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THE SITUATION ROOM

New Information In Case Of Two Missouri boys Allegedly Kidnapped By 41-Year-Old Man; Murderous Marketplace Ambush Cause Hundreds Of Casualties In Baghdad; Spanish Newspaper: Castro's Prognosis 'Very Grave'; Israeli Army Chief of Staff Resigns; Interview With Congressman Tom Tancredo

Aired January 16, 2007 - 17:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: 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 today's top stories.
Happening now, it's 1:00 a.m. in Baghdad, where a wave of bloody bombings brings hundreds of casualties. Amid the carnage and the chaos, U.S. forces launch a crackdown.

Can they take back the city?

We're on patrol with the troops.

It's 4:00 p.m. in Missouri, where missing boys have been found and reunited with their families and we expect to hear from family members and perhaps one of the boys himself. An upcoming news conference may she some new light on their ordeal. We're standing by live for that.

And it's 5:00 p.m. in Havana. He hasn't made a public appearance in six months.

Will we see him again?

A new report offers details on what may be a devastating illness for Cuba's Fidel Castro.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

There's new information coming out in the case of those two Missouri boys allegedly kidnapped by a 41-year-old man. Thirteen- year-old William Ben Ownby, abducted last week, and 15 year-old Shawn Hornbeck, who was missing for more than four years.

Both boys now reunited with their families.

we're standing by for a news conference by the Ownby family. That's expected to begin very soon.

First, though, let's check in with CNN's Jonathan Freed, joining us from Union, Missouri with more on what has happened today -- Jonathan.

JONATHAN FREED, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.

We are standing by to see if we're going to actually hear any details from Ben Ownby himself. We had a news conference from each of the families over the weekend, once the children were safely returned. People have been very anxious to get as many details as they can, nobody wanting to push these kids too much, considering the ordeal that they have been through.

But the big question here is when the Ownby family steps before the cameras, will Ben take any questions or will he at least have something to say about what he's been going through?

The other thing, Wolf, that we're waiting to hear is from the Franklin County Sheriff, Gary Toelke himself. He has been known for being very accessible to the media. We found out today that he was planning to appear before the cameras again this afternoon. That's supposed to happen now.

I was in touch with his department earlier and they would not get into exactly why he wanted to come forward.

Everybody, though, Wolf, waiting to see if more charges are going to be laid against Michael Devlin. Right now, we have the one charge of kidnapping in the Ownby case. That happened in Franklin County. Washington County is where Shawn Hornbeck, who was kept for more than four-and-a-half years, he is from there. And we can't forget, Wolf, that there could be federal charges, as well.

We heard from Roland Corvington, the special agent in charge of the FBI, that something could be coming on that front, as well -- Wolf.

BLITZER: He has been speaking already, Ben Ownby, the 13-year- old boy who was taken, who was kidnapped for four days. He was on the "Today Show" earlier today with his parents, with his family. He's spoken now to the Associated Press.

It sounds like he's getting back to his life, at least to a certain degree.

FREED: That's something that everybody, of course -- I'm a parent, so many of us parents -- that you want to see. Even if you're not, your heart just goes out to these kids. And Ownby was only missing for a week.

So it's going to be interesting to see what his temperament is like and what his take on it is, also bearing in mind that he is considerably younger than Hornbeck.

And we'll see how that moves forward, as well -- what kind of information he feels willing to offer and what his parents are willing to let him talk about.

BLITZER: Shawn Hornbeck -- he has really not spoken a whole lot. That first day, after he was freed, we did hear a little bit from him. But we really haven't heard much from him. He's the kid who spent four years in captivity.

FREED: That's right. And it's -- there's a big puzzle going on there, Wolf, because there are reports coming out where people say that they regularly saw him enjoying a degree of freedom -- out on his bike. They have even been suggestions that perhaps he had Internet access, the kind of freedom where if he -- where he -- people feel that he might have been able to reach out and at least ask for help. And people are wondering why did that not happen.

What did he understand were the circumstances surrounding his family? Was he told that they did not want him? Was he told that they were no longer alive? Was he threatened, if, he, indeed, had that kind of freedom?

BLITZER: All right, let's go out to Missouri right now.

The parents of Ben Ownby, the 13-year-old who was held for four days, they're speaking to reporters now.

Let's listen in.

WILLIAM OWNBY, FATHER OF BEN OWNBY: ... Franklin County, the adjoining counties, Crawford, Cascade, St. Louis County, where Ben was found. We owe everybody a debt for finding our son.

Is there anything you want to add to that?

DORIS OWNBY, MOTHER OF BEN OWNBY: Just that Ben's doing fine. We decided not to bring him here today. We think that he needs to get back to normal. We're going to try and get him ready to go back to school, get him, you know, get him ready -- just trying to make his life a little bit more normal than it has been the last few days.

So, we also have decided that we have -- we have a few more commitments this week and we would like to have a little peace and quiet for a little while, so no more interviews after Friday.

W. OWNBY: Let's give Ben an opportunity to resume more of a normal life.

D. OWNBY: Yes.

QUESTION: Can you tell us what it's been like for the last few days being in your shoes?

D. OWNBY: It's...

W. OWNBY: We're grateful to be in our shoes right now.

D. OWNBY: That it's turned out like it has. It's just been a crazy -- I don't know. I don't know how to describe it except just crazy.

QUESTION: Could you tell us a little bit -- I know you don't want to go too far here, but can you just tell us a little bit about what you've been told that you're facing and what Ben is facing in terms of kind of just over the long-term?

W. OWNBY: Well, you know, for children in this situation, there's a certain amount of emotional distress like this. So, you know, we're going to seek counseling and the best professional help we can get, and do the best we can for him as for our whole family, after what we've been through and make good decisions for him.

QUESTION: And it really has to be overwhelming just the amount of coverage that's been on TV. And certainly Ben is aware of that and has to be -- just his head has to be spinning.

D. OWNBY: Yes, he is. And that's kind of why we have to kind of -- we have to stop somewhere and let him settle down and -- and just let him start being...

W. OWNBY: Be a boy again.

D. OWNBY: Yes.

W. OWNBY: Be a kid.

D. OWNBY: Yes.

QUESTION: Are there any lessons you learned here?

W. OWNBY: You can't be too safe with your kids. You can think you're doing all the things -- everything right, but you need to keep reiterating to them, you know, safety. And the community, too, needs -- as long as they're staying involved, it makes it better.

QUESTION: What about the...

W. OWNBY: Mitchell can teach everyone a lesson, just being observant and coming forward.

D. OWNBY: Children as well as adults, you know, being aware of your surroundings, you know, taking -- taking note of something that's different. You know, not only for a child his age, but for adults to make sure that they, you know, are aware of what's going on in their neighborhood and where they're at.

W. OWNBY: Yes, Sheriff Toelke said he had over 500 tips that may -- 499 of those weren't the right one, but they could have been. So the people have got -- just get involved.

QUESTION: Have you or will you sit down with your son again and have a safety conversation, have -- I mean will you have that conversation again?

D. OWNBY: Oh, yes. Oh, yah.

W. OWNBY: Definitely.

D. OWNBY: Yes. So... QUESTION: What will you say?

D. OWNBY: Just, you know, we'll go back over all the -- all the safety rules that you tell your children -- not to stop and talk to strangers or if somebody pulls up to you in a car, you know, run. You know, do what you can to get away. You know, everything that all parents tell their kids.

QUESTION: When do you think Ben will start back at school?

D. OWNBY: We haven't decided that yet.

W. OWNBY: We're waiting on to be counseled and advised on that.

QUESTION: Is there any -- without getting into the details of the investigation, is there anything from this experience that gives you greater caution in regards to computer games and the Internet?

I don't know if...

W. OWNBY: That didn't come into play here, but certainly it's been an issue in the past, we understand, for some kids that have disappeared.

QUESTION: When you see all the kids that have disappeared, does it start to seem (UNINTELLIGIBLE) how fortune you are as a family?

W. OWNBY: Oh, yes.

D. OWNBY: Yes.

D. OWNBY: That we got our child back in four days. Some of these kids, you know, may never come home. You know, some of these kids take, you know, they come back in four years, there's still, you know, a lot that they've gone through.

So we're -- we're just extremely fortune that Ben came back to us as fast as he did.

W. OWNBY: At all.

QUESTION: Some time has passed since I think the bulk of the world saw you guys together for the first time Saturday.

Aside from dealing with media and interviews, what -- what kinds of things have you been doing with Ben? What's he wanted to do? What's -- what's his last four or five days been like?

W. OWNBY: Well, it's still nowhere near normal, but, you know, we've tried to do some family things -- watching a movie, playing some cards, you know, talking. His aunts and uncles coming to see him and just getting reacquainted with his family again after this.

D. OWNBY: As much quiet time as we can give him. So just so he -- he feels a little bit more comfortable at home and...

QUESTION: Have you spoken to Shawn Hornbeck's family, the Akers, at all?

D. OWNBY: No, not really.

W. OWNBY: No.

D. OWNBY: I'm sure they're going through the same whirlwind as we are, so...

W. OWNBY: Give them their space.

QUESTION: Is there just a -- again, more of a long-term question, because -- but have -- have you discussed among yourselves, between yourselves, going back to school and -- as he's watching a movie with you and those kind of things, yes, that will happen at some point?

W. OWNBY: Oh, yes. He's daily -- he said he's ready to go back to school. But he understands that we have things that we have to do right now and he will get back there. But we'll...

D. OWNBY: He wanted to go back to school today. He was ready. But we're not quite ready for him to go back to school yet.

W. OWNBY: We assured him we'll get him some homework to do, though.

D. OWNBY: And they're working on that.

QUESTION: There's really not a map for families like yourselves.

How do you know what to do next? How do you work through that?

W. OWNBY: We just have to rely on those people we think do know and take their counsel and advice.

QUESTION: Mom?

D. OWNBY: That's it. We're trying to talk to as many people as we can from the different organizations and counselors and just whoever, you know, has offered help. We're just doing what we think we can do, you know? That's...

QUESTION: When you said this morning that you would, if you could, you'd go back to school with him...

D. OWNBY: Yes.

QUESTION: ... I saw the look on his face and...

D. OWNBY: He was...

(CROSSTALK)

D. OWNBY: No, he was kind of mortified, wasn't he?

QUESTION: But is that the independent side? He... D. OWNBY: Oh, yes. He's -- yes. He's very independent. He, you know, and even, you know, like if you have a safety conversation with kids that age, they go oh, yes, mom, we know, you know, and stuff like that. So even though they say OK, we know, just keep reminding them. Keep reminding them.

W. OWNBY: His first day at kindergarten, he wouldn't let us go in the building with him. He said I don't need you to go in.

QUESTION: What does he think of all this?

D. OWNBY: I think it's kind of a little overwhelming for him to...

W. OWNBY: It's surreal, like it didn't really happen. He -- it still hasn't really set in for him, or us, I don't think. But it is. It's starting to. It just -- we dodged a bullet here.

D. OWNBY: We've tried to shield him from as much as we can, as far as people knowing who we are and stuff. We've experienced a few things where we can't go anywhere right now without people recognizing us. And we need to get him, you know, away from that, where he can, you know, be a normal kid.

QUESTION: One of the most memorable moments of this entire ordeal, I think, for everyone who's looked on from the outside is -- was Saturday morning, which I guess at that point it was still a matter of hours since his return and you guys walk into the room and there's Ben with his gigantic, unforgettable smile on his face.

D. OWNBY: Yes.

QUESTION: What does that tell you and the rest of us about him?

W. OWNBY: That's who we told you he was. And...

D. OWNBY: He's just a sweet, innocent kid, you know? He's just, you know -- I can't say anymore. I mean he's just such a sweet kid.

QUESTION: And to come out of this smiling, I mean does that give you...

D. OWNBY: That gives us hope that maybe -- maybe, you know...

W. OWNBY: Maybe we'll get through this with him and he won't be affected by it long-term.

QUESTION: Have you been advised or just generally avoided talking about those four days?

W. OWNBY: Well, like I said, we're taking the advice of the counseling and they said not to push a child that's been through something like that. Eventually, they'll come to some terms and volunteer that or not. That's fine.

QUESTION: And you don't have to go into details. Has he been able to tell you anything about the time he was gone?

W. OWNBY: No. He -- he hasn't volunteered anything yet. But they said it takes time.

QUESTION: When you talk about him being happy and innocent, do you worry about keeping that innocence intact now with what he's seen in the world?

D. OWNBY: Yes. Yes. So, yes, you know, I don't know. We worry about it.

But what can you do?

We just have to work through it and -- and help him through it the best we can.

W. OWNBY: He's a good problem for us right now. We'd rather be doing this than what we were doing last week.

QUESTION: Is it hard to think of where you were at this time last week?

D. OWNBY: Yes. Well, yes, I guess it is, you know, especially being at home, you know, where there's nothing going on and you start thinking did it really happen? You know, is -- did that week really -- did that week really happen? Is -- is, you know, sometimes what we...

W. OWNBY: We'll be sitting here doing something, you know, our minds really wondered away from this completely and then something will come on the television. Oh, yes, your mind goes back to it.

QUESTION: Are you watching much of the coverage?

W. OWNBY: We are, because we didn't have electricity for almost 48 hours, so when all of this was happening -- when we got back Saturday night with -- or from the hospital Saturday morning, we had no electricity. It was sporadic. It was out again. So we were really in the dark.

D. OWNBY: So we didn't have a choice.

W. OWNBY: We didn't know what was going on for almost two days afterward.

D. OWNBY: Yes.

QUESTION: What are you going to change about...

BLITZER: All right, an emotional roller coaster for the parents of Ben Ownby, that 13-year-old little boy who was kidnapped, held in captivity for four days.

Clearly, a difficult, difficult process, but thank god that little boy is with his parents right now and those parents suggesting he's doing just fine. He's getting counseling.

We'll continue to watch this story together with you.

There's other important news we're following, as well.

A lot of developments, brutal developments, happening in Iraq.

We're going to get to all of that.

We'll speak with the Baghdad bureau chief of the "New York Times," John Burns. That's coming up.

But let's check in with Jack Cafferty first for The Cafferty File -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Senator Barack Obama has taken the first step now. The Democrat from Illinois filing papers to create a presidential exploratory committee for a possible White House run in 2008. On his Web site, Obama says: "We have to change our politics and come together around our common interests and concerns as Americans."

He says he's going to make his final decision and announce it February 10th. My bet is eight to five that he's going to run.

He's already entering a crowded field of Democratic contenders for the White House. Senator Hillary Clinton led in all the early polls, but Obama's standing has risen sharply the last few months. Record crowds turned out in New Hampshire when he made an early visit to that early primary state last month.

Supporters hope that Obama will offer an alternative to Clinton, who many worry is too polarizing to win the election.

Some are concerned, though, about the first term senator's lack of experience and whether the United States is ready to elect a black president.

So here's the question -- should Senator Barack Obama run for the White House in 2008?

Your thoughts to CaffertyFile@CNN.com or go to CNN.com/CaffertyFile -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you, Jack, for that.

And still ahead right here in THE SITUATION ROOM, a grueling and deadly cycle of violence in Iraq.

Can it be broken?

I'll speak about it with the "New York Times" Pulitzer Prize winning journalist in Baghdad, John Burns. That's coming this hour.

Also, new questions about the health of Cuba's Fidel Castro. We'll have details of a new report that calls his prognosis very grave.

Plus, why one magazine calls it the ultimate neo-conservative sex fantasy. We'll go inside the politics of the TV show "24."

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back.

The blasts echoed through the streets of Baghdad. Devastating bombings and a murderous marketplace ambush caused hundreds of casualties in the Iraqi capital today. The worst attack was outside a university, where a suicide bomber and a car bomb combined to kill 70 people. The latest carnage follows the announcement of a new Iraq strategy by President Bush and it comes as U.S. and Iraqi forces gear up for a major crackdown in the Iraqi capital.

CNN's Michael Holmes is embedded with American troops in Iraq -- Michael.

MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the president and the Iraqi prime minister have been touting their new plan for Iraq, and particularly Baghdad, to move into problem areas, clear them. But this time, stay, so the insurgents don't return.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

HOLMES (voice-over): Apache helicopters overhead.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What's up?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're dead.

HOLMES: Hundreds of U.S. troops on the ground. Among the first steps in the Iraqi and U.S. government's new plan to save Baghdad.

In reality, however, it's an evolution of the old plan, Operation Together Forward. The first incarnation was clear, hold and rebuild, although none of those things happened or lasted. Today, these Stryker units lead the way on the mean streets of Dora, in the south of the capital, doing the clearing.

Others, according to the new plan, will follow, to hold and rebuild.

(on camera): This area is one of the major fault lines in Baghdad's bloody sectarian war. About half a mile that way, mainly Sunni, including insurgent elements. Half a mile that way, mainly Shia, including elements of the Mahdi Army. And here in the middle, the two mix, often not well. It's on these streets that many of Baghdad's murdered and tortured bodies are found.

(voice-over): This new plan calls for the holding phase to be, for the first time, a truly combined effort. Iraqi Army, national police, Iraqi police and U.S. soldiers working together in a single chain of command.

LT. COL. BRUCE ANTONIA, U.S. ARMY: I think when we say we can't fail is -- is true. We can't fail. If we fail here, the fight is going to be in the United States. The fight is going to be all over the world.

(CROSSTALK)

HOLMES: Where they went was into hundreds of houses, looking for weapons, insurgents and, just as importantly, information.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ask them if they've seen any -- any men with guns running around the neighborhood?

HOLMES (on camera): Is it hard to get people to talk?

1ST SGT. BILL MONTGOMERY, U.S. ARMY: Yes, it is. They're scared and there's a lot of intimidation by the local sectarian groups.

HOLMES (voice-over): But some do talk. Here, troops search the home of the man others accuse of being a local leader of the Mahdi Army. Nothing was found.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

HOLMES: Elsewhere here in the capital and in other places, too, Wolf, joint security stations, as they're called, are going to be set up among the local population, manned 24-7, designed to stop insurgents returning when the troops leave. And some neighborhoods may even be walled off in the American style of gated communities -- one way in, one way out.

The big test, Wolf, now, will the Iraqis follow up on operations like we saw today and walk the walk -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Michael Holmes in Baghdad, embedded with U.S. forces.

Thank you.

And we're going to hear much more about this latest violence. More than 100 people killed, nearly 300 injured, wounded today, in various insurgent and terrorist attacks in Iraq.

What it means for the stepped up U.S. security effort in Baghdad. That's coming up this hour. I'll speak with the "New York Times" Baghdad bureau chief, John Burns.

Other news we're following though, right now.

Top members of the Bush administration could find themselves on the stand. And they're already the focus of court proceedings in the trial of a former top aide to the vice president, Dick Cheney.

Louis "Scooter" Libby is accused of lying to the FBI and other federal investigators probing the leak of a CIA officer's identity. Jury selection began today, with candidates grilled about their attitudes toward the Bush administration.

CNN's Brian Todd is joining us now live from outside the U.S. District Court here in Washington -- Brian.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, today we learned that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former Secretary of State Colin Powell could be called to testify as witnesses in this trial, another indication that this will be classic political theater in Washington.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): As he walks stoically into court, questions surround the trial of Vice President Dick Cheney's confidante, questions that start on day one, with jurors being asked about Louis "Scooter" Libby's former bosses.

A written question asks about positive or negative opinions of Vice President Cheney and whether that might affect your ability to fairly judge Vice President Cheney's believability.

With that kind of concern about jurors' opinions on Cheney, can Libby get a fair trial in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans nine to one?

SCOTT FREDERICKSEN, FORMER SPECIAL PROSECUTOR: That's not how jurors in the District of Columbia come down in their cases. It'll be easy to rid the panel of jurors who are blatantly political in their views of things.

TODD: Libby is charged with deliberately misleading investigators when he told them what he said to reporters about the covert identity of former CIA Officer Valeria Plame.

Cheney could become the first sitting vice president to testify in a criminal trial, the defense counting on Cheney to bolster Libby's claim that because he was absorbed in his job, he simply didn't remember what he told reporters about Plame.

Observers look forward to the day Cheney squares off with prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald.

FREDERICKSEN: Now, this is a heavyweight match between the prosecutor and Vice President Cheney. For the vice president, this will be different than anything he's ever done. He doesn't control the questions when the prosecutor, Mr. Fitzgerald, gets up to start cross-examining.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: Jurors can't control the questions, either. And already this very contentious process has led to a sparring match in court between the defense and the prosecutors over how far to take the questions for jurors about their political beliefs and about their personal opinions of the Bush administration -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian's going to be watching this trial for us. It could last, what, six weeks?

Brian, thanks very much for that.

And, by the way, you can see some of the court documents for yourself, including the complete potential witnesses list, questions for potential jurors. That's at CNN.com/ticker, if you're interested.

Coming up, new concerns about Fidel Castro's health. We'll have details of what one newspaper is now reporting that has some wondering if the Cuban leader is near death.

Plus, the politics behind the hit TV show, "24" -- find out why so many neo-conservatives like what they're seeing.

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, the parents of one of those missing Missouri boys found last week speaking out at a news conference just a few minutes ago. You may have seen it live here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

They were speaking the kidnapping ordeal. Ben Ownby's mother and father say they're trying to make his life as normal as possible right now, but they say Ben still has not talked to them about his four day ordeal. He was held four days. Another boy, Shawn Hornbeck, was held more than four years.

Also, President Bush offering his harshest criticism yet over the way Saddam Hussein's execution was handled. He tells the PBS "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer" the Iraqi government fumbled the hanging and he's disappointed. He also says the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki still has "some maturation to do."

And the Navy announcing its next aircraft carrier will be named the USS Gerald Ford after the late president who died last month. Ford served in the U.S. Navy in World War II. His daughter says nothing would have made him prouder.

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

He hasn't been seen in public for many months. Now a new report suggests Fidel Castro is in much worst shape than the Cuban regime has led on.

Let's get the latest from CNN's Morgan Neill in Havana -- Morgan.

MORGAN NEILL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, that article in Spain's "El Pais" newspaper is raising new questions about the Cuban president's health. But has been the case for months now, Cuba's refusing to be nailed down on just what's ailing its president.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) NEILL (voice over): In the most recent video of Cuban president Fidel Castro from late October, he struggles to walk and he looks thin and weak. Now a new article on Castro's health in Spain's "El Pais" newspaper says he's in serious conditions after three operations.

The paper cites two sources at the same Madrid hospital where the Dr. Jose Luis Garcia Sabrido works. He's the only non-Cuban doctor known to have examined Castro since he fell ill. He says he's not the source for the article, which goes on to say Castro is suffering complications from diverticulitis, an inflammation of the intestine complicated by infection.

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Sometimes those infections can actually perforate through the intestinal wall, which is what it sounds like happened, causing peritonitis. That is an infection of the abdominal cavity.

NEILL: From Cuba's government, no reaction to the newspaper article. Details of the president's condition are regarded as a state secret here. And most Cubans hadn't even heard of the report from Spain on Tuesday.

Since his assistant read the stunning news July 31st that Fidel Castro was temporarily handing over power to his brother Raul following surgery, the president hasn't made a public appearance. Only the occasional video released by the government.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

NEILL: President Castro sent a message just a few weeks ago in his end of the year message, saying his health problems were far from being a lost battle. But he's warned all along that his recovery would be a long and risky process -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Morgan. Thanks very much.

Morgan Neill, our man in Havana.

For more now on the Cuban leader's health crisis, let's bring in our chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

Sanjay, based on these reports -- and there are conflicting reports -- but based on what this newspaper is now saying, how serious does this look?

GUPTA: Well, it sounds very serious, Wolf. And, you're right, it is somewhat hard to decipher medically.

On one hand, you have a doctor who examined him saying he's recovering fantastically well. On the other hand, he's had three operations since July.

He's 80 years old. The first operation sounds like it was because his large intestine actually perforated and he got a significant infection in his entire abdominal cavity.

They tried to correct the perforation. It sounds like it didn't take and it required two more operations since then.

Just to give you a little bit of a sense, I want to show you on this model, if I can for a second, Wolf, what we're talking about.

Specifically, the lower part of the intestine, the large intestine here, they actually have to remove a portion of this intestine and then sort of reconnect it, one part to the other. If the abdominal cavity has a lot of infection in it, it's very hard for that connection to take, which is why he's had these two further operations.

He's probably not had a solid meal. He's probably been intravenously fed. And probably also has had to take significant antibiotics for the last seven months now, Wolf, as well.

So, this is certainly serious for anybody, but given his age, even more so.

BLITZER: Eighty years old. So what are the chances for some sort of recovery that will enable him to resume the presidency?

GUPTA: You know, it's hard to say, Wolf. One of the things, I've been doing some background on this, this morning and this afternoon, and talking to other doctors.

One thing that helps in a situation like this -- and he may have had this done, it's hard to know for sure -- is actually to create what's known as a colostomy bag. What that means, basically, is taking the intestine and actually diverting it out to the abdominal wall and placing a bag there so that you don't have to connect the two parts of the intestines.

You do that. It's a bit of a temporizing measure. You allow the infection clear. And someone could actually recover more quickly that way.

Whether he's had that done or not is hard to say. But that might be something that could facilitate his recovery.

I don't think most people that I've talked to or most doctors who have heard about this case are optimistic overall about his long-term recovery, though.

BLITZER: Sanjay, thanks very much.

GUPTA: Thank you.

BLITZER: Dr. Sanjay Gupta reporting for us.

And still ahead, a deadly new wave of violence in Iraq. More than 100 people killed today alone. Can the cycle be broken?

I'll speak with "The New York Times" Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter in Baghdad, John Burns

Plus, Barack Obama in '08. Is this his time to run for president?

Jack Cafferty with your e-mail, that's coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: As we have been reporting, it was an especially bloody day in Baghdad today. A series of attacks one after another. More than a hundred people were killed, almost 300 were wounded. The carnage comes amid fresh efforts to crack down on the sectarian violence.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And joining us now from Baghdad, "The New York Times" correspondent John Burns, a Pulitzer Prize winner.

John, thanks very much for coming in.

Let's talk about the surge of attacks. Scores of Iraqis killed today, including outside a university in Baghdad, various locations.

What is going on?

JOHN BURNS, "NEW YORK TIMES" CORRESPONDENT: A very interesting day. A very sad day, Wolf. And a day that puts, in effect -- gives us the counterpoints to much that we've been discussing in the last couple of weeks.

What we saw today was Sunni insurgent terror at its worst. And it reminds us where this all began.

When Saddam Hussein was overthrown, a regime of terror for 24 years, what happened? He went underground, his associates went underground, and it was terror by another means.

Today, we saw over 100 people killed, including a double bombing, a suicide bombing and a car bombing, at of all places, one of the principal universities in the city on the Shiite side of the city, Mustansiriya University. And by all accounts, what they -- what they did was, they had a car bomb at one entrance. When the students attempted to flee out of the building the other way, primarily women students, they ran into a suicide bomber and at least 60 were killed.

Now, the significance of this in the present political situation is that it empowers Prime Minister Maliki, much criticized for his Shiite sectarian leanings, who has been saying, if you want to break the cycle of violence here, go after the Sunnis. The Shiite attacks are retaliatory, stop the Sunnis. Get the Sunni politicians to step up and do something about this.

BLITZER: So what can we anticipate now is a major Shiite retaliatory strike or strikes against Sunnis? Is that likely?

BURNS: What we have seen now for many months is a kind of grim calibration in which the Shiite death squads go out and round up Sunnis, usually innocents, usually civilians, and kill on an almost death-for-death basis. That would usually happen within 48 hours.

BLITZER: It sounds like a classic civil war to me, but it also sounds like the whole place is falling apart right now.

BURNS: Well, it's certainly points up the grim situation that American -- the new American troops who are already arriving, the additional troops deployed by President Bush, several thousands of them are already on the ground here from the 82nd Airborne Division in Kuwait, and the officers who are going to command this operation, the American officers, have absolutely no illusions about how -- how tough it's going to be.

The emphasis is on going after Shiite and Sunni groups. But you can bet that if this kind of thing happens, you're going to see American commanders leaning somewhat, I would say, to the notion that the place you start to break this cycle is going after the Sunni insurgent groups.

And it has to be said, Wolf, that there's very little sign that the Sunni minority community is stepping up to answer appeals from the Iraqi government and from the American command to cooperate, to trace -- track these -- help in tracking these people down. They act with complete immunity.

It's not easy to track down people who build car bombs and strap explosive vests on to themselves. But the Sunni community, I think, if it wants to protect itself -- and they have become victims of this as much as anybody else -- is going to have step up and start helping those who have come here to help them.

BLITZER: Where does the botched excuse of Saddam Hussein's half- brother fit into all of this? And I guess a couple of weeks ago the execution of Saddam Hussein himself.

BURNS: Well, you know, Wolf, I'm a prime, if you will, protagonist in this. We write about what happened in those hangings, Saddam taunted and mocked as the noose was around his neck. His half- brother hanged yesterday and his head ripped off, as far as we can tell -- in fact, I think there's no doubt about it -- because of a miscalculation in the length of rope from the so-called drop chart that is used in these hangings.

Very unfortunate. Botched again. And yet, let's remember, as the Iraqi government appeals to us to know (ph) who these men were, Mr. Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti hanged yesterday, decapitated, and the man who stood beside him in one of those Guantanamo orange suits, Awad Hamid al-Bandar, the chief of Hussein's Revolutionary Court, were right at the heart of the terror that killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. The same terror that these Sunni suicide bombers are carrying into the streets.

Now, of course many of those bombers are al Qaeda. There's absolutely no doubt that they are empowered and helped by Ba'athists, Saddam's underground, if you will, which outlives him and outlives those two -- those two fellows who were hanged yesterday.

BLITZER: John Burns in Baghdad from "The New York Times."

John, thanks very much.

BURNS: A pleasure, Wolf.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: There's a very important story developing in Israel right now.

Ben Wedeman is joining us on the phone from Jerusalem -- Ben.

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, the Israeli chief of staff, Dan Halutz, has handed in his resignation. This -- he's been under pressure for quite some time following the war in Lebanon to resign. Many people blaming him for the failure of Israel's campaign to achieve its target, of course freeing the three Israeli soldiers -- or rather the two Israeli soldiers -- who were seized by Hezbollah this summer and also failing to crush Hezbollah during that war.

So, just to repeat, Wolf, the Israeli chief of staff, Lieutenant Dan Halutz, has handed in his resignation -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Ben. Thank you very much. We'll follow that story.

Still to come here in THE SITUATION ROOM, he's the man who called Miami a third-world country, but a hero to many opponents of illegal immigration. And now he's setting his sights on the White House.

My interview with Colorado congressman Tom Tancredo, that's coming up. He announced an exploratory committee today.

And in our 7:00 p.m. Eastern hour, Donald Trump gets a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and a story that has CNN's Jeanne Moos written all over it.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Lou Dobbs getting ready for his program that begins right at the top of the hour. He's telling us what he's working on -- Lou.

LOU DOBBS, HOST, "LOU DOBBS TONIGHT": Wolf, thank you.

We'll be reporting tonight on an appalling security breakdown at the Department of Defense. Some of our most dangerous enemies may have received U.S. military equipment because of Pentagon bureaucratic bungling.

We'll have that report.

And a disturbing new example of how corporate elites and members of Congress are waging war on our middle class. Corporations receive lucrative exemptions from import tariffs, exemptions that have cost middle class Americans their jobs.

We'll have that story.

And two former U.S. Border Patrol agents now less than 24 hours away from perhaps beginning long jail sentences for doing their job. We'll those agents receive justice at the last minute?

Well have the very latest for you on that story.

And among my guests here tonight, Congressman James Clyburn, majority whip, the highest-ranking African-American in the new Congress. We'll be talking about Iraq, education and healthcare, and a great deal more.

We hope you'll be with us.

Wolf, back to you.

BLITZER: All right, Lou. Sounds good. We'll see you in a few minutes.

He says his Republican Party has abandoned some of its core principles. He's known for his tough stands on issues such as illegal immigration. Could a White House run keep some of those key concerns in the public eye?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And joining us now, Republican congressman Tom Tancredo. He's running for president -- at least you're exploring that possibility, Congressman.

Thanks very much for coming in.

REP. TOM TANCREDO (R), COLORADO: A pleasure. Thanks for having me on.

BLITZER: Are you doing this because you really believe you have a shot of winning the White House, or you're similarly looking for a platform to raise important issues, important issues to you?

TANCREDO: Both. The fact is that I am -- I am convinced after having to talked to a lot of people in Iowa and all over the country, frankly, that the party's, first of all, looking for somebody that will articulate the issues that we care greatly about. And I say "we." I'm talking about the grassroots of the party.

I'm talking about certainly securing the borders as one of those things. But it goes far beyond that, to the issues of fiscal responsibility, which they think have been abandoned, the idea of an energy policy that really and truly will move us away from dependency on the people who are trying to kill us, dependency on their oil.

So there are a lot of issues that make me believe that my candidacy is viable.

BLITZER: But you're...

TANCREDO: And if I do get the nomination, yes, I think I could win.

BLITZER: You're best known for your strong opposition...

TANCREDO: Yes.

BLITZER: ... to the illegal immigrants here in the United States and the policies you've taken.

Some mainstream Republicans, including Karl Rove at the White House, and others, are suggesting that the views that you're taking against the president, who wants to see some pathway for citizenship for these -- for many of these illegal immigrants, actually hurting the Republican Party, especially with Hispanics.

TANCREDO: It's not my views that are out of step. It's with the party and even with a large number of Hispanics. It's the president's views.

Where the people are actually able to vote, Republicans and Hispanics are able to vote discreetly on the issue of immigration, to a large extent, 48 percent of Hispanics in Arizona, for instance, voted for the issues that were on the ballot this last time that were all designed to tamp down on immigration and do some about immigration reform. Forty-eight percent of...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: On the exit polls, though -- and we got these numbers -- in '04, Bush got 44 percent of the Latino vote.

TANCREDO: Yes.

BLITZER: In '06, Republicans got only 30 percent of the Latino vote.

BLITZER: Wolf, why would anybody think that Latinos were going to be voting against us, against Republicans, for reasons different than white males voted against us? It was the same thing. I mean, the issue of -- the issue of the war, the issue of Iraq. They overwhelmed...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: So why did...

TANCREDO: ... with Latinos and white Americans.

BLITZER: Why did J.D. Hayworth, for example, in Arizona, your Republican colleague -- he's well known on the positions that you support on illegal immigration.

TANCREDO: Yes.

BLITZER: Randy Graf, he lost as well, a Republican.

Why did they lose? Because they have very similar positions on immigration that you have.

TANCREDO: They do, and it's because -- it is because of two things. Again, the war and corruption overwhelmed them.

J.D., over a long period of time, took a lot of money from a guy by the name of Abramoff. That hurt him. It was used over and over in his campaign.

His opponent actually tried to run to the right of J.D. on immigration and kept saying, "You've been here for 12 years. Why haven't you done anything?"

So it wasn't -- and again, here's Arizona, where J.D. Hayworth and Randy Graf were losing, same state, passing four initiatives. The initiative that got the least amount got 72 percent of the vote. And again, I say, almost half of Hispanics voting for it.

BLITZER: You caused a stir in Miami recently when you said this. You said, "You just pick it up and you take it and you move it someplace. You would never know you're in the United States of America. You would certainly say you're in a Third World country."

TANCREDO: That's right.

BLITZER: And they got very mad.

TANCREDO: Some did.

BLITZER: The governor -- Republican governor, Jeb Bush, of Florida, saying, "What a nut. I'm just disappointed. He's from my own party. He's a Republican. He doesn't represent my views."

TANCREDO: Well, I don't represent his views, evidently. And I don't intend to.

The fact is that he wrote me a letter saying to me that, you know, the idea of -- they celebrate the idea of diversity. Well, celebrating the idea of diversity is a great thing. Nobody's opposed to it, certainly not I. But when you make it, as I said to him, almost a state religion, things change.

When you have massive immigration into a particular area and people -- of people, many of whom -- many of whom, not all, do not want to be integrated, do not want to assimilate, and on the other hand, you have a society there and a civil government -- the government in Miami, the government of the state of Florida saying you shouldn't, never mind, don't assimilate, that's when you have the separation I'm talking about. That's when you have half of the population speaking a language other than English.

We need to think about things that pull us together in this country, not things that keep separating us. We need a common language. We need the government to try to encourage that. We need to communicate with each other -- Wolf.

BLITZER: If you want to be president, though, you've got to win Florida.

TANCREDO: If you want to -- it's an interesting thing. "The Miami Herald" took a poll on my statements. Seventy percent of the people that responded supported me. Most of the radio and television stations down there that have done similar polling also supported me. All of the mail that I get, it's 60 to 70 percent of Floridians who support me.

Amazing.

BLITZER: Should the Florida Republicans, Senator Mel...

TANCREDO: And not amazing, actually. It's pretty typical.

BLITZER: Should the Florida Republican senator Mel Martinez be the chairman of the Republican National Committee given his views on immigration, which are very different than yours?

TANCREDO: I would not vote for him. If I were able to do so, I would not be voting for Mel Martinez for that very reason.

We cannot continue down this pathway that is separating us from a large number of Republicans when we continue to talk about the idea of amnesty for people who have come here and broken the law and essentially spitting in the face of millions of people who have done it the right way. Or millions more who are actually trying to come into this country and do it the right way.

When we do that as a party, we're, I think, marching down the path to our own demise. And I think Mr. Martinez unfortunately represents that same point of view.

BLITZER: We've got to leave it there.

Tom Tancredo, he's thinking about running for president.

TANCREDO: Teamtancredo.com. Teamtancredo.com.

BLITZER: He's created an exploratory committee. He's officially an explorer.

Congressman, thanks for coming in.

TANCREDO: It's a pleasure

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And up next, should Senator Barack Obama make a run for the White House in 2008? Jack Cafferty with your e-mail when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Time now for Jack and "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Senator Barack Obama filed the necessary papers to create a presidential exploratory committee for a possible White House run in 2008.

Our question is whether you think he ought to run for president.

Curtis in Philadelphia writes, "Who knows, Jack? But if that's what he wants, he has to do it sooner rather than later. The longer he stays in the Senate, the more Senate votes he has on record, and that's usually what keeps senators from making that step from the Senate to the White House."

Mike in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, "Gosh, I hope so. He's the only bright light in a field of blown-out light bulbs. Unfortunately, I'm sure some good ol' boys could not handle having a black president. Martin Luther King's dream is still just a dream."

Terry in Commack, New York, "Not yet. There are too many variables in his way. He should vie for the vice presidential half of the ticket or wait at least another four years. What's the rush? He's only 45 years old."

Becky in Tennessee writes, "Obama should run. He's like a breath of fresh air. Fresh air has no color, and we need it desperately because the present political air we breathe is polluted with lies, deception and greed, and just plain nonsense."

Derek in Coral Gables, Florida, "He's too green to run for the presidency, and the foul stench of the office has gone to his head. There's also that elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about. This country is not mature enough to elect either a woman or a black man."

And Nicole writes, "Yes, he should run. Not because it's time for a black president, but because it's time for a change."

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

BLITZER: You know, for a freshman senator with only two years in the U.S. Congress, he's already got an incredible following.

CAFFERTY: The crowds he attracted in that early visit to New Hampshire were unlike anything they ever saw up there. And not by a little bit.

There were thousands of people waiting out in the cold, some of them for hours, to get a glimpse of this guy. He's a rock star.

BLITZER: And his book is still number one on the best seller's list, "The Audacity of Hope."

Jack, thanks very much. See you back here in one hour. Let's go to New York and Lou Dobbs.

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