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THE SITUATION ROOM

Iraqi Authorities Face Fallout From Execution of Saddam's Co- Defendants; Iran's President Travels to Latin America

Aired January 15, 2007 - 19:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks very much, Lou. And to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM where new pictures and information are arriving all the time. Standing by CNN reporters across the United States and around the world to bring you tonight's top stories.
Happening now, Iraqi authorities face fallout for another botched execution. When Saddam Hussein's co-defendants were hanged, something went terribly wrong. Tonight, an eyewitness tells us what he saw and whether it was an accident.

Also this hour, Iran's president rubs elbows with other staunch critics of the United States. What is he trying to accomplish in America's back yard? CNN has a rare interview with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

And two kidnapped boys now are trying to put their nightmare behind them. But the details of their ordeal are haunting. Tonight their unfolding story and questions still left to be answered.

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

New controversy is brewing tonight over an execution in Iraq. This time, two former officials including Saddam Hussein's half brother, the man on the left. His hanging taking a gruesome and unexpected turn leaving Iraq's new government scrambling to control the fall-out.

CNN's Arwa Damon is in Baghdad with details -- Arwa.

ARWA DAMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this time the Iraqi government took extra precautions when carrying out the executions of Saddam Hussein's two co-defendants.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAMON (voice-over): Sixteen days after Saddam Hussein was hanged, two of his co-defendants, Barzan Ibrahim, his half-brother, the widely feared former intelligence chief and Awad al-Bandar, former chief judge of the Revolutionary Court met the same fate. The Iraqi government was quick to assert the conditions that made a debacle of Saddam's execution had been avoided.

ALI AL-DABBAH, IRAQI GOVERNMENT SPOKESMAN (through translator): There was no violation of procedure. No chants and no insults were directed to the convicts. And the convicts were not subjected to any mistreatment.

DAMON: But the execution didn't go flawlessly. Barzan's head severed from his body. The man reputed to have carried out gruesome acts of torture, infamous for his courtroom antics, showing up in his pajamas, outbursts, even sitting on the floor and turning his back to the judge, decapitated as he and co-defendant Awad Bandar fell to their death at 3:00 a.m.

According to one witness, the two appeared to have resigned themselves to their fate.

VOICE OF BASAM RIDHA, IRAQI PRIME MINISTER ADVISER: They were very apologetic. They said please don't execute me. I want to ask God for forgiveness. I want to do whatever you ask me for. They were very apologetic. They were (inaudible) this time. They did not really give us or give the committee any problem whatsoever.

DAMON: The government enforced a clamp down to avoid any post execution fall-out and said it might not release the official video of the hangings and only showed the video of the execution with no audio to a select group of individuals. According to witnesses, the men wore orange jump suits, black hoods and trembled with fear.

The aim according to the Iraqi government to dispel rumors that Barzan's body had been mutilated after he died unless illicit video is once again leaked as it was in Saddam Hussein's case. The executions of Ibrahim and al Bandar will be a story told only by the Iraqi government. On the streets of Baghdad, muted reaction, predictably in the Shia stronghold of Sadr City, residents expressed approval. Among others, sorrow and disgust.

In parliament, a heated debate, with the speaker Mahmoud al Mashhadani, a Sunni, saying the government had rushed the execution and turned Saddam into a hero.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

DAMON: Iraq's president had also urged the government not to rush to hang Saddam Hussein's two co-defendants especially in light of the increasing sectarian tensions following the spectacle that was the execution of Saddam Hussein. For many, these hangings only serve to underscore that this is a nation where brutality rules -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Arwa Damon in Baghdad -- and this note, coming up in a few minutes we'll get more on the execution controversy that has erupted from "The New York Times" Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist John Burns. He's among the very few journalists who have actually seen the videotape of this execution -- my interview with John Burns coming up this hour right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Meanwhile, we are getting exclusive new insight into a book President Bush may be looking at right now for guidance when it comes to the war in Iraq. It's not necessarily a book about Vietnam as many people might assume. It's a book about a very different war.

CNN's Brian Todd is joining us. He spoke exclusively with the author earlier today -- Brian.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we are told this book written 30 years ago about a war that took place 50 years ago has the rapt attention of the man who just ordered 21,000 more U.S. soldiers into Iraq.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): A western power escalates its true presence during a bloody engagement in a Muslim country, a messy conventional war that spiraled into vicious insurgency and counter insurgency, Iraq 2007 and Algeria in the late 1950's. As President Bush reads "A Savage War of Peace" about France's war in Algeria, the author tells CNN what he thinks of the current conflict.

VOICE OF ALISTAIR HORNE, AUTHOR, "A SAVAGE WAR OF PEACE": I have the highest regard for your army, your soldiers. I think they're fantastic. But it just simply, to my mind -- well, everybody said that, it just wasn't thought through.

TODD: But Sir Alistair Horne says America should not pull out of Iraq, too much potential, he says, for the region to fall apart.

HORNE: You've got the domino theory that really means something there. Domino in terms of oil, Saudi Arabia and Iran -- the spreading of chaos into Saudi Arabia. I see Saudi Arabia as very vulnerable.

TODD: As in Algeria, Sir Alistair says a major power is faced with an Arab insurgency that has targeted police, public servants, innocent civilians. All of that has preoccupied the Americans as it did the French. France had 500,000 troops in Algeria at one point. What does Horne think of President Bush's plan to increase the U.S. troop level to about 160,000?

HORNE: It must succeed. You can't have too little too late. It has got to be big enough to be effective.

TODD: When I asked what he would say to President Bush if he sat down with him, the author says he wouldn't presume to tell the president what to do. But then says...

HORNE: Wind up Guantanamo Bay as quickly as you can.

TODD: Although U.S. officials deny torturing detainee, images like those at Abu Ghraib, Horne says, led to a similar backlash in the U.S. that the French experienced after abuses in Algeria became public.

HORNE: It cost them the war, because the revulsion that it caused when it got to France was such that opinion swung violently against the war.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: Another cautionary tale from Horne about Algeria, the chaos, the French left behind when they extricated themselves in 1962 leading to decades of civil war and tens of thousands of deaths. But Horne is not lecturing. He says he wouldn't want to be President Bush who he says is quote, "in the most difficult position". Wolf?

BLITZER: All right, Brian, thank you for that -- Brian Todd reporting.

And as questions linger about that botched execution, there are larger questions about what should be done next in Iraq. President Bush is drawing his line in the sand, refusing to budge on the issue of sending in more American troops. But how should Democrats respond? Earlier I spoke with New Mexico's Democratic governor and potential presidential candidate Bill Richardson.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Are you in favor of using the power of the purse that Congress has to try to stop this war?

GOV. BILL RICHARDSON (D), NEW MEXICO: Yes. I believe because the president has not listened to the Congress, he hasn't listened to the bi-partisan Iraq Study Group and to the American people that overwhelmingly want a change of course. I believe that's the function of the Congress, to deal with the appropriations process. Find ways to at least, this surge, to deny the funds to make it happen because this is going to add to sectarian violence.

I would support a phase withdrawal; tie it to a political solution. There is no military solution. I would also organize a regional conference to get other states to help with a security and civil administration. I would talk to Iran and Syria to try to get the situation to at least a stable level. I just believe that this is an ultimate decision by the Congress, but since the president doesn't listen, he's often, I think, his own bubble. Unfortunately, that's the course I believe that Congress needs to take.

BLITZER: What do you say to those who would then come back and say, you know what? You are going to undermine the U.S. fighting men and women in Iraq by denying them the bullets, the military equipment they need by cutting off funds.

RICHARDSON: Well, I would say that you don't cut off the military equipment. You don't cut off the armor or their weapons. But you basically say to the 20,000 surge of troops that it can't happen without an adequate explanation. And that it shouldn't happen because the American people don't believe this is the right course of action.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: And Governor Richardson went on to tell us he expects to make an announcement of his presidential ambitions one way or another later this month. We'll stand by for that.

Let's check in with Jack. He's got "The Cafferty File" in New York. Jack? JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would have been 78 years old today. In August of 1963, Dr. King delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech to a racially-diverse crowd to a quarter of a million Americans on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial there in Washington, D.C. More than 40 years later, that dream is still very much in question.

According to the Census Bureau, the median income for white households in this country, $50,622 last year. It was just $30,939 for black American households. And that gap has actually gotten wider since the 1980's. The gap in poverty race between whites and blacks has narrowed some, but it hovers around almost 25 percent for blacks in this country and that's nearly one in four.

So here's the question this evening, Martin Luther King Day, how would you characterize the progress of civil rights in this country over the last four decades? E-mail your thoughts on that to CaffertyFile@CNN.com or go to CNN.com/CaffertyFile. Wolf?

BLITZER: Jack, thank you, good question. Coming up, held captive. Find out why a kidnapped boy may have stayed with his alleged captor even after he had a chance to run.

John McCain versus the religious right. We'll find out why a powerful Christian conservative leader says McCain will not get his vote under any circumstances.

And Arnold Schwarzenegger in a run for the White House. A former foe wants to change the U.S. Constitution to let him run. Who is it and why?

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: It's almost impossible to imagine what it must be like. Right now in Missouri a boy is getting to know his family all over again after being held captive for several years. There are new developments regarding the bizarre kidnapping involving the 15-year- old boy who was found with another young kidnapping victim.

CNN's Jonathan Freed is joining us from Kirkwood, Missouri with the latest -- Jonathan.

JONATHAN FREED, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, if the allegations against Michael Devlin are true, people here are asking themselves how did he manage to lead a double life for so long?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

FREED (voice-over): As Michael Devlin moves closer to his first court appearance expected this week, there are more questions and answers about him and about how he was allegedly able to hold onto Shawn Hornbeck, now 15, for more than four years. Who is Michael Devlin? Co-workers at both his funeral home and pizza parlor jobs describe a quiet and efficient man. But we heard a different view from some of his neighbors.

(on camera): How often would you see Devlin around and Shawn around?

RICK REICHARD, DEVLIN'S NEIGHBOR: I would see them maybe a couple of times a week.

FREED (voice-over): Rick Reichard and Tom Garner lived directly upstairs from where Devlin is accused of keeping Hornbeck and 13-year- old Ben Ownby who allegedly was kidnapped last week. They say they often heard disturbing sounds coming from the floor below.

TOM GARNER, DEVLIN'S NEIGHBOR: Abusive discipline is what it sounded like. Just couldn't tell you if there was anything physical. But Mr. Devlin would seem to be fairly loud and abusive as far as in a speaking manner.

FREED: Garner, like others in the apartment complex, assumed Devlin and Hornbeck were family. People around here say they'd see Shawn doing normal things like riding a bike with friends. Begging other questions. Why didn't Shawn go for help? Had Devlin threatened to hurt him if he ever did? Or did Devlin have some other kind of psychological grip on the boy who was just 11 when he disappeared?

Adding to the confusion about the extent of Shawn's freedom is the question of whether he may have had Internet access. In December 2005, someone calling himself Shawn Devlin posted a message on a Website set up by Shawn's parents, saying how long are you planning to look for your son? Later that day the same person apologized for that message posting a new one, asking to write a poem for Shawn.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We got numerous calls on numerous vehicles.

FREED: The two officers who first confronted Devlin leading to his arrest say the public may still be able to help solve the puzzles of this case.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No question is a dumb question. No you know gut feeling is probably a dumb gut feeling.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

FREED: Now police tell us that Devlin's first court appearance could come as early as tomorrow. Wolf?

BLITZER: All right, we'll watch for that. Jonathan, thank you. And while we don't know exactly what happened in the case of these two boys in Missouri, there have been other cases where abducted children have been deeply manipulated by their captor.

CNN's Ted Rowlands is standing by to tell us about one case 25 years ago. It sounds eerily similar to this one, Ted. TED ROWLANDS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, very similar, Wolf. Steven Stayner showed up at a police department 25 years ago. With him he had a 5-year-old. The 5-year-old by the name of Timmy White had been missing for two weeks. Steven Stayner had been missing for seven years. The same thing happened. There were press conferences, joyous reunions.

And then the question, why didn't Steven Stayner try to get himself help while he was being held captive? He was acting as if he was his abductor Kenneth Parnell's son. Well it turns out over time we got the full story from Steven Stayner. He was involved in a book and a movie and did numerous interviews. He said that he had been brainwashed by his abductor, to the point where he was first -- when he was first taken and kidnapped.

His abductor would get on the phone and pretend to be talking to his parents, saying, OK, OK, and then coming back to Steven saying your parents don't want you anymore. They want me to take care of you. He learned to believe this over years and said in retrospect looking back, every time he would question it or try to think maybe I'm going to escape, it would come back to well, my parents don't even want me anymore.

And there's a bit of the Stockholm Syndrome going on where over time you begin to appreciate your kidnapper. Stayner, though was a child. He was deliberately manipulated and experts say whatever happened in Missouri, people should be very -- should use caution when they start asking questions why didn't this boy flee? Because nobody really knows what happened to this young boy, what took place over the past four years, and what psychological manipulation he endured during that time. We'll have a full report on the Stayner case, very interesting, coming up at the top of the hour -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, good work. Thanks for that -- good advice as well. Ted Rowlands reporting.

Up ahead tonight right here in THE SITUATION ROOM bundled hangings -- Saddam Hussein's half brother decapitated during his execution. We'll get an eyewitness account from "New York Times" reporter John Burns in Baghdad.

Iran's president in America's own back yard, trying to make friends with some of America's foes. We're going to tell you which ones.

We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's check in with Carol Costello for a closer look at some other important stories making news -- Carol.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, Wolf. Hello to all of you. At least 36 people dead -- at least 36 people dead and hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses without power. All the result of a strong storm and arctic blast that brings ice, sleet and snow and plunging temperatures to parts of the country. The freeze stretch is all the way to California where officials warn the state's billion- dollar citrus industry is at risk.

In east central Kentucky a train derailment and chemical spill has authorities telling residents to stay indoors and seal off windows and doors. Four runaway rail cars hit two parked locomotives in the town of Irvin, spilling a flammable chemical, which then caught fire. Residents in the immediate area have been told to evacuate. No injuries reported.

Miss New Jersey USA is giving up her crown because she's pregnant. That's according to a source close to the family of the beauty queen. Pageant officials confirm that Ashley Harder is stepping down and will be replaced by the runner-up. But they refused to say why. They did confirm that it is against pageant rules to be pregnant while holding the title.

That's a look at the headlines right now, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Carol, thank you for that. And just ahead they intended to kill him, but not like that. How does a hanging turn into a beheading? We'll talk to one of the few journalists who have seen the videotape of the botched execution of a close ally. The half brother of Saddam Hussein, it occurred earlier today.

Then, does Senator John McCain have a problem with a key part of the Republican base? Standing by to take a closer look.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM where new pictures and information are arriving all the time. Happening now, a grim turn of events as Saddam Hussein's half brother is executed. His hanging becoming a beheading, sparking new controversy and concerns in Iraq and beyond.

Also, the Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice making the rounds in the Middle East and announcing three-way talks including Israeli and Palestinian leaders in an effort to try to jumpstart stalled peace efforts. She says these talks are not necessarily about Iraq, but her critics say success or failure on both fronts is inexplicably linked.

And the nation remembers the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr. today. In a ceremony at the King Center in Atlanta, Mayor Shirley Franklin asks, what are you doing to make Dr. King's dream a reality, adding that his work for peace and justice remains unfinished.

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

At the White House tonight, President Bush is digging in for a fight over sending more U.S. troops to Iraq. He's put congressional Democrats on notice that he's not budging from his build-up plan.

Let's turn to our White House correspondent Suzanne Malveaux. She has more. Suzanne?

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, White House aides say that this is going to be a very tough sell for President Bush. That is why part of the strategy is to go around members of Congress and to take his message directly to the American people.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(SOUNDS)

MALVEAUX (voice-over): As violence threatens to plunge Iraq into all-out civil war, President Bush continues to sell his unpopular new plan, to send in more U.S. troops.

(SHOTS)

MALVEAUX: As part of Mr. Bush's P.R. offensive, over the weekend, he appeared on CBS News "60 Minutes." He said Iraq's leader Nouri al Maliki had been put on notice that his government could no longer restrict who troops could go after.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: A killer is a killer. And we expect them to go after both Shia and Sunni murderers in order to provide the security for Baghdad.

MALVEAUX: Mr. Bush also issued a stern warning to Iran's leader President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that U.S. forces in Iraq would not hesitate to go after any Iranians aiding the militias.

BUSH: If we catch your people inside the country harming U.S. citizens or Iraqi citizens, you know, we will deal with them.

MALVEAUX: Faced with fierce opposition to his Iraq's strategy, the president described the stakes in familiar dire terms.

BUSH: If we do not succeed in Iraq, we will leave behind a Middle East, which will endanger America in the future.

MALVEAUX: But President Bush is now beginning to take more responsibility for some of his administration's past failures, a move his aides say they hope will lend him more credibility.

BUSH: The temptation is going to find scapegoats. Well, if the people want a scapegoat, they've got one right here in me because it's my decisions.

MALVEAUX: Decisions President Bush's former chief of staff, Andy Card, says have carried a unique burden.

ANDREW CARD, FORMER WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: The job is very lonely because the decisions are lonely decisions and they're not decisions that are based on theory or philosophy or politics. They end up being decisions that end up -- are quite frequently very personal.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MALVEAUX (on camera): And, Wolf, they expect, of course the president to continue to explain those decisions. Tomorrow he is going to be granting an interview with "News Hour with Jim Lehrer". He is also going to be hosting the new secretary-general of United Nations here at the White House to try to garner some more international support -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We'll see what Ban Ki-Moon says after that meeting.

Thanks very much, Suzanne, for that.

A botched execution. The hanging of Saddam Hussein's half- brother on the left turning into a beheading. Iraqi officials insist it was an accident. They've been showing video to a very small group of reporters, including the "New York Times'" John Burns.

BLITZER: I know you saw this videotape. Walk us through what you saw.

JOHN BURNS, "NEW YORK TIMES": Well, first of all, this videotape we were told a one time only showing I am told. After the disaster of the illicit filming on a call phone camera of the Saddam Hussein hanging, Iraqi officials are absolutely determined that this is a botched hanging is not going to get on the Internet and be replayed a million times, especially across the Middle East.

So we were given a one-time showing, three-minute video, very grim, as of course any execution is. Two frightened men -- two deeply frightened men in orange jumpsuits, Guantanamo-style, standing on the trap doors, black hoods being put over their heads as they intoned the muthrad jihada (ph), the prayer before death -- "There is no god but God."

And then the drop. And as Mr. Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti, the former head of Mukhabarat Secret Police and Mr. Hussein, his younger half-brother dropped the eight feet that was allowed by coiled rope at his feet, his head just snapped off just like that in an instant.

The camera then -- movie camera moves forward and looks into the pit beneath the gallows, where we saw him lying face down, headless, a pool of blood accumulating around his neck, and his head still in the black hood about five feet behind him in the pit.

It seems what happened was that the Iraqi officials who had worked hard to try and get this one right just got it wrong. When it came to their drop charts, as the hangmen call them -- and this man of medium build, medium height was just dropped too far and too fast.

BLITZER: As you know, John, there's going to be skepticism, especially among Sunni Arabs, that this was an accident. Did it look like an accident based on the video that you saw?

BURNS: It did look like an accident. And the pains to which Mr. Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister's officials went to lead us through this step by step, and what they described as intensive consultations with Western humanitarian organizations after the Saddam hanging to make sure that this one was done with dignity, respect for the condemned men.

I must say, left me feeling that these people -- this is a blighted government. It just seems like everything they touch somehow goes awry. So I don't think this was intentional. I think it was botched. And to be fair, they did tell us that in making their calculation, the hangmen's calculations, what they wanted to do is to make sure these two men died instantly.

Now this is a pretty, macabre science, but you only have to go to the Internet and look at the "American Military Handbook For Executions", signed by Dwight Eisenhower when he was chief of staff of the Army in 1947 to look at the drop charts. And you'll that a man about five foot eight, five foot nine, as Mr. Tikriti was, about 170, 175 pounds by American military calculations needed a good deal less than eight feet of free rope for the hanging.

In other words, they gave him too much rope, he accumulated too much speed and momentum, and it just ripped his head right off his body.

BLITZER: Was there audio on the videotape that you saw? The three minutes of this execution? Did you hear anything in that room?

BURNS: That's a reporter's question, Wolf. Coming from you it doesn't surprise me. Of course, it's a crucial question because it was the audio on the illicit camera phone recordings of Saddam's execution that told us all we now know about the sectarian taunting and mockery of Mr. Hussein.

No, there was no audio. And it was a point that we pressed on the prime minister's officials. But they did say that the execution party had been reduced severely from about 25 who attended Saddam's execution, many of them just sightseers, to tell you the truth, down to about ten or 12.

And the prosecutor in the trial that sent these men to the gallows, Jafaar al-Mousawi, who wasn't here in Iraq at the time of the Saddam execution -- and is a rather superior individual, I have to say. He attended the press conference. And he seemed quite distressed about this. But he did say that every precaution had been taken to deal with this execution with dignity and with respect.

It only goes to show that, you know, when things go wrong, they go very badly wrong indeed in Iraq.

BLITZER: We saw Saddam Hussein. He was wearing an overcoat when he was executed. He didn't want the hood put over him. I take it these two, they did want the hood, or at least they accepted the hood being placed on their heads. They were wearing these orange jumpsuits. And, unlike Saddam Hussein, based on your eyewitness account of this video, they were certainly nervous and scared and cowering, fearful. Saddam put out that very stoic, almost courageous attitude when he was about to be killed. BURNS: Yes, you know, courage before death is an elusive thing. My guess is psychoanalysts would say that Saddam Hussein's lack of conscience was in some way related also to his lack of fear at the end.

But these two were distinctly frightened men. You couldn't feel -- help feeling, despite all we know about their own brutalities -- and they were very brutal. I mean Mr. Bandar, the one who did get hanged in the, if you will, the appropriate way, he was the head of the Revolutionary Court who sent 148 men and boys to their deaths on the gallows in the events that occurred at Dujail in 1982 after there was a failed assassination attempt against Saddam.

His trial was a mockery. There was no defense, no opportunity for these people to argue and make any kind of argument.

Tikriti, who was decapitated, was head of Mukhabarat Secret Intelligence Service. And the evidence at the trial against him was that he had personally supervised torture, including hanging one naked woman upside down and beating her personally. So it's hard on that basis to feel too sorry for them.

But they were frightened men, and I would say particularly Mr. Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti, the half-brother, who had shaved his head and his mustache. And he looked just scared half to death standing there, as well he might have been, especially if he had any sense at all of how it was going to end.

BLITZER: One final question, John, before I let you go. In your front page dispatch in today's "New York Times", you quote one U.S. official as saying, regarding the Iraqi government's reaction to President Bush's latest Iraq strategy -- and I'll quote it now -- "We are being played like a pawn."

"We are being played like a pawn."

What's going on, in terms of the Iraq government's willingness to do what they are supposed to do to make sure this latest U.S. strategy works?

BURNS: Well, we heard -- today General George Casey and Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad made a pretty brave showing at a news conference of saying that it's an Iraqi plan, they have an Iraqi buy- in on all the details.

But if you took away from what they said, what we in England will refer to as "Well, they would say that, wouldn't they?"

That is to say the pro forma recognition of, you know, the willingness of the Iraqi government to go along. And you looked at the underterms from both men, but particularly from General Casey, you heard the same thing: no guarantees, this government doesn't have a very good record in fulfilling its promises about non-sectarianism. We'll have to see where this goes. George Casey will be out of here within the month, as you know, to be replaced by General Petraeus. And he sounded, I have to say, a very cautioned man. BLITZER: John Burns in Baghdad for us of the "New York Times".

John, thank you very much for that excellent, excellent account of what happened.

And still ahead tonight, right here in the SITUATION ROOM, John McCain versus the religious right. One influential Christian conservative says Senator McCain will not get his vote for president under any circumstances.

And Arnold Schwarzenegger for president? Currently the U.S. Constitution does not allow it. But that's not stopping some from pushing for it.

Stay with us. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: In the early race for the White House, a major new obstacle tonight for Senator John McCain. In his attempts to try to reach out to Christian conservatives, a leader is now adamantly refusing to back Senator McCain's expected presidential bid. Here's our national correspondent Bob Franken -- Bob?

BOB FRANKEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It is so early, Wolf, but already the apparent presidential candidates are trying to forge alliances and overcome antagonists.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

FRANKEN (voice-over): One of the nation's most influential Christian conservatives is lashing out at Senator John McCain.

JAMES DOBSON, FOUNDER, FOCUS ON THE FAMILY: And he's not in favor of traditional marriage. And I pray that we won't get stuck with him.

FRANKEN: James Dobson, founder of the Evangelical powerhouse Focus on the Family, was speaking on a Christian radio program last week. Dobson said "there's no way he'll get behind McCain's bid for the White House."

DOBSON: I would not vote for John McCain under any circumstances.

FRANKEN: Those comments highlight a major political problem for the Arizona Senator. He remains estranged from his party's core voters, conservative Evangelicals, major players in Republican primaries.

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICAL EDITOR: I don't think that they think that John McCain is a true believer, that John McCain is with them on all the issues, that John McCain, if he were to become president, would push a social agenda as hard and as fast as they would like. FRANKEN: McCain does oppose abortion and same-sex marriage, but he refuses to get behind a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. And he's generally had an arm's length relationship with Evangelical leaders.

Back in the 2000 presidential campaign, McCain called his then opponent George W. Bush "a Pat Robertson Republican who panders to Christian leaders like Reverend Falwell. That was then.

Now, of course, McCain is struggling to win over those same religious leaders. He recently spent some political quickly time with Falwell, delivering the commencement address at the reverend's fundamentalist Liberty University.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: We have our disagreements, we Americans. We contend regularly and enthusiastically over many questions.

FRANKEN: But Dobson's comments show that McCain's still got some fences to mend. The senator's spokesman says the record speaks for itself.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

FRANKEN: The record shows a prickly relationship between Senator McCain and religious conservatives, who may be key to his presidential ambitions. Wolf?

BLITZER: All right Bob, thank you for that. Meanwhile Arnold Schwarzenegger is riding high these days at the start of a second term as California's governor. But is the stage now being set for the Republican to try his hands at an even higher office? Let's turn to our senior political analyst Bill Schneider -- Bill?

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: Wolf, President Schwarzenegger, how does that sound? Some people think it sounds pretty good.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Don't we have enough people running for president? Four Democrats are already running. One is exploring. Seven others are thinking about it. Eight Republicans are exploring. Six are thinking. That makes 26 potential candidates.

The editors of "The Los Angeles Times" think there's room for one more.

GOV. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (R), CALIFORNIA: California, if a nation, would be the sixth largest economy in the world.

SCHNEIDER: "Why should Californians have their governor sidelined from the race"? "The L.A. Times" asks. The reason is, the United States Constitution: "No person, except a natural-born citizen, shall be eligible to the office of president." Can't we amend the Constitution, like in the 1993 movie "Demolition Man," about a cop who was cryogenically frozen and thawed out in 2032?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SYLVESTER STALLONE, ACTOR: The Schwarzenegger Library?

SANDRA BULLOCK, ACTOR: Yes, the Schwarzenegger Presidential Library. Wasn't he an actor when you...

STALLONE: Stop. He was president?

BULLOCK: Yes. Even though he was not born in this country, his popularity at the time caused the 61st Amendment, which states that...

(CROSSTALK)

STALLONE: I don't want to know.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCHNEIDER: Schwarzenegger has an ambitious agenda to deal with problems that tie the federal government up in knots, like the environment.

SCHWARZENEGGER: One area where we definitely need the climate to change is the national government's attitude about global warming. It would not act. So California did.

(APPLAUSE)

SCHNEIDER: And health care.

SCHWARZENEGGER: California is going to lead the nation in breaking new grounds to meet the health care needs of its people.

SCHNEIDER: Fifty-seven percent of Californians approve of the way Governor Schwarzenegger is handling his job. President Bush's job rating in California, 26.

Everybody likes Arnold. Even Democrats think he is doing a good job. If the Constitution says Schwarzenegger can't be president of the United States, he will just have to pretend he is president of California.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER: Tonight, Governor Schwarzenegger will be presenting the Golden Globe award for best dramatic picture. He actually won a Golden Globe in 1977. Now if he can just get somebody to rewrite his own script, the part about where he was born -- Wolf?

BLITZER: Thank you for that, Bill Schneider reporting. And we want to thank Bill and Bob Franken. They are part of the best political team on television. And as the 2008 campaign unfolds, remember, CNN is a partner in the very first presidential debate of the campaign season. CNN, WMUR television and the "New Hampshire Union Leader" will sponsor back to back debates among the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates in April. They're the first debates in the lead-off to the presidential primary state.

Up ahead, Iran's president in America's backyard. Find out why he's trying to make friends with some of the United States' foes. And hear what he has to say about Iraq.

And Jack Cafferty wants to know how would you characterize the progress of the civil rights movement in this country over the last four decades? Jack with your e-mail when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Some of America's staunchest enemies, including Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, all come together in South America on this day. Our State Department Zain Verjee joining us now with details -- Zain.

ZAIN VERJEE, CNN STATE DEPARTMENT CORRESPONDENT: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice swings through Iran's neighborhood. Iran's president is in the U.S.'s neighborhood.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is on a four-nation swing through Latin America, where he's meeting with some of the Bush administration's most vocal critics, like Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega.

Now, tonight they are all in Ecuador for the inauguration of the new leftist president, Rafael Correa. Some analysts say President Ahmadinejad wants to form a new alliance against the United States.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PRES. MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD, IRAN (through translator): Look at the people from South America. These people hate the United States. Why is it that the people hate the government of the United States? Is Mr. Bush prepared to make any move to benefit these people? Why is it that they have isolated their people and their government?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VERJEE: Ahmadinejad also took a swipe at the U.S. presence in Iraq, firing this question.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

AHMADINEJAD (through translator): What are they doing in Iraq? Considering they are thousands of miles away from their territory. Everyone knows there is no dictator in Iraq anymore, and that there are no weapons of mass destruction. So what are the Americans doing there?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VERJEE: Ahmadinejad met with leaders in Nicaragua and Venezuela over the weekend. His next stop's Bolivia. Experts say he is looking to improve economic and strategic ties, especially with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. The key to that relationship -- oil. Both want to cut production to increase the price of oil. High oil prices, analysts say, would basically strengthen Iran's nuclear posture. President Ahmadinejad may also see leftists in America -- Latin America, rather -- as stronger allies that its Muslim neighbors -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Zain just back from Saudi Arabia, where she covered the hajj. Good work, Zain.

VERJEE: Thank you.

BLITZER: Good to have you back in Washington.

Let's find out what's coming up right at the top of the hour. John Roberts sitting in for Paula tonight -- John.

JOHN ROBERTS, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks, Wolf. Good evening to you.

Tonight, CNN's prime-time coverage is focused on the miracle in Missouri. We'll be starting things off with a special hour on the lucky breaks and hard work that helped police find two missing teenagers and arrest their alleged kidnapper. We'll also be looking at criticism that the media pay much less attention to stories about missing children if those children aren't white.

All that and more at the top of the hour, as CNN focuses on the miracle in Missouri -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, John, thanks very much.

And we want to give you another update now on one of those teens returned to his family in Missouri, Shawn Hornbeck. Did he leave clues online to his whereabouts over the last few years? Let's bring in our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton. She has details -- Abbi.

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, Shawn Hornbeck's family maintained this search and rescue Web site throughout the years of his disappearance, and it's the guest book of that site that's now drawing some attention.

Take a look at these couple of posts, both from December the 1st, 2005. Here, "how long are you planning to look for your son?" That written by someone calling themselves Shawn Devlin. Shawn Hornbeck, as you know, was the boy who was missing. Michael Devlin has been charged with his kidnapping.

Another here from the same day, December 1st, 2005, in the name Shawn. "Would it be OK to write a poem for the Hornbeck family?"

Now, we cannot confirm if Shawn Hornbeck or Michael Devlin made these posts. We just don't know at this stage. But blogs, looking around at these online posts and profiles, and compiling them and asking questions, who wrote these?

Online profiles like this one here. It appears to show Shawn and gives the location as St. Louis. On this one here, a gaming site appears to show Hornbeck standing in front of the apartment where he was found.

Many questions remain. One thing we know that he is safe and sound, and that Web site, the search and rescue Web site now updated with that information -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And a lot more on this story coming up prime-time tonight here on CNN. Thanks very much, Abbi, for that.

Up ahead, the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. How far has America come? Jack Cafferty with your e-mail right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's check back with Jack for "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Wolf, we ask the question, "how would you characterize the progress of civil rights in this country over the last four decades?" That's how long it's been since Dr. King made his famous "I have a dream" speech.

Frank writes from Rock Springs, Wyoming -- "Embarrassingly slow- going. But that shouldn't surprise us, should it? Every time we get some positive momentum on civil rights or human rights, for that matter, the whacked-out religious right sets us back as a country."

Amy writes this. Interesting stuff -- "For any race, success depends on early childhood education and parental involvement in the child's success. It was true for Martin Luther King Jr. and his family, and it's true for African-American families today. Residual racism in society is not responsible for all the disparity in economic achievement. Xenophobic, racist whites are not fond of Hispanics, Arabs, Indians or African-Americans, and yet they're all making a place for themselves in the American economy anyway.

Instead of looking at differences between whites and blacks, successful blacks and successful immigrants should be role models for underachieving people of any race."

David writes -- "I think we've done a fine job in regards to civil rights progress. Admittedly, there's more to do, but the bulk of the work has been done. The next step: A black president. Bring it on."

Philip in Monticello, Illinois -- "Jack, this morning on a talk radio station, I heard several white callers reminiscing lovingly and longingly about the pre-civil rights era. Among more Americans than we care to realize, very little has changed."

And Gene writes from Houston, Texas -- "One word: Katrina."

If you didn't see your e-mail here, you can go to CNN.com/caffertyfile and read more of these online -- Wolf.

BLITZER: An important day and an important subject. Jack, thanks very much for doing that. See you back here tomorrow.

And remember, we're in THE SITUATION ROOM weekday afternoons from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. Eastern. We're also back for one additional hour at 7:00 p.m. Eastern, Monday through Friday.

Tomorrow, among other things, the war over money for Iraq. Find out why John Edwards is taking on not only President Bush, but maybe Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton herself. Senator Edwards, he's here in THE SITUATION ROOM tomorrow.

Until then, thanks very much for joining us. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. Up next, "PAULA ZAHN NOW." John Roberts in for Paula -- John.

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