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More Details Emerge About Saddam's Last Moments; Critics Say He Was To Execution; Sectarian Violence Expected to Spike In Wake of Video of Execution

Aired January 1, 2007 - 17:00   ET


To our viewers, you are in THE SITUATION ROOM, where new pictures and information are arriving all the time. CNN reporters across the United States and around the world to bring you today's top stories.

Happening now: Was Saddam Hussein rushed to execution? A source tells CNN that top U.S. officials wanted a delay. Meanwhile, we are learning that moments before he died, Hussein was taunted as a tyrant.

Also, New Year, same situation, on this first day of 2007, Iraq exploding with violence. Now the U.S. sees a somber statistic, more than 3,000 Americans killed in Iraq.

And it is 5:00 p.m. here in Washington where Gerald R. Ford lies in state, and his successors and other well-wishers are paying their respects.

I'm Wolf Blitzer, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We are learning new details of wrangling between U.S. and Iraqi officials in the hours just before Saddam Hussein's execution. The concerns serious enough that U.S. officials actually urged their Iraqi counterparts to delay hanging the former dictator. Let's turn to CNN's Brian Todd. He has the details -- Brian.

BRIAN TODD, CNN INT'L. CORRESPONDENT, THE SITUATION ROOM: Wolf, in the frenzied hours leading up to Saddam's execution, the question of how to handle the former Iraqi dictator proved once again difficult. A member of the Iraqi parliament tells CNN on at least two different occasions, last Thursday and Friday, top U.S. officials in Baghdad suggested to their Iraqi counterparts not to rush the execution.


TODD (voice over): This scene, at the end, was tense. But a top Iraqi official tells CNN the final hours leading to Saddam Hussein's demise were also filled with anxiety. At one point, according to a member of the Iraqi parliament close to Prime Minister Nouri al- Maliki, a top U.S. official suggested a delay of about two weeks.

The parliament member says Maliki and his aides rejected that citing security concerns and rumors of possible violence swirling around the capital. During this period last Thursday and Friday, the official says, the Americans asked for written documentation to make sure the execution was legal according to the Iraqi constitution.

Despite his position against the death penalty, this parliament member says Iraqi President Talabani did not object. By Friday morning, the documents were ready. Late Friday night, in Baghdad, the parliament member tells CNN top U.S. officials met with Maliki's deputies to work out when the handover should take place, and other logistical arrangements.

At that point, Iraqi officials tell members of the media, the prime minister put his pen to the last crucial document.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Finally signing off on the execution order at midnight on Friday, only about five hours before Mr. Hussein was taken up that miserable passage to the gallows.

TODD: A top Iraqi official tells CNN the execution had to take place before sunrise on Saturday, when the Eid holiday began for Sunnis. By 6:00 local time Saturday morning, Saddam was on the scaffold. Two witnesses have disputing accounts on his bearing. A top judge, part of the court that upheld the death sentence, says this:

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): I was very surprised, he wasn't afraid of death.

TODD: But Iraq's national security adviser has this account:

MOWAFFAK AL-RUBAIE, IRAQI NAT'L. SECURITY ADVISER: He was staring at me. I was sort of looking at him as well, in a forceful way. And then he said -- he was telling me, "don't be afraid". Of course, you know, this is -- he's afraid. He was frightened.

TODD: Not in dispute, these bitter exchanges captured on cell phone video between Saddam and the guards, all of whom were Shia. Saddam was Sunni. After he offers prayers, the guards shout praise for Muqtada al Sadr, the popular Shia cleric whose father is believed to have been murdered by Saddam's regime.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Muqtada, Muqtada, Muqtada!

TODD: Saddam defiantly replies.


TODD: Moments later, Saddam Hussein had dropped to his death.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): Witnesses say his eyes were open. By Sunday morning, the dictator, whose body was transferred by the U.S. military, was laid to rest in his hometown near Tikrit.


TODD: U.S. military officials would not comment for this story saying the execution proceedings were matters handled by the Iraqis. When I asked him about the prime minister's mood since the execution, the member of Iraq's parliament told me simply he's relieved, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Brian, thanks very much.

Later this hour, we are going to go back to Baghdad and speak with John Burns, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for "The New York Times", about this execution. That's coming up.

Meanwhile, a grim milestone for U.S. troops in Iraq, as President Bush considering a change of strategy. The number of Americans now killed there tops 3,000. Our Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr is joining us now with more details of this growing U.S. death toll -- Barbara.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT, THE SITUATION ROOM: Well, Wolf, the last month of the year, December, proved to be the most deadly of 2006; 113 U.S. troops lost their lives.


STARR (voice over): As the U.S. military begins what will be its fifth year at war in Iraq, in Montrose, Pennsylvania, the grave of 27-year-old Army Staff Sergeant Daniel Arnold, just one of the now more than 3,000 Americans who have lost their lives in the Iraq war.

Arnold was killed months ago in Ramadi, when his vehicle came under fire. His father is still grief-stricken.

KENDALL ARNOLD, FALLEN SOLDIER'S FATHER: These boys go over there because they want to. Not because they have to. They do their job. It's just so terrible. The loss of life over there.

STARR: Who are the 3,000 who have died? Every state in the country has held funerals. California has lost the most, nearly 300. The Army, which has the most troops on the frontline, has lost more than 1,200; the Marine Corps, more than 600.

It is a far cry from generations past, more than 400,000 troops died in World War II. More than 36,000 in the Korean War. And more than 58,000 in Vietnam. In the first Gulf War, 382 died.

It is still the improvised explosive device that's the number one threat. More than 1,000 have been killed, more than 11,000 injured by IEDs.


STARR: And, Wolf, consider this. A new survey by "The Military Times" newspaper, which is privately owned, for the first time, shows that more troops disapprove of the way the president is handling the war, than approve of it. According to the latest survey, 42 percent of those surveyed in the military said they disapproved of the way the president was handling the war, just 35 percent registered their approval, Wolf.

BLITZER: This publication has done similar surveys in the past, which showed a very, very different outcome. Is that right? STARR: That is correct. The feeling of optimism by the troops, according to this poll, is dropping significantly. One perhaps interesting indicator, as the fourth annual survey, of course, now many of those who have responded to the survey have already served at least their first combat tour in Iraq, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Barbara, thanks very much. Barbara is at the Pentagon for us.

The public viewing of former President Gerald Ford as casket is set to end in just under an hour. The tension will shift to tomorrow's funeral at Washington's National Cathedral. Gary Nurenberg is up on the Hill for us, he's watching this.

Gary, thousands of people, continuing to go by and pay their respects.


Right up until the last minute people standing in the lines, not knowing at this point, actually, whether they will really get in; but it has been important to thousands of them to arrive here today.

It has mostly been a day for the people to file past the remains of President Ford. But throughout the day some well-known political faces have stopped by. As you know, after President Ford died last week, President Bush issued a statement praising the president for how he brought the country together after Watergate. And then, on Saturday, in his radio address, once again, President Bush issuing words of praise for President Ford.

This afternoon, though, was the first opportunity that President Bush had to could in person to pay his respects. Accompanied by his wife, Laura, they approached the casket, bowed their heads for a moment of apparent prayer, and then left the chamber.

We will hear again from President Bush at the formal funeral at the National Cathedral tomorrow. Also this afternoon, former President Clinton stopped by with his wife, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The Clintons and the Fords have become closer since Mr. Clinton left office. He made it a point to stop by and pay his regards this afternoon. Earlier in the day, the first President Bush, accompanied by his wife, Barbara and by former Secretary of State James Baker, also stopped by to pay their regards.

It is likely we will see all of those faces at the National Cathedral, tomorrow. Along with former President Carter, whom we are told will play a role in that service. As we say, the dignitaries we have been watching were the exception. Today was a day for the people, and thousands of them lined up in the rain, for their 35 or 40 seconds in the Capitol Rotunda, their final chance to pay their regards to President Ford, Wolf.

BLITZER: And a lot of people will continue doing that tomorrow at the service, at the National Cathedral. Gary Nurenberg, thanks very much.

Ad Gary said, all the presidents expected to be there. Please join us for our coverage, 9:00 a.m. Eastern, tomorrow, our special coverage of the state funeral, President Gerald R. Ford. We will be covering that right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Jack Cafferty has the day off. He and "The Cafferty File" will be back tomorrow. Still ahead, today, will Saddam Hussein's death backfire on the U.S. mission in Iraq? We are going to have details of a warning from a former U.S. national security adviser, who says the execution was simply mishandled.

It is only 2007, but the political story of the year will be the 2008 race for the White House. We will get a de-brief on who is in, who is out, all that coming up.

Plus, the latest on efforts to secure peace in Somalia, where the government is taking unusual steps right now. Stay with us, your in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Let's get some more on our top story, the aftermath of Saddam Hussein's execution. Now that the feared former dictator is no longer a threat to anyone, many are asking what that might mean for Iraq. Yesterday, on CNN's "Late Edition", I spoke with former Defense Secretary William Cohen and former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski.


BLITZER (on camera): What's the fallout, do you believe, in Iraq and the region from the execution of Saddam Hussein?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINKSI, FMR. NAT'L. SECURITY ADVISER: I wish he hadn't been executed after our troops had left Iraq. With 150,000 American soldiers in Iraq, it looks like an execution undertaken under the U.S. sponsorship. I think this, in the long-run, can backfire.

I also think that the circumstances, demeaning circumstances, of the execution, in particular, showing it on television are unfortunate.

I think the fact that he's now been buried in his hometown creates a potential of a shrine in the future, a kind of a shrine to a martyr. So I think it was not handled well. It wasn't thought through well. Admittedly justice was done because he deserved to be dead, but I think the United States essentially mishandled the circumstances.

BLITZER: Do you agree, Secretary Cohen?

WILLIAM COHEN, FMR. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: I had indicated before, I thought the sentence should have been carried out much later, to give them an opportunity to see whether or not the civil war, or chaos on the ground, whatever you wish to call it, could be subsided before we saw the execution of Saddam.

I think that we will see an obvious spike in violence. I think it is not just Saddam loyalists, but I think that there will be many Sunnis who will see this as the handwriting of the future, that we are going to see this kind of action taken by the Shia against them, so.

BLITZER: So it will be revenge, payback time. The Shia, who were oppressed by Saddam Hussein, will be seen as now having their moment?

COHEN: It could be. I think we will have to wait and see how it unfolds. That was the situation I had hoped we might avoid. It may be inevitable in any event, but I think by doing it now, we will see whether or not that spike is going to take place and how long it will last.

BLITZER: Here's what the National Security Adviser of Iraq Mowaffak Al-Rubaie, said only moments after the execution. Oh, let me read it to you.

"The execution procedure was Iraqi from A to Z. Americans had nothing to do with it and they stayed outside the building. It was carried out by Iraqi forces with not foreign presence."

BRZEZINSKI: We had Saddam in our hands until an hour before the execution.

BLITZER: He was in U.S. military custody?

BRZEZINSKI: Exactly. We are occupying the country. So, we can't escape some degree of responsibility for what happened. I just -- I would hate to see him emerge as a great martyr to Arab nationalism.


BLITZER: Still to come, protests over Saddam Hussein's execution, including one that brought out his daughter. We are going to have details of what she has to say right now.

Plus, 2007 promising to bring out more 2008 presidential candidates. We are going to show you who is in, who is out, and who is still deciding. Lot's more coming up, right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: Mary Snow joining us once again from New York with a closer look at some other important stories making news, Mary.

MARY SNOW, CNN NEWS ANCHOR, THE SITUATION ROOM: Wolf, a string of journalists could find themselves called as witnesses in the perjury and obstruction case of former White House aide Lewis Scooter Libby.

The director of Reporter's Committee for Freedom of the Press calls the possibility unprecedented and horrifying. Jury selection begins in two weeks. Libby is accused in the CIA leak case involving the outing of operative Valerie Plame.

Another journalist was kidnapped in Gaza today. He is 50-year- old Jaime Razuri, a Peruvian photographer with a French news agency, AFP. Arm militants abducted Razuri in Gaza City, just before sundown.

This is the latest of string of kidnappings of journalists and aid workers in Gaza in recent months. Most have been released after a few hours.

A Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman says a pilot who flew a small plane into the skies over President Bush's Crawford, Texas ranch, did so accidentally. The plane wandered into the restricted air space at midday yesterday. And Air Force spokesman says NORAD scrambled F-16 fighter jets. The jets got the pilot's attention with flares. He landed, was interviewed, and then sent on his way.

And Federal Aviation Officials are chalking up a UFO sighting to odd weather anomaly, but some United Airline workers beg to differ. A report in today's "Chicago Tribune" quotes them as saying they are sure they saw a saucer-shape craft over O'Hare airport last fall. They say it had no lights, hovered, then shot off through the clouds. The FAA is not investigating, Wolf.

BLITZER: We want to see those pictures, right, Mary?

SNOW: Absolutely.

BLITZER: Once we see the pictures, we will make up our own mind. Thanks very much for that. Coming up, now that a brutal former dictator is dead, might 2007 be less brutal for Iraq and Iraqis? I will speak with "New York Times" reporter John Burns, Pulitzer Prize winner, about Iraq's future after Saddam Hussein. John is in Baghdad.

Meanwhile, now that Saddam Hussein is dead some of his supporters want revenge. They are calling for strikes against the United States, without mercy.

We'll be right back.


BLITZER: To our viewers, you are in THE SITUATION ROOM, where new pictures ask information are arriving all the time.

Happening now, Saddam Hussein's final minutes. What really happened in the gallows as the former dictator about to be hanged? We have new details about what was said, including taunting by guards and how Saddam Hussein responded.

Also, Somalia's government reclaims the capital. But will it be able to secure the peace? And what happens when thousands of Ethiopian troops, backing them up, go home?

And the New Year promising to bring a new crop of presidential contenders. We are going to show you the roster for the next race for the White House.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You are in THE SITUATION ROOM.

All that coming up, but first, we want to go back to the United States capitol, the Rotunda, specifically, on Capitol Hill. There is Betty Ford the 88-year-old widow of the former President Gerald R. Ford. She's returning to see the casket of her husband's body lying in state.

This is an emotional moment for Betty Ford. She will sit. She is an elderly woman. Clearly she was moved, and has been moved, throughout this ordeal. Wants to spend a few moments with the body, with the casket, just before she returns tomorrow morning to the National Cathedral, will be the scene for the final memorial service here in the nation's capitol. Eventually the body will go to Grand Rapids, Michigan, for burial.

Tom DeFrank is "The New York Daily News" journalist who has known the Fords for many years. Covered the vice president, covered the president for -- in the 1970s. He's joining us on the phone.

You look at this picture, Tom. You see Betty Ford. You know of that wonderful marriage, that great love affair they had for so many decades. You watch her right now, Tom. What do you think?

TOM DEFRANK, REPORTER, "NEW YORK DAILY NEWS": First of all, I'm thinking about the strength she's obviously getting from the family. I see three of the four children there, and a couple of in-laws as well. It not only was a remarkable relationship between the two of them, President Ford and Betty Ford, but the relationship between the Fords and their kids was almost a model of what you would want as parents.

I am sure this is a terribly difficult moment for her. That's her oldest son, Mike, on her right. And to her left is her youngest son, Steve Ford. Her daughter, Susan, is out of the picture at the moment. But knowing them, being surrounded by her children, at this very trying moment has got to be a source of great comfort for her.

BLITZER: Not only her children, her grandchildren, and her great grandchildren; and not only that family, but so many close friends. So many world leaders are coming to Washington for the service tomorrow.

The president was there with Mrs. Bush just a little while ago, the former President Bill Clinton and Senator Clinton, they were there; the president's father, the first President Bush, and Barbara Bush were there, former Secretary of State James Baker. There has been literally a parade of powerful people coming to pay their respects to Gerald Ford.

DEFRANK: That would make her happy. But, you know, Mrs. Ford was just like President Ford, is not one to stand on a lot of ceremony. But she wanted this to be a national sendoff to show respect for him and for the office of the presidency.

The other night, Wolf, on Saturday night, you and I were talking about the funeral plans and how President Ford has been involved in the planning of this funeral for at least 25 years, maybe longer. Well, so was Mrs. Ford. President Ford once told me about some plans for the funeral and said that -- I can remember what it was, but said had asked Betty, her idea about whether they should do this as opposed to that. So he was consulting her about these funeral plans.

It wasn't just the Military District of Washington, military services. It was President Ford and Mrs. Ford making sure, between the two of them, that this funeral service, from start to finish, had all the right touches for President Ford.

BLITZER: Last May, you had a meeting with both of them, Betty Ford and Gerald Ford, they were together. Tell our viewers how that went.

DEFRANK: Well, I had an interview with President Ford in May of this -- just this past year. And afterwards President Ford did something he has never done before. He invited me for lunch. It was very unexpected. He said Betty is coming, too. I hope you don't mind.

As if I was going to mind that Mrs. Ford, who has been as decent to me as he has, would come to lunch. It was a wonderful lunch. I will tell you one little story at tend, Wolf. You will remember that one of his favorite foods was butter pecan ice cream. Air Force One never went anywhere in the world without being fully loaded with butter pecan ice cream when Ford was president.

So the dessert comes. It was fruit and vanilla ice cream. President Ford says to me, "Do you want some butter pecan ice cream?" I said, "What do your doctors say about that?" And he says, "I have it anyhow, damn it." Of course, he didn't that day. He had vanilla ice cream. But Betty just said we live our lives one day at a time. And we do what we hope, not any other reason. She -- the -- the byplay between the two of them was just phenomenal. He called her mother. She called him Jerry. And I was really privileged just to be able to watch the byplay, the interaction between the two of them. Because, you know, Wolf, there are things you just can't fake. And the affection between the two of them was certainly one of them. It was real and you can see on the face of all of them there, that's -- from left to right, that's Mike, that's Steve, and Susan Ford on the right of the screen.

BLITZER: A wonderful family. Although a family that like every family certainly had their share of problems. Betty Ford had her share of problems as well, all of us know, she heroically stood up to those problems, dealt with them, and managed to overcome those problems.

DEFRANK: Not only all of what you said is true, Wolf, but she went public with those problems. She was very candid in addressing those sorts of problems in a very public way because she thought that would help other women and other people with drug problems. She -- that was at a time, as you and I remember, first ladies didn't talk about stuff like that all that much. But she really was a trailblazer in that respect by being willing to talk in great candor about her own problems because she thought that would be a way to help other people.

BLITZER: And when the she did speak out, she did such important work, the Betty Ford Clinic out in California, near Palm Springs. Where literally tens of thousands of people have been treated over these years. Thanks to this cause, this work that she got started.

DEFRANK: And not only the high and the mighty, Wolf, not only movie stars, but postal workers and ordinary people, delivery guys. It didn't matter to Betty Ford who they were. As long as they had a problem, she wanted to help them. And only recently, only in the last few month has she had to give up her duties at the Betty Ford Clinic and turn them over to her daughter, Susan. There was a very -- for a very long time, Mrs. Ford met personally with every new client, every new suffering person who came to the Betty Ford Clinic. She was not an honorary chairman by any means. She was a hands-on chairman and she met with everybody who showed up for help. It was a way of her to say I have been here where you are today. You can lick this and I want to help you. I really -- really a profoundly classy woman.

BLITZER: And she's getting up and she's going -- approaching the casket right now. As we watch this very, very emotional moment. The flag-draped coffin and Betty Ford clearly praying right now together with so many others. This is -- this period of paying condolences in the rotunda will end very shortly. Let's just pause for a moment and watch.

Tom DeFrank, clearly, clearly a dramatic emotional moment for Betty Ford as she goes back and sits down in the rotunda together with her family. They're all there giving her an enormous amount of support. Very stoic. We were watching closely, Tom, this is a woman who had an incredible, incredible relationship with her husband.

DEFRANK: Well there's no doubt about it and you see the family there. I should probably just add, Wolf, I'm sure your listeners saw one of her children that happened to be Mike Ford, the oldest, and there's -- there's Mike right now. He was speaking. I know what he was doing. He was saying a prayer because every year the Fords would come back to Washington for an alumni reunion dinner and their son Mike Ford would always deliver the invocation and I could just tell that he was leading the Ford family, the children, one daughter-in- law, and one son-in-law who clustered around Mrs. Ford, Mike Ford was leading them in prayer there. Very powerful, very powerful vignette.

BLITZER: And for the thousands of people who just walked up to the capitol and stood in line, sometimes for a few hours, to pay their final respects, every one of them received a card from the Ford family. Let me read to you what's inscribed on that card. The family of Gerald R. Ford deeply appreciates your prayers and many kindnesses as together we celebrate and honor the life of a devoted husband, father, grandfather, and great grandfather and the 38th president of the United States. We are going to continue our special coverage tomorrow morning right here in THE SITUATION ROOM, 9:00 a.m. eastern. The state funeral of Gerald R. Ford, we'll be here for that.

Still ahead, now that Saddam Hussein is dead, will 2007 be a less brutal year for Iraq? I will speak with "New York Times" reporter John Burns about Iraq's future after Saddam Hussein. And Saddam's daughter makes an unexpected appearance in support of her father. We're going to take you to Amman, Jordan where she now lives. Stay with us, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Welcome back. Not everyone is welcoming the execution of Saddam Hussein. There was a protest today in the Jordanian capital of Amman with one of Saddam's relatives taking part. Our senior international correspondent Matthew Chance is joining us now from Amman with details. Matthew?

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Thanks Wolf. An unexpected appearance by Saddam Hussein's oldest daughter Ragat in the Jordanian capital Amman earlier today. She appeared at a rally in support of her father and it is the first appearance of a close member of Saddam's family since his execution on Saturday morning local time. Well, been seeing a lot of protests around Iraq, a lot of celebrations as well. But this rally today in Amman underlines just how much support there still is in the Arab world for the former Iraqi dictator.


CHANCE (voice-over): From the Jordanian authorities, there has been deafening silence on the execution of Saddam. Many in this mainly Sunni country allied with the United States are furious at his execution, with the chance to strike a popular cord. President Bush and the Iraqi government will be punished, they warn. Arab leaders who remain silent should be held responsible. Across Jordan, there have been many small protests in support of Saddam. But this time there was a celebrity arrival. Still in mourning, his oldest daughter Ragat made an unexpected appearance, the first by a close family member since her father's execution. She stood and listened to the words of support and then said her goodbyes.

RAGAT HUSSEIN, SADDAM HUSSEIN'S DAUGHTER: I want to thank you for this gathering, she said. May God protect you.

CHANCE: But with political asylum in Jordan since 2003, it is the authorities here now protecting her.


CHANCE: Well Ragat is saying as well as her younger sister Rana, worked for years in exile here in Jordan to organize the legal defense of their father, Saddam, one of the conditions of their amnesty, their asylum here in Jordan is that they do not engage in any political activity. But now Iraqi officials are accusing family members of Saddam, including Ragat, of using millions of dollars stolen by Saddam during his time in power to fund the Iraqi insurgency. So many of these safe havens could soon be challenged. Wolf?

BLITZER: Matthew Chance reporting for us from Amman, Jordan. Following the execution of Saddam Hussein the late Iraqi leader's Baath party issued a statement online threatening major retaliation. Let's check in with our Internet reporter Jacki Schechner. Jacki?

JACKI SCHECHNER, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: That's right Wolf. It's a message posted online from remnants of Saddam's Baathist Party calling on loyalists to seek revenge for Saddam's execution. The message posted online both in English and in Arabic and CNN has been able to confirm that most of the translation is accurate. It calls on jihadists to strike without mercies, enemies in Iran and the U.S. It also calls Saddam a symbol of jihad and Arab genuineness. Now this is the same website where we saw a message posted in Arabic last week warning that if Saddam were executed that there would be quote, grave consequences. It called Saddam's execution a most dangerous red line that the Bush administration should not cross. The Department of Homeland Security issued a bulletin to state and local law enforcement agencies at the end of last week saying that there was web chatter to this effect. But they said they had issued that in an overabundance of caution. That there was no imminent threat. The FBI saying the same thing, quote no credible or specific intelligence indicating any imminent threat. Wolf?

BLITZER: Jacki, thanks for that. Up ahead, we're going to have more on the execution of Saddam Hussein. Did the ruling Shiites miss a chance to create stability in the country? My interview with Pulitzer Prize winning journalist John Burns of "The New York Times," that's coming up. Plus, 2007 promising to bring out more 2008 presidential candidates. We're going to show you who is in and who is out and who is still deciding. Much more coming up right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Moments before a rope was tied around his neck that put him to death, Saddam Hussein was taunted as a fallen tyrant. Someone even shouted, go to hell. These and other details are emerging in several reports including one in today's "New York Times."

And joining us now, the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist from "The New York Times" John Burns. An amazing article you had on the front page of the paper today. This execution of Saddam Hussein, it seems the Iraqis had so much time to prepare and do it right. But a lot of people are concluding they simply botched it.

JOHN BURNS, NEW YORK TIMES: Yes, I think that you can hardly imagine an event more emblematic of what America has accomplished or failed to accomplish here than the final chapter of Saddam Hussein, his execution. They captured him, as you know, three years and nearly one month ago. They have had him on trial now for 18 months or so. They had plenty of time to plan this but the essential problem was, of course, the United States has handed over a great deal of authority to the Iraqi government. And they do their time to step aside here. They insisted that the Iraqi law be followed to the extent that they could. They were very careful about the physical custody aspect, they were very concerned about any attempt to free him at the last minute. But once they surrendered him to Saddam Hussein, they lost control of the event. And what followed, of course, is everybody who has seen the videotapes knows, was a blatantly sectarian event. A bullying hanging that is extremely disturbing I think to all those who had hoped for a better outcome for the United States here.

BLITZER: And you know, we saw the official video that was on Iraqi television that tried to show a more dignified execution. But then there was that cell phone video that was released that you could clearly hear the taunting and the cries of Muqtada, references to Muqtada al Sadr, the radical Shiite cleric who is very powerful in Iraq right now. And as you point out, this will simply fuel this hatred between the Shia majority in Iraq and the Sunni minority.

BURNS: Yes, indeed. And as you know, the United States military command, the United States embassy in Iraq, have been trying very hard to get the Maliki government, the new Shiite government of Iraq to behave in a way that is less sectarian, more uniting. And to have seen what -- how they allowed this to degenerate as it did. An event which, by the way, was very much personally controlled by Mr. Maliki. I mean he was engaged right up to the point really that Saddam arrived at the (INAUDIBLE) prison. He assigned the officials who were present. Some of whom engaged in this taunting. And at the end when the body was then delivered to Saddam's tribe, where did they pick it up but right in the forecourt of Mr. Maliki's office. So this was a very much politically controlled event. And they could have hardly been a more, if you will, distressing demonstration of how little this government has been prepared to act in the name of all Iraqis and in terms of the principles of the civil society that I think we all thought America was trying to construct here.

BLITZER: And you know, the interesting thing also is that the United States military had control of Saddam Hussein up until almost the very minute when he was handed over for hanging for the execution. And then shortly after he died, the U.S. got him back. It was a U.S. military operation that flew that coffin to near his hometown of Tikrit which suggests that to a lot of Sunni Arabs out there in Iraq and elsewhere the U.S. will be complicit in what they see as a calamity, if you will.

BURNS: I think this runs both ways. It's certainly true that the United States is still widely blamed on all sides here for things that go wrong and amongst Sunnis they will be blamed for having in effect connived their humiliation of Saddam Hussein. On the other hand, there has been a most remarkable transformation in the last year with the Sunni community, the now minority community, the usurped if you will community, coming to see the American military as their protectors and if the story is fully told, and that's another question, of course, if the story of what happened on Friday night through Saturday up to the delivery of the body back to Mr. Hussein's hometown up near Tikrit is fully told, I think that Sunnis would understand that the United States to the extent that they felt they could was trying to prevail here on the side of fairness and some sense of justice.

In fact, the very handover of the body would not have occurred, Maliki's people were saying they weren't going to deliver up that body. They were going to keep it in a secret place. It would not have occurred without intense American pressure in the 18 hours that followed the execution and, in fact, the United States provided a military helicopter, black hawk helicopter to bring the leader of Mr. Hussein's tribe down from Tikrit to make his representations personally to Mr. Maliki and then when the body was handed over, bizarrely, as I said, in the forecourt of Mr. Maliki's office, in the back of an open pickup truck, the Americans were on standby at a heliport about half a mile away in the green zone and loaded it aboard the black hawk helicopter and flew it back up to Tikrit. If that story is told, I think that the Sunnis will come to understand that in this case, the United States really did try to prevail on the behalf of justice and on the behalf of, if you will, in a sense of the Sunni community.

BLITZER: One final question, John before I let you go. Let's look ahead to this new year, 2007. Saddam Hussein is dead now, but the violence continues. Is there any indication you're getting whatsoever that this year, this new year, is going to be less brutal, less violent than 2006 was?

BURNS: I'm afraid the answer to that is no. I don't think that the U.S. military commanders across the Titus River from mere here believe that either. I think what they do believe and it comes back to the execution is that whether this war can be won or lost now depends on the Iraqis and specifically on the Iraqi government. The United States has done pretty much all that it can do to make this war winnable. It now depends on the government beginning to act in the name of all Iraqis and beginning to behave like a Democratic government. In that sense, what happened on the early hours of Saturday, at the (INAUDIBLE) prison a couple of miles north of where I now stand, was as the U.S. officers now say about the war, the state of the war in general, a very disheartening event.

BLITZER: John Burns reporting for "The New York Times," joining us here in THE SITUATION ROOM. John, thanks very much for your excellent work.

BURNS: Not at all, thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: And up next, new year's resolutions. Which Democrats and which Republicans have resolved to run for the White House? Mary Snow keeping track. Stay with us, we'll be right back.


BLITZER: So it is a new year. What kind of political resolutions do some of the presidential prospects have? Many of them previously suggested they decide whether or not to run for president after the holidays. So for more on who has decided and still deciding, who may never decide, let's turn to CNN's Mary Snow, she's watching this story. Mary?

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well Wolf, you could say this holiday break served as a time of political soul searching for both underdogs and political stars. And we could soon start seeing the results of that searching.


SNOW (voice-over): Democratic Senator Barack Obama said he would use his vacation in Hawaii to think about it. Republican Senator John McCain said he would use the holiday break to talk about it with his family. The big "it" being whether or not to run for president in 2008. Also mulling it over, Senator Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side, and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani on the Republican side. As the front-runners in the race took a break from the spotlight, former Senator John Edwards walked into it. Announced last week he will seek the Democratic nod.

JOHN EDWARDS, (D) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It's not too hard to get attention. You look around where I'm standing right now and that's pretty obvious, cameras everywhere.

SNOW: Helping create interest was his choice of setting. Edwards announced his candidacy in New Orleans during rebuilding efforts. While he entered early, he joined two other Democrats already in, Congressman Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and outgoing Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack.

STUART ROTHENBERG, THE ROTHENBERG POLITICAL REPORT: You want to have a good early start and you want to get attention and you want to send some sort of message.

SNOW: While no Republicans have formally entered the race yet, outgoing Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is expected to set up an exploratory committee soon. Others who have taken that step include Kansas Senator Sam Brownback and former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson. As the pool widens, the landscape changes.

ROTHENBERG: The most exaggerated early story of the 2008 presidential race is these early polls. Which are nothing but indications of name recognition and media attention and media hype?

SNOW: Attention, though, makes a difference. After Senator Barack Obama was greeted like a star in New Hampshire in December, a poll in that state now shows him in almost a dead heat with Senator Hillary Clinton.


SNOW: As one political observer points out with the rise in polls comes a rise in expectations for top tier candidates. And any misstep can help usher in room for a candidate who is lesser known. Wolf?

BLITZER: Are you getting any indication who may make an announcement this month? We're now in the month of January.

SNOW: We were talking to Stu Rothenberg and he said to keep an eye on perhaps Senator Joe Biden, Senator Christopher Dodd. But he's also saying that some of these top tier front-runners do have the luxury of waiting. So we may not hear from them right away.

BLITZER: Mary Snow reporting for us. Mary, thanks very much. Mary will be back with us one hour from now. We're in THE SITUATION ROOM, remember, weekday afternoons from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. eastern, also back for another hour at 7:00 p.m. eastern. Tomorrow morning 9:00 a.m., a special edition of THE SITUATION ROOM, our live coverage of President Gerald R. Ford's state funeral, will begin 9:00 a.m. eastern tomorrow morning. "LOU DOBBS TONIGHT" starts right now.


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