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THE SITUATION ROOM

Cheney Arrives In Baghdad To Deliver Warning To Iraqi Leaders To Solve Issues Quickly

Aired May 9, 2007 - 17:00:00   ET

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


JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR, THE SITUATION ROOM: ... he made charitable donations with the cash he earned working for the hedge fund.
And Ed in Nashville, Tennessee writes, "To claim one worked for a hedge fund outfit to study the markets effect on poverty is like saying you visited a massage parlor to get a back rub. It's possible, but I don't believe it."

Wolf.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR, THE SITUATION ROOM: Thank you, Jack, for that.

To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now, the Pentagon tells Congress how much progress it might take to bring U.S. troops home, or keep them in Iraq. And Vice President Cheney visits Baghdad with a tough message for Iraqi leaders.

It's either too wet or desperately dry, but both spell disaster; with floods in the heartland and wildfires on both coasts.

And did Democrat Al Sharpton make an anti-Mormon comment or is Republican hopeful Mitt Romney simply trying to manufacture a controversy?

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

And explosion rocked Baghdad's green zone during his drop-in visit and he was burned in effigy by Shiite militants. But the vice president, Dick Cheney, wasn't deterred today, telling Iraqi leaders it is time to start making progress. Hugh Riminton is in the Iraqi capital -- Hugh.

HUGH RIMINTON, CNN INT'L. CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, a surprise visit to Iraq from Mr. Cheney just at a time when frustration is building to an absolute crescendo, both in Washington, but also here in Iraq, with signs of paralysis in the Iraqi government.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RIMINTON (voice over): This is only Dick Cheney's second visit to Iraq since the invasion he helped engineer. The message now, it's game time. DICK CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There's a lot going on obviously. It's a very important time, and there's a lot to talk about.

RIMINTON: The talking began with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose national unity government faces a walkout by Sunni Arabs lawmakers as early as next week over a constitutional wrangle.

The senior Sunni politician, Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi (ph), was one of those Mr. Cheney got to meet, as he urged all the major players to find ways to work together.

CHENEY: I do believe that there is a greater sense of urgency now than I'd seen previously.

RIMINTON: Also raised, the two-month summer vacation being planned by the Iraqi parliament. Mr. Cheney says that is a sovereign Iraqi issue, but --

CHENEY: I did make it clear that we believe it's very important to move on issues before us in a timely fashion. And that any undue delay would be difficult to explain.

RIMINTON: The U.S. vice president says on key benchmark issues like a new oil law, provincial elections, and constitutional reform, he expects the Prime Minister Maliki to make a formal statement next week.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

RIMINTON: While Mr. Cheney was in Baghdad, a mortar round landed in the green zone, just a further reminder of just how volatile this place remains, Wolf.

BLITZER: Hugh Riminton in Baghdad for us.

While Baghdad today was once again the scene of bombings and drive-by shootings, Kurdish areas of northern Iraq, including regional capital of Irbil have been generally quiet. But that quiet was shattered today.

A suicide bomber blew up his truck outside the Kurdish interior ministry building in Irbil, killing 14 people, wounding dozens more. Police say the vehicle was packed with 1700 pounds of explosives. This is a significant development since Kurdistan, the northern part of Iraq has been relatively quiet, relatively peaceful, at least until today.

So, how successful must the U.S. troop buildup be in order to justify a continuation of the current Iraq strategy? The Defense Secretary Robert Gates was on Capitol Hill once again today and he actually seemed to be lowering -- lowering the bar. Let's go live to our Senior Pentagon Correspondent Jamie McIntyre.

Looks like they are digging in for the long haul over at the Pentagon, Jamie? JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SR. PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, if you thought the measure of success of the new strategy in Iraq was a dramatic lowering in the levels of violence, well, you'd be wrong.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MCINTYRE (voice over): The new Baghdad security strategy has yet to produce any measurable decline in violence, despite the fact that four of five additional U.S. combat brigades are now in place. That has the Pentagon lowering expectations for what will constitute progress when the strategy is reviewed at the end of the summer.

ROBERT GATES, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: The goal in September is not whether the violence has been significantly reduced, or stability has been brought, and it seems to me, but rather whether it has been reduced to a level that the political reconciliation process is moving forward, in some meaningful way.

MCINTYRE: So with no requirement for stability, or a significant reduction in violence, almost any trend could be seen as justification for keeping the 30,000 extra U.S. troops in Iraq. And even as Gates promises an honest evaluation of the plan, which he says could set the stage for a U.S. troop reduction the number two U.S. commander in Iraq Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno, is quoted by "The Washington Post" as saying "The search needs to go to the beginning of next year for sure."

SEN. JUDD GREGG (R-NH): How do those two positions correlate?

GATES: I think the candid answer is, they don't.

MCINTYRE: Contacted by CNN, General Odierno insists he was misquoted. That the latest rotation plan simply gives commanders the ability to maintain elevated troop levels through April, if that's the decision.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MCINTYRE: Now, Wolf, Gates said later this afternoon that whatever the decision is in September, whether the strategy is working or not, it will not lead to, in his words, a precipitous decision. But, he says, it will likely point in a new direction -- Wolf?

BLITZER: So bottom line, what does all this mean for the troops, in other words, even if the strategy seems to be working, that doesn't necessarily mean they are coming home all that quickly.

MCINTYRE: That's right. They may decide to keep the extra troops there to build on that momentum. And if the strategy is not working, they may decide that they want to give it more time. The main thing is Secretary Gates is not showing the way he's thinking about this.

BLITZER: Jamie McIntyre is watching all of this at the Pentagon.

The government calls them Islamic radicals, accusing them of plotting to kill as many American soldiers as possible at a U.S. military base in New Jersey.

Now, their supporters are speaking out. Our Senior Correspondent Allan Chernoff is joining us in New York with the latest.

What is the latest, Allan?

ALLAN CHERNOFF, CNN SR. CORRESPONDENT : Well, Wolf, in these criminal complaints, yesterday, the government made it's charges, but this is only the beginning of a very long legal process.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CHERNOFF (voice over): The mother of one of the alleged plotters says her son Mohammed Abraham Schnuer (ph) couldn't have planned a terror attack.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He didn't have anything to do with, believe me. He worked all night and come here, like, in the morning, sleep and go back to work. This is his life.

CHERNOFF: Indeed, Schneur (ph), his court-appointed attorney says he will definitely enter a not guilty plea. The lawyer also told CNN, yesterday's publicity could hurt his client's chances for a fair trial.

Quote, "This is a one sided initial presentation, in which nobody has tested these allegations. I am concerned about the degree of detail the jury pool taint is a concern."

On Friday defense attorneys will have a chance to ask that bail be set. The government intends to argue the six still pose a danger and are a flight risk, and therefore should be held without bail.

The New Jersey U.S. attorney's office also says it will move expeditiously to present the case before a grand jury to get an indictment.

Only at that point would the defendant's appear in court to enter pleas. For now, the six are being held at a federal detention center in Philadelphia.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CHERNOFF: Sidar Hatar's (ph) father, who runs a pizzeria near Fort Dix told "The New Jersey Star Ledger", "I am not a terrorist. My son is not a terrorist."

CNN called other attorneys representing the defendants, and we are still waiting to hear back from them -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Do they have public defenders or have they been able to hire their own attorneys?

CHERNOFF: From what we understand these are all court appointed attorneys, private attorneys who have been appointed by the courts.

BLITZER: All right, we'll watch this story. Thank you very much, Allan for that.

Jack Cafferty is in New York with "The Cafferty File."

Jack.

CAFFERTY: Wolf, here's something to consider when it comes to the war in Iraq. Insurgencies usually last more than 10 years, according to a study commissioned by the Defense Department. The Iraq war is now in its fifth year. The report, by an outfit called the Dupree (ph) Institute is due out in September.

But "USA Today" has some of the findings in it's the paper today, including these: Insurgents lose more often than they win. The chances for stopping an insurgency improve after 10 years. And not all insurgencies are quagmires.

In compiling the report, the researchers looked at 63 post-World War II insurgencies, including Vietnam, and the Soviets in Afghanistan. But one expert warns that each conflict unique.

He tells "USA Today", quote, "War cannot be reduced to a formula. War is an art as much as it is a science."

So, here's the question is it worth spending 10 years to defeat the insurgency in Iraq? E-mail your thoughts to Cafferty file cnn.com, or go to cnn.com/caffertyfile -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jack, thank you.

Up ahead, as the vice president drops into Baghdad, a key Democrat here in Washington drops one on the vice president.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. CHARLIE RANGLE (D-NY), CHMN., HOUSE WAYS & MEANS CMTE.: I think that Dick Cheney's probably the only friend the president has on this war. The American people have spoken.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: I'll be speaking with the House and Ways & Means Committee Chairman Charlie Rangel, right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Parts of the Midwest are under water right now, but in Florida and Southern California, it's tinder dry with frightful results.

And she went back to Iran to visit her mother. But has Tehran tossed her into prison? Iranian-Americans caught up in a game of international intrigue. Stay with us. We're watching this story. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Wild weather from one end of the country to the other.

In California, fire in Los Angeles' historic Griffith Park has scorched hundreds of acres. Major flooding has swamped much of northwestern Missouri, to say the least, and the water still rising. Wildfires know no boundaries at the Georgia/Florida border, where flames have charred 200-plus square miles. And off the southeastern coast, early bird subtropical storm Andrea is chugging toward land, more than three weeks before the official start of the Atlantic hurricane season.

Let's go to Missouri first. The town of Big Lake, north of Kansas City is largely under water, right now. Levees have broken, or been breeched. Hundreds of homes have water, and the water is still rising. CNN's Ed Lavandera is joining us now live from Big Lake.

What's it like right now, Ed?

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Wolf.

Just a few moments ago, we got off a boat. Two officers with the Missouri State Water Patrol had taken us out into this area that you see behind me, just beyond that red barn that you see right there is where the regular part of the lake, of what is Big Lake, once stood. It is clearly out of its banks.

We went on about a 45-minute boat ride, a tour of the area, about a mile north of here. And what we saw were the several hundred homes, most of them under -- at least partially submerged in about three to four feet of water in many places. Some worse than that, some a little bit better off.

But this is a village that described itself as a vacation village. As a weekend getaway type of the place here in northwest Missouri and much of it is under water tonight.

Most of the people have evacuated. There is still one elderly gentleman that refuses to leave and is living on the second floor of his house right now.

BLITZER: When is the water expected to recede so people can go back to their homes?

LAVANDERA: It's a difficult situation. Because many people here remember the flood that happened back in 1993, which is what people talk about so much here, but this could take several days. The water hasn't quite crested yet. There have been water pouring in from the north side of the city, and water continues to pour in, although it's been kind of slow moving at this point. Many people here say it could take several days; it could be Monday before they see all this water disappear.

BLITZER: Ed Lavandera in Big Lake, Missouri.

Firefighters have been working desperately to save hundreds of homes in the hills above Los Angeles. Those efforts may have paid off, at least for now. Let's go live to CNN's Peter Viles he is in L.A. with more.

This has been a big fire, but what's going on now, Peter? PETER VILES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Extremely scary last night, Wolf. On live television here in Los Angeles homes were threatened.

The good news, the firefighters won that fight last night. The mayor just announced a little while ago that he says this fire is under control. It's 50 percent contained. That means they have a line around 50 percent of it. But they think they will have it 100 percent contained within 24 hours.

So very good news about a fire that really caught this city's attention, because it was so big, and so erratic into the evening hours last night, Wolf.

BLITZER: Griffith Park, tell our viewers how close it is actually to the populated parts of Los Angeles.

VILES: This is an urban park. Just like Central Park in New York. It is surrounded on three sides by heavily populated suburbs, and on one side by interstate, Interstate 5. But you have Glen Dale, Burbank, Los Filas (ph) and the Hollywood Hills to the other sides to this park. Houses right up against the edge of this park. That was the fight last night that the firefighters won, to keep the fire in the park.

BLITZER: Peter Viles in L.A. for us. Good news on that front, thank you, Peter, for that.

Still to come. Is Iran involved in attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq? There's a disturbing increase in attacks using bombs that can blow up heavily armored U.S. military vehicles. And U.S. officials say Iran is behind many of them.

And a prominent reverend says something about a well-known Mormon. Now Al Sharpton's words have some asking if he's questioning presidential candidate Mitt Romney's belief in God. We'll have all sides of this story. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Carol Costello is monitoring other stories incoming to THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

Carol, what do you have?

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN NEWS ANCHOR: Well, let's start in London, Wolf.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair is expected to lay ground work tomorrow for his departure from office. Mr. Blair's spokesman says the British leader will announce his intention to step down as Labour Party chief. That announcement will touch off a leadership contest to succeed him as party leader, and prime minister, in about seven weeks. Mr. Blair celebrated 10 years as prime minister on May 1.

A spokesman for Chevron Oil Company says four U.S. citizens working off the coast of Nigeria were kidnapped overnight. They were working on a construction barge, laying pipes for an area oil field. This is the latest in a wave of abductions of foreign workers in the oil-rich Niger Delta since late 2005. Almost all of the captives have been later released unharmed.

News affecting the bottom line, the Consumer Federation of America says African-Americans are generally subject to higher interest rates on car loans than other American borrowers. The consumer group says blacks paid an average of 2 percent more on loans for new and used cars than Americans overall. The report is based on data collected for a federal survey in 2004.

Yet another record high for the Dow Jones average. Despite a brief sag on news the Fed left interest rates unchanged, the Dow gained almost 54 points to close the day at 13,362. The S&P 500 was up almost 5 points and the tech-heavy Nasdaq added 4.5.

So, I leave you with good news, Wolf.

BLITZER: Quite a ride on Wall Street. Thank you, Carol, for that.

France's president-elect Nicolas Sarkozy is grabbing headlines today in the French press. Sarkozy's luxurious post election Mediterranean get away drawing some sharp criticism from his political opponents. Why are we not surprised? Let's go to our Internet Reporter Abbi Tatton.

What specifically, Abbi, is causing the uproar?

Wolf, it's Sarkozy's decision to spend a couple of days preparing for the presidency here, on board a 200-foot luxury yacht currently in the Mediterranean. Paparazzi have captured images of Sarkozy and his family on board the yacht, The Paloma, which yachting websites report is equipped with everything from scuba diving equipment to a karaoke machine and rents for $250,000 per week.

Sarkozy's socialist opponents have slammed the trip as ostentatious and offensive to those people in France who have trouble making ends meet. The papers have been having a field day with this story. Some of the headlines: "Sarkozy's Vacation Making Waves", "The Sarkozy Era Is Bling Bling."

Sarkozy is reported as saying, I have no intention of apologizing -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you for that, Abbi.

Pope Benedict the 16th, today is in Brazil where he will meet with Latin America's bishops on just this sixth trip he's made outside of Italy since becoming the pontiff.

Now, the pope's first trip was to Cologne, Germany in August 2005, to commemorate World Youth Day. He returned to his native Germany in September, 2006. His second trip in May of last year, was to Poland, where he visited Warsaw, Krakow, and the World War II concentration camps at Auschwitz/Birkenau.

In July, the pope visited Spain. The Spanish royal family in Valencia for the Fifth World Meeting of Families and the pope's final 2006 voyage was to Istanbul, Turkey, where he visited the Blue Mosque, sparking protests in the street.

Wish him a safe journey on his trip now.

Florida is suffering from what could be its worst drought in recent history. The impact is already devastating. CNN's John Zarrella is in Lake Okeechobee.

John, fires are popping up all over the state. I assume they are the result of this drought.

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: No question about it, Wolf. In fact, right now, there are 200 fires burning across Florida; 54 of the 67 counties in Florida are recording fires. The governor, Governor Charlie Crist, just completed a tour of some of the hardest-hit areas.

And, in fact, new fires are breaking out all the time. We had fire break out on Alligator Alley this afternoon, near Collier County. Another one break out on the Florida Turnpike. So, every day, new fires breaking out, as a result of the drought, Wolf.

BLITZER: It's interesting, where you are now. Show our viewers the signs of drought in Florida, because you are in a specific location.

ZARRELLA: Yeah, this is an extreme example of what is happening in Florida. I'm literally standing on Lake Okeechobee bottom. In a normal season, this would be all under water, Wolf. This is grass growing in some of this Everglades muck that you find on the bottom of Lake Okeechobee.

What we have here, all behind me should be under water. Right now, serious water restrictions in place, in all of south Florida. More intense water restrictions going into place next week. Some well fields being closed down on the East Coast of Florida. And they're saying, if we don't get some rain very, very soon, all outdoor watering will have to be stopped in south Florida.

And right now, no rain on the horizon, Wolf.

BLITZER: Hopefully that will change. Let it rain, let it rain, let it rain. John Zarrella in Florida for us, thank you.

Coming up the campaign for president and New York state. Congressman Charlie Rangel handicaps the race.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RANGLE: If she can't beat Giuliani in Carrick (ph), forget about the democracy that we know.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: We're talking about Hillary Clinton. I'll ask him if he agrees with Senator Clinton on de-authorizing the war in Iraq.

Also, explosive devices in Iraq are becoming more powerful than ever. Barbara Starr has some troubling new information. You're going to want to see this. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM. Happening now: The main control tower over at Dulles International Airport, outside Washington, is back in business after fumes forced controllers to evacuate for several hours today. The fumes came from demolition work in the basement. Officials say impact was minimal.

There was a fierce and lengthy battle today in southern Afghanistan. Afghan troops, advised by U.S. special forces, clashed with Taliban fighters for 16 hours. One coalition soldier was killed.

And a new warning today to Iran from a senior U.S. diplomat. Stop enriching uranium, or face another round of United Nations' sanctions. The Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burn says if Iran refuses to negotiate, the U.N. Security Council will impose new sanctions next month. Western powers plan to meet to discuss Iran tomorrow. We'll stale on top of that story.

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

Made in Iran: The U.S. military says high-tech explosives provided by Tehran are helping Iraq's insurgents take a growing toll on American troops. Let's go live to our Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr.

Barbara, tell our viewers what you are hearing.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, top U.S. military commanders say Iran's influence and efforts in Iraq are on the rise.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

STARR (voice over): Attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq with powerful Iranian weapons reached an all-time high last month, according to top U.S. commanders. Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno, commander of the multinational corps, and in charge of day-to-day operations, confirmed to CNN that in April, there were 69 attacks, using explosively formed projectiles, EFPs. It's nearly double over March, which saw 38 EFP attacks. But April's spike killed 14 U.S. troops and wounded 47.

GEN. PETER PACE, JOINT CHIEFS CHAIRMAN: There were more explectively formed projectiles this month than any month in the past. To the best of our knowledge, all of them are manufactured in Iran. So that's not a good trend.

STARR: Until now, Odierno notes, such attacks had been dropping.

The U.S. intelligence community believes Iran is the source of many EFPs, advanced bombs that can penetrate U.S. armored vehicles. Far more sophisticated than the improvised devices used by most Iraqi insurgents. The U.S. commander's say Iran's revolutionary guard is mainly responsible for shipping the advanced weapons into Iraq. Some captured weapons show Iranian markings. The U.S. has stopped short of holding the Tehran regime directly responsible. Odierno also confirmed that suicide bomb attacks have increased dramatically. Forty-seven attacks in April compared to 22 in January.

Still, there are some indications attacks are easing up in al- Anbar province where Suni tribesmen have been fighting against al Qaeda.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STARR: Explosive devices have now killed more than 1,500 troops and wounded nearly 15,000 since the war in Iraq began - Wolf?

BLITZER: Barbara Starr reporting for us from the Pentagon.

As House Democrats weigh a new Iraq's spending bill that would fund the war only into the summer, the White House vows another veto. Does that set the stage for round two?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Joining us from Capitol Hill, chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, Representative Charlie Rangel, Democrat of New York. He's also the author of the new book, "And I Haven't Had a Bad Day Since." Congressman, thanks for coming in.

REP. CHARLIE RANGEL (D), NEW YORK: Always good to be with you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Let's talk about the Iraq war funding legislation. The president vetoed it the other day. Now you're trying to come up with some sort of compromise. The Vice President Dick Cheney is in Baghdad as we speak. And this is what he said today. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DICK CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: They do believe we are making Progress. But we've got a long way to go.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: He's suggesting that this new strategy, so the-called surge as he calls it, is working. What do you say?

RANGEL: I think that Dick Cheney is probably the only friend the president has on this war. The American people have spoken. They're making it abundantly clear that surge, no surge, get the heck out of Iraq.

And no matter what it takes, we're going to keep sending that message. I tell you this, there are many, many Republicans that are ready to break with the president, so the president better get the message so that we can do this in a unified way and make certain that our troops leave in the safest way possible.

BLITZER: I spoke with the House Minority Leader John Boehner, the top Republican in the House. And like the White House, they're rejecting one Democratic proposal to fund the war through the end of July and then take up the funding bill once again later.

They say that's a nonstarter. You can't treat U.S. military men and women as if they're teenagers and fund them partially for good behavior. What do you say to their rejection of this proposal?

RANGEL: It's just the question of time. The American people have spoken. By the time they listen to their constituents, they'll find language that they feel comfortable with.

But the American people should know as you know, it's not really the technical language that's in this bill, it's how many times does it take for us to send a message to the president to force him to sit down and to change the course?

And so it doesn't bother me that the republicans don't like this. But if you take a look at the president's polls and take a look at the concerns that Republicans have in getting re-elected, it's just a question if time and how we do it.

BLITZER: The Iraqis themselves are appealing to you in Congress to give them some more time. The national security advisor of Iraq Mowaffak Al-Rubaie, he's quoted in the "New York Times" today as saying this -- "I know they are running out of patience, and I understand this very well. And we have to play the political game. But I feel we are on the last mile of a walk toward success, and if they let go and don't take our hand, I feel that we are going to lose everything."

He's appealing to you, Congressman, to help them in what he says is the final Stretch. What do you say?

RANGEL: Well, he calls it a political game. But the families of the 3,500 people who died and the thousands that have been wounded, they don't think this is a political game. They think it's serious.

I would tell them that there's no question that America and democracies around the country should want to be of some assistance in bringing peace to this area.

But what about the Jordanians? What about the Saudi Arabians? What about the Egyptians? If they cannot convince their own neighbors to participate in helping them to bring peace, then I don't know why it should be America that puts up the blood and the rest of them don't even hold our jackets.

BLITZER: Your colleague from New York state, Hillary Clinton, the junior senator, she's being criticized severely by the former House speaker, Newt Gingrich, on her proposal with Robert Byrd in the Senate to deauthorize the original operation, the military operation, in Iraq. Listen to what Gingrich said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NEWT GINGRICH, FORMER HOUSE SPEAKER: But this middle ground of politically beating up the American government, making us look weak in the world, undermining the morale of the American troops, while young men and women are risking their lives every day, strikes me as the worst of all possible worlds. And I think it is a great disservice to the country.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: He's clearly going after Hillary Clinton for this Proposal. Do you like her idea?

RANGEL: Well, I don't know. Hillary Clinton has some political problems because of her initial vote. And if Senator Byrd and she believes that once again, they're sending a political message to the White House, I have no objection.

The whole idea of thinking that this is going to happen, I don't think that really is a reality. But I think what we all are trying to do, especially Senator Clinton, is respond to the voters. And even though the president is commander in chief as it relates to the military, we have the responsibility to provide the oversight for what is going on here and we're doing just that. Nothing is going to stop us.

BLITZER: Do you still support Hillary for president?

RANGEL: You bet your life. I think she's the best qualified candidate. I only hope I can get some support for Giuliani and Kerik on the other side, making it a New York thing.

BLITZER: But you'd want Hillary Clinton to beat Rudy Giuliani?

RANGEL: If she can't beat Giulian and Kerik, forget about the democracy that we know.

BLITZER: As far as we know, Bernard Kerik is not running for anything. You're obviously trying to make a point, though.

RANGEL: Oh, he can be drafted, what the heck, they're inseparable. They're joined at the hips, they've been together for years. This is no time to give up on your friends.

BLITZER: Charlie Rangel, Democrat, New York, thanks for coming in.

RANGEL: Good to be with you, Wolf.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Bernard Kerik, of course the former controversial police commissioner in New York under the then-mayor Rudy Giuliani. Still ahead tonight, an hour of airtime for a man accused by the U.S. government of having a terrorist group. So why are American taxpayers footing the bill?

And the new president-elect of France, making waves for planning a luxurious get-away. We're tracking the outrage online. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Your taxpayer dollars paying for a news channel meant to soften some harsh anti-American sentiment in the Middle East. But can it do that by airing words from a man who despises the United States, who encourages death to an American ally? Let's go to CNN's Brian Todd. Brian, tell us about this news network and why it's coming under fire right now.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it's called Al Hurra, it's a TV news and public affairs network established to win hearts and minds toward American policies in the Middle East. And right now, it's accused of betraying that mission.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): A network underwritten by U.S. taxpayers for $63 million a year, set up to counterbalance the likes of Al-Jazeera, now accused of an outright double-cross, as it gave airtime to anti- American views.

Critics say, by airing an hour-plus speech by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, accused by the U.S. of heading a major terrorist group, Al- Hurra isn't exactly cutting through anti-Western propaganda in the Middle East.

JOEL MOWBRAY, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: By the five-minute mark, he told the people in the audience, who were firing their guns in celebrations, not to waste their bullets, and to save their bullets for where they belong, the chest of the enemy, the Israeli enemy.

TODD: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a de factor member of Al- Hurra's board, has said this about the airing of Nasrallah's speech.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: The new director fully admits it was a mistake.

TODD: Now, some in Congress who control Al-Hurra's purse strings are calling for Rice to investigate the network's practices and are threatening to withhold money if things don't change.

REP. STEVEN ROTHMAN (D), NEW JERSEY: We should not be putting on terrorists who are advocating killing Americans on a U.S. taxpayer- funded television station.

TODD: Critics say Al Hurra, which means "The Free One" in Arabic, started to veer away from its mission last November, with the hiring of Larry Register as news director. Register, until 2001 an executive producer at CNN, has, according to his detractors, focused coverage less on corruption and human rights abuses in the Middle East, and more toward anti-American events, like the Holocaust-deniers conference in Tehran.

Register wouldn't comment. In a statement, a spokeswoman admitted some errors under Register's leadership, but said the network is committed to fairness, and added, "Al-Hurra is the only channel in the region that has programs dedicated to the discussion of the rights of women and human rights in the Arab world."

In the view of one analyst, the network's credibility depends on it airing all shades of opinion.

RIAD KAHWAJI, INSTITUTE FOR NEAR EAST AND GULF MILITARY ANALYSIS: If you keep getting guests that represent only one side of the equation, then people would look at you suspiciously. But, when you bring people that present all views, then you would be taken more seriously.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: Still, critics say it's one thing to air a sound bite of someone like Hassan Nasrallah. It's quite another, they say to air his entire speech, with anti-Western rants and threats - Wolf?

BLITZER: So what do the critics in Congress want Al-Hurra to do now, Brian?

TODD: Some members of Congress and others want Larry Register to step down. The network says it stands by him 100 percent. Some congressmen also want the transcripts of the network's content produced constantly in English so that they can monitor those. A network official says that's too expensive, but they can provide transcripts on request.

BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting, thank you.

Still ahead here, a prominent reverend says something about a well-known Mormon. Now Al Sharpton's words, some people asking if he's a bigot. We're watching the story from both sides.

Also, general resignation? Might ads of retired generals saying President Bush doesn't listen to commanders on the ground in Iraq have any effect on policy? Jack Cafferty with your e-mail. All that, still to come.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The civil rights activist Al Sharpton is doing some damage control in the wake of the tempest that boiled up over a comedy day during a debate this week. It has the Mitt Romney presidential campaign bristling. Let's go back to Carol Costello, she's in New York. Carol, what's going on?

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's kind of turned into a he said, he said, Wolf. Al Sharpton accused of being a bigot, a hypocrite who maligned Mitt Romney's religion. As for what Sharpton says, well, he says he didn't mean it.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COSTELLO: He led the charge against Don Imus.

AL SHARPTON, CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST: Yes, I think that this is sexist first. And I think racist equally.

COSTELLO: That was Al Sharpton last month as he put pressure on NBC and CBS to drop the talk show host after Imus used an ethnic slur to describe the Rutgers women's basketball players.

Now Sharpton's in the line of fire himself for comments he made about Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney.

SHARPTON: As for the one Mormon running for office, those that really believe in God will defeat him anyway so don't worry about that. That's a temporary -- that's a temporary situation.

COSTELLO: The civil rights activist and former presidential candidate made the comment Monday while debating religion and politics with atheist author Christopher Hitchens, who's on a tour promoting his new book which rejects God.

Much of the debate revolved around Hitchens saying he doesn't believe in God. Sharpton says his words were taken out of context and denies he was questioning Romney's belief in God.

He tells the "Associated Press," quote, "What I said was that we would defeat him, meaning as a Republican. A Mormon by definition believes in God. They don't believe in God the way I do, but by definition, they believe in God."

Sharpton says his comments were directed at Hitchens, not Romney -- radio talk show host and CNN contributor Roland Martin.

ROLAND MARTIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: The problem with this story is we don't have the proper context. First and foremost, this was a religious debate that took place.

COSTELLO: Minutes before the comments in question, the idea of a Mormon running for president was discussed. Then the conversation moved to faith and politics. Romney spoke out this morning saying.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It shows that bigotry still exists in some corners. And I thought it was a most unfortunate comment to make. Reverend Sharpton's comment was terribly misguided.

COSTELLO: Sharpton counterattacked saying, "This is a blatant effort by the Romney campaign to fabricate a controversy."

If elected Romney would be the nation's first Mormon president. The former Massachusetts governor frequently talks about his faith.

ROMNEY: This is a nation after all that wants a leader that's a person of faith. But we don't choose our leader based on which church they go to.

COSTELLO: Is he right? Do Americans consider Mormons, Christians? A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll from last year found Americans split over the issue. But in a Gallup/"USA Today" poll in February, more than 70 percent, 70 percent said they were comfortable voting for a Mormon for president - Wolf?

BLITZER: Thank you for that, Carol Costello. This note, Reverend Sharpton will be a guest on "PAULA ZAHN NOW." That's coming up right at the top of the hour.

CNN has confirmed Ann Romney, the wife of the presidential candidate Mitt Romney, made a $150 donation to Planned Parenthood back in 1994. But a Romney spokesman says that because it was so long ago, Mrs. Romney is not sure why she wrote the check. The spokesman notes that the former governor and his wife contributed $15,000 last year to a group called Massachusetts Citizens for Life.

France's president-elect Nicolas Sarkozy is grabbing headlines in the French press. Sarkozy's luxurious post-election Mediterranean getaway is drawing some sharp criticism from his political opponents. Let's go to our Internet reporter Abbi Tatton. Abbi, what's the uproar all about?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, it's about Sarkozy's decision to spent a couple of days preparing for the presidency on this, a 200-foot luxury yacht in the Mediterranean. Paparazzi have shot pictures of Sarkozy and his family on board the Paloma. Yachting Web sites report this is a yacht equipped with everything from scuba equipment to a karaoke machine, and it rents for around $250,000 a week.

Sarkozy socialist opponents have criticized the trip as ostentatious and offensive and the papers are having a field day with this. Some of the headlines today, vacation making waves, the Sarkozy era is bling bling. Sarkozy is reported as saying, "I have no intention to apologize." Wolf?

BLITZER: Bling bling, is that French?

TATTON: If they didn't translate that word, apparently it works in both languages.

BLITZER: Thank you for that, Abbi. Let's go to Jack Cafferty. He's in New York. Bling bling, all of a sudden the French got a new word.

CAFFERTY: Do you know what the translation is? I won and you didn't. And I'm enjoying my cruise and you're stuck on land.

The question this hour, will the ads featuring retired generals who claim that President Bush doesn't listen to his commanders on the ground in Iraq have any effect on policy? They're running these TV spots in various politically sensitive areas around the country.

Kathlyn writes: "I like the ads but I know they won't have an effect on Bush's policies. He's proven that he listens to no experts regarding foreign policy, the environment, the economy, and other key areas. I hope but I'm doubtful that the ad will change the public's views of the Republicans who have blindly followed Bush throughout his nightmare. They would rather go down with a sinking ship than admit this administration's been a total disaster start to finish."

Jan in Pittsburgh: "If all the retired generals say that President Bush does not listen to the commanders on the ground, then it probably would. But let's also hear from retired generals who say something different. However, I'm not sure the news media would be able to find anyone offering a different opinion. Can't believe they all agree."

Diane, a former U.S. army captain: "Thank god for the generals who can finally tell us what we already knew. It won't change policy but maybe it will stop the asinine comments by Bush and Cheney that if you criticize the war, you're not supporting the soldiers. As if putting them in their graves decades too early is."

Dan in Spencer, Iowa: "Probably not, but it's about time we hear the truth from the generals. It's too bad they have to retire in order to be able to tell it."

Sharon in Lenexa, Kansas: "I don't know the other generals, but I do know General Wesley Clark. He would never speak out so forcefully against the commander in chief if he were not concerned about our troops in Iraq, our image in the world community and indeed the survival of our country. Please heed these dedicated public servants before it's too late."

And Ilene in Livonia, Michigan writes: "I don't see that it's made any difference to date. Numerous generals have spoken out about Bush and his war policy. They're fired. Excuse me, they step down. And life goes on as it has been. More and more of our brave kids killed every day."

If you didn't see your e-mail here, you can go to CNN.com/CaffertyFile where we post more of them online along with video clips of "The Cafferty File." We try to pick clips where I speak more articulately than I did in this particular segment here.

BLITZER: Thanks, Jack.

Let's find out what's coming up at the top of the hour on "PAULA ZAHN NOW." Paula?

PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks, Wolf. Coming at you, about seven minutes from now, we have an exclusive interview with Reverend Al Sharpton. He will be here to explain his controversial remarks about presidential candidate Mitt Romney and Mormons.

Also out in the open tonight, violent gang members in the military. What's going to happen when they come home as trained killers? Plus, some absolutely appalling numbers. Why are teens dropping out of school at the rate of 6,000 a day? It's all coming up at the top of the hour. Wolf, we know you have nothing to do at 8:00 straight up so please join us then.

BLITZER: We will be there, thank you, Paula, thanks very much.

And still ahead here, now playing, what's being called the axis of evil comedy tour on radio, on stage. Comedians trying to help Americans understand Middle Easterners and getting some laughs along the way. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: When President Bush first used the phrase axis of evil he probably never thought it would be the catch phrase for four guys looking for laughs and understanding. That's exactly what's happened as CNN's Jill Dougherty explains.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Picture you're running through with machine guns, all right, knapsacks, machine guns and climbing under things.

JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, another stop on the axis of evil comedy tour. Another chance to explain the subtleties of Middle Eastern identity.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Iranians are Persian and not Middle Easterners.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Not Arabs.

UNIDNETIFIED MALE: Why don't you guys move here?

UNIDENTIIFED MALE: No no, they are Middle Easterners, they're not Arabs, there's a difference.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm very confused.

DOUGHERTY: This axis of evil is made up of four American comedians. Maz Gibrani (ph), born in Iran. Ahmed Ahmed (ph), born in Egypt, Aaron Qatar (ph), a Palestinian-American. And Dean Obidala (ph), son of a Palestinian father and a Sicilian mother.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are the new enemy. We've replaced the Soviet Union. And we're stuck here until somebody replaces us. That's why I'm begging all of you to help taunt North Korea as much as possible.

UNIDNETIFIED MALE: You have to get them on board with you and let them know that hey, I get it, you guys have a stereotype of us and I know what you see.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And the overall message is that we're proud of our background and ethnicities and that's why we're doing this.

DOUGHERTY: A lot of material these comedians use in their act comes from current events and they don't have to look far. Check out this article that appeared in the local paper the day they arrived. "Muslim leader gets death threat." Ahmed Ahmed (ph) gets stopped at airports a lot. His name matches an alias of a terrorist on the FBI's most wanted list.

UNIDNETIIFED FEMALE: Come on sir, oh, wait, you're supposed to take off your jacket. But I'll do a body search for you, oh!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is uncomfortable.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mmm-mmm.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's not necessary, is it?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, it is, honey. Oh!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Arabs love to cuss in English. They cuss their heads off in English. They won't do it in Arabic, because then God could hear them.

DOUGHERTY: Is there is a point you could go too far? Is there a line in other words in your comedy?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Any jokes about Mohammad. Any jokes about Prophet Mohammad are forbidden. Stay away from him.

DOUGHERTY: Like his fellow axis of evil comics, he says you can scare people into laughing. He quotes a comedy colleague who's a rabbi.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He always says you can't hate anybody when you're laughing with them. So it's nice when we're doing our shows to see the diversity in the crowd and people actually laughing together. You see Arabs and Jews and White, and Mexican and Black, and they're all sitting together and they're all sharing the same laughs. Comedy's like food or music. It's universal.

DOUGHTERTY: Jill Dougherty, CNN, Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: They really, really are funny. That's it for us here in "THE SITUATION ROOM." I'm Wolf Blitzer. Let's go to Paula in New York - Paula?

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