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President Announces End to U.S. Military Involvement in Iraq; Senator Kelly Ayotte Interviewed About End of Iraq War; Thousands of U.S. Contractors Will Remain in Iraq after U.S. Troop Pullout; Questions Arise over the Nature Moammar Gadhafi's Death; Iraq Pullout & Iran Danger; Fact-Checking Vice President Biden's Claims on Rape

Aired October 21, 2011 - 17:00   ET



Happening now, breaking news. President Obama's declaring the United States war in Iraq will be over by the end of the year, but thousands of American citizens will be left behind. This hour, what the president didn't say during his surprise announcement.

Plus, fears that Iraq will now get even cozier with its dangerous neighbor Iran. We're digging deeper on the possible downside of a full U.S. military withdrawal.

And Libyans line up to see Moammar Gadhafi's corpse in a cooler while the United Nations demands to know if he was killed during fighting or executed.

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

Many Americans have been waiting almost nine long years to hear the words the president of the United States said today, that all U.S. troops who will be leaving Iraq, will be heading home by the holidays. But President Obama's critics say the withdrawal is actually a failure by the Obama administration that could have serious consequences.

We're looking at all sides to this breaking story. Listen to a slice of the president's upbeat announcement.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Today I can report that as promised, the rest of our troops in Iraq will come home by the end of the year. After nearly nine years, America's war in Iraq will be over.

Over the next two months, our troops in Iraq, tens of thousands of them, will pack up their gear and board convoys for the journey home. The last American soldier will cross the border out of Iraq with their held -- heads held high, proud of their success and knowing that the American people stand united in our support for our troops.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: There are about 38,000 U.S. troops still on the ground in Iraq right now.

Before the president's announcement, the United States and Iraq had been in serious talks about leaving some American forces, a few thousand at least, in the country beyond the planned December 31st deadline, but Iraq adamantly refused to give any remaining U.S. troop legal immunity for prosecution. So the withdrawal is moving forward. The U.S. will not retain a residual military presence in Iraq.

Let's bring in our Pentagon correspondent Chris Lawrence. He's taking a closer look at the immunity issue. Why was this so important to the Department of Defense, Chris?

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Not just the Department of Defense, but to the U.S. government as a whole. Immunity wasn't the only issue that derailed the negotiations, but obviously, it played a big part. And ultimately it comes down to the fact that the government of the United States need some sort of legal protection for the American troops that are there, something along the lines of what they have right now.

Now, I just talked to a senior Pentagon official who said, look, this isn't a get out of jail free card. In other countries, oftentimes U.S. troops are prosecuted around local laws. But he said in places like Germany and Japan, that's less of an issue because there's an established legal system. He said in a place like Iraq, it was very, very important that the troops have legal protection.

So when you look at some of the criticism from this decision, from Governor Mitt Romney, from Senator McCain, calling this a failure, that it goes against the wishes of military commanders, you have to ask the question, you know, would they keep troops there without protection, because it came down to Iraq having to grant legal protection to the troops. And if they weren't going to do it, the U.S. had a choice of whether to keep them there without it or bring them home.

BLITZER: So, Chris, what happens to the U.S. military in Iraq?

LAWRENCE: Like you said, they've got 38,000 39,000 troops. They've got about ten weeks to get out of the country. They're spread out over about 18 bases. But this effort to bring them home has really been going on for some time now. It's simply going to pick up now as we draw down to a close.

But I spoke to a senior Pentagon official who said -- I said, look, where to you go from here? The troops are now gone. And he said, look, there are capabilities that we felt we could help the Iraqis with. Now, we're not going to have sort of that standing presence in Iraq.

But he said there are still some ways that we can help them. He said we train with some troops of other countries in a third host country. That's an option. Perhaps we invite some of the Iraqis here to the United States to train, come to some of our war colleges. He said whatever means we don't want to lose that military relationship with Iraq.

BLITZER: Chris Lawrence at the Pentagon, thank you.

U.S. troops certainly will be coming home in the next several weeks, but thousands of American citizens will be staying behind in Iraq, many American officials, and that could be risky. Brian Todd is taking a closer look at this part of the story. What are you finding out, Brian?.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, there will likely be more than 10,000 Americans remaining in Iraq when the troops leave. You're talking about diplomats, lawyers, infrastructure specialists, and other civilians, and as many as 5,000 security contractors that will have to protect all the Americans. It will all be under the supervision of the State Department, the U.S. embassy in Iraq.

One expert is calling this a huge leap into the unknown. Here is a quote from Richard Fontaine at the Center for New American Security. He is an expert on contractors. Fontaine says "You're going to have to the State Department managing contractors that are going to flying helicopters, driving MRAPs, medi-vacing wounded personnel. This is the kind of thing that the State Department has very little in-house experience managing."

The State Department says it's looking to have adequate numbers on the ground to do all this, but it also believes that Iraqi forces can provide all the security needed in the country overall. State Department, Wolf, now fairly confident.

BLITZER: It's not exactly inspiring a lot of confidence, though, potential confidence in the future of these contractors, the future of the whole relationship.

TODD: It does not appear to be. CNN spoke with the CEO of a large contracting firm. He asked not to be identified because the sensitivities here. He said with the absence of the U.S. military there to collect intelligence on threats, the prospective contracting companies may very well be reluctant to get into Iraq if they have not been there before especially. He said some of the ones who have been there may be OK with it. The ones who have not been there are probably not going to want to go in.

BLITZER: Brian, thanks very much. This is the largest U.S. embassy in the world in Baghdad. You've got thousands of American diplomats based there. There will be U.S. marines who will guard that.

TODD: That's right.

BLITZER: But that's --

TODD: Absolutely.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Brian, for that.

President Obama may be hoping to score some political points for ending a controversial war that began when George W. Bush was president of the United States. But the Republicans who want his job are calling the withdrawal a failure, not a success. Our chief political analyst Gloria Borger is here. Some very, very harsh reactions coming in from some of these Republican presidential candidates.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, in particular, Wolf, from Mitt Romney, and let me read to you what he said in a statement today. He said "President Obama's astonishing failure to secure an orderly transition in Iraq has unnecessarily put at risk the victories that were won through the blood and sacrifice of thousands of American men and women. The unavoidable question is whether this decision is the result of a naked political calculation, or simply ineptitude in negotiations with the Iraqi government."

I mean, Wolf, I think while these words are incredibly harsh, it's also pretty predictable that Mitt Romney would say this. While there is an isolationist wing of the Republican Party right now, Mitt Romney is in a very tough primary fight. And I think there still is a sizable hawkish part of the Republican Party in which there's a lot of resonance when you say that Barack Obama is negotiating from weakness or he is inept.

I think the danger here when you move from the primary to a general election, the question is do you want to be on the side of arguing there should be troops.

BLITZER: The Obama reelection campaign in Chicago didn't waste any time in responding right back to Mitt Romney.

BORGER: No, they did now, Wolf. And the statement from the Obama campaign is this. "The president kept his pledge to the nation to end the war in Iraq in a responsible way. He has promoted our security in Afghanistan and eliminated key Al Qaeda leaders while strengthening American leadership around the world. Mitt Romney didn't lay out a plan to end the war in Iraq in his foreign policy agenda. He barely even mentioned Iraq. But he's apparently willing to leave American troops there without identifying a new mission. Mitt Romney's foreign policy experience is limited to his work as a finance executive shipping American jobs overseas."

BLITZER: This campaign exchange, it's just I think the beginning of what we can expect. It was interesting they decided to respond right to Mitt Romney. because some of the other candidates were saying things, but they went after Mitt Romney directly.

BORGER: And what's interesting, Wolf, is they clearly believe they're on the right side of the foreign policy argument, that this is a president who has gotten rid of Osama bin Laden. He's had a victory in Libya, et cetera, et cetera, gotten al Awlaki. So they feel that if Mitt Romney wants to have a foreign policy argument, a national security argument --

BLITZER: Bring it on.

BORGER: Exactly.

BLITZER: What's the upside and the downside of the president's announcement today?

BORGER: Well, the upside is particularly for the base of the Democratic Party is that he's ended the war in Iraq. The downside is that he's ended the war in Iraq. And if something happens to upset the equilibrium in Iraq, if there is some kind of move by the Iranians, it will be very easy to blame Barack Obama. Republicans will say you should have negotiated with Maliki. You should have found a way to keep American troops there.

But if nothing does occur, the president can say, look, I made a campaign promise. I kept it. I'm out of Iraq. The American people wanted out of Iraq.

BLITZER: Because a lot of people are wondering, the president of the United States did not have enough strength, enough power, to tell Nouri al Maliki, you know what, this is the deal. You should do it. Nouri al Maliki felt strong enough he could tell the president of the United States, not happening.

BORGER: Or he said he couldn't deliver his own Congress. The argument the White House makes is can anyone deliver someone's Congress or parliament for them? The answer they would say is no.

BLITZER: All those Shiites in Iraq don't want any U.S. involvement in their country at all.

BORGER: So the danger, Wolf, is it's out of our control.

BLITZER: Gloria, thank you.

BORGER: The Republican presidential candidates aren't the only ones raising red flags about the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. I'll talk to a leading Obama critic in the Senate about her worst fears.

Also, in the chaos of Moammar Gadhafi's capture, how did he really die? We have brand images coming in. New evidence calls for an international investigation.

And the vice president talks about rape and causes a firestorm. We're checking his facts, the link he made between crime and politics.


BLITZER: We're hearing some very tough Republican criticism of President Obama's announcement today that all U.S. troops will leave Iraq by the end of the year. Senator Lindsey Graham issued a very strong statement saying "All we have worked for, fought for, and sacrificed for is very much in jeopardy."

He went on to say "I fear this decision has set in motion events that will come down to haunt our country," that statement from Senator Graham of South Carolina.

Joining us now, Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire. She's also a member of the Senate arms services committee. Thanks for coming in. SEN. KELLY AYOTTE, (R) NEW HAMPSHIRE: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Are you just as concerned as Lindsey Graham? I assume you are.

AYOTTE: I'm deeply concerned. I think we've seen a pattern here. We saw that basically this administration is ignoring the advice of our military commanders. We saw it in Afghanistan with withdrawing majority of the surge, the remainder of the surge troops in the middle of the fighting season, and now we're seeing in Iraq. General Austin, the commander in Iraq, has given a number of 14,000 to 18,000 troops would be needed to complete our mission to make sure Iraq remains stable.

And I think unfortunately, what we're going to see here is Iran cheering over this decision, and they're going to have more control in Iraq than we want them to have.

BLITZER: But the Pentagon, I'm sure the general wouldn't want any U.S. troops to stay there if they didn't have status of forces agreement with the Iraqi government that would protect these U.S. military personnel from any prosecution. They need immunity to stay, and the Iraqi government said no immunity.

AYOTTE: Wolf, I find that a little astounding that the administration couldn't negotiate this. And also my staff was on a conference call with Denis McDonough today, and he said that even if the Iraqis said now that they'd give immunity that the administration wouldn't change its decision. So I question that a little bit in terms of the immunity. I think the administration could have pushed them harder on this.

BLITZER: Because the defense secretary, Leon Panetta, and others have said if you want to have 3,000 or 5,000 U.S. troops, that is what they want to retain in Iraq. But apparently the Iranians have a lot of influence in Baghdad right now and have had growing influence of these past several years, and the Iraqi government of Nouri al Maliki simply can't stand up to that Iranian pressure. So here's the question to you -- why should the U.S. stay in Iraq if the government there supports Iran?

AYOTTE: Because we do not want to empower Iran. It is so important with how much sacrifice we've made in Iraq that we have a stable government in Iraq and that we don't continue to empower --

BLITZER: But senator, they're aligned with Iran as far as Syria is concerned. Nouri al Maliki's government is supporting Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's stance towards Bashar al Assad in Syria. So why would the U.S. want to retain any troops in an Iraq that aligns itself with Iran and Syria?

AYOTTE: Wolf, we're only going to further empower Iran by pulling our troops out. And let's not forget a very important point. We had a subcommittee hearing the armed services committee readiness committee this week, and I've learned there are going to be 14,000 contractors that are going to remain in Iraq. This is an unprecedented undertaking by our secretary of state's department, and we're basically going to have a civilian army in Iraq either way, but without the military training who are going to have to make sure that our personnel are secure.

BLITZER: Who's going to pay for all those contractors?

AYOTTE: Well, U.S. taxpayers.

BLITZER: Why not the Iraqis? They're exporting a lot of oil.

AYOTTE: It would be nice to have Iraq do that.

BLITZER: You're a senator, you could take --

AYOTTE: I certainly will hold --

BLITZER: -- to stop U.S. taxpayer money for funding these contractors.

AYOTTE: I'll certainly hold Iraq accountable. But one of the issues they have with contractors, they're not equipped to engage in the type of protection we need for our personnel there. And that's why, getting back to the recommendations of our military leaders, General Austin, 14,000 to 18,000 troops needed to secure Iraq.

Ash Carter, the deputy secretary of defense, came before the armed services committee and said security in Iraq was important for our national security on a scale of 10-10. And yet now we have the administration saying we're going to pull all the troops out.

BLITZER: You make a fair point, senator, but it's shocking to me that General Austin, the U.S. military commanders who had spent so much of America's blood and treasure in trying to help the Iraqis themselves, they could not convince their Iraqi counterparts that they should accept a new status of forces agreement that would give remaining U.S. military personnel the immunity they need, and as a result, all U.S. troops are leaving. If that's what the Iraqi government wants, the American people can't force them to allow us to stay. So we're going to leave right now, and that's going to be that.

AYOTTE: Wolf, I have to say, I'm really concerned when I have Denis McDonough say that even if the Iraqi government came out today and said that we're going to give immunity we're going to pull out anyway, to me that tells me there's politics at play, and that makes me concerned we did not negotiate as hard as we could. We need immunity for our troops, but at the end of the day, that is key. But I'm concerned that the administration was more focused on the next election here.

BLITZER: You make a good point, but do you have confidence in Nouri al Maliki? Is he a friend of the United States?

AYOTTE: I think he's a very difficult leader to deal with, no question. But he's now going to become more of a friend obviously with Iran without the presence of U.S. troops there. And the further destabilization of Iraq is going to undermine everything that our troops -- my husband is an Iraq war veteran, and so many have sacrificed for what we have done there. And their stability is in our national security interest. Look what Iran just did in trying to plan attacks on our soil. We should not be empowering them.

BLITZER: Here's the bottom line question, and it's a tough question to ask. Your husband served there. We know a lot of people who served there. Nearly 4,500 Americans died in Iraq. Thousands more have been seriously injured. They've come back without limbs and blinded. And we know the U.S. has spent $1 trillion in Iraq. Was all of that a waste?

AYOTTE: Well, Wolf, I'm really concerned that if we undermine all the progress, if we seize defeat from the jaws of victory with what we sacrificed there, that we could undermine everything we've sacrificed. And that's why I think this administration by the administration, they should have pushed Iraq harder to keep our troops there so we could get this right.

BLITZER: One final question before I let you go, senator. Looking back with hindsight, knowing everything you know right now, did President Bush in March of 2003 blunder when he ordered the invasion of Iraq?

AYOTTE: Wolf, I think hindsight is always 20-20 on these issues. I'm proud of the work that my husband did there and the other soldiers, and I think that we will be better off in the world, in the Middle East by having a secure, democratic Iraq. And that's why I believe it's very important that we do not withdraw these troops prematurely.

BLITZER: Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, a good discussion, senator. These are tough questions. I'm glad you answered the questions directly. Thanks very much.

AYOTTE: Thank you.

BLITZER: Chilling new images of Moammar Gadhafi's body prompting new questions about just how and when he died. I'll speak with someone who got a firsthand look at the late dictator today.

Plus, a rising young star in the Republican Party firing back against new allegations he embellished his family's dramatic Cuban history. Is Marco Rubio's political future at all at risk? We're investigating.


BLITZER: This just coming into CNN. Just one day since the death of Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, but we're now learning that NATO has agreed that October 31st is the preliminary end date for its mission in Libya. We're getting more information coming in from NATO headquarters. Stand by.

Meanwhile, chilling new images of the dictator's body are raising serious questions about exactly how and when he died. And now there are pressing calls for answers. Our own Brian Todd is looking into this part of the story for us. What are you seeing?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, to put it bluntly, there are some important people out there who are not yet buying the explanation from Libya's new government that their enemy died in a crossfire. They cite the compelling video that's been circulating and they want some legitimate medical professionals involved.


TODD: The video is jagged, grainy, and dramatic. In the chaos after his capture, Moammar Gadhafi is in one instant, alive. He's seen speaking, apparently wiping blood from his head. In later frames he appears to be dead.

What happened between those cuts could now be the focus of an international investigation. The U.N. high commissioner of human rights is calling for a probe, say more details are needed to determine whether Gadhafi was killed in a crossfire or if he was executed. The commissioner says taken together, these videos are very disturbing.

Amnesty International is calling for the new Libyan government to investigate.

(on camera): If it's determined he was killed after his capture and it wasn't in some kind a cross fire, what are you looking at?

SANJEEV BERI, AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL: If that's determined, there needs to be a prosecution of the individuals involved, and it needs to be done either by a fair and impartial system established by the Libyan government or by an international effort.

TODD: Officials in the new Libyan government say Gadhafi was captured alive and unharmed. They say when his captors tried to load him onto a vehicle, a gun fight erupted between Gadhafi loyalists and rebel fighters. They say Gadhafi was killed in the crossfire and died before arriving at the hospital.

But the pictures raise questions among forensics experts, pictures like these. In one shortly after his capture, Gadhafi is shown with a gaping wound to the left side of his head. In this image from Al Jazeera, you see a wound on the right side. The possibility that they're bullet wounds amplifies the question about a possible execution.

Dr. Michael Baden, former New York City medical examiner, says from what he's seen he believes the shots may have been fired at close range. Baden told "The New York Times" "It looks more like an execution than something that happened during a struggle." Forensic pathologist Dr. Werner Spitz has also looked at the video.

DR. WERNER SPITZ, FORENSIC PATHOLOGIST: These are not shots inflicted at close range. So the weapon was not held up to the body. These are from some distance away.

TODD: Questions that have to be addressed hopefully before Gadhafi is buried. According to Muslim tradition, someone should be buried within 24 hours of death.


TODD: As of just a few hours ago, Moammar Gadhafi had not been buried. That may not come for a few days. We are told there are discussions ongoing between the International Criminal Court and Libya's new government on whether that court will examine his body or not. It is not clear whether any Libyan forensic officials have examined the body to make any of these determinations, Wolf.

BLITZER: And there are also questions about whether Mutassim Gadhafi, the son of Moammar Gadhafi, was himself executed or killed in a cross fire. What do we know about this?

TODD: We're told there are images that show Mutassim Gadhafi after he was captured alive, images that show him lying down on a bed, images that show him sitting up, smoking a cigarette, again, after his capture.

Now, if it's determined that he was then killed after he was captured, that's going to raise problems again, more questions. There are going to be people who want answers on that as well.

BLITZER: And Saif al-Islam, the other son, he's still -- nobody knows where he is.

TODD: Still at large as far as we know.

BLITZER: Brian Todd, thanks very much.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Let's go from Libya to Yemen right now.

A statement just released by the Obama administration calling for the immediate transition of power in Yemen. They want Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president of Yemen, simply to go. Let me read a line from a statement just released over at the State Department.

"Today, the international community sent a clear, unified message that the time has come for President Saleh to allow the Yemeni people to live free from violence and insecurity." It goes on to say, "We urge the government of Yemen to investigate those responsible for violence against peaceful protesters and hold them accountable for their crimes. The only way to meet the aspirations of the Yemeni people is immediately to begin a transition of power in accordance with the Gulf Cooperation Council's initiative."

That statement just released by the State Department, effectively saying that Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president of Yemen, must go, and must go immediately.

We'll stay on top of this story for you as well.

Joining us now from Tripoli -- let's go back to Libya now -- is "TIME" magazine's Vivienne Walt. She was in Misrata earlier today, where Gadhafi's body is being kept in a refrigerated room. "TIME" magazine is our sister publication.

Vivienne, tell our viewers here in the United States and around the world what you saw.

VIVIENNE WALT, "TIME": Well, it was the most extraordinary thing, Wolf.

You walk into this dark room, and this not very cold room, and there is Gadhafi lying on a fairly grubby firm mattress, naked except for a pair of combat trousers that are rolled up to the knee, looking very bloodied and beaten, and pretty much kind of a solitary, pathetic figure.

BLITZER: So what are they going to do with him? Did they tell you what they're going to do with this body? I assume it will be buried at some point. Will there be a mark? Will there be any indication that this was Gadhafi?

What did they tell you?

WALT: Well, we've had a lot of conflicting reports about that, Wolf. We've had the prime minister, who came late this afternoon to Misrata to see the body, saying that it would be buried within 48 hours.

There's tremendous resistance among locals in Misrata to having it buried there. And essentially, there's really the whole idea about where it will be buried, never mind when. And certainly, that's there's a lot of questions about the details of how Gadhafi was killed, which seems to be very confusing and contradictory.

BLITZER: Did they say why they want the whole world to see these dramatic pictures of Gadhafi's body, why they allowed you, other reporters, camera crews, to go in there and film it so the whole world would see this body in this shape?

WALT: I think that there was essentially no coordination. When we got there this morning, there were very few people who knew that the body was there.

They tried to stop us from going in, but then decided it was OK for us to go in. Very few locals knew that it was there.

When we went back this evening, of course, the word had spread through town and hundreds of people had showed up to view the body. And this is kind of a source of pride for the locals.

It was their fighters that killed Gadhafi, and they want everybody to come see it. It's a war trophy in some senses.

BLITZER: Vivienne, you've been going in and out of Libya for many years. You've interviewed Gadhafi on many occasions. Get personal a little bit.

What was it like for you, having known Moammar Gadhafi for so many years, having covered him, interviewed him, and all of a sudden, see this body in this decrepit shape? WALT: I would say it was perhaps one of the more surreal reporting days I've had in my career. You know, obviously, in this job, as you know, you see a lot of dead bodies. But there was I was, six inches away from the man who had been almost impossible to get close to, had been almost impossible to get an interview with, and who had really ruled over this country with such incredible omnipotence. And there he was, utterly lifeless and hopeless.

And I must say, I kind of got rather wobbly at the sight of it, thinking how really transient it all is. You know, a lot of times, I've heard -- in various countries, people tell me the dictator ultimately has feet of clay, and never was it clearer than looking down at Gadhafi's corpse today.

BLITZER: What an amazing, amazing story. Vivienne, thanks for your reporting. Thanks very much.

Vivienne Walt, joining us from Tripoli. She writes for "TIME" magazine.

And with the U.S. withdrawing all its forces from Iraq by the end of this year, will Iran's leaders grow bolder, more dangerous? We're going to talk about that and more with CNN's Fareed Zakaria. He's in Iran right now.


BLITZER: A U.S. official tells CNN that Iran's influence in Iraq has limits, even now that American troops are set to leave by the end of this year. The officials suggest the Iraqis won't accept interference from its neighbor and former enemy during the regime of Saddam Hussein.

I asked CNN's Fareed Zakaria about the dangers of Iranian leaders meddling in Iraq.


FAREED ZAKARIA, HOST, "FAREED ZAKARIA: GPS": Here we are in a situation where we will lose, without any question, day-to-day influence in Iraq, and the Iranians will gain it. I think that it does fulfill a promise that the president had made, but there was a very easy task to maintain some kind of force level if the status of forces agreement had been negotiated.

Clearly, what happened was the Iraqis were unwilling to make that deal happen, and solely, the president decided in that context he was going to make clear that there was no circumstance in which American troops were going to stay in Iraq without the legal status of forces agreement that we have with any country in which we have troops.

BLITZER: Including South Korea, including Japan, including Germany. After all those wars decades ago, the U.S. still has significant troop levels in those countries, but there are status of forces agreements that the U.S. attempted to negotiate with the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki over these past several weeks and months, but as you correctly point out, Fareed, they failed.

Here's what worries a lot of U.S. officials -- and you're there in Iran right now, Fareed -- that when all the dust settles next year and the years to come, that Iraq might be dramatically aligned not only with Iran, but also with Syria. And indeed, in recent weeks, in the face of all the turmoil that's going on in Syria, Baghdad, Nuri al- Maliki, like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has basically backed up Bashar al- Assad, the Syrian leader.

And I'm anxious to see if that worst-case scenario, the likes of Joe Lieberman or John McCain or Lindsey Graham might fear, is that realistic, that all the blood and treasure the U.S. invested in Iraq might, in the end, emerge as an Iranian strategic victory?

ZAKARIA: I think there is a likelihood of that. Maybe not a likelihood. There is a distinct possibility of that.

And it tells us, I think, that we -- there was a dramatic misconception of Iraq from the start. We never really understood the country we were getting involved in. We never understood the exiles we empowered.

The president of Iraq, Mr. Talibani, the prime minister of Iraq, Mr. Maliki, have spent years in Iran. They were funded by Iran. They speak (INAUDIBLE). They have close relations with the leader of the Quds Force, General Suleimani.

So, the idea that they would not have some kind of close connection -- and the way in which the United States entered this, almost blindly assuming that because we were the liberators and we were getting rid of a bad guy, all of Iraq would rise in our support, just shows that it was both a strategic and a tactical level, a game very badly played, and now we are reaping the rewards of that, or the consequences of that. I don't think there was much the Obama administration could do at this point, because -- and there were many forces within Iraq that didn't want to do the deal with the United States, just not enough.

And so, we face a situation where we will have to redouble our efforts politically and diplomatically. But I'll tell you something. In this part of the world, Wolf, nothing helps soft power more than hard power.

In other words, if you're going to try to have influence and be persuasive and have an impact on decision-making, it sure helps to be militarily powerful, strong consequential, and having had a certain number of American troops that would be crucial to training the Iraqi army will be very useful. What remains to be seen, Wolf, is who will play that role, because the Iraqi army sure needs help. They have been trained by the Americans. If the Americans are going to withdraw, somebody is going to have to fill that vacuum.


BLITZER: Fareed Zakaria, speaking with me earlier. He's in Tehran right now, by the way. He's getting ready to do a sit-down interview with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

You can see that interview Sunday morning, "FAREED ZAKARIA: GPS," 10:00 a.m. Eastern, 1:00 p.m. Eastern as well on Sunday, his exclusive interview with President Ahmadinejad, only here on CNN.

A lot of good stuff he's got in store, good questions for President Ahmadinejad.

A Chinese toddler ignored after being hit by not one, but two cars. We're getting new information in this heart-wrenching story. Stand by for that.

And other important news we're watching, including a major payout in the wake of that mass U.K. phone hacking scandal.

Details and a lot more news coming up, right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Lisa Sylvester is monitoring some other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

What else is going on, Lisa?

LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, this is a sad one.

A 2-year-old Chinese girl who was ignored by more than a dozen passersby after being hit by two cars has died, according to a military hospital. The incident was caught on tape via security camera last week. The child was eventually rescued by an elderly scrap collector. State-run media report the Chinese government offered that person about $3,000 for the act.

And the publisher of the collapsed newspaper behind the alleged phone hacking scandal in the U.K. has agreed to pay more than $3 million to the family of a missing British teen later found dead. Accusations that reporters hacked into the girl's voicemail while she was missing prompted arrests, then resignations. Some of that money will go to charity.

And the Thai government is trying to save Bangkok from the region's worst flooding in half a century. More than 300 people have been killed. The government is opening floodgates to relieve pressure on dams and levees and to send the water towards the sea, but that means parts of the city and its surrounding suburbs are flooded even more -- Wolf.

BLITZER: What a story that is. All right, Lisa. Thanks very much.

The vice president of the United States, Joe Biden, he's known for speaking his mind, but did he go too far by talking about Republican opposition to the president's jobs bill and rape in the same sentence?

Stand by.


BLITZER: Vice President Joe Biden igniting a fierce political controversy over comments he made linking an apparent rise in crimes like rape with Republican opposition to the president's stalled jobs bill.

Our White House correspondent Brianna Keilar has been fact-checking this story for us.

Brianna, what are you finding out?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the rape statistic that Vice President Joe Biden has been citing this month is very different from FBI numbers, and there's enough concern about this discrepancy that the Flint, Michigan, Police Department which gave this statistic to the vice president's office and he used in remarks, that they're actually doing a very thorough review, the mayor of Flint tells me.

Let me explain to you how this whole controversy happened.

Vice President Biden was in Flint, Michigan, October 12th. This is a high-crime area and an area where a significant part of the police department has -- is gone now, has been laid off. And he was touting President Obama's jobs plan, or specifically part of it that would give money to states so that they could rehire or retain police officers who might be laid off because of budget cuts, and here's what the vice president said.


JOSEPH BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: In 2008, when Flint had 265 sworn officers on their police force, there were 35 murders and 91 rapes in this city. In 2010, when Flint had only 144 police officers, the murder rate climbed to 65, and rapes, just to pick two categories, climbed to 229.

In 2011, you now only have 125 shields. God only knows what the numbers will be this year for Flint if we don't rectify it.


KEILAR: It's the jump in rapes that the vice president cites that has raised questions of accuracy. So let's take a look at just those numbers.

From 2008 to 2010, Biden said that rapes in Flint jumped from 91 to 229, a considerable increase. This, as police officers -- or the size of the police force was diminished. But look what the FBI says.

They say, Wolf, that the incidents of rape actually decreased from 103 to 92 over that time period. And this has raised question, especially among Republicans, as you can imagine, Wolf, who have sort of rebuffed this suggestion that, because they were opposed to this part of the president's jobs plan, and they were unanimous in opposition to it last night in the Senate, that rapes would increase because of their opposition.

BLITZER: How does the White House, Brianna, explain this big discrepancy?

KEILAR: You know, they point very much to the city of Flint having given them these specifics, but they also say that local crime statistics can be different from federal ones, that the federal definition, for instance, of rape is much more narrow.

And I spoke with the mayor of Flint. He also said that, as they're going through this review, there's the possibility that sexual misconduct and not just rape was included in the statistic. The bottom line, though, he said, is that the trend is going in the wrong direction. It is for sure in Flint that crime is increasing. So, despite the statistic question -- and this is something the White House points to as well -- they say the trend is very real -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Brianna. Thanks very much. Good fact-check for us.

A rising star in the Republican Party, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, he's now responding to claims that he embellished the story of his family's exodus from Cuba.


BLITZER: Florida's very popular senator, Marco Rubio, is on the defensive today over one aspect of his political appeal, his family's exodus from Cuba.

CNN John Zarrella reports.


JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio says the date, before or after Castro, is not the sense of his family's story. Rubio, a rising star in the Republican Party, has been forced to correct one some are calling sloppy.

Here's how to started.

A "Washington Post" article pointed out that Rubio biography on the official Senate Web site says his parents came to America following Fidel Castro's takeover. In fact, they came to the United States in 1956, two-and-a-half years before Castro took power.

This afternoon, on Fox TV, Rubio acknowledged he got the dates wrong.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLORIDA: Look, if they want to attack me for getting the dates wrong, they're right. I thought the dates were right. don't walk around with my parents' passports in my pocket. They're right they got the dates wrong.

ZARRELLA: The Post also said Rubio made reference to this more than once. They pointed out a speech in 2006 just before he became Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives. RUBIO: In January of 1959, a thug named Fidel Castro took power in Cuba.

ZARRELLA: Later in the speech, he says he is the son of exiles, but he never directly mentions his parents. The Post article says Rubio embellished the facts. Rubio says the date was never as important as why they could never go back.

He told Fox there was never any reason to embellish.

RUBIO: My parents were never able to return to the country of their birth -- not to visit, and certainly not to live, unless they were willing to live under communism. To say they're not exiles is outrageous.

ZARRELLA: If he's guilty of anything, says "Miami Herald" political editor Marc Caputo, he's guilty of being sloppy. Caputo has followed Rubio for a decade. Caputo says he can't find any references in The Herald's reporting where Rubio talked of his parents leaving after Castro took over.

"I went through Nexus last night and I looked up all my clips" -- all the clips in 'The Miami Herald' -- to see if he ever said that they fled Castro's Cuba. I didn't find any."

Rubio says people didn't vote for him based on when his parents came to the United States. They voted for him, he says in an editorial in Politico, because, "As a son of immigrants, I know how special America really is."


ZARRELLA: Now we tried to reach out ourselves to the senator for a comment, but his office said he was traveling, Wolf. I imagine they meant over to Fox -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. Well, he's got a good explanation there.


BLITZER: He didn't necessarily know precisely the date when his parents --

ZARRELLA: No, he did not.

BLITZER: -- left Cuba and came back. And if they couldn't go back, in effect, for all practical purposes, they were exiles, if they couldn't go back to their country.

ZARRELLA: They were exiles, absolutely.

BLITZER: So he's got a good point.


BLITZER: All right. Good reporting, John Zarrella. I'm sure that Marco Rubio is going to be speaking with you. He'll speak with me. We'll continue this conversation. He's got a huge future ahead of him.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. The news continues next on CNN.