Skip to main content
U.S. Edition


Return to Transcripts main page


This Week at War: Crisis in the Middle East

Aired July 16, 2006 - 13:00   ET


JOHN ROBERTS, HOST: I'm John Roberts along with my colleague Wolf Blitzer and "This Week at War" as we continue to monitoring the escalating violence in the Middle East.
Following this intensely for the last three hours on "Late Edition," talking to a lot of newsmakers, what's your assessment of where the situation is now?

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: It looks like it's getting worse by the hour. The Israelis clearly fearful right now that the Hezbollah have rockets and maybe missiles with longer ranges than they earlier anticipated going into Haifa once again. And the Israelis are pounding positions in southern Lebanon. We just saw what they're doing with those artillery shells. So at least in the short term it looks like it's getting worse.

ROBERTS: And Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, in a public statement on Lebanese TV, saying that the Israelis are underestimating Hezbollah's capability, that they have rockets that are capable of reaching beyond Haifa. Nasrallah saying that we can go beyond Haifa with this, basically saying to Israel, bring it on.

BLITZER: I spoke with one top Israeli general, Brigadier General Michael Herzog, who was on "Late Edition," and he confirmed what the Israelis have feared in private, that they have missiles potentially that could reach Tel Aviv, Israel's largest city, the commercial heart of Israel along the Mediterranean. Nasrallah, Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Hezbollah, saying the enemy doesn't know our capability. Ominous words.

ROBERTS: Now, one of the most recent developments comes out of St. Petersburg, Russia, where the G-8 summit is taking place. There was recently a very sharp statement that was issued under the names of all G-8 countries, basically blaming the escalation in violence on Hezbollah, but at the same time calling for Israel to show the utmost restraint.

Let's get a little bit more on this part of the developing story. Suzanne Malveaux joins us now from St. Petersburg. What else can you tell us about this G-8 summit statement, Suzanne?

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, they've been working very hard the last couple of days to try to get consensus among the G-8 leaders, the statement condemning the violence. I'll read the first couple of sentences here. We're just getting this release now, today saying, "We our G-8 leaders express our deepening concern about the situation in the Middle East and in particular the rising civilian casualties on all sides and the damage to infrastructure. We are united in our determination to pursue efforts to restore peace. We offer our full support for the U.N. secretary general's mission presently in the region."

Now, the statement goes on to highlight a couple of things. First of all, it condemns Hezbollah's acts, the attacks. It calls for the return of those Israeli soldiers. Also calls, however, for Israel to exercise restraint. It says as well that the Lebanese government needs to be bolstered, that democratic governments support it, and that overall there is support for this international effort to try to condemn the violence and de-escalate that crisis. All of this, of course, coming, John, as you know, when there are divisions among the G-8 leaders over really who is to blame and how to move forward. We have heard from G-8 leaders, France, Russia, Italy, who say that they believe that Israel has gone too far in some of the attacks and its actions. But President Bush today with his closest ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair again defending Israel's actions, saying that they do not believe that now is time to call a cease-fire.

ROBERTS: There is that division of opinion among the G-8 leaders, Suzanne. So how significant is it that they all got on the same page with this statement that condemns Hezbollah for escalating the violence, and yet at the same time calls for Israel to show restraint?

MALVEAUX: Well, you know, I mean, really, this is the diplomatic dance that many of them do here. They find language, compromise language that everyone can basically say we agree to. But there are divisions over whether or not Israel acted appropriately and just how far to put pressure on Syria, on Iran, that many of the leaders here believe are backing Hezbollah.

Really what you want to look for is what happens out of that U.N. Security Council. Whether or not they really push forward to support the Lebanese government in disarming Hezbollah and some of the other groups, and how much political capital, including President Bush, do they invest in really bringing the Israelis and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table. That, we still have to see.

ROBERTS: Suzanne Malveaux for us live from St. Petersburg, where the G-8 summit is taking place this weekend. Suzanne, thanks.

So Wolf, obviously some escalating international pressure to try to put a lid on this escalating violence.

BLITZER: Although a lot of people, as you know, John, thinking the Bush administration should dispatch a high-level emissary to the region to sort of crack heads and try to ease this crisis. We heard Dianne Feinstein suggest that maybe the first President Bush and former President Bill Clinton, both of whom have a lot of respect and clout in that part of the world, might be a good idea.

We have intrepid reporters covering every angle of this story, very courageous reporters, none more so than our own Nic Robertson, who's joining us right now from Beirut with more. What's the latest in Beirut as it gets dark in that part of the world?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, what's been fascinating in Beirut over the last few hours this afternoon is that we haven't heard any loud explosions. The majority of the firepower seems to be being brought to bear on southern Lebanon at the moment.

There were attacks in Beirut in the southern suburbs. I was out there a little while ago. A building was still smoldering in the southern suburbs. That was the Hezbollah radio station. The reason it appears that it's been relatively quiet in Beirut is because there is some sort of diplomacy going at the moment just across the road from me here in the parliament building.

Prime Minister Fouad Siniora is meeting with Javier Solana, the European Union foreign affairs and security chief. That meeting is very likely about the cease-fire that the prime minister wants to see brought. We know that until now there's been really no negotiations going on, no back channels going on to try and bring about a de- escalation.

This appears to be the first step, and the very fact that there's been no shelling here in the city this afternoon, perhaps a respect of those discussions that are going on. But if you want to get a real assessment of what people think about the situation here, plenty of people were trying to leave the country. I was over at the U.S. Embassy a couple of hours ago, talking to officials there.

They told me that there are two helicopters that they brought in here today with experts to help manage the evacuation of up to 25,000 Americans. They say that could happen, and they hope it will happen over the next couple of days as fast as they can reasonably organize this movement in a safe way.

So I think that gives an indication of what people think. Those that can get out are getting out. Plans are being made to get a lot of Americans here safely out of the country in the next few days, Wolf.

BLITZER: Nic, the Israeli vice premier, Shimon Peres, and other Israeli officials say they're targeting Hezbollah locations. I know you've had a chance to travel out of Lebanon outside of Beirut. Based on your own eyewitness accounts, have Israelis been hitting Hezbollah targets or does it look like innocent civilian structures have been crushed in the process?

ROBERTSON: Well, Wolf, I think if you make an analysis of the number of casualties there's about 104 killed, 286 wounded so far, and evaluate that against the number of strikes, the death toll in terms of the number of strikes hasn't been that high, given that a lot of attacks have been happening right in a densely populated area on the south side of Beirut.

I looked at the house of Hezbollah's spiritual leader, Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah. It had been leveled. There was collateral damage to the buildings around it. The Hezbollah radio station that was destroyed today, the building completely dropped to the ground, five, six-story civilian apartments next door, they were damaged.

There clearly is some civilian collateral, but it's very clear that the civilians living in the areas that are being targeted or trying to take cover. Otherwise, the casualty toll would be much higher. We're also, of course, seeing a number of bridges around the country being targeted, meaning it makes it much harder for people to get around the country. But there is no doubt civilians are getting caught up as these predominantly Hezbollah targets are being taken out, Wolf.

BLITZER: Nic Robertson on the scene for us in Beirut. Thank you very much.

Earlier, I spoke with another one of our very courageous reporters, John Vause. He's in the northern part of Israel with an artillery unit. Watch this.


ROBERTSON: As I say, Wolf, these shells travel about...

BLITZER: Hey, John, let me interrupt for a moment, John. If you could tell your photographer if they're going to continue that to pan over and show our viewers the actual artillery shots being fired, that would be useful.

JOHN VAUSE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, if we could just get a shot of the -- just pan over to houses.

So not only are the Israelis firing these artillery rounds from this general area, Wolf, they're also using MLRS rockets, multi-launch rocket systems, which are precision-guided rockets.

These, too, are sent in with coordinates. They receive their instructions from a command point after intelligence is gathered in southern Lebanon. They hit those launch facilities.

BLITZER: Amazing, amazing sight. John, I know you were embedded with U.S. troops going into Baghdad...

ROBERTS: I saw an awful lot of that.

BLITZER: So you know how loud those artillery shells can be.

ROBERTS: Yes, we spent quite a bit of time hanging out with artillery units. The one danger, and it wasn't so much a danger for the Americans as it probably is for John Vause, in that area, is that each side targets the other by figuring out where the incoming is originating from.

So every time the Israelis fire off one of those shells, somebody in Lebanon is retargeting them. So John Vause is in a very dangerous place.

BLITZER: He understands that. I asked him about that. And I also asked him about his hearing and he says he's wearing ear protectors to make sure he doesn't lose his own hearing.

ROBERTS: There's also escalating danger for the estimated 25,000 Americans who are in Lebanon at this point. This morning, the U.S. embassy said that it was authorizing all non-essential personnel to be able to be evacuated from that embassy. And there were some moves toward doing that.

They're going to be evacuated to Cyprus. That's where our Chris Burns is, live in Larnaca in Cyprus.

Chris, what's the latest from your vantage point?

CHRIS BURNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: John, what we're being told is that a couple of U.S. Marine helicopters arrived at the U.S. embassy in Beirut with a team of military personnel who are supposed to survey the situation from a security standpoint, as to see how they can establish what they call a secure and orderly withdrawal of nationals there.

There are an estimated 25,000, as you say. But there could be thousands more, also, on vacation there. They said that they don't expect them all to leave.

And the question is, what would be a good indication of how people are reacting to all this violence is how many people decide they want to leave.

Will they decide that the dream of a resurrected Lebanon, after 15 years of civil war is broken, or is this another temporary, though deep, spasm of violence that has happened repeatedly over the last few years between Israel and the Hezbollah?

The indication will be how many people want to leave. There have been other nationalities leaving as well. We have pictures of an evacuation of about 350 people, by Italian military, flying here to Larnaca from Syria.

They were evacuating, first, the Italians, Austrians, Spaniards, Czechs, Irish. A Greek flight also brought some Greeks and Cypriots, about 140 them over this way today.

So at the moment it's a trickle, but there could be many more. There are also tens of thousands of French nationals, all these people helping to rebuild Lebanon now, since the 16-year civil war ended in 1991.

Will they stay? How may will go?

That will be the big indication of, really, how serious and how deep this crisis is.

ROBERTS: Our Chris Burns in Larnaca, Cyprus, monitoring the evacuation of U.S. citizens from Lebanon. By the way, if you have friends, family or loved ones in Lebanon and you're trying to get some information, they're asking you not to call the U.S. embassy in Beirut because it is very busy at this moment. Here are a couple of numbers that you can call. If you're overseas, 0-1-202-501-4444, or if you are in the United States, you can dial 1-888-407-4747. That's 888-407-4747.

We're going to take a bit of a step back, coming up on "This Week at War" to take a look at where this all is headed and what the root causes of it were.

"Special Edition: This Week at War" continues in a moment.


ROBERTS: Welcome back. You're watching a special edition of "This Week at War." I'm John Roberts, together with Wolf Blitzer, who has been following the story all day, doing a lot of interviews with major newsmakers.

Wolf, two of the big issues here are: Where is all of this going and, really, how did it all start?

Was this a Hezbollah-launched action or was it as a proxy for Iran and Syria?

BLITZER: Well, if you speak to top Bush administration officials and, certainly, to Israelis, they say it was a proxy, that the the Iranians, specifically, wanted to change the subject from their own nuclear program and divert the world's attention because they were feeling the heat.

ROBERTS: That was one of the issues that we discussed a little bit earlier with our roundtable. Here's that for you.


ROBERTS: CNN's John Vause in northern Israel, Nahariya; Paula Newton is in Jerusalem; and here in Washington, Shibley Telhami, senior fellow with the Brookings Institution.

President Bush spoke out on Thursday about the latest Mideast crisis.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's a sad situation when there's a very good chance for there to be a two-state solution enacted; that is, two states living side by side in peace. It's really sad where people are willing to take innocent life in order to stop that progress. As a matter of fact, it's pathetic.

And having said that, Israel has a right to defend herself.


ROBERTS: John Vause, you have been in the thick of it since this all began. Where is it headed? VAUSE: Well, the big fear is that this is headed to a regional conflict that could drag in countries like Syria and, quite possibly, Iran. We've heard from the Israelis, over the last few days, blaming Iran for providing the missile which hit the major port city of Haifa, a town of about 300,000 people.

So when those allegations are being made -- also, with Israelis accusing Syria and Iran of sponsoring Hezbollah, there is also this big fear that somehow Syria and maybe even Iran could be dragged into this conflict and that Israel will be brought into a much bigger confrontation.

The question, though, is, now: Will Israel be able to contain this military escalation just in Lebanon alone?

And how far is it prepared to go, and how far is it prepared to risk Israeli civilians living here in the north of the country?

The question is: Is it on the brink of war?

Well, with more than 200 rockets falling on a very small number of Israeli towns and cities, it really does feel like war already.

BLITZER: Shibley Telhami, there are more than a few people who believe that this is a proxy war for Iran, that Iran is mixing all of this up.

Do you believe that? Is it trying to flex its muscle in the region, and at the same time, trying to deflect attention away from its nuclear program?

Look, there's no question that Iran has influence with Hezbollah. And they get give them a lot of support. And Hezbollah is dependent on them in many ways.

Also, Hezbollah has been relatively independent, has their own view of the world and asserts itself.

The question is: Does Iran benefit from this, regardless of whether it's really pulling the strings or not?

I think it's really a double-edged sword for Iran, frankly. I think, on the one hand, yes, it says, we have assets that we could exercise, if in fact you were going to go to war with us.

SHIBLEY TELHAMI, UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND: But at the same time, it focuses attention on them in a way that they don't want, not just the nuclear issue, but the role they play. It also distances them from of the Arab states. Frankly, the Saudis are not happy with this war. The Egyptians are not. The Jordanians are not.

A lot of the key Arab countries are not happy with it, and Saudi Arabia has blamed Hezbollah for this crisis. That's highly unusual in the Middle East, and they see Iran as being tied to it. So it's distancing Iran from a lot of key Arab countries. ROBERTS: Paula Newton, we heard President Bush say that Israel has the right to defend itself, but at the same time, he's also very concerned about weakening the Siniora government in Lebanon. And what would be the risk if that government were to be weakened and potentially fall?

PAULA NEWTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, certainly Israel and the Israeli government has told me that, look, we don't want that to happen. But they in fact feel the opposite, John. They feel that if somehow Hezbollah can be weakened or, really, their goal is to, as they say in their words, break Hezbollah, that in fact that will strengthen the Lebanese government. And that to the Israelis is the endgame.

I mean, look, John, we've turned the clock back in the Middle East now at least by a decade. The Israelis now feel that they have an opportunity. They will tell you quite stridently that, look, we didn't go looking for this opportunity, but now that we have it, we will not stop for diplomacy until Hamas and Hezbollah are weakened or at least, in the way they put it, broken. And then at that point they feel that there will be some common ground on which to forge some kind of cease-fire, if not peace.

ROBERTS: One of the sharpest responses from Israeli officials this week came from the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Daniel Ayalon, after those missiles fell on Haifa. Here's what he had to say on Thursday.


DANIEL AYALON, ISRAEL AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED STATES: This is a major, major, escalation. We have been warning all along that they, since we pulled out of Lebanon, they were building their arsenal with the help of Syria and Iran.


ROBERTS: John Vause, the fact that Hezbollah now has missiles that can reach Haifa, how does that change the game in that part of the world?

VAUSE: Well, it now means that as far as Israel's concerned, it may as well go back into Lebanon and create that buffer zone, that 10- kilometer or six-mile buffer zone that was in place before 2000, before it unilaterally withdrew from Lebanon. What Israel will try to do is protect these communities so close to the border, essentially push Hezbollah back up into Lebanon, control that territory, push the Katyusha rockets and other missiles, whatever Hezbollah has, out of the range of the south.

So it is a dangerous escalation and will give Israel that option of trying to protect its civilians. So the question now, will they go in, how far will they go and how long will they be prepared to stay there.

ROBERTS: But as Daniel Ayalon told me earlier this week, he said that at this moment at least, Israel has no intent on reoccupying southern Lebanon. Shibley Telhami here in Washington, John Vause up there in northern Israel and Paula Newton, thanks very much.

Israel saying it has no intent to reoccupy southern Lebanon, but it continues with its artillery and bomb and missile barrage of Lebanon. And this news just in to CNN, a bulletin from the AP stating that five of those who died in Lebanon from Israeli attacks held Canadian citizenship. Five people with Canadian citizenship killed in Lebanon in those Israeli attacks.

BLITZER: That's going to hit the situation very close to home for a lot of people in Canada.

ROBERTS: It certainly will. Yeah. Absolutely. There are a lot of people who live in Lebanon who are dual citizens as well because Canada allows you to have dual citizenships. We do not know if they were vacationing Canadians or if they were Canadians of Lebanese descent. And there's no specific location given. How long is Israel going to continue this bombardment is a question. And you spoke with the deputy premier of Israel about that.

BLITZER: And, you know, he obviously wasn't giving away any of his cards, although he was forcefully insisting that Israel's going move. We're going to hear that interview. That's coming up.

ROBERTS: All right. We'll come up with Shimon Peres in the next section of "This Week at War." You're watching a special edition. John Roberts together with Wolf Blitzer as we continue to monitor the violence in the Middle East. Stay with us.


ROBERTS: This is a special edition of "This Week at War" as we continue to monitor the violence in the Middle East. John Roberts together with Wolf Blitzer. And there was a statement out of the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg, Wolf, which at the same time condemned Hezbollah for being responsible for the upsurge in violence and at the same time urging restraint on the part of Israel. You spoke with the Vice Premier Shimon Peres today. Did you get any kind of an idea from him on whether they will heed those calls for restraint?

BLITZER: They insist they are exercising restraint, and they also insist they're trying to pinpoint their targets as best as they can against Hezbollah targets. But of course, in the process, there's always going to be what they call collateral damage. And it looks there's been some extensive collateral damage. Let's listen to part of that interview.


BLITZER: Israel's vice premier, Shimon Peres. Vice Premier Peres, thanks very much for coming in. First of all, on the attack on Haifa today, there's been various speculation that this was something bigger than a rocket, perhaps a missile, given the range from southern Lebanon into Haifa. What exactly did cause that destruction in Haifa earlier today?

SHIMON PERES, VICE PREMIER OF ISRAEL: Well, the missiles they fired came from Syria, from the Syrian arsenal. I don't know if now or earlier. And we knew that this may happen, and, by the way, missiles are killing. They can kill people.

But there's one mistake that Hezbollah did. They won't break our spirit. The people of Israel are today united and determined like never before, and I'm sure we shall overcome it, win it and return to peaceful relations.

BLITZER: So you're suggesting that the Syrian government provided these missiles, not rockets, these missiles to Hezbollah, and Hezbollah then launched them. Is that correct?

PERES: No, I want to correct. I don't know when they supplied it. Maybe they did supply it earlier, not just now. As the Iranians have supplied the land-to-sea missile as well as there are 200 officers of the revolutionary guard in Lebanon helping Hezbollah to fight Israel.

By the way, they were located in the buildings of Hezbollah in Lebanon that we have bombed. And if you noticed, nobody was killed. We knew that the headquarters were empty, and that was a warning to the Hezbollah.

BLITZER: But do you acknowledge, though, that many innocent civilians in Lebanon have been killed?

PERES: But I can say clearly that every single operation we weight very carefully to see how to avoid the killing of any civilian life. I wouldn't take the information of Lebanon or the Hezbollah as everyone. I know we're extremely careful to distinguish between hitting the Hezbollah and hitting Lebanon, between hitting military targets and hitting civilian infrastructure. But as you know, we are being attacked indiscriminately.

BLITZER: We see now that Hezbollah has the capability of hitting Haifa, Israel's third-largest city. What about Tel Aviv, which is further to the south?

Does Hezbollah have the capability of hitting Tel Aviv?

PERES: Look, the whole country is a front. And the whole people are mobilized. It doesn't matter where they are. It won't change neither our mind nor our spirit. We shall not let terror to win the day.

We shall not submit to any threats of Hezbollah. Hezbollah is a foreign body in the midst of Lebanon, which is a peaceful country. We don't have any conflict with them.

And I am telling you again, no matter where they will hit, we shall not submit. And we shall overcome it.

BLITZER: We had heard earlier that there was a higher state of alert put in place for the city of Tel Aviv, Israel's commercial capital along the Mediterranean.

Let me ask once again: Does Israel believe that missiles can be fired from southern Lebanon into Tel Aviv?

PERES: Israel will take all the necessary precautions, to the highest degree, to save life. And we are ready for very event. Again and again, it won't change our position.

BLITZER: If the Syrians provided these rockets or missiles that hit Haifa earlier today, what, if anything, are you going do about that as far as the Damascus government is concerned?

PERES: Look, we are today fighting Hezbollah because Hezbollah declared and started a war against Israel. They're the aggressors.

We are fighting Hamas because they have started to shoot and fire at Israel. The two of them are submitted to Iran. This is the troika. We shall not let Hezbollah to win.

We shall not let Hamas to win. We shall let peace to win. And we shall let a better relations to take place between us and Lebanon.

BLITZER: With the exception of the buzzing, the overflight of President Bashar al-Assad's summer residence in Latakiya (ph) a couple of weeks ago, Israel has not hit any targets directly in Syria.

Do you anticipate that will change?

PERES: I hope that the international community will convince the Syrians to stop being a member of the terroristic camp. I hope that the talk between President Bush and President Chirac will help to convince Syria to get out of this blunder.

We are not looking for enemies. We are not looking for extending the front. We shall clearly prefer a diplomatic restraint that will keep Syria out of the front.

BLITZER: The French president, Jacques Chirac, said on Friday, this. I'll read it to you. I find, honestly, as all Europeans do, that the current reactions are totally disproportionate.

He was referring to your government reacting disproportionately to the provocation from Hezbollah. What's your reaction?

PERES: With all due respect to President Chirac, can President Chirac, or can Europe as a whole -- can anybody in the world today convince the Hezbollah to stop their aggression, convince Hamas to stop their aggression, convince Iran to stop making a mockery of all the world?

If they can't do it on their own strengths, what do they expect of us?

We have to defend our life. I wish really, from the depth of my heart, that the French and the European, and the United States will be able to bring an end to this aggression. If they cannot, we are left without a choice but do it ourselves. We are not fighting Lebanon. The first condition, I think, which is important to stop the fighting is to let the Lebanese government to govern.

It is for the first time that the Lebanese government, in a way, stands up against Hezbollah, that Arab countries call upon Hezbollah to stop it. They, too, don't have any influence. The Arab League doesn't have any influence.

Those three or four parties that wants to run the world and overrule it. So I think we should be supported, not because we have the right to be supported, but also because there is a need not to let these groups take over.

BLITZER: You've hit several Hezbollah buildings in and around Beirut. Is it the intention of the Israeli military to kill the Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah?

PERES: We want to get rid of everybody that tries to get rid of us. But we knew that the buildings were empty. And we didn't anybody to be killed. But we think we shouldn't permit that a quarter in Beirut itself will be the fortress of Hezbollah and nobody will attack it.

As I said, nobody was killed. That was not by accident. But they won't be able to arm their terroristic acts from the heart of the Beirut city.

BLITZER: Is he, though, a legitimate target for what they call targeted assassination -- the leader of Hezbollah?

PERES: He's a killer. But we are not passing, now, judgments. We shall try to stop everybody that tries to kill us.

BLITZER: As you take a look, Mr. Peres, at the current situation, do you see it expanding into an all-out regional war?

PERES: No. I think, you know, the classical wars were run by armies. I don't see, today, the army that wants to engage in a war. Countries that have armies are against the war, including Egypt, including Saudi Arabia.

The Syrian army is old and weak. So I don't see the armies coming here. And I don't I don't see the governments willing to come in. It's a war of terror. It is of a different nature. It doesn't have a land. It doesn't have a state. It doesn't have an army. And they're killing indiscriminately.

We shall win this war, too. Let's not forget. It is our 58 years old. We have had to through five wars, outgunned, outmanned, and we won them.

We have had to go through Intifadas. Again, we were attacked for no reason. And even today, I am telling you, we prefer to return to the peaceful negotiations. And we are telling the Lebanese people and the Syrian people and the (inaudible) people, what can be achieved by negotiation will never be achieved by terror. What they are trying to achieve with terror will bring a great deal of damage and blood to everybody, unnecessarily.

So our preference remains peace. But our strength will prevent anybody to force us by terror or by killing.

BLITZER: In the past, Israel, as you well know, has negotiated with the other side for the release of Israeli soldiers held prisoner in Lebanon and elsewhere.

This time you say you won't do that. Why?

PERES: This time the Hezbollah has penetrated the Israeli border. They crossed it. They came to our land. They penetrated our sovereignty for the second time. And they tried to take hostages of the Israeli army.

Would they run away with it, it would become a system (ph) again and again.

The United Nations and the Lebanese government called upon the Hezbollah to leave the frontier between us and Lebanon and let the Lebanese army deploy itself alongside. Instead, they took over the border. They made, from the border stations of ambushes against Israel. And if they would get away with it, it would mean that terror, again, would emerge as the winner.

It's poor (ph) for Lebanon. It's dangerous for Israel. It's unnecessary for the rest of the world.

BLITZER: We're going to take a break, Mr. Prime Minister. We're all out of time.

But coming up, I'm going to be speaking live with the prime minister of Lebanon, Fouad Siniora. Do you have a brief message you want to convey to him?

PERES: Yes. If Mr. Siniora wants peace, I think we are ready to meet with him face to face, without prior conditions, and talk sense. But if Mr. Siniora is a prisoner in the hands of Hezbollah or a prisoner of the impossible situation in Lebanon, well, very little can be done.

If he's free and representing the wish of Lebanon, Lebanon is not our enemy. Lebanon can be our closest friend. We have sympathy for the Lebanese people. If he's ready to come and negotiate face-to- face, straight ahead, straightforward, why not?

BLITZER: The vice premier of Israel, Shimon Peres, making a direct appeal to the Lebanese prime minister, Fouad Siniora.

He's got a lot of history, Shimon Peres, in this conflict, but apparently, the people of Israel are pretty united right now behind this government.

ROBERTS: They seem to be. It's interesting, too, with Peres is that he's, you know, one of the people that has such vast experience with this type of thing, which is the type of experience that people are saying that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert does not have.

And perhaps that's why we saw the level of response on the part of Israel to this kidnapping.

BLITZER: There's been a lot of speculation in the Israeli press, because he doesn't necessarily have the military background that an Ariel Sharon or a Yitzhak Rabin or an Ehud Barak, other Israeli prime ministers had, he may be letting the military go too far, but that's just criticism that's coming in the course of these past few days.

ROBERTS: We have some new video that we want to pass along to you in just a second. But first of all, an update on what we told you about a moment ago. Lebanese security officials confirmed that five people holding both Lebanese and Canadian citizenship were killed in a border town between Lebanon and Israel in an Israeli air strike. Apparently, they were part of an entire family that came over from Canada on holidays and were spending their holiday in the southern part of Lebanon.

Now to that video. This is from the southern Lebanese part city of Tyr. It was an attack on the civil defense building. According to Lebanon TV, 20 people were killed in that attack. We have a separate report from AP that says that in an attack on a building in Tyr -- don't know if it's the same building -- nine civilians were killed and 42 were wounded. So this latest video coming to us from Lebanon TV. That attack on the civil defense building in the southern port city of Tyr. As you can see, the tragedy and the violence continues.

The man under pressure in Beirut, Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, can he do anything to rein in the violence coming from his side of the border? Wolf Blitzer speaks with the prime minister coming up as this special edition of "This Week at War" continues.


ROBERTS: Welcome back. You're watching a special edition of "This Week at War," John Roberts together with Wolf Blitzer as we continue to follow the escalating violence in the Middle East.

And, Wolf, one of the things President Bush said that was incredibly important was for Israel not to weaken the government, the legitimately-elected government of Lebanon headed up by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. You spoke with him earlier today.

BLITZER: And he's got a tough assignment right now. It's a tough democracy, a fledgling democracy they're trying to put together, and I want to play for our viewers a little bit of that interview with Fouad Siniora.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) BLITZER: Prime Minister, thanks very much for joining us. Give us the latest information you have on the prospect for some sort of end to this fighting.

FOUAD SINIORA, PRIME MINISTER, LEBANON: Well, I can say the gates of hell have been opened on Lebanon. And there is a series of mad behavior and mass killing that is happening in Lebanon. For the past five days, Israel is subjecting the whole country to its continuous firing and killing.

Practically, they are cutting the whole country into pieces, and they are bringing the country onto its knees. And hundreds of people are being killed and injured. And that is why you see that Lebanon is asking for an immediate cease-fire, because as long as this firing continues, then there are really great number of people who are being killed.

Now look what Israel is trying to do. They are trying to evacuate all of the people and all of the villages in the south to the north. There are hundreds of thousands of people that are being subjected to terror that Israel is exercising on them. They are behaving in an unhumanitarian way. You see, that's why Lebanon, we are asking for a cease-fire.

And actually, yesterday in my address to the nation and in the address to the world I have asked for an immediate cease-fire and asked all of the countries, the peace-loving nations to help Lebanon by exercising the necessary pressure on Israel. Israel, for the past number of years, they have been occupying and subjecting Lebanon to a series of invasions.

In 1982 they invaded Lebanon. In 1993, they had an aerial invasion, and in 1996 they had another aerial invasion, and they committed the Qana massacre, where hundreds of people were killed.

Now, yesterday again, they committed similar crimes against civilians in the village of Mirwaheen. They killed scores of people. This behavior of Israel is continuing, and they are not sparing every moment of subjecting the whole country to the terror.

BLITZER: All right. Prime Minister, the Israelis make the point, and the Bush administration here in Washington backs them up, that in the year 2000, Israel withdrew from Lebanon to what's called the blue line, the U.N.-recognized international boundary, and it was Hezbollah which violated that agreement by crossing that border and kidnapping and killing Israeli soldiers. Do you pin the blame directly on Hezbollah for the start of this current crisis?

SINIORA: Well, Wolf, when I was there in Washington, I really met with you, and I said that Israel has been really doing everything in order to create problems for Lebanon. It is true that they withdrew from Lebanon in the year 2000, but there is still an area that is still occupied by Israel, which is the Shebaa Farms. They already kept certain number of Lebanese detainees. For the past 28 years, they are keeping these prisoners in Israel, and we have been calling on them and calling on all our friends around the world. Why should they keep these prisoners as a way of keeping a problem that is brewing?

They had already kept a number of -- thousands of land mines that are killing scores of Lebanese and being amputated. They are subjecting Lebanon to air -- and to daily violations of our air space. So Israel is not sparing a moment of subjecting the whole country to its terror. That is why, actually, the thing that happened.

Nevertheless, there has been already a crossing of the blue line. That's correct, but what is happening now, it is subjecting Lebanon to a disproportionate retaliation, which is definitely unacceptable by any facet and it is non-humanitarian. Why, actually, we want to bring the whole country into a situation where we are encouraging the extremists instead of really trying to resolve the issues, trying to really release the prisoners?

BLITZER: Prime minister -- prime minister, the Israelis complain, and once again the U.S. backs them up, that over the past six years, through Syria supported by Iran, thousands of Katyusha rockets and other rockets and missiles were brought into Hezbollah forces in the southern part of Lebanon. And it was your government that has failed to take charge to disband the Hezbollah militia according to the U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559.

Are you now prepared to send the Lebanese army into the south to regain control of that area?

SINIORA: Well, yesterday in my speech to the nation, I said that we are asking for a cease-fire, and we are asking for reasserting the state authority over all the territory of Lebanon. And we have to come to the armistice of 1949. Actually, the way how to proceed towards that end is by empowering the Lebanese government, by resolving these problems, rather than by creating additional problems that will add more extremism into the country.

This is not the way how to solve problems. We have been really moving from one situation into another, from one crisis into another, and we are not resolving these issues properly. So, what is happening now is an additional, a new manifestation of the same problem. What this requires is that, to empower the Lebanese government so that it can really reinstate its authority over all the Lebanese territory, as I mentioned yesterday, and to come back to the armistice of 1949.

But Lebanon has to really be in charge. And that's what we have been saying. In order to reach that, Israel has to really, first of all, to accept a cease-fire. And then we immediately step in in order to resolve the issues of the two soldiers that were abducted, together with the Lebanese detainees in the Israeli prisons, and to resolve issues so that we come back to whereby the state can really be in charge and that the country go back to the armistice of 1949.


BLITZER: Fouad Siniora, the prime minister of Lebanon, speaking with me earlier. John, you know, it's amazing how fast this crisis seemingly developed.

ROBERTS: And of all the jobs you don't want to have, his is probably right there at the top of the list.

BLITZER: Tough job. I don't know that life expectancy is not necessarily all that great, either.

ROBERTS: Yes. We've seen in the past. As the Middle East sits on the knife edge of a broader war, does Iraq sit in the cusp of a civil war? We'll go to Baghdad, coming up next. This is a special edition of "This Week at War."


ROBERTS: This is a special edition of "This Week at War." Welcome back. John Roberts together with Wolf Blitzer.

Earlier this week, Zalmay Khalilzad, who is the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, suggested that the only thing standing between Iraqis and full-blown civil war was U.S. troops. We want to get more context and perspective on this. We're going to go to our correspondent Arwa Damon, who's in Baghdad, also get some opinion from retired General David Grange, who joins us from Chicago and Michael Weisskopf of Time magazine, who joined me in the studio earlier. First of all, let's ask our panel, is Iraq currently in a civil war?

ARWA DAMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's not really a yes or no answer, John. If you look at the tit for tat killings, the attacks that appear to be sectarian in nature, the conclusion to draw would be yes. When you ask average Iraqis, they cite examples of mixed marriages, of spending decades with neighbors, Sunnis neighbors with Shias over this entire time period. So a lot of people will say that that's a tough one to call right now.

ROBERTS: General Grange, what would you say to that question?

BRIG. GEN. DAVID GRANGE (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: I'd say not yet. I would say that this representation in the elected government, many parties involved except for some of the most extreme criminal and terrorist groups, and I believe that most of this revenge killing (inaudible). But I do not think it's civil war.

ROBERTS: Michael Weisskopf?

MICHAEL WEISSKOPF, TIME MAGAZINE: I'd say something in between, John. You certainly have sectarian violence, but you have splits even within the groups themselves, and so it's hard to say that there are clear lines of demarcation.

ROBERTS: The threats in Iraq seem to keep evolving, Michael. First of all, we had the threat from foreign terrorists. Then we had the threat from the Sunni insurgency. Now we have religious violence. It seems that every time U.S. forces try to get a handle on one, another one pops up.

WEISSKOPF: And it raises big questions, John, about the strength of this national unity government. And this is the main challenge for al Maliki, the new prime minister, who is a Shia, of course, has a great challenge and opportunity to show his strength in bringing together these disparate forces.

ROBERTS: General Grange, how do U.S. forces get a handle on the violence there? If these two religious groups want to kill each other, what can you do? General Casey talked about perhaps more troops on the streets of Baghdad.

GRANGE: Well, I think they may put more troops on the streets of Baghdad in key areas that they want a, obviously, a force that has some more capability than the Iraqi forces. The Iraqi forces have the street sense. They have the knowledge of the locale. But they may not have the power in certain situations to stand somebody down. And so the thing is, you don't want to get just like in Bosnia, just like in Kosovo, you don't want to end up in the middle. And it's so hard not to do. You want to stay in the periphery, but still have a big stick to warn people off.

ROBERTS: Arwa Damon, many analysts say that the real problem there in Iraq now are these militias, both on the Shiite and the Sunni side. Is there any plan by the government to deal with these militias?

DAMON: Well, there's a plan, but it's a plan in words only. The government has said that it will set up a committee to decide what to do with the militias, that the militias do need to be disarmed or somehow absorbed into the Iraqi security forces. But in terms of turning those words into real action, that has not happened quite yet.

And that is exactly what the Iraqi people are waiting for. Many Iraqis, most Iraqis, when you talk to them, they are petrified of these militias and of their ability to carry out acts of intimidation or criminal acts against the population.

ROBERTS: The plan that is really being pushed right now is a plan for reconciliation by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki. Here's what he had to say about that plan for reconciliation and what it means for the country on Wednesday. He said, quote, the Iraqi government is determined to make national reconciliation plans succeed because it is the last resort." Michael Weisskopf, that doesn't sound very encouraging that this plan is, quote, the last resort.

WEISSKOPF: No, and what Maliki has to be locking over his shoulder about is Hezbollah, which has arms strength and has autonomy almost within that political structure in Lebanon. It shows what happens when an armed militia decides to act even without government imprimatur.

ROBERTS: So much from the Middle East this week. We can't forget that there's still plenty of trouble brewing in Iraq. That's going do it for this special edition of "This Week at War." My thanks to Wolf Blitzer. I'm John Roberts. Stay tuned. "CNN Presents: Inside the Secret State" is next.


CNN TV E-mail Services CNN Mobile CNNAvantGo Ad Info About Us Preferences
© 2007 Cable News Network LP, LLLP.
A Time Warner Company. All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines. Contact us. Site Map.
Offsite Icon External sites open in new window; not endorsed by
Pipeline Icon Pay service with live and archived video. Learn more
Radio News Icon Download audio news  |  RSS Feed Add RSS headlines