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THE SITUATION ROOM

Hollywood Hills Fire; Missile-Killer: Israel's Answer to Iran; President Bush Apologizes for Army Hospital Scandal

Aired March 30, 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.
Happening now, President Bush apologizes. Weeks after the Army hospital scandal shocked the nation, he pays a visit and vows to fix things.

Is that enough?

I'll ask former senator and Vietnam veteran Max Cleland this hour.

Congress heads out on spring break and to hear the White House tell it, you'd think that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had gone wild.

What's wrong with a visit to Syria?

And Hillary Rodham Clinton is turned into a crude cartoon character.

Why is "South Park" taking direct aim at the Democratic presidential frontrunner?

I'm Wolf Blitzer.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

It's spring break for Congress, but some are headed abroad. The White House, though, is furious, saying the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, is going too far. She's joining a parade of lawmakers to Syria. Three Republicans are there right now, so what's the problem?

let's go live to our White House correspondent, Elaine Quijano -- Elaine, what is the White House saying about Nancy Pelosi's trip to Damascus?

ELAINE QUIJANO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, good afternoon to you, Wolf.

The White House view simply is that others have visited Syria before and it hasn't done any good.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

QUIJANO (voice-over): ... hard against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for a planned visit to Syria, a country on the U.S.' list of state sponsors of terrorism.

DANA PERINO, DEPUTY WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We don't think it's productive to go to Syria and try to -- well, I don't know what she's trying to accomplish.

QUIJANO: Other Democrats have made the trip, including Senator Christopher Dodd, who's running for president, and former presidential candidate Senator John Kerry. And the White House says those visits play right into the hands of Syria's president.

PERINO: I know that -- that Assad probably really wants people to come and have a photo opportunity and have tea with him and have discussions about where they are coming from. But we do think it's a really bad idea.

QUIJANO: But foreign policy experts point out Pelosi could use her visit to send the Syrians a harsh message.

MICHAEL O'HANLON, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: You don't use meetings just to be nice and have tea, you use meetings, sometimes, to read people the riot act or explain to them why their behavior needs to change.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

QUIJANO: I just got off the phone with a senior White House official who says look, the Syrians have the message. Everyone's sent the message. And they're not changing their tune.

Now, we should mention, Wolf, we did try contacting Speaker Pelosi's office for a comment. We haven't received one -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Did, as far as we know, did the administration speak with the Speaker before she made this decision to go to Damascus?

QUIJANO: Yes, a senior official says that the State Department did, in fact, brief Speaker Pelosi about their position, urged her not to go. But she insisted on going. Certainly, though, this is not what the White House wanted to see.

BLITZER: All right, we'll follow up on this story with you.

Thanks, Elaine.

So what took so long?

It's been weeks since the nation was shocked by the shoddy conditions at the Army's top hospital. President Bush paid a visit there today and formally apologized to war veterans.

Let's go to CNN's Brianna Keilar.

She's standing by with more on this story, as well.

Is this visit a little bit too late as far as some veterans are concerned -- Brianna. BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the White House says that just because the president hadn't physically made the trip to Walter Reed until now, doesn't mean he hasn't been doing everything he can to remedy this situation.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

KEILAR (voice-over): It was President Bush's first visit to Walter Reed since the scandal broke six weeks ago.

GEORGE BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It is -- it is not right to have someone volunteer to wear a uniform and not get the best possible care. I apologize for what they went through and we're going to fix the problem.

KEILAR: But Deputy White House Press Secretary Dana Perino, citing the replacement of officials at the hospital and the formation of a bipartisan presidential commission, rejected the notion that President Bush had waited too long to make an appearance.

PERINO: I would remind you that when this first came to light, the president said I want to shine a bright light on this, I want to make sure we leave no stone unturned. So that -- that characterization is unfortunate given all of that history and given that the president is so committed.

KEILAR: In an uncharacteristic move, the White House allowed a news camera to capture the president's visits with wounded soldiers. He tested out one man's new prosthetic arm, admired another's tattoo...

BUSH: Make sure you get a picture of the tattoo. The man is proud of it.

KEILAR: ... and held the baby of Army Sergeant David Gardiner (ph), one of many soldiers adjusting to life as a war wounded amputee.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

KEILAR: After visiting with those patients, President Bush told doctors and nurses at Walter Reed that they're providing excellent medical care to soldiers and that the failures at the hospital were administrative and bureaucratic ones -- Wolf.

BLITZER: How did the White House, Brianna, respond to some of the criticism that's already coming in that this was simply a photo-op on the part of the president?

KEILAR: Well, Deputy Press Secretary Dana Perino really rejected that strongly. She said that these are some of the most personal moments that President Bush has in the course of his presidency.

BLITZER: All right, Brianna Keilar reporting for us from the White House today.

So does the president's hospital visit come too late? What about his pledge to clean up conditions for war veterans?

I'll speak about that and a lot more with former U.S. Senator Max Cleland. That's coming up here this hour in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Meanwhile, there's some shocking new video showing another British hostage making a so-called confession. And there's a new letter from that woman sailor accusing her own government of oppression.

Once again, Iran is raising the stakes and that's raising tempers in Britain.

Let's go live to our senior international correspondent, Matthew Chance.

He's in London.

What are you hearing over there -- Matthew.

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, thanks very much.

Well, a second crew member, as you mentioned, there from that British Royal Navy ship that was taken over by Iranian forces in the Persian Gulf eight days ago has appeared on Iranian state television confessing to what he calls trespassing in Iranian waters.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

NATHAN SUMMERS, HELD BY IRAN: Since we've been arrested in Iran, our treatment has been very friendly.

CHANCE (voice-over): Another propaganda salvo, another disturbing confession, possibly made under duress, in British's escalating standoff with Iran. This is Nathan Thomas Summers, one of the British sailors being held and now paraded on Iranian television.

SUMMERS: I'm grateful no harm has come to us. I just -- I'd like to apologize for our entering your waters without any permission.

CHANCE: Iran's use of the captives to make statements like this has outraged the British government. Prime Minister Blair says it doesn't fool anyone, just enhances the sense of disgust. It's also distressing for family members.

NICHOLAS SUMMERS, RELATIVE OF CAPTIVE SAILOR: Obviously, it's hard, especially my mother and my grandparents side. They've been coping well. They've been getting a lot of support from the navy. A lot of people contact them. (UNINTELLIGIBLE) just, you know, hoping that they'll get returned safe and as quick as possible.

CHANCE: But Iran shows little sign of returning the captured sailors soon. A third handwritten letter has been released from the only female among them, Faye Turney. It says she was sacrificed due to the intervening policies of the Bush and Blair governments. "It's now time," her letter goes on, "to ask our government to make a change to its oppressive behavior toward other people."

(END VIDEO TAPE)

CHANCE: Well, pressure is building for a diplomatic solution. The U.N. has already made its opinions clear. Now, European Union foreign ministers have called for an unconditional release of the British sailors -- Wolf.

BLITZER: There is also this issue, Matthew, as you know, of Iran's decision to broadcast these images. There's a question of the legality of doing that.

CHANCE: There certainly is. Certainly, when two countries are at war, then it is illegal under the Geneva Conventions of 1949 for detainees to be paraded in this way, on television, or elsewhere in public. It constitutes a war crime.

The problem in this situation, though, Wolf, is that Britain and Iran are not formally at war and so it's a moot point as to whether the Geneva Conventions apply.

However, what lawyers say that I've spoken to is that, you know, given that it is peacetime, it makes it even more extreme that this kind of tactic is being used.

BLITZER: Matthew Chance in London for us.

Thanks.

If all else fails, could Britain actually launch a military raid to try to free its hostages?

It does have forces nearby, but any operation obviously a lot easier said than done.

There are more than 7,000 British troops still in Iraq. Some 6,000 are in Afghanistan. Britain has an air base and a force of about 2,700 in Cyprus and there's a small presence in the Indian Ocean base of Diego Garcia.

Some 1,500 troops are based in Germany, where Britain leads an allied rapid reaction force, as it's called.

The Royal Navy has more than a half a dozen ships in the Persian Gulf region right now, including the HMS Cornwall, from which the captured sailors and marines had set out.

Carol Costello is watching this fire for us.

What's going on here -- Carol.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, this is a big brush fire, Wolf.

We understand from firefighters it's covering five acres now. No evacuations as of yet, but it is threatening an apartment building. Now, this is taking place in the area of Los Angeles of Griffith Park. And most of you probably know it who don't live in California. You see the Hollywood sign there. That's the landmark. And you can see how close that is to this fire.

This is affecting the 3600 block of North Barham Road (ph) or -- I'm sorry, North Barhand Boulevard (ph), for those of you who live in Los Angeles. And, again, while it's threatening this apartment building, Wolf, no evacuations as of yet. As you can see, firefighters are on the screen on the ground and in the air.

BLITZER: There is -- if you look at the bottom of the screen -- well, we just saw it briefly there -- you could see that Hollywood -- that famous Hollywood sign. It's getting very, very close. These pictures are dramatic and it's very worrisome, especially as we see what's going on. It's not that far from -- from the Los Angeles -- from really populated areas, Carol.

COSTELLO: Yes, and this -- this area is known for these kinds of brush fires. It's very, very dry here, Wolf. So this isn't unusual for firefighters to fight, and they -- it usually comes out good. But we'll see what happens this time. We'll keep you posted.

BLITZER: All right, we'll stay on top of this story with you, Carol.

Thanks.

Let's go to Jack Cafferty in New York for The Cafferty File -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Bush in 2008 -- make that Jeb Bush. Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney dropped baby brother Bush's name as a potential running mate, prompting some to wonder if Romney has a death wish.

The former Massachusetts governor also mentioned former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. That's Newt "I was having an affair while I was trying to impeach Bill Clinton for having an affair" Gingrich.

Romney was asked at a campaign stop about vice presidential picks. Note to Romney -- you don't have the nomination yet. Before you pick a running mate, you're supposed to be the nominee.

But on the subject of Jeb Bush, Romney absolutely gushed. "Quite a guy," he said. "I love him. If his name weren't Bush, he'd be running for president, I'm convinced, and we'd all have to stand aside because he'd be such a sure fire winner."

That's a quote.

Later on, Romney said the names he mentioned would be ones considered by anyone winning the GOP nomination. Not if they want to win the presidency.

Here's the question -- would you vote for a 2008 presidential ticket that had the name Bush on it?

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

What's Romney taking, do you suppose, Wolf?

BLITZER: You know, candidates, they talk a lot and sometimes they say things maybe they shouldn't be saying.

CAFFERTY: That's -- that's a very good point.

BLITZER: All right, Jack, thanks very much.

Up ahead, surprising U.S. allies in the war on terror. They may hate America, but they apparently also hate al Qaeda.

Plus, the threat from Iran -- does Israel have a secret weapon to try to defend itself from a possible nuclear attack?

And a killer chemical identified in pet food.

Do you know everything you need to know about the threat to your cat or dog?

There's new word out today on the recall that's frightening pet owners across America.

More on that fire, also, out in Hollywood -- near Hollywood, right near that famous Hollywood sign. We're watching this getting eerily close to some populated areas. These are live pictures you're looking at right now.

We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're watching this fire that's really out there not far from Los Angeles in the Hollywood hills. Take a look on the screen right here. You see that famous Hollywood sign there. And this fire is getting really close to that famous landmark out in Los Angeles.

If you take a look on the other screen here, you can see this incredible amount of smoke on the other side of this mountain. This fire, it's continuing right now. We've been seeing helicopters dropping water or whatever on these flames, but it's getting close to populated areas, to buildings, to structures and certainly a lot of smoke in that area.

We're going to stay on top of this story for you and update you as we get more information.

But these pictures obviously very worrisome.

Does the United States have a secret weapon against Al Qaeda In Iraq? Our Michael Ware explains in this extraordinary report from Baghdad.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): He looks like an insurgent. He's actually a U.S. ally -- the new face of America's fight against al Qaeda.

"Al Qaeda slaughtered our sheikhs, our children," he says, "and we will terminate them."

By we, he means men like these in Iraq's western Anbar Province, manning this checkpoint which, though unofficial, is supported by the U.S. military.

The men, drawn from tribes or their umbrella network, the Anbar Salvation Council. Police vehicles pass through without question, for the tribes have split their forces. Some to the police, who intone tribal chants before operations, while others are kept as private paramilitaries, hit squads, assault teams, sanctioned by the Iraqi government, their loyalty remaining with their tribal sheikhs, all of which suits an America desperate to crush al Qaeda.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

BLITZER: And joining us now in Baghdad, Michael Ware -- Michael, there have been also some reports involving the motivation of these guys, that there may be some money exchanging hands.

What do you know about this?

WARE: Well, look, what everything is always about, by and large, in this part of the war is money and power. It's all very localized. It's local politics. These guys want a stranglehold back on their own domain, on their turf. But this has much broader ramifications than just Iraq's western Anbar Province, because these guys represent what America's Arab allies like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, so desperately want to see -- Sunni Iraqi Arabs re-empowered.

Instead of seeing a government that they see America has put together that is much closer to Teheran than it is to Washington or Amman or Riyadh.

BLITZER: I've heard, Michael, that some of the money, maybe a lot of the money, if not all of it, is coming from Saudi Arabia.

What are you hearing?

WARE: Well, certainly there's lots of Saudi interests here, not only in Iraq, but particularly in these western provinces. We're certainly hearing that there are very discrete channels opened. Narrowing down the facts is extraordinarily difficult.

But what we do understand is that for now, there's a very low level, a very covert, very indirect form of support for many of these Sunni communities, particularly the tribal systems, from elements within Saudi Arabia. And we believe, from what we're told, that the U.S. for now, is simply turning a blind eye.

BLITZER: It is possible these guys are potentially going to turn against the United States almost as quickly as they turned against al Qaeda?

WARE: Oh, absolutely. In fact, they warn of that in our exclusive interviews with their leadership. They say that, you know, we'll -- we're working on interests that align with the U.S. for now. But at the end of the day, once we've slaughtered al Qaeda, if you're still here, then we're going to turn our weapons back on you.

But underlying all of that is something much broader -- there will be no need for them to turn their weapons back on America, they say. Since 2003 they've said we're on your side. We're against Iran. We're against al Qaeda. Just empower us.

But the ideologues from Washington said the tribes and the Baathists had new place in the new democratic Iraq. Well, there's no democratic Iraq, yet the tribes and the Baathists still remain -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Michael Ware reporting for us from Baghdad, doing excellent reporting, as usual.

Michael, thanks.

WARE: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: And coming up, a reunion that will hit you in the gut, especially if you're a parent. An emotional look at the moment U.S. troops and their families live for.

And another day of damage control for the attorney general. His former aide contradicted him under oath.

What does Alberto Gonzales have to say for himself now?

Also, we're watching that fire out in Hollywood. Take a look at this. These are live pictures we're getting. It's getting very, very close, ominously close to that famous Hollywood sign. You saw it briefly there at the bottom of the screen. A lot of smoke, a lot of flames. We're watching this fire. We're seeing how close it's actually getting to populated areas, to structures and to that famous icon, that Hollywood sign on the Hollywood hills.

We're going to see that sign in a moment as this camera goes wide. You'll see how close this fire is. There it is. There's the Hollywood sign. There's the fire. There's the smoke. And we're staying on top of this story.

We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Carol Costello is monitoring stories incoming into THE SITUATION ROOM -- Carol, we're watching that fire out in Hollywood.

COSTELLO: Yes, a big fire out in Hollywood. It's a big before covering five acres near Griffith Park. We have pictures now. There are 100 firefighters now on the scene trying to keep that fire away from an apartment complex and also the famous Hollywood sign.

In fact, KKAL, our affiliate out in Los Angeles, is reporting the fire is just a quarter mile from that sign right now.

As I said, 100 firefighters are fighting this thing. They're fighting it from the air. Tyre dumping water on it from helicopters. They're also on the ground, probably digging trenches to keep the fire from spreading. It's very dry out here.

This is in the Burbank/Universal City area. And apparently the apartment complex in danger is Corporate Housing. Firefighters have tried to call. No answer there. But, of course, they're trying to keep that fire away from not only the apartment complex, but that famous Hollywood sign, as well.

I'm going to keep watching this, Wolf, and keep you posted.

In other news this afternoon, a Guantanamo detainee says he was tortured into confessing to the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole. A transcript just released by the Pentagon shows the detainee told a military panel he did not know about the Cole attack beforehand and was surprised by it. But he says once he confessed to it, the alleged torture stopped.

The Pentagon says it will investigate his claim.

Deadly clashes along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan. Pakistani officials say militants tied to al Qaeda exchanged rocket and mortar fire with local tribesmen. Forty-five militants were killed in the fighting and seven tribesmen. More than 200 people have died in clashes that started when the tribes ordered militants to leave the area.

Back to you -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Carol, thanks.

If you've been to the gas station lately, you obviously know prices are climbing.

Did you know, though, that they're up more than $.30 since last month?

Take a look at this. On February 19th -- February 19th -- the average cost of a gallon of regular unleaded gas was $2.29. And you can see prices ticking up gradually throughout February and March. And as of this week, the average cost has climbed to $2.61 a gallon.

We're tracking gas prices for you.

Coming up, Iran has some powerful missiles to back up its blood curdling threats. We're going to show you why a new weapon is easing Israel's fears to a certain degree.

And President Bush apologizes for the shoddy conditions over at the Army's top hospital and he's vowing to fix things.

Is that good enough?

I'll ask former senator and wounded Vietnam War veteran Max Cleland. He's coming up right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: And we're watching this fire in the Hollywood hills outside of Los Angeles, a very worrisome development. If you take a look at the pictures that are coming in, a lot of smoke, a lot of flames. But it's getting really close to that famous sign, that Hollywood sign on the Hollywood hills.

There you see it right there.

J.T. Alpaugh is joining us on the phone.

A lot of our viewers will remember J.T. from his days over Katrina, flying a helicopter over this -- over the Katrina area.

You know this Los Angeles area very well, J.T.

Tell our viewers what's going on.

J.T. ALPAUGH, HELINET PILOT: Well, what you're looking at here, Wolf, is the Santa Monica mountain range and Mount Lee and the Hollywood hills.

The fire started on the San Fernando Valley side and is working its way, burning its way up northeast bound toward the greater Los Angeles Basin.

You can see fire dropping helicopters there from L.A. County Fire and City Fire dumping water on this.

But what makes this fire very dangerous is this very, very steep terrain. A hundred firefighters from both agencies are working hard to work through this terrain and around these wires to get some -- some water on these flames and stop the progression of this fire before it gets to the Hollywood sign, makes its way over the hill into more populated areas.

BLITZER: They could always rebuild that Hollywood sign. What about structures, residential areas, office buildings? How close are these flames to any populated areas?

ALPAUGH: Well, this fire actually started, Wolf, near some apartment buildings on the San Fernando Valley side called the Oakwood (ph) Apartments on Barham Boulevard. The fire is burning away from that area, up through basically the unoccupied areas of the Hollywood Hills, moving towards an area called Griffith Park, where Griffith Park Observatory is and Forest Lawn Cemetery. So, right now, it's burning away from most of the populated areas. If there is a wind shift, though, and the winds change, and it can move back to the West, there are some homes directly in the Hollywood Hills that could be threatened by this fire. But right now it's burning upslope and against terrain and against the wind. So right now firefighters are trying to hope the winds work for them and they get water on this fire before it actually doubles back on any residential areas.

BLITZER: Those residential areas that are in jeopardy potentially, they're pretty expensive real estate out there.

ALPAUGH: There are some very expensive homes just above the Hollywood reservoir, right below the Hollywood sign that you see in the frame right there. But the fire, again, is burning to the north and east. And now that it's comes to this ridge line, there's a nice fire break.

But right above the Hollywood sign there's a very large transmission tower called Mount Lee. And most of the city of Los Angeles communication -- communication radios and receiver antennas and transmitters are up on that hill, which could cause -- right in the right of the picture there, you can see the Hollywood sign. That transmit antenna just above it to the right, that is basically the transmit site for most of the city of Los Angeles communications.

So that could present a problem tactically for both city fire and Los Angeles P.D. if that -- if that receive site, that transmission tower, is affected.

BLITZER: That transmission tower near the Hollywood sign, is that for just emergency communications, or is it for television? Is it for radio? What does it do?

ALPAUGH: That's primarily an emergency and city communications tower which handles most of the communications for the city. Obviously, there is redundant systems in place, but L.A. City Fire has parked a couple of their helicopters up on top of that site and using it as a -- as a water -- a water supply station, and they're going to definitely protect that site and try to keep the fire -- if it reaches that crest and moves toward the east, towards the sign, they want to protect that site. It's very important.

BLITZER: How are they doing it based on the pictures, the images we're seeing, in terms of stopping this fire?

ALPAUGH: Well, one of the big problems with this fire is putting out, as you can see, a lot of smoke. And that helicopter you see is frames, an L.A. County Fire 412 helicopter dropping water along that ridge line.

They're trying to wet down that ridge line to keep the fire from jumping over that ridge. But again, the terrain is so steep and there's lots of high tension wires through that area, along with the heavy smoke that's making it very difficult for the firefighters to get those aircraft into that steep terrain and to avoid those wires and the smoke, and to get fire -- to get the water on this fire.

There's a good drop on the left side wetting down that brush, trying to get ahead of that fire. And the white smoke rising, obviously a good sign that water is penetrating that fire line.

BLITZER: Is that just water, or is it some sort of flame retardant?

ALPAUGH: Well, right now, L.A. City Fire and L.A. County Fire are dropping just water. They do use what's called (INAUDIBLE), that are usually dropped from tankers, but there are no tankers working this fire yet.

Right now, primarily because of the terrain, L.A. City Fire -- County -- and L.A. City Fire and County helicopters are working this fire.

BLITZER: And given the amount of smoke and the visibility, it looks pretty dangerous to be flying a helicopter over this area. That's what you do for a living. You fly a helicopter, you take pictures, but these are -- but these are pretty dramatic pictures, the enormous amount of smoke. These are live pictures you see right there.

ALPAUGH: Yes, and that's coming from -- actually, that shot you're seeing right now is down in the city of Los Angeles, and that's looking back north towards the Hollywood Hills. And you can really get a good sense of how large that plume is.

It's an immense cloud, an immense cloud of smoke that's blocking those helicopters you see along the ridge line from getting down and working the base, the meat of that fire. So what they're doing is, they're trying to lay down as much water they can -- as they can along that ridge line between that smoke and fire line and the area coming over the top of that ridge.

BLITZER: And this is a live picture, by the way, you're seeing from our own CNN studio in Los Angeles, and it's a dramatic shot. The enormous amount of smoke that's coming from this fire and that very famous Hollywood sign.

J.T. Alpaugh, I'm going ask you to stand by. We're going to continue to monitor this story, but I want to move on and get some other important news into this program.

J.T. Alpaugh helping us better understand this serious fire in the Hollywood Hills right now.

Does Israel have a new answer to Iran's threats? Iran is armed with missiles and it's pursuing a nuclear program. It has called for the Jewish state to be wiped off the map, but suddenly Israel seems a little bit -- a little bit less worried.

Let's go to CNN's Brian Todd. He's joining us now.

What's the ace potentially, Brian, up Israel's sleeve? BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Israel does believe it has that ace up its sleeve, Wolf, and if so, it's not a moment too soon, because Israel's already in range of one of Iran's ballistic missiles that could be launched at any time.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice over): A white streak in the sky, target unseen. This is a missile defense rocket called Arrow, what Israel believes is its trump card against a sworn enemy.

The head of Israel's Missile Defense Agency says, Our Arrow operational system can without a doubt deal with all of the operational threats in the Middle East, particularly in Iran and Syria."

A prominent weapons expert says this missile killer has worked well in tests, but says the Arrow is not always straight.

JOHN PIKE, GLOBALSECURITY.ORG: There's always the possibility of your radar being confused by decoys. And as we saw in both Gulf wars with anti-missile interceptors, when you get into actual combat it has a complexity that you simply have not been able to afford to simulate on the test range.

TODD: This is what Israel's most worried about, the Shahab-3, Iran's ballistic missile with a range of over a thousand miles. It can hit Israel, and it's ready to fly right now. If Iran develops nuclear warheads, this can carry them.

U.S. officials worried enough that their ally could be struck with this that they helped build and pay for the Arrows. Why is a top Israeli crowing about his missile defense now? Experts say Iran's growing power, its threat to wipe out Israel, are only part of the reason.

DANIELLE PLETKA, AMERICAN ENTERPRISE INST.: The Israelis lost a great deal of deterrent last year in their fight with Hezbollah. They are no longer considered the massive military power they once were, and he's probably seeking to get a little bit of that back.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: But that deterrent only goes so far. Experts say Iran's also working on a longer-range ballistic missile that's faster than the Shahab-3. The Arrow defense may not be able to counter that one, and it definitely cannot defend against cruise missiles that Iran is building which fly low to the ground and are harder to detect -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Threats obviously still there.

Brian, thank you for that.

Let's get back to another major story we've been following.

President Bush went over to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center here in the nation's capital and he apologized six weeks after the scandal that broke -- that broke about involving those conditions for wounded war veterans.

Former Democratic senator Max Cleland was badly wounded in an earlier war. That was the Vietnam War. He also ran for -- he also ran the Veterans Administration. He's joining us now live from Atlanta.

Senator, thanks for coming in.

MAX CLELAND (D), FMR. SENATOR: Thank you.

BLITZER: Here's what the president said today over at Walter Reed when he formally apologized for what had been happening there.

Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The problems at Walter Reed were caused by bureaucratic and administrative failures. The system failed you and it failed our troops. And we're going fix it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right. You're shaking your head. You don't believe him?

CLELAND: It's really unbelievable for the commander in chief five years into this war, five years after he said "Major combat over," "Mission accomplished," "Bring 'em on," and his own failure and the failure of his administration to plan for casualties in this war that have now amounted to more than 3,200 dead, 30,000 wounded, and continuing the loss of our young people at 80 a month, and a thousand casualties a month, it's a little bit late to go to Walter Reed and say, well, it's just the bureaucrats' fault.

The president speaks with fork and tongue here. First of all, he'll go out to Walter Reed with the cameras, but then he threatens to veto legislation that will add $20 million to Walter Reed, take it off the chopping block in terms of being closed, and also threatens to veto legislation for a billion dollars extra for PTSD counseling, for treatment, and for traumatic brain injury, and $2 billion more for the Veterans Administration.

Unbelievable.

BLITZER: So, but, basically. what you're saying, it's a little bit too late for him to be promising to fix the conditions there or other military or veterans hospitals.

CLELAND: Well, I mean, somebody's got to do it. I mean, but it's a little bit late to say, excuse me.

You know, it's five years down this path of the war that he created, and a war that has no more justification now. And so the real way to really rectify the situation at Walter Reed is to bring the troops home and really make Walter Reed a center of excellence for wound care.

That's what we need. And for him to sign this piece of legislation that says, yes, we'll take Walter Reed off the chopping block; yes, we'll give it $20 million more; yes, we'll spend the billion dollars more for PTSD and traumatic injury, and we'll give the V.A. $2 billion more.

That's the way to really take care of the troops.

BLITZER: And you speak as someone who is still a patient from time to time over at Walter Reed yourself.

Let me get to the other issue right now. The president's accusing his Democratic critics and some Republicans of undermining U.S. troops by threatening a timeline, a timetable for their withdrawal from Iraq.

Listen to what he said just today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: We expect there to be no strings on our commanders, and that we expect the Congress to be wise about how they spend the people's money.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right. Strong words saying that he's protecting the troops, but you and your fellow Democrats and the other critics would undermine those very troops.

CLELAND: Well, first of all, when there was a Democratic president named Clinton, there were Republicans who were calling for a timeline for withdrawal from Somalia, from Haiti, from the Balkans. So Republicans are now saying, oh, we don't want a timeline.

The truth of the matter is, we've been five years down this road. It is now time to withdraw our ground forces.

Secondly, I just think that this debate is really pretty much in sync. The Congress declares war and the Congress can undeclare it.

As Lyndon Johnson used to say, "The president proposes and the Congress disposes." The Congress is disposed to follow the American people here and say enough is enough, and please sign this legislation, Mr. President, that gives our troops more money at Walter Reed and the Veterans Administration. Now, that's what's at issue.

And we saw a photo-op today. We didn't see a commitment to really make the troops' lives better.

BLITZER: But the Democrats have enough votes to pass this legislation for a timeline. Not enough troops, though. The two- thirds -- not enough votes, the two-thirds majority necessary in the House and the Senate to override the promised presidential veto. The Defense Department says by mid-April the money's going to start running out for the troops.

CLELAND: That's not true. It's more like May or June. This president, though, will take that responsibility. It's his pen that will stop this money, not the pens of the United States Congress.

BLITZER: What's your suggestion? What's your plan?

Republicans are always complaining, you know, you just get the troops out, but what happens, Senator, after American troops leave? Does the United States have a responsibility given -- given its involvement over these past four nearly -- now, as you point out, in the fifth year. What is the U.S. responsibility for Iraq right now?

CLELAND: To work with our diplomats and work with NATO and the United Nations to help stabilize Iraq. But only the Iraqis are going save Iraq.

If you look at Michael Ware's report just earlier in this program he indicates that really the Iraqis want to go out there and kill al Qaeda. Al Qaeda is our mutual enemy. We and the Iraqis stand together against al Qaeda. Let's focus on al Qaeda, and the Iraqis can take care of Iraq.

BLITZER: Senator, thanks very much for coming in.

CLELAND: Thank you.

BLITZER: Senator Max Cleland joining us from the CNN Center.

Up ahead, we're following the breaking news out in Hollywood -- a massive fire near that famous Hollywood sign in the Hollywood Hills near Los Angeles. Dramatic pictures unfolding. We're going to have a live reporter standing by in Los Angeles.

Plus, a new poison found in that killer pet food and new questions. Could unrecalled dry food be contaminated as well?

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: There are new developments in that massive pet food recall. The Food & Drug Administration now saying it's contaminated with a chemical used in fertilizer and plastic.

CNN's Mary Snow has been looking into this story from the very beginning.

What did earlier tests show, it was rat poison, right, Mary?

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. But now scientists at the Food & Drug Administration are disputing that. They're now zeroing in on this new chemical, and they're raising the possibility for the first time that more pet food than initially thought could be affected.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW (voice over): There are new questions about tainted pet food that's caused kidney failure in cats and dogs, making some pets sick and killing others. The massive recall so far has been confined to wet pet food, but now the Food & Drug Administration is trying to determine if dry pet food is also affected.

DR. STEPHEN SUNDLOF, DIRECTOR, FDA CENTER FOR VETERINARY MEDICINE: We understand it's confusing. It's confusing to everybody. We're trying to make sense out of it.

SNOW: The Food & Drug Administration says it's found a chemical called melamine in what pet food that was recalled. Melamine in the United States is used in plastic products like kitchen utensils, but it's banned as an element in fertilizer. However, it's not banned in Asian fertilizers.

Investigators traced the source to wheat gluten from China and found a company which they didn't identify using that wheat gluten. Their products are still on store shelves.

DR. BRUCE AKEY, CORNELL UNIVERSITY: It may turn out that the shipment that we know went to the one manufacturer of dry dog food was not even used in the pet food, but we need to find that out.

SNOW: What are some vets telling pet owners to do?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If you're really, really concerned, then feed your pet a homemade diet for a few days or a few weeks and give this thing a chance to run its course.

SNOW: Dog owner Eileen Moriarty says that's exactly what she intends to do.

EILEEN MORIARTY, DOG OWNER: It's a little scary to think that, you know, it could be in any one of these foods, especially when you think you're buying a premium brand that has better ingredients.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW: Now, a big question mark is, just how many pets are affected? The FDA is only confirming the deaths of at least 14 pets, but officials say they're fielding thousands of complaints from pet owners and they're still investigating -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We'll stay on top of the story with you, Mary. Thanks.

I want to go back to Hollywood right now. The Hollywood Hills, specifically.

There's a big fire over there. You're looking at these live pictures coming in. This is courtesy of our affiliates out there.

There's that famous Hollywood sign in the Hollywood Hills. You see it in the lower part of your screen on the right-hand side.

Look at the smoke around there, because the fire is really over the ridge near that tower. That's a very important communications transmission tower in the Hollywood Hills. These are live pictures.

J.T. Alpaugh, the helicopter pilot and photographer who was so helpful to us during Katrina, he's out in Los Angeles right now. He's watching all of this. He's based there. He knows this area.

Set the scene, J.T., for our viewers who are just joining us right now, what we're seeing.

ALPAUGH: Well, Wolf, what you're looking at right now is a shot from the downtown Hollywood looking north into the San Fernando Valley, and you can see that huge wall of smoke that's up against that ridge line. Just on the other side of that ridge line is the San Fernando Valley, consisting of where this fire started, near Universal Studios, near Warner Brothers.

It started near some Oakwood (ph) Apartments. Basically, it burned up the hill on the back side of that mountain you're seeing in a northeasterly direction. It was a terrain-fueled fire, which means it was climbing up the hill, fueled by heavy brush and terrain that has grown from the recent rains and brush and the dry seasons that we've had here. Not a whole lot of rain in Los Angeles in the past couple of years here, so a lot of that dry brush starting to fuel this fire.

The wind is actually coming from -- from the Los Angeles side, the side you're looking at right now off to the right, and then blowing -- blowing towards the fire. So it's actually helping to keep that fire on the other side of that ridge line and protecting the Hollywood sign.

On the left side of your screen you see an L.A. City fire helicopter, a 412 helicopter, lifting off that Mount Lee receive site, what's called a helispot. That's where they fill up that helicopter with a whole lot of water so they can make short runs to the fire as it goes through -- right above the Hollywood sign. He's going to that front line of that fire along that ridge line to drop as much water as he can and come back and get more water.

The problem with the fire is the smoke. The heavy terrain and the smoke and a lot of high power transmission lines in that are making it difficult for those fire helicopters to get down in that area and penetrate -- penetrate that water on to the flames.

But right now we're seeing a lot more white smoke than we were about 20, 30 minutes ago. A lot more white smoke, which means that the fire is starting to maybe diminish a little bit, which is good news. But you can see off to the right side of your screen, that's the Hollywood sign, and right above it, Mount Lee, which is a very, very important microwave and transmission radio tower for the city of Los Angeles.

So firefighters wanting to make a good stand to protect that -- that site from that fire coming over that ridge, but when that fire gets over that ridge, if it does, they've got a good natural fire break, with not only that fire road that goes right along the top of that Hollywood Hills there, but also the wind pushing against that fire. And the fire actually running out of fuel at the top of that ridge. So right now, things are looking good.

Not a whole lot of residential areas threatened by this fire right now. Basically, the biggest concern, Mount Lee. It's what you see in the center of your screen.

BLITZER: The smoke is really enormous, though. I assume people in the area could actually smell that fire.

ALPAUGH: Oh, absolutely. The smoke -- because the wind is blowing in from the -- from the Los Angeles basin towards the San Fernando Valley, the entire northwest and northeast San Fernando Valley right now covered with smoke.

And not a heavy -- not a heavy wind. Like I said before, only about 10 to 15 miles an hour. So the plume was pretty much going straight up.

But if those winds start to pick up, it will definitely affect Burbank Airport, which is pretty much right in the path of this fire. It may be even cause something delays there. We haven't got that confirmed yet, but if the winds pick up that could definitely be an issue.

BLITZER: I've flown into that airport and I know you have on many occasions.

J.T., stand by.

(NEWSBREAK)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We'll get back to that fire out in Hollywood in a moment. I want to just check in with Jack Cafferty for "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: The question this hour is: Would you vote for a 2008 presidential ticket that had the name "Bush" on it?

Jim writes from Florida, "No. As a matter of fact, I think we should expand the concept of 'term limits' to state that no one named 'Bush' should ever be allowed to be president ever again."

Alan in Jonesboro, Georgia, "Have we learned nothing from the last six years? A vote for anyone from that family would be a vote for more of the same. Hopefully January 20, 2009 will truly be the end of an error."

Jerry in Georgia, "The thought of either a Clinton or a Bush on the ticket is rather disturbing. One says it takes a village. The other says let's take the village. I'd like to live the village people alone."

Kevin in Ohio, "I found myself listening to you, so stranger things could happen. Yes, I'd vote for a ticket with Bush on it."

Elwin in Jaspe, Georgia, "Yes, I would support the name of Bush on the 2008 ticket. I would support any measure that would get a member of the famous Bush family in power. I would support..." -- I'm not finishing that.

Simeon in Atlanta, "I'm enjoying my day off. Are you trying to frighten me?"

Bill in Provo, Utah, "I'd vote for another Bush -- only if it had 'Anheuser' in front of it."

And John in California, "Jack, every question today has been stupider than the next. You should have taken today off."

If you didn't see your e-mail here, go to cnn.com/caffertyfile, where we post more of them online, along with video clips of "The Cafferty File" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack, thank you for that.

I want to go back to Hollywood right now, that fire out there, a serious matter we're watching.

Sumi Das is out in Los Angeles.

That fire is right behind you, Sumi.

What's the latest?

SUMI DAS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It is only just a few miles from us, Wolf. And we can tell you that we are not smelling smoke. However, we have learned that ashes falling in Burbank -- that is just north of where the fire is burning -- we are monitoring it very closely. And I can tell you that I have a vested interest, because the corporate apartment housing complex is being threatened, the Oakwood Toluca Hills.

I'm actually living in that apartment complex right now. I actually made a call to the main office, but it was busy. So I'm hoping to get through sometime soon.

Wolf, back to you.

BLITZER: All right. Good luck to you out there. We see that Hollywood sign behind you.

There's breaking news also involving that pet food recall.

Mary Snow, what are we just learning?

SNOW: Well, it's being expanded, Wolf, to dry pet food. Hills Pet Nutrition saying it's recalling a single product, its Prescription Diet Feline Dry Food. This contained that wheat gluten that was from China. And this just came over right now.

BLITZER: All right. We'll stay on top of that story.

A lot more coming up in our 7:00 p.m. Eastern hour.

That's it for us right now. Two major stories unfolding.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"LOU DOBBS TONIGHT" starts right now. Kitty Pilgrim sitting in for Lou.

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