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THE SITUATION ROOM

Battle With a Messianic Cult; Will Saudi Arabia Use Oil as Weapon?

Aired January 29, 2007 - 17:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: 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, a Messianic cult backed by insurgent gangs, a desperate plot to kill Iraq's most revered Shiite leader. It's nearly 1:00 a.m. in Iraq, where the smoke clears after a bloody battle that may have averted all out disaster in the region.

Could Saudi Arabia use its oil weapon by keeping prices low?

It's nearly 1:00 a.m. in Riyadh. Why the kingdom may want to cut the cash flow in Iran and how they might help America.

And it's 5:00 p.m. here in Washington. If the former first lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton, makes it back to the White House as president, what would life be like for Bill Clinton as America's first gentleman?

I'm Wolf Blitzer.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

A furious battle as a Messianic diehard cult aided by insurgents tries to bring on the end of days in Iraq's Shiite heartland. Hundreds are dead, but how many could have died if that stunning plot had succeeded?

And a warning from President Bush that the United States will respond firmly if Iran steps up its military actions in Iraq.

Our White House correspondent, Ed Henry, is standing by.

But let's begin with that fierce battle in Najaf.

CNN's Arwa Damon is in the Iraqi capital -- Arwa.

ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the operation to clean up the area lasting well over 24 hours. The identity of the enemy that U.S. and Iraqi forces were facing was shocking.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

DAMON (voice-over): As dust from the sandstorm settles over the battlefield, new details emerge of the identity of the gunmen who put up some of the fiercest fighting that Iraq has seen this year.

Members of a Shia Messianic cult calling themselves The Soldiers of Heaven, plotting to attack the holy Shia city of Najaf. They massed in the hundreds, joined by foreign fighters, Sunni extremists, criminals and gangs, intending to assassinate pilgrims, clerics, including Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, the most revered Shia cleric, called by many the Shia pope.

And holy shrines trying to destroy all that is sacred to Shia Islam during Ashura, the holiest Shia ritual.

The cult's intent, to create more chaos, to accelerate the return of the Mahdi, the savior of the Shia. The Mahdi is the 12th Shia imam. His followers believe that he disappeared down a well in Samarra in the ninth century and will return at a time of violent deaths and intense disputes, when people are experiencing great fear. His arrival will directly precede the day of judgment.

Iraqi officials described the aftermath of the battlefield as being strewn with bodies of the gunmen, saying they killed hundreds of fighters and are investigating reports that the cult's leader was killed.

The enemy they faced so fierce, senior Iraqi officials say U.S. forces had to step in, taking the lead on the battlefield.

(AUDIO GAP)

BLITZER: Unfortunately, we've lost our communications with Arwa. We'll fix that, get back to her.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration today warned Iran against doing anything to endanger U.S. forces in Iraq. The message delivered by the commander-in-chief himself.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If Iran escalates its military action in Iraq to the detriment of our troops and/or innocent Iraqi people, we will respond firmly.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: The president speaking in an interview with National Public Radio.

Let's get the latest from our White House correspondent, Ed Henry -- the president seems -- correct me if I'm wrong -- to be escalating this rhetoric somewhat, at least over the past few weeks, including today.

ED HENRY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's debatable. In a sense, he's actually downshifting a little bit from what he said two weeks ago on Sinclair Broadcasting. He did an interview where he basically said if Iran doesn't cut it out, the U.S. is going to take care of business over there. That led a lot of Democrats to say this is a return to cowboy diplomacy, what they've criticized for so long. And they said the president is itching for war.

And so now you see the White House trying to pull back ever so slightly. They're walking a fine line here. They're trying to get tough with Iran, but they know full well that the U.S. military is stretched very thin right now. So they can't just go into war, they can't just invade Iran haphazardly, obviously. And they're already haunted by the situation in Iraq.

So they're walking a very fine line here, Wolf.

BLITZER: Well, that raises the issue of credibility. A lot of people are not necessarily convinced that when they hear from the president or his other top aides that there are these intelligence reports suggesting doom and gloom, that they are necessarily going to believe them.

HENRY: You're absolutely right. In fact, the president himself, in that National Public Radio interview today, acknowledged that very fact. He said that when he's presented with intelligence reports about Iran, he knows that the government has been burned by the intelligence reports over Iraq, so he's constantly pressing for more information to try to make sure it's accurate this time.

The other way that the administration has a credibility is the fact that the image out there, all around the world, is that the president was hell bent on going to war in Iraq, this time on Iran. That's why you hear repeatedly diplomacy, diplomacy, diplomacy -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Ed Henry at the White House.

Thank you for that.

We're also today getting a fascinating look at the inner workings of the Bush administration as the CIA leak trial pulls aside the veil of secrecy surrounding the outing of a CIA operative.

Testifying today, the former White House press secretary, Ari Fleischer.

Let's get to the courthouse.

CNN's Brian Todd is outside with an update on what happened today.

There was drama inside there -- Brian.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, Wolf.

A pivotal moment today for the prosecution. Their witnesses offer a window into the spin machine of the Bush White House in that pivotal summer of 2003.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

TODD (voice-over): A machine that prosecutors contend went into over time in the summer of 2003, countering claims by this war critic, Former Ambassador Joe Wilson, that the White House twisted intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq.

The star witness today, the one time public face of the White House. Former Press Secretary Ari Fleischer testified about a private conversation he shared with Vice President Cheney's point man, Louis "Scooter" Libby.

Fleischer says Libby told him Wilson's wife worked at the CIA. He told the court he believes Libby even divulged her name, Valerie Plame Wilson, and that Libby said the information was "hush-hush."

Fleischer says that meeting occurred on July 7th, 2003, three days before Libby claims he learned Plame's classified identity from Tim Russert of NBC News.

It can be illegal to knowingly out a CIA operative. But Libby is on trial for lying to federal investigators. Libby claims he forgot key details of his conversations about Plame.

DAVID SCHERTLER, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: The prosecution is trying to show the jury that even in the life -- a day in the life of Louis "Scooter" Libby, this issue was so important to the vice president that it isn't something that he would forget.

TODD: But on cross-examination, the defense punches holes in Fleischer's memory, asking, "Can you say with absolute certainty that Libby said Plame's name?

Fleischer's answer: "With absolute certainty, no."

Fleischer got immunity from prosecution because he thought he'd be in trouble for telling reporters that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA before it was reported publicly. Fleischer contends he did not give Plame's name to reporters and didn't realize until much later that her identity was classified.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

TODD: Other key prosecution witnesses who have given behind the scenes portrayals of the White House war council, former Cheney press aide Cathy Martin -- she finished her testimony today -- as well as two former CIA officers and a former State Department official.

With each witnesses, the defense trying to punch holes in their memory of important event or even question their access to key information and key meetings -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Who's the next witness to testify, Brian?

TODD: Well, right now, David Addington, Dick Cheney's current chief of staff, has just finished testifying for the day. He is going to come back tomorrow. The next witnesses after him, we're told, Judith Miller of the "New York Times." She is the first member of the media to testify in this trial.

BLITZER: Everybody's waiting for the vice president himself, Dick Cheney, when he's called to testify and he says he will.

Brian is at the courthouse for us watching this trial.

Jack Cafferty is in New York for us and he's got The Cafferty File -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I wonder if Cheney will be any nicer to those lawyers than he was to you during that interview.

BLITZER: No comment.

CAFFERTY: (LAUGHTER) Some harsh ratings for President Bush. The latest "Newsweek" poll shows the president's approval rating at 30 percent. That's the lowest point in that poll's history, and it gets worse from there.

Fifty-eight percent of those surveyed say they wish the Bush presidency was over now. That's more than half the country, and it also includes 21 percent of Republicans, who say they feel that way.

Seventy percent of Americans see President Bush as a lame duck, saying he won't have enough support to get anything done over the next two years.

When it comes to his decisions about policy in Iraq and other areas, 67 percent say he is influenced by his personal beliefs. Only 22 percent say the president is influenced on things like Iraq policy by the facts.

And when asked how history will view him, 53 percent of those polled say Mr. Bush will be seen as a below average president. Thirty percent say average. Eighty-four percent say average or worse. Only 14 percent say he'll be viewed as above average.

So here's the question -- with half the country, more than half, including one in five Republicans, saying they wish the Bush presidency is simply over, we ask, is it?

E-mail your thoughts to caffertyfile@cnn.com or go to cnn.com/caffertyfile.

No further comment from here, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, thank you very much, Jack, for that.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: Up ahead, oil as a weapon -- is it being used against Iran right now?

We're going to show you how oil prices may be playing a pivotal role in the growing squeeze play that Washington is attempting to use against Tehran. Our Zain Verjee is on the story. And we're also going to show you plans for an unusual celebration. Organizers working right now on a massive party to be held in Miami, when Fidel Castro dies.

Plus, more on that dramatic battle in Najaf, with a heavily armed doomsday cult. I'll talk about that and a lot more with the "New York Times" Pulitzer Prize winning reporter, John Burns.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: As speculation grows about Fidel Castro's health, controversy is growing over plans by some city officials in Miami to stage a celebration when the Cuban leader dies.

Let's go to Mary Snow.

She's watching the story for us -- Mary.

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the city spokesman in Miami says the city has had contingency plans for Castro's death for a while. But a relatively new idea for a celebration at the Orange Bowl is raising some objections.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This was the scene in Miami last summer, when Fidel Castro became ill and turned over power to his brother Raul. With this image of the 80-year-old Cuban dictator, city officials are planning an official celebration in Miami's Orange Bowl following Castro's death.

OSCAR CORRAL, CASTRO DEATH PARTY: In most places, it would seem a little unusual to have a party somewhat dancing on someone's grave. Miami is unlike any other place.

SNOW: The city commissioner who came up with the idea to organize events in the Orange Bowl told the "Miami Herald" that "Castro represents everything bad that has happened to the people of Cuba for 48 years. There is so much to celebrate regardless of what happens next. We get rid of the guy."

But some Cuban-American leaders are concerned about a replay of the dancing in the streets scene this past summer, when many thought Castro had died.

RAMON SAUL SANCHEZ, DEMOCRACY MOVEMENT: We don't have anything to party for when we have thousands of people in prison in the island. We have millions of families divided. We have the hope of being free still unfulfilled.

SNOW: The Orange Bowl has significance for Cuban-Americans. It was there in the 1960s President Kennedy addressed tens of thousands of exiles and promised to free Cuba. And in the 1980s, the Orange Bowl became a haven for thousands of Cuban refugees during the Mariel boatlift.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

SNOW: Now, we did try to contact the city commissioner who proposed the Orange Bowl celebration. We were unable to reach him and not able to get more details on things like how much it would cost -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I guess so. We'll be watching to see what happens in Miami.

Thank you, Mary, for that.

Could Saudi Arabia use its oil weapon by keeping prices low?

That may be a way to strike back at its regional rival. That would be Iran, accused by both the Saudis and the U.S. of fomenting serious problems inside Iraq.

Let's go live to our State Department correspondent, Zain Verjee -- Zain.

ZAIN VERJEE, CNN STATE DEPARTMENT CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Iran is a major problem for the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. But they may have a plan that could squeeze them further.

(AUDIO GAP)

VERJEE: Well, Wolf, basically the issue is that when oil prices go up, the idea is, is that Iran gains more confidence. The State Department says look, everybody knows that Iran's bulk of its income comes from oil. In recent months, U.S. officials have been talking to the Saudis about how exactly to stop Iran's growing threats.

And what they're considering is turning to oil as a weapon.

Now, publicly, U.S. and Saudi officials said that Iran -- that oil, rather -- is not being used as a weapon. They don't plan to squeeze Iran's economy. They don't want to squeeze the regime.

But privately, they are acknowledging that it is all about Iran. One analyst we spoke to said that one of the ways that Saudi Arabia can actually reign in Iran is by keeping oil prices low because when oil prices are low, Iran can't meet the expectations it's set of its budget and it can't really look after its population.

Oil prices, Wolf have been sky high over the past while, but now they're about $50 a burial. It's reached a two year low point. And the Saudis really want to keep it that way -- Wolf.

BLITZER: You know, I've heard repeatedly, Zain, and I'm sure you have, as well, from top administration officials, that the reason the administration doesn't want to talk directly with Iran right now is because Iran is sort of high -- they're riding this publicity crest. They think things are moving in their direction. They really want to talk to Iran when Iran is struggling, when it's feeling international sanctions because of its nuclear program, when it's feeling some sort of economic pressure and other pressures from the Saudis, for example.

All of this clearly coordinated, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, to squeeze Iran, to squeeze Ahmadinejad, and maybe he would become more malleable in future negotiations.

I sense you're getting that same kind of assessment from officials.

VERJEE: There is a sense, though, Wolf, that Iran, that Ahmadinejad is feeling that kind of pressure. There's a lot of internal pressure in the country that's arising even from Ayatollah Khamenei and other Iranian leaders that Ahmadinejad is not making the right choices, the right decisions.

Some of the exclusive rhetoric that he has used, they feel, is undermining Iran's hand at a delicate time of nuclear negotiations. And they also feel that they're being squeezed. I mean a second aircraft carrier was sent to the Gulf. Iranian leaders are feeling threatened. Also, five Iranians were arrested in Iraq, suspected of fueling the insurgency.

So they're beginning to feel the tough talk from Washington and now low oil prices don't strengthen their hand -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Zain, thanks.

Good reporting from Zain at the State Department.

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, by the way, announced today that Adel Al-Jubeir will be the kingdom's next ambassador to the United States. Al-Jubeir is a U.S.-educated diplomat who was drafted by Abdullah back in 2001 to try to repair Saudi Arabia's image in the United States after the 9/11 terror attacks. You've seen him often as a guest here on CNN.

He replaces Prince Turki Al-Faisal, who resigned last month after only 15 months as Saudi Arabia's ambassador in Washington.

Coming up, whose job is it to protect U.S. nuclear power plants from a 9/11-style attack?

The government now clearly saying who's responsible and who isn't.

Plus, the foiled insurgent plot by a heavily armed cult to kill Iraq's Shiite spiritual leader.

What would his death mean for U.S. troops?

We'll talk about that and more with John Burns of the "New York Times."

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Carol Costello is monitoring the wires, checking the feeds, speaking with our reporters and producers.

she's going to update us now on some of the other stories making news -- Carol.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Wolf.

Hello to all of you.

Who is responsible for protecting the country's nuclear power plants from air attacks?

Not the plant operators. That's according to the Nuclear Regulatory Agency. It is rejecting a proposal for a barrier that would protect them from 9/11-style attacks. The Agency says the military and other government organizations provide active protection and that plant operators should focus on limiting radioactive releases and public exposure.

Struggling label radio network Air America may be gaining a new owner, but it's losing its star personality. The bankrupt network says it's reached a tentative deal to be bought by a New York real estate mogul. But it also says headliner Al Franken will be leaving next month. No reason given, although Franken has said he's considering a run for the Senate.

And a sad ending to a story that captivated the country. The race horse Barbaro was euthanized today, eight months after shattering his right hind leg in the Preakness Stakes. Veterinarians took extraordinary measures to help Barbaro recover, but in the end they said he was just in too much pain. The horse's owner says putting Barbaro down was the right decision.

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

BLITZER: Thank you, Carol, for that.

And still to come, insurgents in Iraq teaming up with a killer cult to try to bring on doomsday. We're going to get new details of the furious battle. We'll also be getting some assessment from the "New York Times" John Burns. He's standing by live.

Plus, if his wife runs for president, what would former President Bill Clinton's role be?

We're going to show you how it might all play out. 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 new top U.S. military commander for Iraq expected to land in Baghdad next week. No exact date given yet for the arrival of Lieutenant General soon to be General David Petraeus. But it's likely to coincide with Congressional debate on resolutions opposing the deployment of additional U.S. troops to Iraq. Also, the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, promising quick action on a Bush administration request for an extra $10 billion for reconstruction in Afghanistan. Pelosi led a Congressional delegation that met with the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, in Kabul yesterday, following trips to Pakistan and Iraq.

And a Senate panel holding hearings on Hurricane Katrina recovery. Among those testifying, the New Orleans mayor, Ray Nagin, saying his city is getting shortchanged when compared to the money being spent on Iraq. And he adds, and I'm quoting now, "There's racial issues associated with it."

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

Let's go back to our top story. A bloody battle as Iraqi forces with lots of U.S. help defeat diehards from a Messianic cult. By holding the line, did Iraq's new military head off a regional holy war?

Standing by in New York is the "New York Times" bureau chief in Baghdad, John Burns.

But let's get the latest from our senior Pentagon correspondent, Jamie McIntyre -- Jamie.

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SENIOR PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, you know, the U.S. fights to portray the enemy in Iraq as a combination of disaffected Baathists and foreign terrorists. But Iraqi officials say this time the enemy was a combination of both Sunni and Shia extremists, as well as some various fringe splinter groups.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

MCINTYRE (voice-over): Najaf was the biggest battle yet for Iraq's much maligned military. More than a day of fierce fighting with fanatical insurgents described by Iraqis as cult-like religious extremists. When the haze of battle cleared, the U.S. had lost two soldiers in a helicopter crash. But at least 100, perhaps more than 200, insurgents were dead.

While the Iraqi forces had taken the lead in Najaf, in the end, it took U.S. firepower and air support to finish the battle. The U.S. military issued a statement quoting former top spokesman and now division commander, Brigadier General Vince Brookes as saying: "This is an example of a promise kept. Everything worked just as it should h."

The U.S. argues this is the model for the future -- Iraqi troops out front, with the U.S. backing them up only when needed.

SEAN MCCORMACK, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: It is certainly very positive when you see the Iraqis on the point. That is what they want. That is certainly what we are looking for, as well.

MCINTYRE: The U.S. believes the Iraqi offensive thwarted a diabolical plot in which hundreds of gunmen would disguise themselves as pilgrims and murder clerics on the holiest day of the year, including perhaps the assassination of Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, something experts say could have only made things far worse.

KENNETH POLLACK, SABAN CENTER FOR MIDDLE EAST POLICY: It was Ayatollah Sistani consistently saying to the Shia, do not fight the Americans, do not fight the reconstruction, this is what we want, this is how we are going to have a better future -- that has been critical in whatever success we have had in Iraq so far. Without Al-Sistani, things might have fallen apart even sooner than they already are.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

MCINTYRE: One thing this battle seems to show, Wolf, is that what Iraq is facing has clearly gone beyond an insurgency into what military experts increasingly agree is an all out civil war -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jamie, thanks for that.

Iraqi and U.S. forces in that pitched battle with an end of days cult.

What would have happened if the plot had succeeded?

Joining us now, John Burns, the veteran Baghdad bureau chief for the "New York Times," a Pulitzer Prize winner a few times.

John, thanks very much for coming in.

I think it's fair to say that if they would have killed the Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, who knows what would have happened in Iraq?

What's happening today would look like child's play compared to the devastation.

What do you think would have happened?

JOHN BURNS, "NEW YORK TIMES": I think that the rage amongst Shiites would have been very hard to control. Remember, it's barely a year ago that the attack on the Shiite shrine in Samarra set off a wave of sectarian killing, which has overwhelmed the insurgency in terms of the numbers of lives it's been taking. So it would have been extremely serious indeed.

BLITZER: Well, I want you to elaborate a little bit. You say extremely serious. Elaborate. Walk us through that scenario, because potentially the ayatollah could be vulnerable.

BURNS: He could be vulnerable. And, of course, it's been thought up until now that Najaf was one of those places which was relatively secured. It's a place where we at "The New York Times" send our correspondents down there, we're a good deal less worried than we are in many other places in Iraq.

This obviously makes us think again, but it does sounds a little generous (ph). It's difficult to see this kind of situation being replicated. We haven't seen it before, Shiite militants, religious extremists from a messianic cult. This could be a kind of one-off (ph) situation. We'd have to hope it was.

I think one of the very worrying factors was the helicopter. We've seen a number of U.S. military helicopters come down, as you know, and this is a helicopter war. And if -- if the insurgents, the militants are getting more effective at shooting down helicopters, that introduces an entirely new challenge.

BLITZER: Because there have been, you point out, three U.S. choppers that have gone down in the past week alone -- a Black Hawk helicopter with 12 soldiers, then a private contractor, an American contractor's helicopter, and now this helicopter that was shut don over the weekend in this battle for Najaf. What you're saying is, if these insurgents master these shoulder-fired missiles, or whatever they're using to bring down these helicopter, then it's a whole new ballgame as well?

BURNS: Well, let's not forget, Wolf, that it was the success of the Mujahadin in Afghanistan learning to shoot down Soviet helicopters which -- which marked a major turning point in that war. We'll have to hope that we're not seeing the same thing happening in Iraq, but I have oftentimes asked American commanders while traveling with them in Black Hawks across the deserts of Iraq, usually at about 50 feet, at very high rate of knots, how it is that not more helicopters are not shot down. And their answer has usually been that they thank God that the Iraqi insurgents have not learned to be more effective in shooting at helicopters.

It's not an easy thing to do, but if they are learning to be more effective, then we could see another deterioration in this war.

BLITZER: What do you make of this latest development involving Iran, a double-pronged event, in effect? The first part, the U.S. acknowledging there's a kill order to any Iranian agents who may be attempting to do ill will in Iraq right now, and now the Iranian ambassador of Baghdad telling your newspaper, "The New York Times," that they're ready to open up a bank, increase commerce, increase security cooperation.

What's going on?

BURNS: Very hard to tell. I think that it's something that completely perplexes American intelligence agencies and the U.S. military command in Iraq is exactly what Iran is up to.

Sometimes they speak of Iran having several governments or several agencies with different agendas, because on its face, undermining, as they have done, the security of the Shiite-led government of Iraq seems like a counterintuitive thing for the Shiite religious government of Iran to do. But they seem to be transfixed with the notion of the "Great Satan." More concerned to make things more difficult for the United States than they are to make things better for the government that they themselves support in Baghdad.

BLITZER: Who has more influence in Iraq right now? The United States or Iran? BURNS: Oh, I don't think there's much doubt about that. I think that the United States still has a decisive influence in Iran (sic). And I think that the government of Iraq has probably turned something of a corner in the last few weeks, especially since the midterm elections here, in realizing that, number one, how dependent they are on American military and political support. And number two, how easily they could lose that support if they do not rise up, if you will, to become the kind of partner that the Bush administration has said they want..

BLITZER: But amongst the rank and file Shiite who represent about 60 percent of the country, Iraqi Shia, who is more popular? The Iranians or the United States?

BURNS: You know, I don't think that the Iranians are that popular. You have to remember that Iraqi Shiites are overwhelmingly Arabs.

The Iran-Iraq war, eight years in the 1980s, most of the soldiers that Saddam sent to the front were Shiites who fought a very, very tough, very bloody war with their fellow Iranian Shiites. Now, they were doing that under compulsion, but my sense is that the vast majority of Shiites in Iraq are not in love with Ayatollah Khamenei, and they're not in love with the kind of government that Ayatollah Khamenei and Ayatollah Khomeini before him brought to the Iran.

And they are very well, very keenly aware of the sovereignty of Iraq and what they stand to lose by becoming a client state of Iran. So I think there are very early limits to Iranian influence, at least as far as popular opinion amongst Shiites in Iraq are concerned.

BLITZER: All right. That's good to know.

Thanks very much.

John Burns, joining us from New York. John writes for "The New York Times."

Up ahead, two potential presidential rivals coming together in Texas. We're going to take you there live and show you what senators John McCain and Hillary Clinton are up to on this day. And if Hillary Clinton does try to become the next president -- and all indications are she will -- what role will the former president, her husband, actually play?

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Iraqi troops are winning praise for standing up to a small army of insurgents and messianic cultists who are apparently being -- bent on setting off a regional holy war. Is that a sign of a turnaround or just another sign of how bad things are in Iraq?

Joining us now, our world affairs analyst, the former defense secretary William Cohen. He's the chairman and CEO of The Cohen Group here in Washington.

I want to you listen to what the president, first of all, said earlier today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: One of the things that I expect to see is the Iraqis take the lead and show the American people that they're willing to do the hard work necessary to secure their democracy. And our job is to help them. So my first reaction from the -- on this report from the battlefield is that the Iraqis are beginning to show me something.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: See, but what critics suggest right away is that the U.S. military may be winning all of these battles that happen, but overall, the war is being lost.

WILLIAM COHEN, FMR. DEFENSE SECRETARY: Well, it's not being lost at this point. As we've said before, we're not winning and we're not losing yet. But the fact is, this is on the verge of breaking into a much bigger and wider war.

So you can take some positive results from this and say, yes, the Iraqi forces were in the forefront, backed up by U.S. power, but is this a unique situation, or is this something that is going to be much broader so that now you're seeing the responsibility handed over to the Iraqis, much like the Baker-Hamilton report was recommending, in which that report was rejected or neglected? But nonetheless, that was the purpose, hand it over to the Iraqis gradually, U.S. and backup support, but no longer in the lead.

We'll see whether that's going to bear out for the rest of the coming months and -- weeks and months, I should say.

BLITZER: Yes. We heard Zain Verjee report earlier the strategy to squeeze the Iranians now involving oil.

COHEN: Right.

BLITZER: The Iranians are major oil exporters. They want the price to be high so they can get a lot of money in, help their regime over there. The Saudis now are keeping the price relatively low, part of a potential squeeze play that the United States is orchestrating to put some leverage on the Iranians.

What do you think?

COHEN: I think that's precisely the right thing to do, that the Saudis have an opportunity to put a squeeze on Iran. In addition to that, I have heard -- there are some reports about the Iranians have some difficulty in terms of gas supplies for their automobiles, notwithstanding that they're also a major exporter of oil.

BLITZER: They have refinery problems. COHEN: A refinery problem. So, to the extent that you can hold down the price, also, perhaps, inhibit some of the flow of that refined product going into Iran, that may stir even greater discontent with the leadership of Ahmadinejad.

In addition to that, if the Russians and the Chinese continue hopefully to add even more stringent sanctions and join the United States and others in imposing that for their nuclear program, you might see an opportunity to finally reach some kind of an accord that everyone would celebrate, especially in the West.

BLITZER: I want to switch gears and talk about Father Robert Drinan. He worked with you. He was a U.S. congressman from the state of Massachusetts. A Democrat, but a lot of us remember him not only from the anti-Vietnam War days, but from Watergate.

Give us a few thoughts about this gentleman who wound up, his final years, as a professor of law at Georgetown Law School?

COHEN: Well, he was a deeply religious man, obviously. He carried his religious conviction and deep sense of morality in to the halls of Congress, but not the religion itself. And so we referred to him as Father Drinan.

He was working in a secular environment, and he was a moral force. And I think that those of us who served with him saw him as being certainly on the more liberal side of things in terms of his positions, but yet he was leading the effort and civil rights.

He was in favor of the desegregation of public school systems in Boston when he was teaching at Boston College Law School. And so he was a moral force, and I enjoyed serving with him. And I think that he was the kind of representative from Massachusetts that they could take pride in.

BLITZER: You were a young Republican congressman from Maine at the time, and he was a little bit older. But I always loved Father Drinan. Whenever I interviewed him, he was a real gentleman.

COHEN: He also was the first one to file an impeachment resolution against President Nixon, not because of the Watergate break-in, but because of the -- what he considered to be the illegal bombing of Cambodia. That became an article for debate in the article impeachment.

It was not supported by his colleagues, but he was the first one to file that. Most at that time disagreed that we should proceed, but ultimately we did on other matters, such as the abuse of power.

BLITZER: William Cohen, thanks very much for coming in.

Our deepest condolences on the death of Father Drinan.

Up ahead, Anderson Cooper standing by in San Antonio, where U.S. troops are getting a big helping hand on this day. Anderson standing by to join us live. And Jack Cafferty wants to know, is President Bush's presidency simply over? Jack with "The Cafferty File."

Plus, YouTube gets a taste of its own medicine. Our Internet reporters are standing by to show you the situation online.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: They're the front-runners in the 2008 presidential race, and today Anderson Cooper had a chance to speak to both John McCain and Hillary Clinton. Both candidates were in San Antonio to benefit the Fisher House, an organization focused on the families of troops.

Anderson is joining us now live.

It wasn't just Fisher House, it was -- it was the whole center behind you, the Center for the Intrepid. But tell our viewers what the two candidates had to say and what's going on, Anderson.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, the Center for the Intrepid, they came here to -- for the grand opening of the center, which is a privately-funded rehabilitation facility, really state-of- the-art rehabilitation facility for our troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. Both candidates were here addressing the crowd on the opening of this remarkable state-of-the-art facility, as I said. But politics was very much on their minds -- most particularly what is going on in Iraq.

I had a chance to talk to Senator McCain about whether or not he trusts the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. Take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: Do you trust al-Maliki? Vice President Cheney said that he did.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I don't think he's been strong. I've been disappointed in some of his decisions, such as the release of people we had captured, the lifting of the checkpoints around Sadr City at one point.

I think he is showing some signs of improvement, and we'll know. Again, I'm not sure how quickly we're going to know whether we're winning militarily, but I think we'll know fairly soon, in the next several months, whether the government, the Iraqi government, is doing what's necessary in passing a law on oil revenues, provincial elections. There are several things that are going to have to happen.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: I asked the same question of Senator Hillary Clinton. She didn't mince any words. Take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: Vice President Cheney said last week to Wolf Blitzer he trusts al-Maliki.

Do you?

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D), NEW YORK: No. But I also don't trust Vice President Cheney. So I think it's really fair to say that his assessments have been wrong consistently.

He has been unwilling to deal in a straightforward, factual-based way with a lot what's going on. He continues to make assertions that have no foundation in fact and reality. I don't think the American people are listening to him any longer.

COOPER: Senator Durbin called him delusional. Do you think...

CLINTON: Well, I'm not going to -- I'm not going to, you know, put labels on it, but I'm going to say that his efforts to continue to put the best face on what they have so terribly mismanaged in Iraq no longer has any credibility attached to it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: We also talked to both candidates about whether America is rally living up to the promises it has made to its soldiers now fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan in terms of their treatment. We'll talk about all that tonight on "360" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Anderson, they potentially could be the two presidential candidates going down the road, the Republican and the Democratic presidential candidates. What kind of relationship did they seem to have when they were together?

COOPER: Well, I didn't -- they weren't together during the interview. They were obviously together during this meeting. And, you know, they were very cordial, they were very -- certainly friendly with each other in public, and very -- I would say cordial. I mean, there's not -- there's not open enmity between these two candidates. Both very civil, both very professional -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Anderson. Thanks very much.

And as Anderson noted, Anderson is going to have a lot more tonight, a special edition of "AC 360," "The Toughest Battle: Healing Heroes." Anderson will have a live program from San Antonio. And that all begins tonight, 10:00 p.m. Eastern, 7:00 Pacific, only here on CNN.

Hillary Rodham Clinton's likely president's candidacy would chart new ground on at least two fronts should she win. Not only would she be the first female commander in chief, but her husband, the former president, Bill Clinton, would become the country's first first man.

Let's go back to Carol in New York -- Carol.

(NEWSBREAK)

BLITZER: YouTube is considering rewarding users who upload videos with cash. The news came not in a formal announcement, but after someone captured the co-founder discussing the idea and then posted the video on YouTube.

Abbi Tatton's joining us with more -- Abbi.

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, it's a Web site worth over $1.5 billion, where over 65,000 videos are uploaded each day. So when this one showed up over the weekend of YouTube co-founder Chad Hurley saying soon the people behind the videos will be able to share in some of the cash, it's no wonder that it was followed by videos like this one.

That's YouTube user and frequent uploader Kevin Nalty (ph), celebrating with his kids. Not quite clear at this stage how much that one will be worth. And really, there are very few details apart from this video that was recorded at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, letting people speculate, then, online about what this might mean.

Some jubilant, some skeptical, some worried that money will damage the spirit of the site. A YouTube spokesman confirmed to CNN that they're exploring ways to help users make money off the site and said expect an announcement in the coming months -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Abbi, thank you for that.

Up next, more than half the country, including one in five Republicans, says they wish the Bush administration was simply over.

Jack Cafferty with your e-mail, right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's go back to Jack Cafferty for "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: According to a new "Newsweek" poll, more than half the country, including one in five Republicans, says they wish the Bush presidency was over. The question: Is it? He's only got two years left.

Sergeant X., Fort Carson, Colorado, "I'm a U.S. Army soldier. I spent two years on the ground in Iraq. The situation there is deteriorating every single day. President Bush's plan to send more troops will only put more young American men in danger. His thirst for war has distanced our great country from the rest of the world."

Toni in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, "He has no credibility, neither does he have any support. But unfortunately, he does still occupy our White House, and in that position he can still do a lot more damage to our country. Our Congress' refusal to impeach him is unforgivable. It's like allowing a mad dog to wander free and play with our children." David in Stratford, Connecticut, "Jack, Bush's presidency is not the most exemplary, but it certainly is not over. However, I wish your program was over. I thought newsmen were supposed to deliver the news, not biased, slanted opinions."

Hey, the news is there's a poll in "Newsweek" magazine that says a lot of people wish the presidency was over.

Ray in Cocoa Beach, Florida, "Jack, Bush will continue to wreak havoc until the heavens open up and Christ descends to Earth in a fiery Humvee to take away all the righteous oil executives and multinational CEOs. Can you give me a 'Hallelujah'?"

And Bob in Valley Village, California, "Of course it's over, Jack. And everybody knows it. This morning, while getting my teeth cleaned, I asked my dentist what he thought. He said four or five dentists surveyed thought so, too."

(LAUGHTER)

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

BLITZER: I'm going to question my dentist as well. He's a -- he happens to be a good friend.

CAFFERTY: Some of these people are not well.

BLITZER: Thank you, Jack.

They can read more, though, online. Jack will be back with us in an hour.

Much more coming up. Remember, 7:00 p.m. Eastern.

"LOU DOBBS TONIGHT" getting ready to start right now. Kitty Pilgrim sitting in for Lou.

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