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THE SITUATION ROOM

U.S. Officials Contend That From Gaza To Lebanon To Iraq, Iranian Arms Are Helping Radical Muslims Fighting Democracy

Aired June 15, 2007 - 19:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Thanks, Lou. Happening now, a Middle East hot spot turned upside down. Hamas militants now controlling all of Gaza. Rival Fatah fighters seeking revenge on the West Bank and the U.S. grappling with a new global crisis.
Also out of peril, astronauts onboard the International Space Station jumpstart their computers and their mission and stepping down, the prosecutor in the botched Duke University lacrosse case calls it quits. Will be he stripped of his law license as well?

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

We begin with the disturbing new reality in a very, very dangerous part of the world. Hamas spent today tightening its grip on Gaza. There were looters in the streets and scenes at the presidential compound that are simply incredible. I want you to check out the pictures in this report from CNN's Atika Shubert.

Atika?

ATIKA SHUBERT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Hamas may have taken over the Gaza Strip but now the question is, can Hamas govern?

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

SHUBERT (voice-over): Hamas in charge -- photos show Hamas gunmen inside the Gaza residence of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, posing at his desk, making a mock phone call, saying, according to Reuters: "Hello Condoleezza Rice. You have to deal with me now."

But perhaps this is the most poignant photo for Palestinians -- Hamas gunmen trampling on the portraits not just of President Abbas, but the late and revered Yasser Arafat, father of the Palestinian national movement.

Hamas is in charge of Gaza.

But can it govern?

Even as masked gunmen trumpeted their authority to the media, looters had taken over the streets of Gaza, stripping down the empty homes of Fatah leaders. Hamas leader in Gaza, Ismail Haniya, insists that he is still prime minister of the Palestinian government.

But Palestinian president and Fatah leader, Mahmoud Abbas, has dissolved the Hamas-led government and installed an emergency cabinet under the leadership of former finance minister, Salam Fayyad.

So who's in charge?

Depends on where you're at. In Gaza, Islamic militant group Hamas is the undisputed power. In the West Bank, the Western-backed Fatah is still in control -- the dream of the united Palestinian state torn in two.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

SHUBERT (on camera): This is not just about a fight for power, it's also about what kind of a state Palestinians want. The Islamic militancy of Hamas in Gaza or the weak secular authority of Fatah in the West Bank.

For those who had hoped for a united Palestinian state, it is a very stark choice. Wolf?

BLITZER: Atika Shubert, thanks very much. And while Fatah has been routed in Gaza, the mainstream group once headed by Yassir Arafat still holds sway in the West Bank and has been targeting Hamas members there. President Mahmoud Abbas and the seat of the Palestinian government are in the West Bank. Captured by Israel in the 1967 war and separated geographically, the two Palestinian territories are now divided more deeply than ever. More than 2 1/2 million Palestinians live in the West Bank, along with almost 200,000 Israeli settlers. The Palestinian population is overwhelmingly Muslim with a small Christian minority.

The area is a little bit smaller than the state of Delaware. Almost 1.5 million Palestinians live in Gaza, which is about twice the size of the District of Columbia. The population is about 99 percent Muslim. Israel withdrew its settlers and soldiers from Gaza back in 2005.

Because of the Palestinians' violent split, foreign ministers of the Arab League countries held a closed-door meeting in Egypt. But even cooler heads even couldn't find a solution to this crisis. Our Aneesh Raman is on the scene in Cairo. Aneesh?

ANEESH RAMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it was all words at an emergency session at the Arab League. Very little action. The Arab League foreign ministers called for a cease-fire between Fatah and Hamas and the also called for both sides to sit at the table and try one again to form a unity government. None of that of course will change the situation in Gaza tonight, tomorrow or in the days ahead. Instead, it creates a real picture, that the Middle East is a region on edge, and that these are officials in the Arab League and among the member states of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, who are confronting a very serious question, can any of them actually impact the situation in Gaza?

Saudi Arabia backed the unity government that has now been dissolved. Egypt sent mediators the Palestinian area that tonight had returned to Cairo, failing in their attempt to bring the sides together. It seems that neither the Arab League nor its member states can never really impact the situation in the Palestinian areas and given they say that is a core issue to all the issues in the Middle East, it does not forecast good times ahead for this region. Wolf?

BLITZER: Aneesh Raman on the scene in Cairo for us. Later this hour, what can the United States do? What should the United States do? We're going to take a closer look at the options for the U.S. in the region.

But there's other important news we're following as well. Officials of the U.S. and Russian space program, breathing a collective sigh of relief. Just a short time ago, Russian cosmonauts apparently fixed a computer problem which threatened to put the entire future of the International Space Station in jeopardy. Let's bring in our space correspondent Miles O'Brien. He broke this story for us just a little while ago. Miles, tell our viewers what exactly happened. How did they apparently fix those computers?

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: A little bit of Russian ingenuity, Wolf. The cosmonaut who is in charge of the space station, Theodor Yurchikin (ph) decided to try a jumper cable to bypass a switch on a power supply that was suspect.

So he tied those cables together, bypassing the switch, turned on the computers. Two of the three pairs came right back to life. He didn't try to turn on the third pair. All you need is one operative pair in order to perform all those crucial functions for the International Space Station. It includes everything from the attitude control, to running the toilet.

And so those computers are now back up and running. They have been for three hours. Of course, going back to the first part of this week, the computers crashed after some new solar arrays were put on the International Space station. The Russian engineers, the crew couldn't get them back to life. The longest they stayed on was all of six minutes.

So the fact that these machines were now up and running, two full sets for more than three hours now seems to indicate that they have licked this problem. What they don't know, Wolf, is what the source problem was. Was it a coincidence or did those arrays somehow harm that switch?

BLITZER: Well, at least they apparently fixed that problem. It would have been a huge disaster for the entire space program if all the cosmonauts and astronauts had to abandon that International Space Station.

Now, what about that tiny little hole in the cover, of the heat shield of the Space Shuttle Atlantis? That's been repaired. We've been looking at these pictures that are so dramatic.

O'BRIEN: Yeah, two for two. In this case, it was a U.S. astronaut, Daniel Levis, who was attached to the shuttle's robot arm and he had to come out and take care of a piece of blanket like this that had a piece turned up. He went at it, pushed it down, tucked it in as you saw there, and used one of these, a surgical stapler. It's in the shuttle's medical kit in case someone cuts themselves and has to have a wound healed.

Instead, healed the heat shield for the shuttle, that 4-inch by 6-inch gap which exposed the graphite skin beneath the blanket is now covered. While there isn't an official green light for the shuttle to return because of its heat shield, one more inspection to go, things are looking good for Atlantis' return middle of next week, Wolf.

BLITZER: Two for two is pretty good at least for now, Miles. Thanks very much.

Let's check in with Jack Cafferty. He has got the "Cafferty File" in New York.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: The expression scotch tape and bailing wire do anything for you?

BLITZER: Yes, it does. I was thinking of that, too.

CAFFERTY: All right. When there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, President Bush immediately seized on the idea of bringing freedom and democracy. How is that working out for you, Mr. President? The United States also pressured the Palestinians to hold elections. They elected Hamas, a terrorist organization. How is that working out for you, Mr. President?

Hamas has now seized Gaza, the Abbas government has been dismantled and Hamas militants has been on a rampage, pillaging government institutions. It's very unlikely they'll be dipping their fingers in ink wells there anytime soon. A week ago, Condoleezza "Photo Op" Rice babbling about Bush's democracy agenda being morally right and politically necessary. How is agenda that working out for you, madam secretary?

And when you look around the rest of the neighborhood, freedom, democracy, endangered species in Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Hamid Karzai's democracy in Afghanistan hanging on by a fingernail as the Taliban works furiously to make a comeback there. The argument could be made that the Middle East is closer to conflagration right now than at any time since we tried to force people in that part of the world to see it our way.

So here's the question. Is President Bush's dream of democracy in the Middle East really a nightmare? E-mail caffertyfile@cnn.com, or go to cnn.com/caffertyfile. Wolf, it's not working out well so far.

BLITZER: Not exactly. Maybe give it a little time and see what happens.

Thanks, Jack.

CAFFERTY: OK.

BLITZER: Coming up, an emotional announcement by the D.A. in the Duke University lacrosse case.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) MIKE NIFONG, FORMER DURHAM D.A.: To the extent my actions have caused pain to the Finnertys, to the Seligmanns and the Evans, I apologize.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: He broke down on the stand. Now Mike Nifong is paying a price for the pain he caused a lot of other people. His job.

Plus, Senator Barack Obama speaking out on the way racial issues might influence him if he becomes the first African American president.

And buried treasure, of sorts in Oklahoma. It takes you back to a life a half a century ago. Stay with us. You're THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Now, remember coming up this hour, my special interview with Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards on the war in Iraq, immigration and more. That's coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Meanwhile, Senator Barack Obama sees his presidential campaign as about a lot more than the color of his skin. But the Democrat also is clearly concerned about race in America. CNN contributor Roland Martin sat down with Senator Obama and asked him if at this point in our nation, the defining issue for African Americans and other minorities isn't civil rights, but economics.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Race is still a factor in our society. We can't deny that. And, yes, we need a White House that enforces the civil rights laws.

We have got a Justice Department that has ignored civil rights laws. We need to understand that the criminal justice system still has significant biases that we have to fix. So, there's still going to be the need for enforcement of our civil rights laws.

But the fact of the matter is, is that our biggest problems right now have to do with poverty, have to do with children not getting an education, having to do with men without jobs. Those are the things that we're really going to have to focus on.

And we're not just going to be able to pass a civil rights law in order to deal with that. We have got to get resources in those communities. We have got to organize our institutions, so that they're more effective. We have got to renew our commitments to family and to excellence. Those are the things that are going to, I think, help us move in the next direction.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right, let's bring in Roland Martin. He's joining us from our Chicago bureau.

Roland, what do you think? What do you think of his answer? ROLAND MARTIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, I mean, he was dead on the money.

And what you see is, those who operate from a post-civil rights- movement perspective, that is, the individuals who really came after Dr. King and the others, that is what they're focused on. Former Congressman Harold Ford, Artur Davis in Alabama, they understand that economics is the reality of where African-Americans stand. So, there is no doubt that he is going to emphasize that versus the traditional civil rights models.

BLITZER: You also asked him about that comment he made involving the words "quiet riot" that's going on. And he explained what he what he had in mind. And he also explained why he's trying to appeal to people of all colors in our country.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

BLITZER: I want to play another clip, Roland. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: Well, it was interesting. When I made that speech about a quiet riot, the point I was making was that all of us as Americans ignore too often poverty, unless it flares up in riot or unless it's revealed as a consequence of flood down in New Orleans.

And we go from shock to trance. And, so, I was making, actually, a universal point, which is that we should be thinking about these issues each and every day, and not just waiting until there's some tragedy, some obvious tragedy.

I mean, as you're aware, we had 28 Chicago schoolchildren killed this year on the streets during the school year, Chicago public school kids. Now, that's a tragedy that deserves attention. And, yet, despite some good work done by Anderson Cooper and yourself and others to highlight it, for the most part, it didn't break into the mainstream.

So, my general attitude is that, whether you're white, black, Hispanic, Asian, whatever demographic you come from, we all have a stake in making sure that we don't have young people who are shooting each other on the streets, whether it's at Virginia Tech or on the South Side of Chicago.

And that requires all of us to pay attention in a consistent, sustained basis. And, if I'm talking about those issues in general terms, then I hope that I'm not just appealing to the African-American vote when I say something like that. That's something that speaks to our larger ideals as Americans.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right, Roland, let's talk about that. Dissect it a little bit for us. What do you think? MARTIN: That is a critical comment, because, any time we talk about poverty, when you talk about violence in the inter city, there are people who automatically assume, well, that's a black problem, when, in fact, it affects all of us.

When you see one million, two million people in our prisons, that impacts us when it comes to our tax dollars. It impacts us when it comes to the budget. And, so, we can't see it just as a matter of race.

I just finished my syndicated column about 10 minutes ago, and I talked about, Dems should invest in poor whites. And that is, when we think about poor people in America, we often think of African Americans.

Yet, if you go that -- if you go to "The Wall Street Journal," they just profiled the 10 of the top 20 states where people are with the highest poverty rates, South Dakota, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, a significant number of people.

And, so, we have to broaden our view and understand, when we speak of the poor and speak of the disenfranchised, we're not just talking about African-Americans. We're talking about whites and Hispanics and African-Americans, America, not just a particular ethnic group.

That's what I think he's going to try to get across and sort of tie all of us together, vs. saying we're separated based upon ethnicity.

BLITZER: You have been watching him in Chicago for a long time, Roland. Why is he so appealing, not only to African Americans, but to Americans, all Americans? Especially in New Hampshire, where there are very few African Americans, he's doing incredibly well in this Democratic presidential contest.

MARTIN: I think primarily because he is trying to speak to broader issues, and say, this is where we stand as America, and also being honest.

His speech in Detroit to the automakers, people said, well, it backfired. So, he's speaking honestly. He's not pandering to people.

And, so, when we talked, he said, you know, Roland, I'm trying to educate people, inform people.

And, so, we're used to candidates with a soundbite. And the reality is, he's going to have to master the sound bite. He's going to have to be able to deal with the 30- and the 60-second sound bite in the various debates. He didn't do quite well in the last debate that you moderated.

But what he's trying to do is say, look, there are some fundamental issues. Let's talk about them and dialogue about them, and not just say, hey, I have an answer for every single problem. He's very good at saying, look, I don't have all the answers. What do you think? What do you want to do? Obama challenges Americans to step up, and holds them accountable. That's -- that's something that you often don't see from politicians running for president, who assume that, hey, they can fix every problem, when, in fact, they simply can't.

BLITZER: All right, good point. They certainly can't.

Thanks, Roland, very much.

MARTIN: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Roland Martin is our contributor.

And, to our viewers, you can see Roland's interview with Senator Obama on TV One, where Roland is also a commentator. That airs on July 2, 10:00 p.m. Eastern.

And still ahead, my interview with John Edwards, that's coming up. Also coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM, Mitt Romney admits he's a convert to the ranks of abortion opponents. Critics are calling him a flip flopper. We'll take a closer look at the GOP presidential candidate.

The upheaval in Gaza. Does the United States have any military options to help cool down the volatile region? Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Our Carol Costello is monitoring stories incoming to THE SITUATION ROOM right now. Carol, what do you have?

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: A couple of things, Wolf. More than 4,000 patients treated by a New York anesthesiologist will be receiving letters from the New York City Health Department. The anesthesiologist is actually suspected of infecting three people with hepatitis C last August. Health officials want the patients to get tested for hepatitis which often doesn't show symptoms early on. The doctor faces disciplinary action.

The search for a little girl and her grandfather on an Illinois river ends in a mix of pain and joy. Five-year-old Hannah Clemecke (ph) walked out of the woods this morning, and approached the searchers. Just a few hours earlier the body of 62-year-old David Clemecke had been found in the water. The two had been missing since Wednesday.

Take a look at the wide screen. A blast from the past. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, a crane lifts a 1957 Plymouth belvedere out of the ground 50 years to the day after it was buried under the courthouse lawn.

The gold and white car was meant as a time capsule, buried in 1957 to celebrate Oklahoma's 50 years of statehood. Inside was placed, among other things, 10 gallons of gas in case internal combustion engines were obsolete by 2007, which of course didn't happen.

But another interesting thing. There was a woman's handbag inside the glove compartment, Wolf, and it contained typical items that a woman would carry in her handbag, 14 bobby pins, a bottle of tranquilizers, a pack of gum, lipstick, tissues, a pack of cigarettes, matches and $2.43. Tranquilizers, the typical woman in Oklahoma carried tranquilizers in her purse?

BLITZER: I guess. Who knew?

COSTELLO: Who knew?

BLITZER: Thank you, Carol, for that.

Just ahead, my one-on-one interview coming up with the Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards.

A Duke University lacrosse player recounts a personal nightmare.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

READE SELIGMANN, CLEARED OF RAPE CHARGES: It was almost like a sick joke. Like we were being toyed with. Like he was doing it, you know, maliciously on purpose to us.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: The players were charged -- were cleared of rape charges. Now the prosecutor, Mike Nifong, takes the heat. Has a surprise announcement.

Also, the violent power shift in Gaza. Hamas has control of all of the Gaza strip right now. But does Iran have control of Hamas? Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM. Happening now, the Joint Chiefs Chairman Peter Pace says it would be unacceptable to quit his post in wartime, and that's why he declined an offer to resign voluntarily. Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced earlier this month Pace will not be nominated for a second term.

Congress responds to passport complaints. The House voting to delay passport requirements for people entering the U.S. by land or sea from Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and the Caribbean. A huge application backlog had already forced the government to waive the government for air travelers.

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

After days of bloody fighting, the militant Islamic group Hamas is tightening its control over all of Gaza. Tonight the power grab is causing big worries. Both the U.S. and Israel see something more sinister at work right now. Let's turn to CNN's Brian Todd. He's watching all of this for us. A lot of analysts out there, and U.S. officials, Israelis to be sure, suggesting Iran, Brian, is pulling a lot of the strings. What are you picking up? BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Tehran is accused of doing that, Wolf, by the U.S. and other Western officials. They believe Iran has its hand in no fewer than four key areas of conflict.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): Hamas captures the streets and power centers of Gaza. The group designated terrorists by the U.S. but voted political power by the Palestinians shows its might.

DAN GILLERMAN, ISRAELI AMBASSADOR TO THE U.N.: This is the Iranian work. This happened in Lebanon. It is now happening in Hamastan, which was Gaza until yesterday.

TODD: Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, anti-American Shia militants in Iraq, U.S. officials say Iran is supplying them all with weapons. And recently, U.S. and British officials told CNN sophisticated weapons bound for the Taliban in Afghanistan can be traced to Iran, although it's not clear if the Iranian government has its fingerprints on them.

Iran denies the accusations. But analysts and U.S. officials say Iran has strong motives for so-called proxy wars.

SEAN MCCORMACK, SPOKESMAN, STATE DEPT.: It's no secret that they have used other, you know, outside groups as proxies, to try to extend their influence within the region.

VALI NASR, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS: They are trying to obviously stretch the United States as thin as possible, in as many arenas as possible, because that makes it much more difficult for the United States to focus on Iran, particularly militarily, when it has its hands full.

TODD: How to counter it? Analysts point to a range of U.S. options. One is to recognize Iran as a major power in the region, and talk to Tehran about issues beyond Iraq. But they say the U.S. has to talk from a position of strength, turn the tide militarily in Iraq, and make one thing clear.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Always demonstrate the Iranians that we're going to protect our interests, if that requires striking back, if they try to attack the United States, friends or allies.

TODD: While applying that pressure, analysts say, hit Tehran where it's most vulnerable by tightening economic sanctions and investment.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: Analysts say Iran is already stretching its economic resources by engaging in all these so-called proxy wars and may simply run out of gas at some point, but they warn the U.S. is in danger of doing the same -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Since Iran, Brian, as you know, is a Shia country, why are they supporting Sunni groups like the Taliban or Hamas?

TODD: Analysts say one reason is just to destabilize the U.S. and its allies in the region. Make them believe, as they say. But they also say, that because Iran is a religious state, they will support any Muslim group with a religious base, like the Taliban, like Hamas, against an entity that is perceived as secular.

BLITZER: Thanks, Brian, for that. Brian Todd watching this story.

At one time, a crisis like Gaza, like the crisis in Gaza right now, would have sparked deafening calls for U.S. peace-making. But this time, Washington's ability to make a difference may be rather limited. Our Senior Pentagon Correspondent Jamie McIntyre takes a closer look at some of the reasons why -- Jamie.

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SR. PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, when it comes to either providing U.S. troops to some future peace-keeping mission in Gaza, or providing ammunition and supplies to the Fatah faction the U.S. government supports, then Secretary Robert Gates today pretty much ruled that out. Which raises the question, what arrows does the U.S. have in its quiver?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MCINTYRE (voice over): While the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have pretty much exhausted the supply of U.S. ground troops, that's not really the problem. It's more that anything the U.S. does to aid the moderate secular Fatah government of Mahmoud Abbas against the militant Islamic Hamas could be counterproductive.

FAWAZ GERGES, MIDEAST ANALYST: In fact, the more the Bush administration stays out of it, the better for regional stability -- and also for American vital interests in that part of the world.

MCINTYRE: So far, everything the U.S. has tried has had unintended consequences. The U.S. encouraged the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and subsequent Palestinian elections never anticipating it would bring Hamas, which the U.S. considers a terrorist group, to power. It then engineered a boycott that simply increased local support of Hamas and fuelled anti-American and Israeli sentiment.

Even the delivery of non-lethal aid to forces loyal to Abbas just seemed to embolden Hamas to seize Gaza. So what can the U.S. do about the possibility of a militant, Islamic semi-state on the border with Israel? Not much. In fact, the Israelis have no good military options either.

PROF. SHIBLEY TELHAMI, UNIV. OF MARYLAND: If we occupy Gaza, they may weaken the current Hamas leadership as they have in the past but it doesn't resolve the problem, we're back to square one.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MCINTYRE: At the State Department, a spokesman acknowledged Mahmoud Abbas has lost control of Gaza and says the U.S. is now looking for ways to support President Abbas' new government without doing more harm than good -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jamie, thanks very much.

This programming note, Jamie McIntyre is going to have a lot more on the crisis in Gaza on "This Week At War", it airs Saturday, 7:00 p.m. Eastern, replayed Sunday 1:00 p.m. Eastern, right after "Late Edition". "This Week At War" hosted this week by Jamie McIntyre. You're going to want to see that.

Still to come here, in THE SITUATION ROOM, the presidential candidate John Edwards; he will give us his take on immigration reform.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN EDWARDS (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I just think the path to citizenship is too difficult. It creates a second-class group of laborers in this country which I don't think is right.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Much more of the interview, the interview coming up. Is the path to solving illegal immigration the path of least resistance? More of my interview with the Democratic presidential contender, John Edwards. That's coming up here.

Also, another presidential hopeful. Democrat Mike Gravel debuts his web video. Why are YouTubers scratching their heads? We're going to share it with you. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is taking some fire from Republicans for what they call insulting comments he made about two top U.S. military leaders. And critics on the Left say Reid and his fellow Democrats in Congress have not been strong enough in demanding a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq. All this hangs over the Democratic presidential campaign.

Joining us now, from Iowa, one of the top contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination, former Senator John Edwards.

Senator, thanks very much for coming in.

EDWARDS: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Are you frustrated? Are you angry that the Democrats sort of gave up, at least for now, the withdrawal issue before going ahead and refunding the troop operation in Iraq?

EDWARDS: Well, that's water under the dam now. I've been very clear, Wolf, from the beginning that I thought the Congress -- the entire Congress -- had a responsibility to -- and a mandate from the American people to force this president to start withdrawing troops from Iraq. So, I never believed they should submit a funding bill to the president that didn't have a timetable for withdrawal. I still believe that.

BLITZER: What do you want them to do now?

EDWARDS: Well, I think the thing to do now is the next time they submit a funding bill to the president, needs to have a timetable for withdrawal. Unfortunately when he vetoed the last one, they capitulated and submitted a bill that didn't have a timetable. But I think there needs to be a timetable for withdrawal.

BLITZER: Do you think Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi are up to the job as fellow Democrats?

EDWARDS: Well, I have very high opinions of both of them. And I also think they're very good leaders and very good human beings. You know, they have to deal with -- having been there, as you know -- they have to deal with the caucuses and the various politics of the people who are members of the caucus. They have very difficult challenges. I totally recognize that.

But I think the Congress as a whole has this responsibility, and I think America expected them to use it.

BLITZER: Because, as you know, there are supporters and other Democrats here in Washington saying it's easy for John Edwards to be taking swipes at us. He's not in the Senate anymore. He doesn't have to deal on a day-to-day basis with these legislative priorities. It's easy for him to sit on the outside and just criticize.

EDWARDS: Well, here's what I would say about that. First of all, I was in this position. We had a funding bill. Years ago when I was in the Congress, on the war in Iraq. The now famous $87 billion vote. It was the first time that we voted to fund the war, after it became clear what George Bush was doing in Iraq, and the already existing failures at that time.

I don't remember the numbers, exactly, Wolf, but I think there were 12 or 14 of us who voted against it. I voted against it then. But I think more important than that, I'm not running for the Senate, I'm running for president of the United States. And I think that I, and along with anyone else who is running for president, need to make it clear that we're going to lead on this issue of life and death, and war. And that's what this is about.

It's about making clear where we stand, making clear what we think needs to happen, and making clear what we believe the Congress needs to do. That's what the president of the United States does.

BLITZER: Do you think the president and Senator Ted Kennedy and John McCain, and others, are right in their effort to try to get this immigration reform package through the Senate?

EDWARDS: Oh, I think Senator Kennedy, who I have enormous respect for, is right to try to get comprehensive immigration reform. I think it's like, you know, Senator Kennedy is a leader, and he's working with other members of the Senate to try to get something passed, which I totally understand. There are some things in the legislation that I agree with, and there are things that I don't agree with.

BLITZER: If you were in the Senate, would you vote for it?

EDWARDS: Well, here's -- I'm not in the Senate. I think it would depend on exactly what it looks like when it actually comes up at the end. But the provisions for better border security, the provisions to being tougher on employers who violate the law, knowingly hiring illegal immigrants, I think those are things that ought to be addressed.

I just think the path to citizenship is too difficult. It creates a second-class group of laborers in this country, which I don't think is right. And I also think it's too hard to reunite families.

BLITZER: When the path for citizenship for the 12 million or so illegal immigrants, is that what you're talking about?

EDWARDS: That's what I'm talking about, yeah.

BLITZER: So, you would just make it easier for them to become citizens?

EDWARDS: I would make the path just simpler. The path that is in this legislation takes about 13 years. There's huge financial penalties, compared to the incomes of most of these folks. And then they have this so-called touch-back provision, which means they go back to the country they came from, in order to apply. I think all those things, in many cases, will be prohibitive, I think it will keep people from doing anything.

BLITZER: You're doing really well in Iowa. That's where you are right now. You're neck-and-neck with Senator Clinton in the various polls that we've seen in Iowa, dealing with the Iowa caucuses.

Not doing so well in New Hampshire, in our most recent CNN-WMUR New Hampshire poll. You had gone from 21 percent in April down to 12 percent. What do you think happened?

EDWARDS: Oh, I think these polls go up and down. I've been through this before. Polls are going to go up and down, even though I have a good lead in Iowa in the polls, they're going to go up and down here. That's the just nature of the way the political process works.

I mean, people are evaluating each of us, as they should, in a very serious way. I think for -- let me stick to the New Hampshire voters, I think for New Hampshire voters, they deserve to see me -- Elizabeth will be there, too, I'm sure -- campaigning so they can ask us hard questions. I've got to spend a lot of time in New Hampshire.

The way you get votes, Wolf, in Iowa and New Hampshire, is you do the work and you have clear, substantive ideas. And you answer hard questions. That's the way you earn votes in Iowa, and it's certainly the way you earn votes in New Hampshire, too. That's my job, it's not somebody else's job. It's my job to convince them between now and the primary that I deserve to be their president.

BLITZER: So you're basically focusing in on Iowa, New Hampshire, I assume Nevada and South Carolina, as well?

EDWARDS: That's correct.

BLITZER: Senator Edwards, thanks very much for joining us.

EDWARDS: Thank you, Wolf. Thanks for having me. By the way, I thought you did a very good job in the debate.

BLITZER: Thank you very much. And please pass along our best wishes to Mrs. Edwards, as well.

EDWARDS: Thank you for that.

BLITZER: The next presidential debate, by the way, will be featured on CNN on July 23rd. We're teaming up with YouTube for that debate. It will be the first debate where all of you can submit your questions to candidates online.

Two new YouTube videos from Democratic presidential candidate Mike Gravel are raising eyebrows online. Let's go to CNN's Abbi Tatton, who's watching this for us.

What do these videos show, Abbi?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, they show Mike Ravel, there he is, looking into the camera. Not speaking. Not moving. Still there. The ad was shot by two independent filmmakers in California who approached the former senator's campaign with their concept. What is that concept exactly? Well, Gravel's staffer, Alex Colvin explains it's letting people see him, who Gravel is, what's their interpretation of him. Well, you decide.

Their other video was a seven-minute offering, also on YouTube, dominated by this flickering fire. There it is, still burning.

In the first video, Gravel eventually moved away from the camera, picks up a rock, which he throws into the lake and causing ripples. He moves on. That staffer says there's a personal artistic, spiritual message, which is inseparable from the political -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Gravel, 2008. Thanks very much. We'll watch those videos a little bit more.

Republican Mitt Romney's change of heart on abortion is being called into question once again today. Let's go to CNN's Mary Snow.

Mary.

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Mitt Romney is confronting his change of heart when it comes to abortion, but he's not conceding any shifts on other issues where he's coming under fire.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) SNOW (voice over): Mitt Romney came face to face with a crowd where the conversion on his abortion stance may face the biggest test. The Republican presidential hopeful told the National Right to Life convention he's a proud convert.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I can promise you this, you will be welcomed and we will work together, if I'm fortunate enough to be elected president of the United States.

SNOW: Romney has been outspoken about his change from supporting abortion rights to declaring himself firmly pro-life.

ROMNEY: It's fair to say I have changed my view with regards to abortion. That's pretty clear.

SNOW: As he vies for the conservative vote, Romney is coming under attack by Senator John McCain. McCain's taking aim at Romney not just over the topic of abortion, but also stem cell research saying Romney's changed his position on federal funding. The Romney camp calls that a, quote, "absolute inaccurate attack."

LARRY SABATO, UNIV. OF VA. CTR. FOR POLITICS: The stem cell controversy is not as clear cut as the abortion controversy is.

SNOW: Take for example back in May at a Republican debate aired on MSNBC, when Romney was asked if scientists should be able to do research on embryos that fertility clinics would otherwise discard.

ROMNEY: I'm happy to allow that to -- I shouldn't say happy. It's fine for that to be allowed. To be legal I won't use our government funds for that.

SNOW: Some social conservatives would disagree with him on that response. But there have been other examples of what his critics charge is flip-flopping. Romney supported an amendment to ban gay marriage in Massachusetts despite saying in 1994 he had a better track record on gay rights than Senator Ted Kennedy.

As Romney gains in polls, the McCain camp has been going out of its way to point out Romney's inconsistencies. The Politico even McCain camp is launching an anti-Romney web site. That's something Senator McCain, today, told CNN, would not happen.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think we have the website. We will not use it, period.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW: The McCain camp did post a 2005 video of then- Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney supporting abortion rights. The Romney camp fired back, calling it a sad indication of where the McCain camp is -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Mary Snow reporting. Thanks, Mary.

Up next, the tables have turned dramatically for the D.A. who prosecuted the Duke University lacrosse case.

Jack Cafferty asks this, is President Bush's dream of democracy in the Middle East really a nightmare? We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: A dramatic day in Durham, North Carolina. The prosecutor in the Duke lacrosse case broke down on the stand saying he'll resign.

Here's CNN's Jason Carroll -- Jason.

JASON CARROLL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, lots of tears at the ethics hearing today, tears from one of the former Duke lacrosse players and from Durham's District Attorney Michael Nifong, who admitted he no longer had the credibility to serve as prosecutor.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MIKE NIFONG, DURHAM CO., N.C., DISTRIC ATTORNEY: I tried to do the right thing. And I've always been willing to take responsibility for the things I've done.

CARROLL (voice over): An emotional end to the Duke lacrosse case. Durham's embattled District Attorney Michael Nifong says he will step down.

NIFONG: It is my intention, whatever the decision, to resign as district attorney of Durham.

CARROLL: He broke down on the stand during a hearing by the North Carolina State Bar on his conduct in the case.

NIFONG: My actions have caused pain to the Finnertys and the Seligmanns and the Evans. I apologize.

CARROLL: Nifong is charged with making inflammatory statements about the case, and admitted he made mistakes. The most serious allegation is that he did not reveal DNA test results which showed male DNA was found on the accuser, but did not match any of the 46 players. Nifong said he was sorry that it happened.

NIFONG: I want to make it clear right now that, that certainly is something that the defense attorneys were entitled to have. I don't want --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Would you repeat that?

NIFONG: That is certainly evidence that the defense attorneys were entitled to have. It was a finding that was made. There is no question, whether you view it as exculpatory or not, I'm not denying that they were entitled to have that evidence.

CARROLL: Former Duke lacrosse players Colin Finnerty, Reade Seligmann and their families attended the hearing. Seligman talked about the pain of having to tell his mother he had been falsely accused of raping a stripper hired to perform at the team's party.

READE SELIGMANN, EXONERATED LACROSSE PLAYER: I could hear her on the other end of the phone. The life was sucked right out of her.

(SOBBING)

And then I tried to calm her down. And I just told her everything was going to be all right. And that we would prove that this didn't happen.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CARROLL: Regardless of Nifong's decision to step down, it is still very likely he will be punished in some way by North Carolina's State Bar. That punishment could include being disbarred -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jason Carroll watching this for us. Thanks, Jason.

Up next, Jack Cafferty. He'll be back with your e-mail. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We check back with Jack Cafferty for "The Cafferty File".

Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR, THE SITUATION ROOM: With everything going on over there, Wolf, we thought we'd ask this hour, is President Bush's dream of democracy in the Middle East really a nightmare?

Jenny in Columbia, South Carolina, "I don't think so, Jack. Just ask the people of the Middle East, the question that we once heard a long time ago, are you better off today than you were four years ago?"

John in Toronto writes, "President Bush never had a dream for democracy in the Middle East. His was a vision of revenge against Saddam Hussein and the theft of Iraq's oil. You only have to look at his track record in the United States to see that this man has no respect whatsoever for democracy. He doesn't know the meaning of the word."

Michael in Atlanta: "Shia will never reconcile with Sunnis, and Hamas will never reconcile with Fatah. Pakistan will never be allies with India. Syria will never accept an independent Lebanon. Turkey will never accept Kurdish independence. Muslims, in general, will never reconcile with Jews or the West. Nobody in the Middle East, with the exception of Israel, wants peace."

Richard in Denver: "Let's face it, the people in the Middle East have a completely different system of beliefs from ours, and we have no business trying to force ours on them. We could stay in Iraq for 50 years and the outlook would be the same. The people there don't like us." Scott in Akron, Ohio writes, "Jack, George Bush has never had a dream of democracy in the Middle East. He and his cohorts concocted a not too clever fairytale about democracy in Iraq so our corporate Captain Hooks could score some oil."

And Karen in Anaheim, "President Bush said that Iraq would be the model for the Middle East. Unfortunately, he was right."

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

I wonder what that Middle East situation will look like by the time we get back in here on Monday, Wolf?

BLITZER: Who knows. But by then, you will have had a happy Father's Day.

CAFFERTY: And you.

BLITZER: Enjoy the weekend with the family, Jack. Thanks very much.

CAFFERTY: Same to you.

BLITZER: See you on Monday.

To our viewers, thanks very much. I'll be back Sunday morning on "Late Edition" 11:00 a.m. Eastern. Hoshyar Zebari, the Iraqi foreign minister, among my guests.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. Up next, Anderson Cooper with "Deadly Lessons: 24 Hours In Chicago".

TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.voxant.com

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