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CONNECT THE WORLD

Continuing Concerns About Arab League Monitors in Syria; Confrontation Possible Between US and Iran Over Strait of Hormuz; National Memorial Service for Kim Jong-il in North Korea

Aired December 29, 2011 - 16:00   ET

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


BECKY ANDERSON, HOST: Tonight, surviving a snipers' alley. An exclusive glimpse into what daily life inside Syria is really like.

Live from London, I'm Becky Anderson. Also tonight, saber-rattling or something more serious? What Iran's threat to block a crucial oil route could really mean.

And the land that time forgot. Why one country is heading for the weekend a day early.

First up tonight, Arab League monitors are fanning out across Syria on the third day of their mission, there. Yet, new deaths are reported in every area they visited today, raising doubts about their ability to help bring peace to a country approaching what can only be described as a civil war.

Opposition activists say at least 35 people were killed across Syria on Thursday, some in the suburbs of the capital Damascus. In a few moments, we'll have some exclusive reports showing just how dangerous life has become in Syria and how army defectors are now fighting back against their former bosses.

First up, though, let's get you clued in on what happened today. Observers arrived in the flashpoint city of Idlib, Hama, and Daraa, as well as Douma, which is a suburb of Damascus. They are monitoring the regime's compliance of the promise to end its crackdown on dissent, yet these observers rely on government transportation to reach the sites, and they're often given an army escort.

Well, critics believe they're being steered away from the trouble spots and fear the mission will simply give Syria cover for continuing its deadly crackdown.

It doesn't help that the observer team itself is generating controversy. Now, it's headed by a Sudanese general who served in a regime accused of war crimes. Earlier this week, he told reporters that his team has seen, and I quote, "nothing frightening" in Syria.

Well, let's get more on all of this from Mohammed Jamjoom, who's following developments for you, tonight, as he's been doing for a number of nights, now, from Cairo. Mohammed, what do we know at this point?

MOHAMMED JAMJOOM, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Becky, more disturbing accounts emerging from activists and residents in Syria today, even a day when observers there, Arab League monitors, have fanned out to different cities, as you've said, just a little earlier now.

One case of violence that was reported, which was purportedly caught on videotape in the Damascus suburb of Douma. We're told by activists there that even as Arab League monitors arrived, there were people gathered in the city and that they were fired upon, that there was a crackdown that was ensuing by the security forces, there.

This is video that purports to show some of that. You hear heavy gunfire.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

(CROWD SHOUTING)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

JAMJOOM: And in the distance, the camera showed what appears to be lots of Syrian security forces. We heard of multiple deaths happening in Douma today.

Other videos that emerged today from Syria purporting to show -- one in the flashpoint city of Homs, that was supposedly taken yesterday, purporting to show the head of the delegation, General Mohammed al-Dabi, in Homs walking around as an activist walks next to him, confronts him, tries to question how effective the mission is when all these deaths and crackdowns are still occurring.

The general, then, is heard saying to the activists, "Well, give us some time, we've only been here one day."

Now, we found that activist, we spoke to him a little bit later in the day. He confirmed that he was on that videotape. He told us that the people of Homs simply have no faith in this Arab League mission.

And he says that the people of Homs believe that the Bashar al-Assad regime has only allowed in these observers as a stalling tactic, a ploy to just delay things further and keep that crackdown going on in Syria. Becky?

ANDERSON: Mohammed Jamjoom, reporting out of Cairo for you. You know, I tell you every night, that we can't get into Syria, international journalists not welcome there at present, so your reporting tonight from Mohammed out of Cairo. Mohammed, thank you for that.

It may seem strange that people are being killed even as monitors walk the streets of their towns, but according to one journalist who managed to sneak into Homs, there are two different realities on the ground, and the monitors simply may be seeing only one of them.

Now, the freelance journalist and filmmaker just left Homs, the epicenter of the uprising. I'm not going to name him for his own security, but over the next few days, we're going to be showcasing some of what are his remarkable stories from the front lines, including a dramatic report from the flashpoint of Baba Amr.

Well, his first story tonight, the difficulty of daily life when snipers rule the streets.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST (voice-over): I came to this junction, and I realized that somebody wanted to cross the street with a huge bag of cigarettes. So, he -- I could hear the snipers shooting --

(GUNFIRE)

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: -- and he was -- he wasn't able to cross the street, and the bag with the cigarettes was in the middle of the street. So, it was, again, one of these -- very impressive scenes where people have been very happily and almost a sport challenge to get the cigarette bags up from the sniper range.

And they'd been happy when they could.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): We need to cross the street to buy bread and other food, but the snipers have surrounded this area. It's a huge danger.

(GUNFIRE)

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: And they started to throw the bread, because they were not able to cross, so everything they needed on the other side, they throw it over the streets.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ANDERSON: All right. Well, as we mentioned earlier, that journalist also ventured into Baba Amr, which is a neighborhood of Homs. It's possibly the first place in Syria beyond government control. His next exclusive report for CNN covers the fierce battle between army defectors and the units that they have abandoned. Have a look at this.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(GUNFIRE)

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST (voice-over): In the Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs, anti-Assad fighters took me into a house where their men were engaged in a shootout with snipers from the Syrian military.

(GUNFIRE)

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: These men say they are all defectors from Assad forces. They call themselves the Free Syrian Army.

One of the men managed to take a rifle with a precision scope with him when he defected. But most of the fighters from the Free Syrian Army are ill-equipped, short on guns and ammunition, and with no heavy weapons.

Still, they have managed to kick Assad forces out of Baba Amr and hold their area. It's possibly the first place in Syria beyond government control.

Checkpoints like this mark the front line.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Assad's troops are about 25 to 30 meters away from us, with soldiers and tanks. We are here to prevent them from passing and killing young and old.

UNIDENTIFIED JOURANLIST: The man introduced me to one of their leaders. Abdel Razzaq Tlas is one of the few willing to be identified. He was a lieutenant in Assad's army before defecting, His uncle is a former Syrian defense minister.

ABDEL RAZZAQ TLAS, DEFECTED OFFICER (through translator): We got orders in the army that went against my oath as a soldier. I had sworn to protect civilians, but when I saw what the government forces were doing to the people, I defected on June 2nd.

(CROWD CHANTING)

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: People like Abdel Razzaq Tlas are heroes for the people of Baba Amr. He was cheered at an anti-government demonstration.

(EXPLOSION)

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: But Baba Amr is surrounded by the Syrian military and constantly shelled by tanks and artillery. At a meeting in a safe house, Abdel Razzaq Tlas insists that even though Assad has not used his air force against the uprising, only a no-fly zone imposed by the international community, could help the rebels win.

TLAS (through translator): We are in contact with soldiers who are in the army. They tell us that a no-fly zone is essential to prevent them from getting bombed if they defect.

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: For now, the men of the Free Syrian Army are fighting a guerrilla war against an overpowering foe. They smuggle fighters in and out of the neighborhoods they control, evading government checkpoints.

At night, they search everyone entering and leaving the area to stop government death squads, the so-called Shabia, from getting in.

TLAS (through translator): The street you see over there is controlled by the Shabia. They are known to kidnap our women and children. We try to prevent this. When strangers come here, we stop and search them.

(CROWD CHANTING)

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNANLIST: The people of this part of Homs are not afraid to take to the streets. There are regular nighttime release, but after months of casualties, they have long lost their faith in non-violent protests.

In Baba Amr, many believe that real change in Syria will only come from the barrel of a gun.

(CROWD SINGING, PLAYING DRUMS)

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ANDERSON: One neighborhood of Homs, as I said, that's possibly the first place in Syria beyond government control.

Well, some Syrian activists say the Arab League team on the ground at present is far too small to monitor what is widespread unrest in a country of 22 million. I want to get some thoughts, now, on that observer mission from a spokeswoman for the opposition umbrella group the Syrian National Council.

Bassma Kodmani has been in touch with the observers on the ground, and she joins us now, live. Bassma, firstly, what have they said to you?

BASSMA KODMANI, EXECUTIVE BUREAU, SYRIAN NATIONAL COUNCIL: The meetings with the Arab League are all about the capacity of the League to conduct the mission. We have every indication that the intention is good and that they're working in good faith.

If some members were not quite ready to say everything they were seeing, I think, under pressure from both the opposition, people on the ground, and the media, are now completely cooperating, asking for information, going to the places we're indicating, and particularly listening to every trick we are trying to warn them against.

Only today, there were indications again of the observers being taken to one neighborhood and told that it was another neighborhood, so they were taken to --

ANDERSON: All right.

KODMANI: -- a quiet neighborhood.

ANDERSON: Bassma, I have to remind you and the viewers that in the past 24 hours, we've seen video footage purportedly out of Syria, we've got to believe it's true, of protesters in areas where the observers were, decrying the fact that they weren't doing enough, or certainly the international community wasn't doing enough.

So, I think with respect, it's wrong to say that the observers haven't been into areas where there are protesters. I wonder, what are you hearing from them on the ground at this point?

KODMANI: They have -- I think they've had real difficulties beginning their work, and I think they underestimated the tricks that the regime could play, and they did not realize that they really needed cooperation from even on the ground and from the opposition.

They are now, I think, much more attentive to what we are saying. I think this is most important. I do believe that in the coming days, there will be some improvement in their movements and their vigilance.

Now, that does not mean that they have the capacity to really cover much of what the reality is on the ground, and that's our concern --

ANDERSON: And yet --

KODMANI: -- is that they are going to see what they are show --

ANDERSON: Yes.

KODMANI: -- mostly and they might come out with a report that does not tell us, really, where our responsibility lies.

ANDERSON: OK. And you're making a very good point tonight. We're talking about tens rather than hundreds of monitors on the ground. I mean, this is a country of 22 million people, and -- as you're suggesting, those monitors may not be getting access, transparent access, to exactly what is going on.

However, our exclusive footage tonight from a journalist who's been into Homs and various other areas and out is, I hope, reflecting the true reality on the ground.

Let me put this to you. In our last report, there are defectors in a neighborhood of Homs saying that they are looking -- they are looking for NATO to impose or consider imposing a no-fly zone. They say that would encourage others who are concerned about defecting from a government, a military that they now no longer believe in, it would encourage them to get on and do that.

What is your sense at the SNC? What's your next move? What's your next narrative, at this point?

KODMANI: The demands for a no-fly zone have been there for a long time, and there is a lot of pressure from the ground to arm the SNC to request such a no-fly zone.

We have not done so. We think the next step should be for the Arab League to state what it sees, to assess what this mission has been able to do, and not wait too long, just say so every other day, that here is what we are able to do and here is what we are not able to do.

Based on that, we hope that within a few days, the ministers of foreign affairs of the Arab League will gather again and estimate whether it is worth continuing the mission and whether --

ANDERSON: Sure.

KODMANI: -- they should come up with a new demand, that this will be a formal demand from the Arab League to the international community.

ANDERSON: Fascinating. Bassma, for the time being, we thank you very much, indeed, for making yourself available to us here on CNN International tonight.

All right. Well, let me just pause for thought for a moment for you. The exclusive footage that you have seen tonight was gathered at great risk to the filmmaker and reveals a picture of life inside Syria which, to be quite frank, is shocking.

Now, in light of what you've seen, I ask you to consider again the remarks of the head of the Arab League mission in Syria just 24 hours or so ago. I quote, "Some places looked a bit of mess, but there was nothing frightening. The situation in Homs," he said, "was reassuring."

Well, I'd be fascinated to find out what the Sudanese general would describe as "frightening" or "messy," indeed.

And how about these comments from the Syrian president, I remind you, less than a month ago. I quote, "We don't kill our people," he said. "No government in the world kills its people unless it's led by a crazy person."

Well, someone's running things in Syria. Isn't it time that we all found out who it really is? We look to the Arab League, of course, at present, to report back on what they have seen and heard on the ground.

You're watching CONNECT THE WORLD live from London. I'm Becky Anderson for you. Still to come, North Korea puts on another spectacular show for its late leader, Kim Jong-il. What one official said in an eulogy that caught South Korea by surprise.

Then, ten months before the US presidential election, the first official votes are about to be cast. We're going to tell you how that race is shaping up. That and more, up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ANDERSON: You're watching CONNECT THE WORLD on CNN, the world's news leader. I'm Becky Anderson, welcome back.

Iran and the US clash verbally over a vital oil trade route, the Strait of Hormuz. Now, the US says that any disruption to shipping will not be tolerated. Backing that up, it sent an aircraft carrier through the strait with now incident, we are told.

The Iranians say closing the passage would be as simple as drinking a glass of water. Some believe a real confrontation is now possible.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEW KROENIG, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS: I think the United States would be compelled to reopen that straits. That's something that we could do. Our military is obviously much stronger than Iran's.

But it would mean attacking the Iranian Navy, attacking Iranian ballistic missile and rocket sites. So that's war.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ANDERSON: We're going to have much more on this story for you and what past saber-rattling could tell us about the current standoff. That coming up in about 15 minutes here on CONNECT THE WORLD. First, though, here's a look at some of the other stories that are connecting our world tonight.

Another country closely following developments in the Gulf is Saudi Arabia. Now, the desert kingdom just closed a massive $30 billion arms deal with the United States. The deal would supply 84 new F-15 fighter jets and the technology to update another 70. The White House believes the sale will send a, quote, "strong message" to the region, as well as boost the US economy to the tune of $3.5 billion.

North Korea held a national memorial service Thursday for its longtime leader Kim Jong-il.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

(SOMBER BAND MUSIC)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ANDERSON: It was the second day of elaborate state ceremonies remembering the man they called the Dear Leader. Once again, his youngest son and heir took center stage.

Several officials delivered eulogies, including one who said Kim Jong- il laid the foundation for better relations with South Korea, a claim that -- well, that surprised many outside of the North.

Egyptian forces have raided the offices of a number of NGOs in Cairo. Among those targeted are several US groups, including the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institution.

Well, Egypt's military council has often accused "foreign hands," as they call them, of exploiting the country's political and economic turmoil. We're hoping to talk to one of the NGO employees on the ground in the next ten minutes here on CONNECT THE WORLD, so stay with us for that.

Well, officials in Turkey say 35 people killed in a cross-border air strike in Iraq were possibly or probably civilians smuggling cigarettes. The military said that the Wednesday night strikes were aimed at Kurdish PKK rebels. Turkish officials offered condolences and promised that there would be a full investigation.

Up next, the Miami Heat have won three in a row to start the NBA season. Who can believe I'm saying that? We're only two or three games in. But there were -- or their may -- work was cut out for them in their latest victory on Wednesday night. Details on that after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ANDERSON: You're watching CONNECT THE WORLD live from London. It's Thursday, here, 26 minutes past 9:00 in London. Welcome back. I'm Becky Anderson.

Well, the Miami Heat are virtually a consensus favorite for the NBA title this season after Wednesday night's last gasp victory over the Charlotte Bobcats. Dwayne Wade, LeBron James, and company improved to three wins out of three games on what is a very young season.

And they've won in a variety of ways. Pedro Pinto joins us now. Remarkable stuff. Is anybody going to challenge these guys this season?

PEDRO PINTO, CNN SPORTS CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, last year, there was so much hype around them that I think it got them off track during the regular season. Of course, they still made the NBA finals, lost out to the Dallas Mavericks.

But I think they're the favorites, whether you love them or hate them, because everybody talks about them nonstop. They have the most athleticism, they have the most skill.

You were saying, and I really liked your enthusiasm when you were saying "last gasp," I appreciated that during the highlights.

ANDERSON: Thank you.

PINTO: But they are a consensus favorite, and they have won in a variety of ways. On the opening night, they went into Dallas, the team that beat them in the finals last year, beat them convincingly there, were up by more than 30 points, ended up winning by double figures. And then, their second game, they also won comfortably.

Last night was pretty tough. They were down by 15 at one point. That's Chris Bosh, amazing -- amazing dunk, there, by him.

But they're finding ways to get it done, and you have a look at the Lakers struggling, the Celtics are now 0 and 3, some of the traditional contenders really not what they used to be, so it's all about the Heat right now, Becky.

ANDERSON: When a basketball player does the splits --

(LAUGHTER)

ANDERSON: -- it's a really big splits. I was actually --

(CROSSTALK)

PINTO: That's the kind of question you get from girls when they watch sports, isn't it?

(LAUGHTER)

PINTO: It's not about --

ANDERSON: I'll tell you what --

PINTO: -- what's his average points and rebounds, it's "When he does the splits, what happens?"

(LAUGHTER)

ANDERSON: Have you ever stood next to a basketball player? It's the most intimidating feeling, isn't I? I --

PINTO: I was an intern -- I was an intern --

ANDERSON: For --

PINTO: -- for the NBA --

ANDERSON: Right.

PINTO: -- when I was in Charlotte, North Carolina, studying. And I was sitting behind the basket, and I was 17 years old, 18 years old. It was incredible. My first experience, it was amazing.

ANDERSON: Amazing stuff. I sit next to -- I was going to ask you another question about tennis, but we're not going to do that, because I -- I've got to tell you, I sit next to KJ, who played for the Phoenix Suns --

PINTO: Yes? Kevin Johnson?

ANDERSON: -- in, what? 1993, 94, KJ. He was one of the smallest guys on the team. I thought he was about 5 foot 6 until I stood next to him. He was about 6 foot 8. Because he was so much smaller than Charles Barkley, who was something like 7 foot 6.

PINTO: Yes, yes. He would still crush you with his little finger.

(LAUGHTER)

PINTO: Yes, yes. They are intimidating.

ANDERSON: Have we got time for tennis? We haven't got time for tennis tonight, sorry.

PINTO: OK, we will have time for tennis on "World Sport."

ANDERSON: Of course you will! Coming up in an hour from now --

PINTO: Yes.

ANDERSON: "World Sport" with Pedro Pinto, stick with him -- with us for him in that. All right. You're watching CONNECT THE WORLD here on CNN.

Talking tough. Could a war of words between Iran and the US lead to a real showdown in the Strait of Hormuz? That is coming up next.

And then, the competition to challenge US president US president Barack Obama is heating up as candidates make a final push ahead of what's known as the Iowa caucuses.

And skipping Friday. Why the island of Samoa is wiping December the 30th off the calendar. And I'm going to tell you what happens if you're Samoan and you have a birthday on the 30th. That all coming up next, stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ANDERSON: Your with CONNECT THE WORLD here on CNN. Let's get you a check of the headlines this hour.

Syrian activists say at least 35 people were killed across the country on the third day of an Arab League observer mission. The monitors spread out to several more flashpoint cities today, including Daraa and Hama.

North Korea ends its official mourning period for Kim Jong-il with a memorial service and the declaration of the new leader. Huge crowds assembled in Pyongyang for the ceremony at which Kim's youngest son Kim Jong-un was named Supreme Leader.

Washington is bolstering military strength of a key Middle East ally. It's selling F-15 fighter jets to Saudi Arabia, worth almost $30 billion. Now, US officials say the sale will help the Saudis ensure stability in the Persian Gulf.

And police in Egypt have raided the offices belonging to several rights groups. Investigators say that they are looking into whether the groups received illegal foreign funding, 17 offices in all were raided.

All right. Disruption will not be tolerated. That is the message being sent to Tehran from the US military this hour. This as tensions rise in the Straits of Hormuz, a strategic passage through which 30 percent -- 30, 3-0 percent of the world's sea-transported oil passes.

Now, the warning follows the Iranian vice president's threat to block the waterway if sanctions are placed on its crude exports. Let's kick off this part of the show with CNN's Jill Dougherty explaining the significance of this dispute.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN WORLD AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Just 34 miles wide, the Strait of Hormuz is one of the world's most strategically important choke points. One third of all oil carried by sea is shipped through it.

Now, Iran is threatening that not one drop of oil will pass through if the US follows through on tough new sanctions aimed at stopping its nuclear program.

But the US is warning Iran any disruption will not be tolerated.

MARTIN DEMPSEY, CHAIRMAN, US JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF: Any miscalculation could mean that we're drawn into conflict, and that would be a tragedy for the region and the world.

DOUGHERTY: World oil prices are spiking. Upping the tension, Iranian naval vessels lurk nearby in the North Iranian Sea, holding a ten-day military exercise.

KROENIG: Having the straits close would be disastrous for the global economy. I don't think any US president could let that stand.

DOUGHERTY: Matthew Kroenig served as special adviser on Iran at the Pentagon. He says any attempt by Tehran to close the Strait of Hormuz could mean war.

KROENIG: I think the United States would be compelled to reopen the straits. That's something that we could do. Our military's obviously much stronger than Iran's. But it would mean attacking the Iranian navy, attacking Iranian ballistic missile and rocket sites. So, that -- that's war.

DOUGHERTY: Kroenig thinks it's likely Iran is bluffing, trying to stop President Obama from carrying out the new sanctions. The State Department, too, is downplaying Iran's threat, calling it an attempt to distract the world's attention from the nuclear program.

But Iran has been increasingly belligerent and unpredictable, including allegedly hatching a plot to kill a Saudi diplomat on US soil.

But just their threat alone to shut the Strait of Hormuz is making Washington and the world nervous.

DOUGHERTY (on camera): So far, however, the Pentagon says there have been no hostile moves by Iran. A US aircraft carrier and also a guided missile cruiser got through the strait without incident.

Jill Dougherty, CNN, the State Department.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ANDERSON: Well, as this war of words develops between Iran and the West, it wouldn't be the first time that the two have traded threats, of course. Earlier, I spoke with CNN's Tim Lister, and I began by asking him if Iran was in a position to actually back up its threat. This is what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TIM LISTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It has -- had both its navy and its air force degraded by decades of sanctions. It means that, really, Iran has not been able to get the sort of cutting-edge technology into its military that its rivals across the Gulf have been able, though deals with the United States, to acquire.

United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, they all have first- generation US equipment. So, definitely the Iranians would not have the sort of naval power or even air power that they'd need to actually close the strait.

But they very often use asymmetrical warfare, using mines, mini submarines, and patrol boats where they don't have the conventional forces.

ANDERSON: Let's face it. This is a deterioration in US-Iranian relations. How worrying is this? How worried should we be?

LISTER: Well, when you talk to regional experts, they say it is very worrying, because the internal situation in Iran is that there's greater competition for espousing the hardline as they approach the next presidential elections. And so, there's a lot of internal disputes and contests going on, power struggles going on.

And on top of that, of course, they feel more and more hedged in by sanctions, and this threat about the Strait of Hormuz came about because various members of the European Union have threatened to expand the sanctions regime to include the export of Iranian crude oil.

So, clearly this does not come out of the blue. It's been something that the Iranians have done before, issued this type of threat. And as Admiral Mike Mullen said before he retired as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the real danger is miscalculation, that one incident could lead to something much, much worse.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ANDERSON: Tim Lister with some analysis for you.

Coming up, it may feel like the US presidential election is still a long way off, but the first official votes in the whole campaign will be cast next Tuesday. Now, we're going to tell you how the candidates are stacking up ahead of what is an all-important Iowa caucus. Stay with us for that. You're watching CNN, the world news leader. I'm Becky Anderson.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TEXT: CNN POLITICS, AMERICA'S CHOICE 2012

ANDERSON: Yes, you're going to see a lot more of that. The US presidential election is still more than ten months away, but believe it or not, the first official votes are about to be cast in the state of Iowa.

Next Tuesday, voters there will choose who they want to be the Republican candidate for president, and the results from that contest, or caucus, as it's known, may help determine who gets to face off against President Barack Obama in the fall.

And it's because doing well Iowa, at least in the top three or four, has been traditionally seen as crucial for candidates to stay in the race.

And there is a complicating factor with the Iowa contest in particular because it uses caucuses rather than traditional votes to select its nominee. Do not be confused. We have -- we've got Chris Welch with a look at how it all works for you.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CHRIS WELCH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I'm Chris Welch on a front porch in Des Moines, Iowa. Now, why Des Moines? Because this is the place, this is the site of the first in the nation caucuses, the first time anyone will cast a vote for the eventual Republican nominee for president of the United States.

Now, this is obviously not a real house. These are not real homeowners. We're at a fake caucus, we're at a fake home. This is all a mock-up done by the Iowa State Historical Museum here in Des Moines.

Let's start by breaking things down. Let's go inside the house and see what happens on caucus night.

Here we are in our nice little fake living room, and joining me now is Jeff Morgan, here with the museum. Jeff, thanks for being with us today, first of all.

I'm wondering if, before we get into exactly what happens on caucus night, can you just give us a brief overview of why is Iowa significant?

JEFF MORGAN, IOWA STATE HISTORICAL MUSEUM: Well, Iowa has had caucuses dating back to the late 1800s, but in 1972, the Iowa caucuses became the lead -- election, state election, that moves the campaign process forward to the White House.

WELCH: So, those who win Iowa don't necessarily go on to win the nomination, but it is often a pretty good indicator as to who's got strength, like the top three, right? If you don't make it into the top three, chances that you will become the nominee are not great.

MORGAN: Right. Traditionally, it's known as Three Tickets out of Iowa. Iowa may not always select or identify the person who ends up winning the White House, but we do weed the field down to usually the top three candidates.

In the Republicans, it's a straw poll, secret ballot poll, they come in and they vote for their candidate, and they move on to the rest of their evening.

WELCH: So, that's what we're seeing here --

MORGAN: Exactly.

WELCH: This is what they're doing?

MORGAN: Yes.

WELCH: Now, what happens? Do -- does each candidate kind of have a representative that gives a spiel, kind of a pitch for that person?

MORGAN: Republican side, they come in and they vote, it's a straw poll. They come in and the vote on a secret ballot and the results are tabulated and forwarded on, and it's a winner takes all on the Republican side.

WELCH: You've lived in Iowa for a while. How important -- how significant do you think Iowans view this process? How seriously do they take their role?

MORGAN: Sure. Well, Iowans take this role extremely seriously. We ask thoughtful questions, we expect thoughtful answers. A lot of Iowans take the opportunity to visit with candidates one on one, what call retail politicking.

And candidates, it -- for them, they have tremendous benefit through the caucus process because it helps them organize their staff, organize the message, sharpen their skills as they move through the rest of the political presidential campaigning process.

WELCH: A lot of Iowans tend to wait to make up their mind, and a lot of them will wait until the day, January 3rd, and it's at that point when we will see who comes out of Iowa and eventually who becomes the nominee. I'll send it back to you.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ANDERSON: All right. Good stuff. And just five days to go before those votes are cast. Let's take a look at the candidates, shall we? And how they're stacking up in the latest CNN/Time/ORC poll.

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, a name I'm sure you'll recognize, is on top with 25 percent, followed by Congressman Ron Paul. He's got 22 percent. Now, Romney's three-point lead is well within the margin of error, meaning those two candidates are statistically tied.

Former senator Rick Santorum has enjoyed a surprising surge into third place, and former congressman Newt Gingrich is, well, he's taken a bit of a hit, falling into fourth place compared to last month's poll.

But that's just one measure. What really matters is what happens next Tuesday. Political analyst and friend of the show Bill Schneider joining us, now, from Los Angeles.

I mean, it's been really interesting to see how these characters have sort of come and gone over the past months, Bill, so break down the numbers for us. Give us some predictions after that. Firstly, though, take a look at that poll for us, and what's the scoop there?

BILL SCHNEIDER, POLITICAL ANALYST: The scoop is, any one of them could win. You have four candidates all bunched at the top, any one of them could win because it's impossible to know what turnout is going to be.

Remember, this is a caucus. A caucus is not a primary. I primary is an election. A caucus is a meeting. People in Iowa, the good voters, Republican voters in Iowa, have to show up at someone's living room on a freezing winter night and indicate in public who they support. It's public voting, it's not a secret ballot. It is not an election, it's a meeting.

So, not that many people show up for a caucus, and we don't know exactly how to predict who's going to be there. So any of those characters could win.

ANDERSON: OK. That's not good enough. I'm going to ask you for some predictions tonight.

(LAUGHTER)

SCHNEIDER: All right. You want a real prediction? Here's one. I think Ron Paul has a good chance to win.

ANDERSON: Really?

SCHNEIDER: Ron Paul, I think, is a contender because he has a very good organization, and organization matters in Iowa. If he wins, it's going to be a little embarrassing for Iowa Republicans, because it'll make -- it'll make it look the caucuses don't mean that much. No one expects Ron Paul to be the Republican nominee. They just don't expect it.

ANDERSON: So, what's the point? What's the point, then?

SCHNEIDER: He's 76 years old --

ANDERSON: Yes, go on.

SCHNEIDER: The -- the point is very simple. Iowa is the first in the nation, and all it really does is eliminate some contenders. That's why Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, and Michele Bachmann are all clamoring to be in the top three candidates, because if they end up fifth or sixth, they're going to be under a lot of pressure to drop out.

ANDERSON: I stopped you right in the middle, there, and I apologize for that. Tell us about Ron Paul.

SCHNEIDER: Well, Ron Paul is something, frankly, of a crank candidate. He's run for president a couple of times before, once as an independent 24 years ago. He has a devoted following, some call it a cult.

He is out of sorts with the Republicans on a lot of issues, principally on foreign policy. He's a classic American isolationist. He doesn't believe in American intervention in the rest of the world, he wants to cut off all foreign aid, he wants to bring American troops home from all over the world, Europe, Korea, everywhere.

And his views don't sit well with a lot of Republicans. Trust me, he is not going to be the Republican nominee. If he wins the Iowa caucuses, one conclusion is going to be the Iowa caucuses are filled with crazy people and they don't really matter.

(LAUGHTER)

SCHNEIDER: One day, a couple of months ago, the former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party wrote an article in which he said if you address an audience of Iowa caucus-goers, three quarters of the people in the audience are going to be wearing tin foil hats.

(LAUGHTER)

SCHNEIDER: They're going to be getting signals from Mars.

ANDERSON: This is remarkable!

SCHNEIDER: And it's a very offbeat kind of crowd.

ANDERSON: I've been watching -- I've been watching American elections for years, obviously, and I've got to say, I find the Iowa caucuses very entertaining.

When you say this is going to be in somebody's living room on a sort of wet, windy, January night, I mean, how many people are going to turn up, do you think? Are we talking about tens or less than that?

SCHNEIDER: Well, the total in the Iowa caucuses four years ago, which was also a competitive primary, was 119,000.

ANDERSON: Right.

SCHNEIDER: That's not huge. Iowa has 1.5 million registered voters, and any of them can vote. They can even re-register as a Republican when they get to the caucuses. That's a tiny turnout. It's about seven percent.

New Hampshire, one week later, is a primary. That's an election. It's much easier. Let me give you an example. Iowa has twice as many registered voters as New Hampshire. New Hampshire had twice as many people turn out for the Republican primary as turned out for the Iowa caucuses.

It simply doesn't draw a big crowd because it demands a lot of time, and it is public voting. That's what they used to do in the Soviet Union, and that's -- that's disappeared.

ANDERSON: You know what? I -- I was thinking to myself, oh, here we go, 2012, it's going to be an election year, we're going to be doing a lot of that. We've got to keep our viewers sort of entertained and involved in this.

You've just done exactly that. Welcome to 2012. We thank you very much, indeed. You're going to see much more of Mr. Bob (sic) -- Mr. Schneider on this show as we move into the election year. Fantastic stuff.

And a reminder that all of this begins next Tuesday, January the 3rd, and CNN will have live coverage and results late into the night. Do remember, while the contest may help to narrow the field, whoever comes out on top may not necessarily be the nominee as Bill rightly pointed out.

Take 2008. John McCain, the senator, eventually won the Republican nomination despite placing fourth among Republicans in Iowa. Of course, that same year, Barack Obama won the Iowa caucuses on the Democratic side, and the rest, as they say, is history.

You're watching CONNECT THE WORLD here on CNN, I'm Becky Anderson. When we come back, a country with no tomorrow. While the tiny island nation of Samoa is skipping Friday. That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ANDERSON: Ah, just another day in paradise. Or is it? If you think you could easily lose a day under one of these palm trees, well, you're absolutely right. I'm being a bit mysterious, here, because we don't often get a story like this one.

This is about a time warp of sorts, at least. A back to the future situation that will have seen one country have no tomorrow. Take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ANDERSON (voice-over): Samoa. A Pacific island nation about halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand, is about to skip an entire day. The tiny nation is going to jump right from Thursday to Saturday. Here's why.

It's going to switch sides of the International Date Line at midnight on Thursday. So, at 11:59 PM on Thursday, Samoa will be east of the Date Line. And then at midnight, it switches sides, so at 12:01 AM, it'll be west of the Date Line and it'll be Saturday morning.

The Samoan prime minister says the move puts the nation on the same side of the line as its key trading partners in New Zealand and in Australia.

TUILAEPA MALIELEGAOI, PRIME MINSTER OF SAMOA (via telephone): We can now have five working days a week to continue and sustain our economic and commercial contacts with our business partners in New Zealand and Australia, China and Japan. And vice versa. Basically, before the change, we only have four working days out seven days a week.

ANDERSON: In 2009, Samoa switched from driving on the right side of the road to the left to further align itself with Australia. So, starting this Saturday, Samoa will be just three hours ahead of Sydney instead of 21 hours behind.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ANDERSON: Well, it's not the only region -- or the only island nation in the region to toy with time. This is Kiribati, you're going to see now, which is a bit further north from Samoa. It's made up of more than 30 atolls stretching across an expanse of ocean about the size of the continental US.

Back in 1995, it decided to move its date line so the entire country could be on the same day at the same time.

Now, having sailed from there is Tonga, an archipelago of about 171 islands and about 800 kilometers long top to bottom. It cleverly introduced daylight savings in the year 2000 to be the first country to see in the new millennium.

Well, you couldn't think of a better excuse for not having to show up to work on Friday, we don't have one! But for more on what life's really like on this tiny island, here's the view of Terry Tavita, editor of the "Savali" newspaper. I spoke with him just a short time ago from the Samoan capital.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TERRY TAVITA, "SAVALI" NEWSPAPER: About 70 percent of our people are farmers and fishermen, so the date shift would not affect them very much. They have their daily chores, they go to the plantation, and some of them go out fishing and the women, they stay home and do their weaving and look after the kids.

So, it's pretty much your very typical island life.

ANDERSON: It's not the first time that you've had change, is it?

TAVITA: This country has become very accustomed to change. Just two years ago, we had the road switch, changing from the left-hand side of the road to the right-hand side, so this country's become quite accustomed to these policy changes.

ANDERSON: A couple of things occurred to me. What happens if it were my birthday on Friday the 30th of December. Do I just miss out? Or do I miss out on being a year older?

(LAUGHTER)

TAVITA: Well, the prime minister has gone on air, and he said those whose birthdays fall on the 30th of December, they will just have to make due with celebrating it on the 31st on Saturday.

ANDERSON: Do the islanders not feel a little knocked around, given that you had this switch on the roads a couple of years ago, you got the dateline shift, now. They don't feel that they're sort of being knocked around to suit everybody else around the world, do they?

TAVITA: Well, when you live in a very small island, small country right in the middle of the Pacific, you have to make do, you have to make these changes to get with the times, and all that.

ANDERSON: What do you think the 200,000-odd inhabitants of the island will want to read on Saturday morning?

TAVITA: Happy -- happy belated birthday to all those who had their birthdays yesterday.

(LAUGHTER)

ANDERSON: Terry, New Year's Eve comes a day earlier this year. So, what are you up to?

TAVITA: Things are pretty much the same. We have some village concerts and some village gatherings and all that, but it's -- just like anywhere else in the world. We'll party a little.

ANDERSON: What are you up to on New Year's Eve?

TAVITA: I think I'll have a -- go have a drink or something.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ANDERSON: Good man. Samoa's, then, just got one day to go before New Year's Eve, but New York has still got two days left, and preparations for the big event there make up your Parting Shots this evening.

This is the scene in the Big Apple today as a very important annual tradition got underway. It's the Times Square confetti test, when organizers test the air-worthiness of the tiny pieces of paper which will descend on revelers at midnight.

A spokeswoman says the colored tissue paper is all hand-tossed, not shot out of a machine, and the aim is to make the paper float down magically.

But if you are planning to be among the million people who will pack into Times Square, you'd better get there early. Police have already begun setting up the barricades as the countdown begins. If you're not out, join CNN for the celebrations.

I'm Becky Anderson, that was CONNECT THE WORLD this evening. The world headlines and "BackStory" are up after this. Stay with us.

END