our military and their families are stretched thin. Many say the Army's broken. Some of our troops are on a third deployment.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Is he right that the military is stretched thin and may be on the verge of being broken?

JOULWAN: Well, we've talked about it being stretched thin often on this show. Yes, they are and there is -- remember, in the first Gulf War, we had 900,000 in the Army. Now, there's less than half that.

And we're fighting in all of Iraq, and we've got deployments in Afghanistan and worldwide. They are stretched thin. Whether they're broken or not, I think I would say if we don't change the way we're doing business, they're in danger of being fractured and broken, and I would agree with that.

BLITZER: We have to leave it, unfortunately, there. General Joulwan, as usual, thanks very much. General Marks, General Grange, good discussion. We'll continue this down the road. Up next, in case you missed it, "LATE EDITION"'s Sunday morning talk-show roundup. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: And now, in case you missed it, let's check some of the highlights from the other Sunday talk shows here in the United States. On NBC's "Meet the Press," Republican Senator John McCain offered his definition of victory in Iraq.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

U.S. SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ): To plead victory, at least in my view, is a flawed but functioning democracy in Iraq -- I think it's hard to expect us to have a perfect democracy there -- but one that the people of Iraq will support; economic development to restoration of infrastructure and law and order and the Iraqi military and security personnel being able to take over most of the responsibilities for Iraqi security.

BLITZER: On Fox News Sunday, Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer said the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq may now be doing more harm than good.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

U.S. SENATOR BARBARA BOXER (D-CA): Eighty percent of the Iraqis want us gone; 45 percent of the Iraqis tell the pollsters they think it's OK to use force against our troops.

So, when you have a circumstance where the very presence of our troops is causing the problem, then you need to be a little more aggressive than the president is being in terms of when we will leave.

BLITZER: And on ABC's "This Week," New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin vowed not to let the federal government forget about rebuilding his city, devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RAY NAGIN, MAYOR OF NEW ORLEANS: It's more acceptable for Americans to spend money on foreign soil for foreign citizens than to spend money for New Orleans, which is an American city? I don't get that. And it blows me away every time I hear that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Highlights from the other Sunday morning talk shows here on "LATE EDITION," the last word in Sunday talk. Up next: the results of our web question of the week, "Will Saddam Hussein be convicted? We'll get to that. But first this.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER (voice-over): Oprah Winfrey, what's her story? The talk show queen is in New York to celebrate the Broadway opening of "The Color Purple." Winfrey starred in the 1985 film, and is producing the new musical.

Winfrey also dropped by David Letterman's late-night TV program for the first time since 1989. She had famously refused Letterman's many invitations, reportedly because she was upset about the many jokes he has made about her over the years.

During her appearance, Winfrey denied any rift between the two television titans.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Our "LATE EDITION" web question of the week asked this: "Will Saddam Hussein be convicted?" Here's how you voted.

Remember, this is not, repeat, not a scientific poll. That's your "LATE EDITION" for this Sunday, December 4. Be sure to join me next Sunday at 11:00 a.m. Eastern.

I'm also in "The Situation Room" Monday through Friday, 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. Eastern and 7:00 to 8:00 p.m. Eastern. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.fdch.com

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