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THE SITUATION ROOM

Desperation in Pakistan; Tracking Hurricane Earl

Aired August 31, 2010 - 18:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta in the flood disaster zone in Pakistan, where desperation and heartbreak are growing.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. you are in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We begin this hour though with hurricane watch just issued within the last hour for the coast of North Carolina, as the very powerful Hurricane Earl closes in on the United States' Eastern Seaboard. The storm is threatening to ruin Labor Day weekend plans for millions of Americans, but for some, there is much more at risk.

Earl is a Category 4 storm with sustained winds up to 135 miles an hour, capable of causing catastrophic damage.

Our severe weather expert our meteorologist Chad Myers is tracking the storm over at the CNN Hurricane Center.

How concerned should folks living along the Eastern Seaboard be right now?

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Well, certainly, even if the storm doesn't make landfall, and that is a possibility and really more like a probability, but the waves, now, some of them out in the ocean at 30 feet, as they even crash over the reefs offshore, and then on to the shore will make deadly rip currents all the way from Wednesday, Thursday, into Friday, all the way up the East Coast, very large storm, kind of hard to see.

There is Haiti, not really affected very much. There's Puerto Rico and San Juan. Here is Florida. And Wolf, we have been waiting all week long for the turn to the north, and then eventually hopefully the turn to the Northeast, and then into the ocean, and missing everything. Does it happen? Does it ever really occur?

Because, if it doesn't, this is still on a straight line into the U.S. Now, just following the outside of the cone, the cone does graze North Carolina. In fact, it even grazes New York and then on up into Massachusetts and into Atlantic Canada, The center line farther offshore, never really making landfall, 60 to 100 miles offshore from North Carolina and also from Nantucket.

Now, if we get a best-case scenario and get that thing a couple hundred miles offshore, we won't have any wind damage whatsoever, but we are going to still see those waves crashing onshore at 135 miles per hour. Some of these ocean swells could be 35 to 40 feet. You start to push those on to shore, you are going to lose shoreline. You are going to maybe even see overwash of some of the barrier islands. You don't want to be on there if the water is literally going all of the way over, and then you are going to see those rip currents tearing back away from the beaches.

And if you are in the water caught in a rip current it may be just seconds when you realize that there goes to water and you are going with it. It is going to be a deadly weekend possibly for the East Coast. You need to stay out of that water. It is going to be rough, Wolf.

BLITZER: And some of the damage in the Caribbean, some of the islands out there, they have already suffered pretty dramatically, haven't they, Chad?

MYERS: They have. The good news is we haven't seen much of any kind of a direct impact with the eye. Now, that does not mean -- we always focus on the eye, but there is more damage here across parts of St. Barts, St. Kitts, back into the British Virgin Islands and Tortola and even quite a bit of wind damage and water damage with trees falling over in Puerto Rico itself.

Now, thank goodness 135-mile-per-hour eye did not make a direct hit on any one island with people living on it. Anegada, which is one of the northernmost islands off of the British Virgin Islands, did get a brushing, a grazing blow we will call, about 100 miles per hour there. But it is not going to hit the Turks and Caicos, not going to hit the Bahamas.

Let's say it doesn't hit the North Carolina coast, doesn't hit Cape Hatteras. That would be awesome. The next hit in fact is Atlantic Canada. That could be Nova Scotia, because that sticks out there, and so does Newfoundland. We will be hoping for our friends up there in Atlantic Canada and Newfoundland as well.

BLITZER: We will track it together with you, Chad. Thanks very much.

MYERS: You're welcome.

BLITZER: Other important news we're following right now, flood- ravaged Pakistan facing a triple threat of hunger, homelessness, and desperation, that grim warning coming from the World Food Program.

Our chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, is in Southern Pakistan. He's witnessing firsthand the flood survivors' desperate scramble for any kind of help.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, when you really think about the scope of this flooding, one-fifth of the country, it gives you a better idea of just how difficult it is to provide aid to so many people in so many different places. And I can tell you there's a lot of people who have just been going without for so long, and some of the stories will just break your heart. We decided to investigate what is working and what is not. Take a look.

(voice-over): You ever wonder what desperation looks like? This is it.

(on camera): Now the police are coming in to basically break up this demonstration. So what happened here was locals basically set up a road block right over here. As soon as an aid truck would come in, they'd basically storm that aid truck and try and steal as many supplies as they could.

(voice-over): They're desperate and they are quick to tell you about it. It wasn't so much anger as it was bitter frustration and hopelessness. Thousands of displaced people feeling forgotten and ignored.

(on camera): Here's how it is supposed to work. A much more organized camp, for example, a family over here, they have mats, they have tents that can withstand a lot of rain that's coming.

If you look inside this tent over here, you see water jugs, you see cooking oil, even cooking utensils.

(voice-over): The problem is you won't find many camps like this one. Most look like this. Thousands of families, low on tents, low on food, thick with desperation.

(on camera): One of the really difficult situations here is that there's no mechanism of distributing the aid. It is just awful to think about. And as people describe it to us, they say it is just really embarrassing to be treated like animals.

Where is all the aid going? We see trucks with aid in it but it doesn't seem to be getting to people who need it the most.

(voice-over): So we followed this aid truck in the distance. First sign of hope these people felt in weeks. But what was about to happen was outrageous. First government rangers with big sticks organized and women and children here, men over there, all of them waiting in the hot sun.

This is hard to believe. These people have been waiting for some time for food, women and children over here, men over here. The truck was there with aid in it, pulled into the gas station and now they're just leaving.

(voice-over): There was no explanation for this. More importantly, all these people are still hungry and still thirsty.

(on camera): This is incredibly heartbreaking. People are waiting for quite a while for that truck, thinking they were going to get aid and received nothing.

(voice-over): Commander Faisal Shah has the impossible task of trying to feed 20 million people.

(on camera): Have you been out to some of these camps outside of here and talked to the people? Have you actually heard from them? I hear what you are saying, but when I talk to them, I hear something entirely else.

COMMANDER FAISAL SHAH, PAKISTAN NAVY MARINE CORPS: People are desperate. There are people that have been very fed. I believe most of them are being fed regularly.

GUPTA (voice-over): I saw a different story in the dozen refugee camps I visited. There's no regular meals here. Desperation mounts.

(on camera): They're basically going in and trying to get what they can get. A quick idea what can happen to some of the most precious commodities needed when something like this happens. There was just a riot out here, antibiotics on the ground shattered.

(voice-over): Desperation has its consequences. In this case, no one benefited.

(on camera): Wolf, we don't know exactly where that truck was going, but that was just one example of how something did not work in this particular case. An entire group of people who thought they were going to get food, thought they were going to get water will go without, maybe for another day, maybe for another week, who knows, just a small sample of what is going on here on the ground, Wolf -- back to you.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Dr. Sanjay Gupta, thanks very much for that excellent report.

To find out how you can impact your world and help Pakistan's flood victims, visit CNN.com/impact.

Police in the Mexican resort city of Cancun are investigating a deadly attack on a bar outside the tourist zone. Eight people died when a group of men hurled Molotov cocktails into the building.

Our senior Latin American affairs editor, Rafael Romo, is following developments from the CNN Center.

Rafael, what do we know? What are you picking up?

RAFAEL ROMO, CNN SENIOR LATIN AMERICAN AFFAIRS EDITOR: Well, Wolf, several Mexican media are now reporting that the establishment's owner was the target of an extortion attempt by organized crime.

The attack happened at 1:30 Tuesday morning, when the bar in the Mexican beach resort of Cancun was full of customers. Several armed men threw Molotov cocktails into the bar, killing eight people, according to Mexican officials.

The tavern known as Castillo del Mar, or Sea Castle, it's located only about three miles from the main tourist area in Cancun, which is visited by millions of international tourists every year, but officials say all the victims were Mexican nationals and the bar, itself, catered to a local clientele.

The Mexican media are also reporting that the bar's owner had recently refused to pay bribes to criminal gangs that operate in the area, Wolf.

BLITZER: Is this enough to give American tourists pause in deciding to visit Cancun right now? I know this was outside the immediate tourist area, but not that far away.

ROMO: Well, Wolf, there was another incident last week, when 16 people were injured after a grenade exploded at a bar in another favorite tourist destination, Puerto Vallarta.

Also, the U.S. State Department issued a warning to American citizens last Friday, asking them not to visit five Central Mexican states. Now, none of the states are located in the usual tourist areas frequently visited by Americans, but the warning may also have a chilling effect.

And also, Wolf, the war on drug cartels that has claimed the lives of more than 28,000 people in the last four years doesn't help either.

BLITZER: It certainly doesn't. Tourism such a powerful, important industry in Mexico.

All right, thanks, Rafael. Thanks very much.

Jack Cafferty is next with "The Cafferty File."

Then, we are counting down to President Obama's speech tonight marking the end of U.S. combat operations in Iraq. Will he thank his predecessor, who started the war? We will get a preview from the president's National Security County chief of staff, Denis McDonough. He's here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Also, terror arrests at the Amsterdam airport. Two men on a flight from the United States are still being held, but now American officials are saying it may all have been a huge mistake. We will get the latest.

Plus, he is the Army private accused of leaking thousands of documents about the Afghan war. Now we get an exclusive interview with his new lawyer.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Jack Cafferty is here with "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: "Pope Benedict, ordain women now," that's the message that will be plastered on London buses when the pontiff heads to England's capital in a couple of weeks. A group called Catholic Women's Ordination is spending $15,000 for 15 buses to carry posters with that message around London for a month.

The group says they don't want to be disruptive, but -- quote -- "The church has got to change or it will not survive." And they say they're hopeful since the church is in disarray right now.

But one top British Catholic is pushing back. Father Stephen Wang says women are not barred from the priesthood because of sexism, rather because they cannot fulfill a basic function, which is -- quote -- "standing in the place of Jesus" -- unquote.

Wang says that Jesus chose 12 men, and no women, to be his apostles. And he adds that men and women are equal in Christianity, but that gender still matters. Wang compares the role of a priest to an actor, saying no one would be surprised if he wanted a male actor to play King Arthur. He then admits the analogy is weak.

That is the most startling and profound thing he said in the message so far. Terrible.

In addition to the bus campaign, the women's group plans to hold a vigil the day before the pope's visit; and they plan to demonstrate outside the official London residence of the archbishop of Canterbury.

In 1994, then Pope John Paul II declared the Catholic Church has no authority to ordain women. And Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who is now pope, agreed with him.

So, here's the question: Is it time for the Catholic Church to ordain women as priests?

Go to CNN.com/caffertyfile. Post a comment on my blog.

You could probably find people if you tried, Wolf, or even if you didn't try very hard, who would tell you it is way past time.

BLITZER: I know a lot of people agree with you on that, Jack, a lot of people out there.

CAFFERTY: Yes.

BLITZER: All right, thanks very much.

All right. We are getting some excerpts from the president's address to the nation from the Oval Office on the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan. He will also make the turn to the economy.

Our senior White House correspondent, Ed Henry, is getting the details for us.

Ed, these excerpts that the White House has just released, share some of the highlights.

ED HENRY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, it is interesting, because they always put these out before a big speech to highlight what they really want us to hit going into the big speech, so it is significant then that one of the excerpts is all about the economy, not about Iraq.

In fact, the president saying -- quote -- "Today, our most urgent task is to restore our economy and put the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs back to work, to strengthen our middle class. We must give all our children the education they deserve and all our workers the skills that they need to compete in a global economy. We must jump-start industries that create jobs and end our dependence on foreign oil."

The president goes to say: "We must unleash the innovation that allows new products to roll off our assembly lines, and nurture the ideas that spring from our entrepreneurs. This will be difficult. But in the days to come, it must be our central mission as a people, and my central responsibility as president."

The reason why it is significant in part is I am told by senior aides the president was thinking about adding this in part because if you go back to May, when he gave a commencement address at West Point, he talked about how, if the United States wants to remain dominant overseas, it needs to restore prosperity here at home.

So there is a substantive point there. But let's not ignore that there is politics as well. And as you well know, there have been some congressional Democrats really pressuring this White House, saying they don't want to see such a heavy focus right now on Iraq, on Afghanistan, which we will also hear about tonight. They want to talk about the economy jobs.

White House officials say they could hardly ignore this August 31 deadline, this transfer, the end of the U.S. combat role in Iraq, so they had to note this, but very significant that the president in this context is talking about issue number one, Wolf.

BLITZER: They could have noted it with his address today at Fort Bliss in Texas.

HENRY: Exactly.

BLITZER: They did not necessarily have to ask for a prime-time Oval Office address. What was the thinking behind that?

HENRY: Well, what I am told by senior officials is this is not just about Iraq. It's about Afghanistan as well.

And that's why I was so struck by what the president at Fort Bliss not so much about Iraq, but about Afghanistan. He was saying that basically he wants to prepare the American people for the fact that there's going to be heartbreak, his word, in the days ahead, because there's going to be a lot more U.S. casualties, as General David Petraeus, now the commanding general on the ground, really takes the fight to the terrorists

And so you use the Oval Office backdrop not just to note the Iraq deadline passing, but to really focus the American people's attention on the fact that, look, folks, this war against terrorism is not over. It continues now as well in Afghanistan.

And I was also struck that the president talked about a tough slog in Afghanistan. Where have we heard that before? Donald Rumsfeld, the former Bush defense secretary, talked about a long hard slog in Iraq, and got criticized by Democrats years ago about the war in Iraq dragging on, now this president talking about a slog in Afghanistan, not Iraq, because officials here know this war in Afghanistan, now about 100,000 U.S. troops on the ground there, is going to be very, very difficult in the days ahead.

So, that is partly why they wanted that Oval Office backdrop.

BLITZER: He's tripled the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan since taking office. And I was struck with the exact same impression that you were in those remarks on Afghanistan at Fort Bliss today. He sounded very much like President Bush in making the case for the war in Afghanistan.

HENRY: Yes. But where they make a separation, though -- you're right -- on that point of sounding like President Bush -- but when you talk to senior officials here, they say what they believe is different and what separates it is that in the 2008 campaign, this president talked about ending the war in Iraq responsibly, and then turning more resources than President Bush had in Afghanistan, put them into Afghanistan, more troops, more resources, as you say, tripling the U.S. presence there in Afghanistan.

So, they believe not just one, but two campaign promises are being met tonight, because he is, as he said, just about within 16 months of bringing home -- since taking office -- bringing home U.S. combat troops from Iraq, and now pouring a lot more resources into Afghanistan.

So, a campaign promise kept, but also doubling, tripling down on the resources in Afghanistan, a lot of difficult days ahead, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, and he makes the point, we have removed nearly 100,000 U.S. troops from Iraq. We have closed or transferred hundreds of bases to the Iraqis and we have moved millions of pieces of equipment out of Iraq.

The president will say that later tonight. We will have live coverage at 8:00 p.m. Eastern here on CNN.

Ed Henry, thanks very much.

Terror arrests at the Amsterdam airport. Two men on a flight from the United States, they are still being held right now by Dutch authorities. Now U.S. officials, at least some of them, are saying it could have been a mistake. We will have the latest.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: We are learning new details right now about the two men arrested at the airport in Amsterdam on terror charges as they arrived on a flight from Chicago yesterday. They are still in custody right now. Some U.S. officials though are saying they can't necessarily find a terror connection. They are continuing the investigation.

Brian Todd is getting more information for us.

What are you picking up, Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, a U.S. official tells us that the two men, as you say, are being held in Amsterdam out of an abundance of caution while Dutch and American authorities investigate.

We're told so far it looks like nothing. So far, there's no link to terrorism that has been found, no indication that this was a dry run. And, again we have to emphasize that is what it indicates so far.

But here is a photo of what authorities say was in one of their checked bags, cell phones taped together and one taped to a bottle of stomach medicine, also wristwatches taped to an empty shampoo bottle and knives and box cutters, according to U.S. law enforcement officials.

A DHS official described the items as not dangerous in and of themselves, but suspicious enough to notify Dutch authorities, suspicious enough ostensibly because the way they were taped together.

But we're told one of the passengers was bringing to Yemen items that are not easily available there, and had taped together the items each person in Yemen had asked him for. A co-worker of one of the passengers told CNN the man had bought watches and cell phones to bring on the trip as gifts for family. That passenger began that trip in Alabama. He was supposed to go through Washington, through Dubai to Yemen and had a flight changed to the Chicago-Amsterdam flight.

But his luggage went on to Washington without him. There is a diagram of kind of where they started and ended the trip. The other passenger began his trip in Yemen in Tennessee and as of now, authorities don't believe they knew each other.

Now, when the flight arrived from Chicago arrived in Amsterdam, this amateur video that we're going to show you shows how the two were taken into custody. Dutch authorities say they were acting on information from the U.S. They searched the luggage that made it to Amsterdam, but nothing suspicious was found.

Here is the reaction to the news from a cousin of one of the passengers from Detroit.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He bothered nobody. We know him as a good guy. He never did something or ever think about something to hurt this country. Misunderstanding. It is misunderstanding. (END VIDEO CLIP)

TODD: The Dutch said in a statement they questioned the passengers again today and will announce whether they are charged with anything in a few days, Wolf.

BLITZER: It is a shocking story in many respects because if it was nothing, it was nothing, but it was serious, obviously, the potential is very significant.

DHS, what are they saying now? Are they backtracking from what was said yesterday?

TODD: It does not appear they're backtracking.

What they're saying in a statement tonight, they are praising their agents for identifying suspicious items, for showing sound judgment, for acting promptly to move this information overseas and at the same time they are saying that the matter is still under investigation. Don't jump to any conclusions.

It is clearly odd to authorities the way those items were taped together. That is clearly something that you have to take from this. But the fact that those items do not in and of themselves incriminate these men, you also have to remember that.

BLITZER: And I know the president of the United States was personally briefed on all of this stuff that is going on, so we will continue to watch this with you.

TODD: Right.

BLITZER: Thanks very much.

President Obama under pressure by some Republicans to give credit to President Bush in his Oval Office address to the nation on Iraq tonight. We are going to go inside the politics of the president's address. Our own John King is standing by.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm going to make a speech to the nation tonight. It's not going to be a victory lap. It's not going to be self-congratulatory. There's still a lot of work that we've got to do to make sure that Iraq is an effective partner with us.

But the fact of the matter is that, because of the extraordinary service that all of you have done , and so many people here at Ft. Bliss have done, Iraq has an opportunity to create a better future for itself, and America is more secure.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: The President of the United States addressing troops at Ft. Bliss in Texas earlier, previewing his Oval office address later tonight, two and a half -- one and a half hours from now, I should say.

Let's get some more with CNN's John King, who's the host of "JOHN KING USA" that begins right at the top of the hour, and you'll be setting the stage, John, for the president's address to the nation.

What was the thinking? What are you hearing? Why did the president decide that it was important to address the nation tonight from the Oval office only the second time he's done so since becoming president?

JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: And as you're well aware, there's some debate around the town as to whether this is a significant enough milestone for the president to do that.

But this White House believes it is for a number of reasons. No 1, they believe the president can tell the American people, this is a significant promise that I have kept. No. 2, he does want to explain. That cautious tone you just heard right there. and that's born of the fact that, Wolf, the American people have heard what this president is going to say before. They heard it seven years and four months ago when George W. Bush said that major combat operations in Iraq are over.

So they know that at the Obama White House, and they know they need to be cautious and say just because combat is over, and we're down to a little over 50,000 troops, there could be more tough days ahead, and the president wants the gravity of the Oval office -- the gravitas of the Oval office, I mean, to say that.

But there's a bigger challenge. He needs the American people. He's trying to rally them to come with him on what is still a very unpopular war in Afghanistan. The president says we need to press there. And he'll also -- it's not much of the speech, but he will say that his central responsibility is to help the American people through these tough economic times. They decided all those things taken together, and they would also concede that, in the political environment nine weeks until a big mid-term election, they thought they needed a big moment.

BLITZER: This shows the president as commander in chief, presidential. They felt that, politically, going into this midterm election, that might reassure folks out there?

KING: Well, they want to have a big presidential moment, because they view these as three big major policy challenges. They don't dispute the fact that we're in a very heated and consequential political environment, and they believe the president in that setting has more standing with the American people.

They also were well aware of the risks involved here, that there could well be bad days or weeks in Iraq in the days to come. So they want to have a presidential commander in chief setting they believe is the best way to deliver the message.

BLITZER: Certainly, you don't get more presidential than that Oval office address to the nation. He's going to look in that camera and he'll read that teleprompter for, what, about 20 minutes or so? Is that what we're hearing?

KING: Yes, 15 to 20 minutes. The White House earlier said 15 minutes, and as you know, as you spent a long time covering that building, as did I, they tend to scratch on the speech until the last minute. But look for about 15, 18 minutes.

BLITZER: Yes. The excerpts that have just been released (AUDIO GAP) it was the economy and making the transition to issue No. 1, the economy and jobs right now. It's basically what he told the troops earlier in the day at Ft. Bliss.

KING: If you step back, it's a remarkable moment. Remember, Barack Obama would probably not be president of the United States had he not been the leading -- of the leading candidates to say "I oppose the Iraq war" from the beginning. Iraq has been a defining force in his rise in national politics.

And here's somebody, here's a president who opposed the Iraq war, who is down telling those troops today, you did a fabulous job. We have left Iraq in a better place. He inherited this war from George W. Bush, and it's been no secret, Wolf, that in the campaign, he has said, "I will end as soon as I can." This White House would like to say, and as you know, there's a lot of Republican debate in town today, but this White House likes to say they are going to end it responsibly. The challenge for the president tonight as he makes that case is to pivot: Afghanistan and, home, the economy, huge, huge challenges.

BLITZER: And we'll have live coverage, of course, starting at 8 p.m. Eastern, a little less than an hour and a half from now. You'll have much more, setting the stage at the top of the hour.

KING: Great group coming in to talk about it.

BLITZER: All right, John. Thanks very much. We'll speak with the president's National Security Council chief of staff, Dennis McDonough, right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We are counting down to President Obama's Oval office address to the nation, marking the end of combat operations in Iraq. But will he give any credit to his predecessor?

And joining us now from the White House, Dennis McDonough. He's the chief of staff at the National Security Council.

Dennis, thanks very much for coming in on this important day.

DENNIS MCDONOUGH, CHIEF OF STAFF, NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL: Wolf, I'm always really glad to be with you. BLITZER: Here's what John McCain wrote in the "Wall Street Journal" today about the president's speech on Iraq. He writes this. He said, "It would be nice if President Obama could find it in himself to give his predecessor," referring to President Bush, "the credit he deserves." Will the president do that tonight?

MCDONOUGH: I think what you'll hear from the president tonight is a deep expression -- expression of gratitude to the more than 1 million troops who have served over the course of this effort in Iraq. So, obviously, he'll give an appropriate shout-out to all of the generals on the ground, to those troops and then obviously, to President Bush, as well.

But we're not going to be looking back; we're going to be looking forward on this thing. We've got a lot of challenges in Iraq, in Afghanistan and Pakistan and elsewhere. And that's what we're focused on.

BLITZER: So will the president formally thank President Bush for -- for the implementing the surge back in 2007-2008?

MCDONOUGH: You know, Wolf, the president had a good chat earlier today with the former president. I'm not going to get into that, but I'm also not going to get into what the president is going to say tonight. Why don't we tune in and hear directly from the president, himself?

BLITZER; I know you don't want to look back, but a lot of people are reminded of then-Senator Obama's opposition to the surge that President Bush implemented back in 2007. He said it was a mistake at the time. Senator Obama at the time, he opposed it, and he told Larry King this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: I did not see anything in the speech or anything in the run-up to the speech that provides evidence that an additional 15,000 to 20,000 more U.S. troops is going to make a significant dent in the sectarian violence that's taking place there.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right. So, does the president now have regrets over his opposition to the surge?

MCDONOUGH: What he has is great, deep appreciation for all the troops that made this possible. Obviously, as he indicated then and has since, he recognized that it would not be the surge alone, but obviously, the Iraqis taking charge of their own future that would allow us to make the kind of progress that we've seen over the last couple of years.

We think there's lessons in that for Iraq, but also for Afghanistan. That's why you see the president is dedicating this extraordinary level of additional resources over a course of a specified period of time to try to help the Afghans make the kind of progress that the Iraqis have made. So that's exactly what we're working for, and that's what you'll hear from him tonight.

BLITZER: I'm going to get to Afghanistan in a moment, but General Odierno, the outgoing U.S. military commander in Iraq, he's concerned that if there's no new government formed there within the next month or so, it's been almost six months since the last election, that the whole situation in Iraq could deteriorate. We could see Sunni and Shia and Kurdish elements back fighting each other. Are you as worried about that as General Odierno seems to be?

MCDONOUGH: Well, we all get paid to worry around here. And nobody does a better job of preparing and planning and seeing around the corners than General Odierno. But let's remember a couple things. One, there's a caretaker government in place. They're making decisions for the Iraqi -- Iraqi people now. The Iraqi security forces are on the move. They're leaning forward. They're demonstrating, over the course of the last year, that they're being very effective as they've taken over pieces of their country.

And starting tomorrow they'll be in the lead across the country with a strong 50,000-person force from the United States and support and obviously able to undertake counterterrorism efforts as needed. So obviously, we're focused on this. That's why the vice president is there now on his sixth trip to try to help the Iraqis make these kind of difficult choices.

But we are focused on the trend lines as well, too. And those trend lines are positive. Violence is down. Capacity is up. And obviously, as you heard from Prime Minister Maliki this morning, hope is up over there, as well, too.

BLITZER: Let's talk about Afghanistan for a moment, because I'm sure the president will address that subject in his Oval office address later tonight. He's made it clear that, starting in July of next year, 2011, he wants to start withdrawing troops from Afghanistan.

And John McCain, once again writing in today's "Wall Street Journal," says that's a mistake. He says this, McCain: "The president needs to state unequivocally that the conduct of the war, including decisions about troop strength, will be based on conditions on the ground. He says, if you start announcing when you're going to start withdrawing, that the Taliban and al Qaeda will simply hold their fire and wait for the U.S. to leave.

Will the president follow McCain's advice tonight?

MCDONOUGH: Well, we've had a debate on and off over the last couple years with Senator McCain. Obviously, a couple years ago, he was saying that the central front in the war on terrorism was in Iraq. That's obviously proven to be wrong.

Here's what we're going to do. We're going to stay on the offense against al Qaeda, against its Taliban allies. And you've seen over the course of the last 18 months the extraordinary dedication of an additional 50,000 troops in Afghanistan to try to help the Afghans create the space and to build the capacity for them to take charge of their own future.

So look, I know this, Wolf, al Qaeda and the Taliban is not wondering whether our soldiers lack dedication and determination in this effort. They are keeping it on the offense. It's a forward lean, and I have no doubt that they are hearing directly from our troops about that determination.

So I don't want to get involved in these Washington back and forth. That's for Senator McCain and others. What we're going to do is just to stay on the offense, and make sure that al Qaeda can't plot and plan and carry out these kind of heinous attacks against us again. And that's exactly what we're doing.

BLITZER: Dennis McDonough, thanks very much.

MCDONOUGH: Thanks a lot, Wolf.

BLITZER: The combat mission may be over in Iraq, but for thousands of U.S. troops, there's still much work to be done there. We visit a soldier training right now to go back.

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BLITZER: A lot of troops are headed out for Operation New Dawn in Iraq, and they're coming out of Fort Campbell, Kentucky. They're training side by side with soldiers heading to Afghanistan. Our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, is joining us now from Ft. Campbell.

Barbara, tell us what you're seeing, what you're hearing, the mood of the troops about to go off to war?

BARBARA STARR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, Wolf, here at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky. This is the home of the 101st Airborne Division, the only air assault division in the world.

These troops have already done three combat tours in Iraq. One of them under the command, you'll remember, of General David Petraeus, who's now running the war in Afghanistan, so these are very experienced troops. Some of them actually will head back to Iraq for yet another tour of duty, part of that 50,000 contingent that will support the Iraqis over the next year, but these troops also right now are in the lead in combat in eastern Afghanistan.

So this is a very busy place. We were on the training range today here at the air assault jump tower, and we asked one soldier if he ever had imagined when he was back in combat in Iraq that this day would come.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SGT. BRIAN DEPPNER, U.S. ARMY: I had confidence in my Iraq counterparts. I had a good feeling that they were going to come through positively in the end. We sat beside them and trained them for over 15 months, so sure, I mean, right, yes, of course. I saw an end. There's always an end. (END VIDEO CLIP)

STARR: We asked, also, we talked to a number of family members, wives, mothers of troops that have been deployed to Iraq, and we especially asked about, you know, the memories.

Most of America may now say, OK, the war in Iraq is winding down, but here at the 101st, they lost nearly 200 members over the years in the wars in Iraq, and the wives, the mothers, the family members say all of that will be part of the history here forever. This is now part of the imprint of the war on the 101st. Iraq will not be forgotten here -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I just want to be precise, Barbara, because you know this story quite well. When we say combat operations are over, there are still several thousand U.S. Special Operations Forces -- Green Berets, Navy SEALs, other elite combat forces -- on the ground in Iraq, and their mission will be there to go out and kill terrorists and others if necessary. They will fully be engaged in combat. Isn't that right?

STARR: Well, you bet, Wolf. I mean, you're going to hear the expression counterterrorism. These are the troops, whether they're in Afghanistan, Iraq or other places in the world, like Yemen or Somalia or other places, these are the Special Forces that are highly trained, highly equipped, and they, in fact, do go after specific terrorist targets. Their mission is to kill or capture. Make no mistake about it, and that is something that, yes, is very much still going on inside Iraq, very much something that U.S. Special Forces are involved with, Wolf.

BLITZER: Barbara Starr with the Screaming Eagles over at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky. Barbara, thanks very much.

To date, 4,420 U.S. troops have died since the Iraq war began in March 2003; 316 non-American, non-Iraqi troops have also died, including 179 from Britain. While the number of Iraq citizens killed is difficult to determine, one organization that collects documented reports of civilian deaths reports that around 100,000 Iraqi civilians have died in violence since the war began.

The casualties are significant, as are the number of wounded. That includes nearly 32,000 U.S. troops, more than half of them returned to duty within three days of their injury. But nearly 14,000 American troops injured did not.

Fidel Castro apologizes. The former Cuban dictator says a great injustice happened, and he's responsible. You're going to find out who he said was persecuted unfairly.

And the White House fight for stem-cell research isn't over yet. Now, it's telling an appeals court, critical medical research is in harm's way. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Monitoring some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now. Deb, what else is going on?

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, just two days before Israel and the Palestinians relaunched direct peace talks in Washington, four Israelis have been shot dead in the West Bank near Hebron. One of those killed was pregnant. A paramedic at the scene says the victims' car was sprayed with bullets. Hamas is claiming responsibility, and it says the attack is just the first in a series of operations.

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad condemns the attack.

The Obama administration is appealing last week's surprise court ruling that blocked federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research. The Justice Department also wants the lower court judge to keep his ruling from taking effect while the appeal goes on. Justice Department lawyers say that's necessary to protect research on new treatments for a wide variety of illnesses.

And stunning words from Fidel Castro. In a newspaper interview, the former Cuban dictator is acknowledging that persecution of gays and lesbians during the revolution he led half a century ago. His government sent openly gay men to labor camps without any charges against them or any trial. Castro calls it a great injustice. So never too late to apologize -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much for that, Deb Feyerick.

We're counting down to President Obama's Oval Office address to the nation. Our special coverage begins right at the top of the hour on "JOHN KING USA." I'll be back at 8 p.m. Eastern right at the top of the following hour with Anderson Cooper, all of our analysts, all of our reporters. We'll have full coverage of the president's address.

Jack Cafferty is next with your e-mail.

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BLITZER: Let's get back to Jack.

CAFFERTY: The question this hour, is it time for the Catholic Church to ordain women as priests? The pope on his way to London in a couple weeks, and there are a lot of women over there who think it's past time.

Joanne in Pennsylvania writes: "It's past time. There's a great need for priests, especially in the United States. We don't know for sure Jesus only chose 12 men, since it was men who decided what texts went into the New Testament. I think it is tradition and not doctrine that has kept women from becoming priests."

Guillermo writes: "I completely agree with Father Wang. Similar to babies being born from women only, the role of priesthood was established for men only. As simple as Father Wang indicates it, the priest represents Jesus -- a man." Y. writes: "If I were a woman, I'd tell the Catholic Church to take a hike. Why be obsequious to these clowns? The golden days of white male dominance are over."

Joe in Houston writes: "As an ordained minister of the Church of Apathetic Agnostics, I don't believe there's any way I could care any less."

Anthony in New Jersey: "As a disavowed Catholic, I think the church should just take down its shingle and declare moral bankruptcy. They demonize homosexuals, abuse children and treat women like second- class citizens. They're still in the middle ages, as our friends the Islamic radicals. If a religion can't teach tolerance and acceptance as their main precept, then they ought to just disband and get out of the way of progress."

Barker writes: "The Anglican Church is basically the Catholic Church, except you can have women priests and priests can marry. It seems to have worked fine for the Anglicans/Episcopalians for the last few centuries, and you don't see all the scandals with them that you see with the Catholic priests."

And Dick writes: "Oh, my goodness, no! The only things that remain the way the Almighty intended are the Catholic Church and the 'white male only' country clubs in South Carolina."

If you want too read more on this, you'll find it on my blog at CNN.com/CaffertyFile.

I'm out of here, Mr. Blitzer.

BLITZER: See you tomorrow, Jack. Thank you.

To our viewers, remember: you can always follow what's going on in THE SITUATION ROOM. I'm on Twitter. You can get my tweets at twitter.com/WolfBlitzerCNN, @WolfBlitzerCNN. You can follow THE SITUATION ROOM on Facebook, as well. Go to Facebook.com/CNNSituationRoom to become a fan.

Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. I'll be back in just one hour to continue our special coverage of the president's address from the Oval office.

"JOHN KING USA" starts right now.