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CNN NEWSNIGHT AARON BROWN

U.N. Aid Drop Not Enough In Sudan; Political Pressure On kerry Over Decision To Support War In Iraq;

Aired August 11, 2004 - 22:00   ET

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


AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening again everyone.
There is nothing simple about Iraq these days, sovereignty or not. The battle for Najaf is a great example but hardly the only one. As we'll report in a few moments, U.S. Marines were poised for a final assault on the Shiite militia in the city but the danger in Najaf is a classic one. You can win the battle while losing the war.

Taking Najaf, parts of which are as holy as any in Shia Islam, threatens to create a backlash not simply on the Americans, because if you're realistic the Americans are not exactly loved in the country anyway, but threatens what support the new Iraqi government has and it threatens something else.

The more violence in the country the harder it will be to hold elections and the failure to hold elections as scheduled in January would represent an enormous defeat but how to quell the violence. The American commanders may well have wondered that today when they delayed their assault on Najaf. Would it actually end an uprising or simply spread one?

The Najaf story tonight will be reported by CNN's Matthew Chance who is in Najaf and he will join us shortly.

The whip begins in Sudan where misery dwells but hope hasn't vanished after a harrowing story last night. CNN's Christiane Amanpour on the relief efforts, Christiane a headline.

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Aaron, they really do need aid and they need it very quickly but, if anything, access for humanitarian workers this last week has gotten worse not better and therefore the aid pipeline is still not where it should be. It's still blocked.

BROWN: Christiane, thank you. We'll get to you shortly tonight.

Finally to Los Angeles and the presidential campaign, CNN's John King on the campaign trail once again, John a headline tonight.

JOHN KING, CNN SR. WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Aaron, the Democratic nominee, Senator John Kerry, is here in Los Angeles tonight, 13 days and 16 states after leaving his convention in Boston more than 4,100 miles across the country by bus and train making his case against President Bush and explaining, answering questions from some Democrats and the Bush campaign about his position on Iraq -- Aaron. BROWN: John, thank you. We'll get back to you and the rest shortly.

Also on the program tonight, the holy site itself, the history of a politically charged and religiously central shrine in Najaf that could become the center of the next fierce battle in Iraq.

And later tonight, the Kobe Bryant case. Yesterday, the alleged victim changed course. Today the prosecution seemed to blink. Could the trial be over before it truly gets underway?

And finally, no indecision here, morning papers will arrive on your doorstep before the hour ends, all that and more in the hour ahead.

We begin tonight with several thousand American soldiers and Marines on the brink. For several days now they've been preparing for a final push against the rebel forces in Baghdad and Najaf, one a treacherous urban battleground, the other, as we said, home to a shrine held sacred by millions.

No exaggeration to say that what happens next could drastically alter the face of the war and perhaps even the fate of the mission, which might explain what happens next hasn't happened yet as all sides spend a bit more time on the brink.

We have two reports tonight beginning with CNN's Matthew Chance.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CHANCE (voice-over): For the battle for Najaf fierce and a crucial test. U.S. military officials say they're preparing a major offensive against the Mehdi Army in the city. Already hundreds loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have been killed in clashes with U.S. forces but they're refusing to surrender. Iraqi security forces are also involved.

RALEB AL-JEZAIRI, NAJAF POLICE CHIEF (through translator): We have arrested several important figures from al-Sadr's militia and they are now being investigated.

CHANCE: Much of the fighting is near the Imam Ali Mosque in the center of Najaf and the ancient cemetery next door. Both are sacred sites in Shia Islam, both now cover for Mehdi Army fighters to launch attacks. For U.S. forces attacking the mosque is a red line they seem unwilling to cross. It could inflame passions against them.

Already civilian casualties in Najaf are said to be high. Hospitals are complaining of shortages. The injured are crammed into crowded wards. In the streets there have been anti-U.S. protests. Muqtada al-Sadr has urged his followers to fight on even if he's killed. His spokesman in Baghdad talked of a deal.

SHEIK AHMED SHAYBANI, SPOKESMAN FOR SADR (through translator): Despite the fact that we won victories and sustained casualties we're still opening the doors wide for dialogue, reconciliation and peace for the whole world.

CHANCE: But on the ground in Najaf, military officials say time for peace talks may have already passed. The new military offensive is in the offing. The Iraqi government wants to show it can act and the battle for Najaf is far from over.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CHANCE: Well, this standoff is turning into a crucial test of how U.S. and Iraqi security forces are able to operate together on the ground. Now, entering that mosque may be a red line for U.S. forces but military planners here in Najaf and elsewhere making the plan for the forthcoming assault saying that if it was an Iraqi force that led the thrust then that might prove less offensive.

It might not, they hope, spark the general fury that they expect if the mosque is taken. This is the basis on which they're working now, trying to get an Iraqi force to take part. The big problem is finding Iraqi troops willing and able to do it -- Aaron.

BROWN: Well, just take another little bit on that. Is there -- are there indications that Iraqi troops are unwilling to enter that area, unwilling to fight that fight?

CHANCE: I think it's a general problem that has been found with Iraqi forces fighting alongside U.S. ones all over the country not just here in Najaf. They're not the most enthusiastic people, fighters, when it comes to battling people from their own country.

Here in Najaf, the sensitivity is particularly high because this is the Imam Ali Mosque, the holiest shrine in Shia Islam. There aren't that many people who are willing to do it. The skill problem is also a big one.

Remember the Americans want this to go off without -- with as little damage, rather, to the mosque as possible. They want the most highly trained Iraqis that they can. They've been training them themselves but there are still reservations about whether the people they're going to ask to do it are going to be capable of doing it.

BROWN: Matt, thank you. Take care out there, Matthew Chance in Najaf tonight.

It probably helps to point out that Shia Islam is not Muqtada al- Sadr and Muqtada al-Sadr is not Shia Islam. Despite his popularity among the masses and that shouldn't be understated, senior clerics in Najaf view him as an upstart. Some have called him worse, a usurper, a shakedown artist, a thug.

Local merchants who depend on religious pilgrims for their livelihood aren't exactly crazy about him either or his army. They are, in fact, bad for business. But, as Matt just mentioned, dislodging him is one thing. Doing it at the shrine is something else.

Some background now from CNN's John Vause. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JOHN VAUSE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Inside the shrine to Imam Ali in Najaf, the stronghold now of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mehdi Army. These pictures appear to have been taken within the last month. The man to the right of screen only recently appointed as a senior aide to al-Sadr. U.S. military authorities allege the radical cleric used a six-week ceasefire to stockpile weapons and ammunition inside the shrine.

This is a sacred site to Shia Muslims, the place where Ali, son- in-law and cousin of the Prophet Mohammed, is believed to be buried. Iraq's majority Shiite population believe Ali is the true and only successor to Mohammed.

DILIP HIRO, AUTHOR, "IRAQ IN THE EYE OF THE STORM": Ali is important, not only to the Shiites but also to Sunnis and where he's buried for the Shiites is the most important holy site after Mecca where Prophet Mohammed was born, Medina where Prophet Mohammed was buried and number three is where Imam Ali is buried in Najaf.

VAUSE: The shrine with its golden bricks and dome is in the center of Najaf's old town, a sprawling complex surrounded by walls more than 20 feet high. From a hotel 400 yards away, al-Sadr's men have been firing on American and Iraqi forces. The vast cemetery outside is one of the biggest in the world with as many as two million graves. Now it too has become a battlefield.

The shrine has a bloody history dating back hundreds of years. More recently, Saddam Hussein sent his soldiers into the mosque to crush a Shiite uprising in 1991. Seven years later he visited the mosque, an attempt to win support among Shia. For the U.S. military an assault on the compound could provoke widespread outrage from Muslims around the world.

HIRO: So, in that sense, attacking something as sacred as the Vatican or the St. Mark's Square and that would be equivalent of Americans physically participating in attacking this shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf.

VAUSE (on camera): To minimize the religious and political backlash, Iraqi forces are likely to lead any offensive to eliminate al-Sadr's militia but that may not quell the anger of those already sympathetic to the radical cleric who has urged his followers to continue fighting even if he is captured or killed.

John Vause, CNN, Baghdad.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: Someone today described Najaf as the prize but Sadr City as the true heart of the matter. Tom Lasseter has been reporting on both for the Knight-Ridder chain of newspapers. He joins us from Baghdad today. It's good to have you with us.

Is it fair to say that what happens in Najaf, how this ultimately plays out will set off a chain or may set off a chain of events in other parts of the country even more problematic?

TOM LASSETER, KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWSPAPERS: Absolutely. You start with Sadr City. Certainly, Sadr's followers there are waiting day by day to see what happens in the Imam Ali shrine.

We were in Sadr City yesterday and Kadamia (ph) another Shia neighborhood today where Sadr's forces have massed and they in both places promised more violence, a significant upsurge in violence if anything were to happen to the shrine.

BROWN: Any reason to believe they're bluffing?

LASSETER: No, not to my mind. I mean they've certainly shown the capacity for violence thus far. They've, in Sadr City especially, been digging in. You have them openly digging holes for IADs, the roadside bombs. They're fortifying positions. I would take them at their word I think.

BROWN: In your reporting work either in Baghdad or in Najaf do the American commanders feel like they are essentially between a rock and a hard place here?

LASSETER: Well, I guess it's difficult to speak to them, speak for them on that matter but they certainly are between a rock and a hard place. I mean on one hand you have Sadr's forces who, after the truce in June, you know, didn't waste much time in fortifying not only themselves in terms of arms but in terms of support.

They, if anything, gained in popularity after that truce. They began policing the streets of Sadr City, began doing blood drives, began sort of amassing more support, anticipation for something just like this.

So I, you know, would imagine that another truce would bring the same result several months later but then to go in after them in Najaf up to the doors of the shrine could certainly start, not only significantly more violence with Sadr's men, but you risk expanding his base to others in the Shia community.

BROWN: When you lay it out that way do you get the sense that strategically at least al-Sadr wins no matter how this plays out? He wins if they attack the mosque and he wins if they don't.

LASSETER: Certainly. I mean, an awful lot about this fighting has to do with symbols and Sadr has been I think remarkably adept at managing that thus far. His father was a grand ayatollah, was killed by Saddam Hussein. Sadr has sort of wrapped himself in that flag, as it were.

You know and he's also wrapped himself in a flag of sort of (UNINTELLIGIBLE) nationalism that he is, you know, willing to stand up to the American forces here and, if he were killed or captured as the Americans threaten to do during and after the April fighting, I mean if anything his stature would rise amongst his followers and probably other Shias who are on the fence. BROWN: Finally, one final area, the Iraqi government in all of this has gone a number of different ways. There have been carrots. There have been sticks. Has the Iraqi government been damaged by all of this?

LASSETER: I think Allawi is walking -- Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, in particular, is walking a very fine line. He is a Shia and he depends on Shia political support and he and his governor in Najaf have both given the U.S. and/or Iraqi forces their permission to enter the shrine area.

If that were to happen, certainly he would risk losing a good deal of his support. There are others in the government, Vice President Ibrahim Jafary (ph) yesterday, for example, openly asked for the Americans to leave the area.

So, I mean you're starting to see dissention within the Iraqi government and also within the Shia ranks politically, so I mean it's a very tenuous position for him to be in.

But he's also trying to project an image of a strong man that he's not willing to put up with militias, in particular not willing to put up with Muqtada al-Sadr, so he is in many way in the same position as the U.S. military in that regard.

BROWN: Tom, good to have you with us. Thank you. You've been doing some terrific work there.

LASSETER: Thank you.

BROWN: Stay safe. Tom Lasseter who writes for the Knight-Ridder chain of newspapers in the country.

A world away from Iraq, the enormous problems in western Sudan tonight. Along with everything else, the ethnic cleansing, the starvation, the dislocation, now comes an affliction straight out of the Old Testament, a plague of locusts due to arrive any day now. Fortunately, however, there is some relief and at least one good reason to look up.

Again tonight, CNN's Christiane Amanpour.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

AMANPOUR (voice-over): A little boy waits as though expecting manna from heaven, which is what this might just as well be. Sacks of Sudanese sorghum, U.S. wheat, Canadian split peas and (UNINTELLIGIBLE) falling from the sky and providing the villagers of Habila (ph) their first food aid in three months.

It's still just a drop in the desert but a much needed one.

PETER SMERDON, SPOKESMAN, WORLD FOOD PROGRAM, U.N.: Getting food into west Darfur is trying to squeeze a watermelon through a keyhole because the infrastructure is so small. The airport is small. It's difficult to get food in there, especially during the rainy season. AMANPOUR: Because of the rains, the village of Habila is completely cut off. There's not an inch of paved road and dirt tracks are now muddy gullies and from the air, despite the fresh grown grass, evidence of the war that has burned the straw roofs off these huts, destroyed hundreds of villages and left more than two million people across Darfur entirely dependent on outside aid.

Late planning for this emergency and a slow response from donor countries means the U.N. is now making these expensive and inefficient air drops. It's a last resort. It looks impressive but it only amounts to a fraction of these people's monthly need. In addition, violence continues.

(on camera): The U.N. is accusing the Sudanese government of resuming bombing raids against rebels in south Darfur and it also says that displaced villagers, like these, are still being attacked by Janjaweed militia.

(voice-over): The vice governor of west Darfur denies that. He also denies reports that the government is forcibly trying to move people out of camps and back to their destroyed villages.

HABIB MAKHTOUM, VICE GOVERNOR, WEST DARFUR: There is not any violence. There is not any compulsory repatriation. It is just a voluntary repatriation.

AMANPOUR: In fact, most people tell us they won't go back home until there is proper security. In the meantime, this is their fate, a desperate rush to retrieve whatever aid comes their way and each family treasures the strict rations that it carefully doled out.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

AMANPOUR: Now, as we said, this is one of the first aid drops here since June and a similar situation around many, many parts of this part of Sudan there are it's estimated two and a half or rather 2.2 million people who need outside aid.

Now, the U.N. and other NGOs know about a million or so of them. They know where they are but the others they don't know where they are. They may be scattered beyond sight, beyond reach of any kind of help. They're not in camps and they simply don't know the state of those people at all -- Aaron.

BROWN: Christiane, there was some reporting here that we read here today that people who had been, people in the camps who had been talking to reporters or have been talking to the world essentially were being punished by the government or disappeared in one way, shape, or form. Can you confirm that? Do you know about that? Can you add anything to that?

AMANPOUR: I certainly heard about it and we've certainly asked about it from the NGOs and authorities here. Of course, when you ask the authorities, as you saw in that piece, everything is hunky dory. There's no problem. Everybody's cooperating very nicely but the reality on the ground is somewhat different. I'll tell you what we do know, for instance on the issue of forced returns, we're told that they are not forcing people to get out of those camps and go back to their destroyed houses but in the hospital not far from where we are, we have been told that there is at least two or three people there with gunshot wounds who were wounded as they resisted being returned to their homes. So, this is, you know, a worrying situation with pressure still by authorities on some of these most vulnerable people.

BROWN: Just very quickly how much freedom do you have to move around?

AMANPOUR: We have surprisingly a lot of freedom. We got -- after the whole process of getting the visas and the travel permits, which has plagued not just journalists but aid workers, diplomats and the like and which has contributed to the slowness of this whole relief campaign, we do have freedom here to move around now.

Can we wander into a military camp? No. Can we go and talk to military and police? Yes, but it's very, very difficult with the naked eye, so to speak, to be able to pick out militia or a Janjaweed who may right now have a military uniform on but certainly some of the people that we talk to, the displaced people are worried about just that.

BROWN: Christiane, thank you, nice work this week too, Christiane Amanpour in Sudan.

Still ahead on the program tonight, the domestic agenda, John Kerry and President George Bush differ on the war in Iraq. That would be Senator Kerry and President Bush and what about the pocketbook issues, economy, healthcare, prescription drugs and the like?

Also, finding the soul of a country torn apart by war through the lens of a native son, we take a break first.

From New York this is NEWSNIGHT.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BROWN: The next two stories deal largely with stories, what the presidential candidates tell voters and what the stories say about the country and the campaign.

Each side knows the importance of staying on message but events and controversies have a way of disrupting the best laid plans. For example, the president no longer in his stump speech says, "We've turned the corner." It turns out people didn't believe it and saying on message, it turns out, is no easier for Senator Kerry.

Reporting tonight for us, CNN's John King.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KING (voice-over): The banner helps the candidate make his point, with special emphasis on the critical voting block on hand to listen.

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Dr. Kerry is here to cure you all.

KING: Elderly Americans are reliable voters and poll after poll shows deep skepticism about the new prescription drug benefit President Bush pushed through the Congress last year.

KERRY: I call on the president to do what he should have done in the first place. I call on the president to get out of the way of Americans being able to import drugs from Canada at a lower price.

KING: Yet the most recent CNN polls shows a dead heat when seniors are asked their preference for president, proof Senator Kerry has at least so far failed to turn those doubts about the president's drug plan to more of a political advantage.

KERRY: I want to fix it. I want to plug the hole and I want to give every American a prescription drug benefit that works.

KING: And, as the Democratic nominee tries to emphasize domestic issues like healthcare and the economy, there is continuing pressure to square his vote in favor of giving the president authority to wage war in Iraq with his criticism of the war now and his vote against more funding.

In Las Vegas late Tuesday, Senator Kerry said it was right to give the president authority to confront Saddam Hussein but that Mr. Bush should have given weapons inspectors and diplomacy more time and should have had a better post war plan.

KERRY: I've been consistent all along, ladies and gentlemen.

KING: The political pressure is not just from Republicans. As Senator Kerry explained his position Tuesday night, a war opponent in the audience caught his ear.

KERRY: I'm going to get there. You just listen for a sec, follow me along here because this is important.

KING: Suggestions by the Senator and aides that his vote was more a message to Saddam Hussein than a vote for war drew a quick retort from the Bush campaign.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KING: Vice President Cheney said today that Senator Kerry's explanations do not pass muster, suggesting the Senator is caught in a "tangled web of spins and changes" when it comes to Iraq.

And the president himself took issue today with Senator Kerry's recent talk of trying to reduce U.S. troop levels in Iraq within six months of taking office. President Bush says it is reckless to make such statements. He says they could encourage the enemy and he says there's no way of knowing now what the situation in Iraq will look like five or six months down the road -- Aaron. BROWN: Quickly, given his druthers, you've been on the campaign now for a bit, would the Senator prefer not to talk about Iraq?

KING: Yes for two reasons. Number one, he wants to make his points on the economy and on healthcare on the domestic agenda where he has a huge advantage. Number two, if he gets in a day-to-day fight with the president over Iraq, it might demoralize some Democrats, the liberal Democrats who supported Howard Dean, Dennis Kucinich who are more antiwar and who don't like the fact that Senator Kerry voted for it.

The Bush campaign thinks it could tamp down Democratic turnout just a bit. Now, what this Kerry campaign will say though, if they have to have this fight, they want to focus not on the decision to go to war but on the president's conduct once he made that decision.

They would point to the story at the top of your show today, Najaf, and say this president had simply no plan to win the peace, as they call it, or at least the post-war period -- Aaron.

BROWN: John, thank you, good to have you with us again tonight.

What is said on the campaign trail is one thing. What is meant is generally more complex. Beneath the slogans lies the subtext.

Here's our Senior Analyst Jeff Greenfield.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: One way to help the American people is to promote an ownership society. When you own something you have a vital stake in the future of our country.

JEFF GREENFIELD, CNN SR. ANALYST (voice-over): Ownership is a key theme of the president's campaign message this week from the stump to the airwaves.

BUSH: One of the most important parts of a reform agenda is to encourage people to own something, own their own home, own their own business, own their own healthcare plan.

GREENFIELD: In one sense, this is familiar ground for Bush, a more positive version of a theme that goes back four years when he ran against Al Gore.

BUSH: He trusts government. We trust you and that's the fundamental difference in this campaign.

GREENFIELD: And a theme he continues to hit this year.

BUSH: Government should never try to control or dominate the lives of our citizens, yet government can and should help citizens gain the tools to make their own choices.

GREENFIELD (on camera): But there's an important point to keep in mind about this theme. It's rooted not just in an economic argument but in a view of the emotional, psychological state of the American voter.

(voice-over): Voters, the Bush campaign believes, have been shaken by outside events that have left them more vulnerable, less in control of their lives. After the attacks of September 11th, the evidence of that vulnerability is all around us, as is evidence that the economic future is not nearly as rosy nor as certain as it seemed four years ago.

Voters, say Bush advisers, think there are too many decisions being taken away from them and want to feel more in control of their lives. They also argue that the growing number of self employed Americans, more than nine million today, some four million more than in 1968, means a constituency more comfortable with making choices for themselves.

(on camera): Now, the Kerry campaign doesn't disagree with this diagnosis of the American voter but it argues that what's really making them feel vulnerable is the cost of healthcare, the cost of gasoline, the cost of college, job losses. What these voters want, says a Kerry campaign spokesman, is concrete help.

Jeff Greenfield, CNN, New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: Coming up on the program tonight, Kobe Bryant, a criminal case pending but for how much longer? Is the case unraveling? NEWSNIGHT's legal team takes up the case.

Later, the "Tampa Tribune," the "Sacramento Bee," the "Detroit News," one of those might actually make it tonight, we'll see, morning papers coming up too.

Around the world this is NEWSNIGHT.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BROWN: The Kobe Bryant rape case from the start has presented the court, the state of Colorado and in some respects the entire country with a complex set of issues.

For one, date rape is a tough crime to prove. For another, there is the issue of celebrity. Mr. Bryant is no Mike Tyson, central casting's villain. But at its core, there is the question of what is fair to the accused, as it must be in a criminal case. And fairness to the accused may in the end have scuttled the case before the trial begins. And the trial is more in doubt than ever.

Here is CNN's Gary Tuchman.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GARY TUCHMAN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): If their filing is taken at face value, the prosecutors in the Kobe Bryant case hope to delay the beginning of his criminal trial.

But the problems the prosecution has had leave many following the case to believe it may be on the verge of being dropped.

CRAIG SILVERMAN, COLORADO TRIAL ATTORNEY: This could be well be the latest move in a well orchestrated exit strategy. We've already suspected that that's what the accuser and her attorneys are doing. Now it appears the prosecution may be playing along.

TUCHMAN: After months of declaring they wanted this case to move quicker, prosecutors haven't even suggested a date for a delayed trial to take place.

Criticizing the release of closed-door transcripts which discussed allege sex the woman had the same week she was with Bryant, the prosecutors stated that since it did not put on its own expert witnesses during that hearing -- quote -- "There is an absence of balance in the information released." And that, they say, could affect their efforts to have a fair trial right now. But it is extremely unlikely Bryant's attorneys would argue against this, knowing how vulnerable the prosecution now is.

SILVERMAN: But the defense has not yet been heard from on this motion. You can expect they will cry bloody murder.

TUCHMAN: Just yesterday, the attorneys for Bryant's accusers filed a civil lawsuit against the basketball player, seeking an unspecified dollar amount in damages. Her attorneys have also said she might not want to go forward with the criminal case, no matter what prosecutors want to do.

Meanwhile, prosecutors have just issued an appeal to Colorado's Supreme Court, saying the judge made a mistake in ruling that testimony about parts of the woman's sexual history should be permitted in the trial. All these topics are likely to be discussed at a pretrial hearing still scheduled for Monday.

Gary Tuchman, CNN.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: Coming up in the next segment, we'll take a look at some of these issues, including the question of rape shield laws and do they in fact deliver the protection that they were meant to. That's coming up in the next section.

A couple of other quick items, however, first, starting with twin mysteries out of Iraq, two videos each purportedly showing a beheading, one victim identified as an Egyptian, the other an American CIA operative. Each appears authentic, but neither the American nor the Egyptian sources are giving us anything by way of confirmation tonight.

Negotiations are under way to secure the release of Yasser Esam Hamdi. He's the American-born Saudi who has been held for more than three years in U.S. military custody. Today, both his lawyers and the government jointly filed a motion asking that all legal proceedings in the case be suspended for three weeks while negotiations go on. In Northern California tonight, firefighters are battling two fast-moving wildfires. One fire has damaged or destroyed at least 40 buildings. The other has forced the evacuation of more than 100 homes. Together, they have consumed more than 1,100 acres.

And the first of two storms bearing down on Florida is now just hours from making landfall. Tropical Storm Bonnie is approaching hurricane-strength. Forecasters expect trouble along Florida's Panhandle beginning around sunrise. Meantime, Charley is right behind it, a bigger storm expected over the Florida Keys some time later in the day.

In a moment, we continue our look at the Kobe Bryant case.

And later still, a return to Afghanistan, capturing the greatness and the soul of a troubled land through the panoramic lens of a native son.

This must be NEWSNIGHT from New York.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BROWN: Kobe Bryant isn't the first celebrity defendant accused of rape, and his accuser isn't the first to file a civil suit on top of criminal charges, and this isn't the first time the media, in consuming the story, may have ultimately reshaped it -- may.

Dahlia Lithwick is senior editor of "Slate" magazine. And this month, man, she's moonlighting as a guest columnist for "The New York Times." She joins us from Charlottesville, Virginia. Jeralyn Merritt is a criminal defense attorney based in Denver. She served as one of the principal trial lawyers for Timothy McVeigh, no easy task that.

We're glad to see them both.

Jeralyn, this is a I think essentially a question about Colorado law. Defendants in most jurisdictions are entitled to a speedy trial, if they demand one. Can the judge really grant the prosecution an indefinite delay?

JERALYN MERRITT, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY: The judge can only grant a delay if he finds that there is a reason to grant it, and that really the ends of justice in a sense compel that kind of result.

I don't think the judge is going to find that in this case. And I think that's what the prosecution is counting on. I think they're really looking for a graceful exit strategy, something where they can go to the public and say, the judge has ruled against us. The judge won't give us enough time. We can't try the case this fast. And that way, they can then say, we're going to bow out.

BROWN: All right, I want to step back a bit and look at one or two of what I think are the real issues, or some of the real issues the case has raised.

Dahlia, you argued the other day in "The Times" that rape shield laws, despite their best intentions, haven't worked. But here, the exception the judge drew about allowing this woman's sexual history into evidence is actually quite narrow, isn't it?

DAHLIA LITHWICK, "SLATE": Yes.

I think the judge in this case made the right call. This was a question of evidence. This was not an inchoate question about her virtue. It was a question about whether, as alleged, she had sex with someone else after Kobe Bryant, before the medical exam, that might have caused the injuries that are at issue. So, of course, it's an incredibly compelling piece of evidence.

The question is, is it OK that it's allowed the defense team to sort of paw through her entire sexual history and to sort of turn her into a tramp in the media?

BROWN: But -- I don't want to beat this issue, but if the ruling itself is very narrow and you also argue that it's probative, how can you say that the law, which allows this exception is not -- does not work?

LITHWICK: Well, simply that rape is different from any other crime. We're now having a national conversation about admittedly a narrow question, but a narrow question about what kind of girl this is and what kind of girl does things like this and what kind of girl has sex with three guys in three nights?

BROWN: Yes.

LITHWICK: And, Aaron, juries decide rape cases based on questions of virtue. We know that. So how can you say the rape shield law is working?

BROWN: Jeralyn, weigh in on this. From where you sit out there in Colorado tonight, do you feel like the state's law that was designed to protect alleged victims works or doesn't work?

MERRITT: Oh, I think the law works very well. And I think Colorado has one of the strictest laws in country. As Dahlia said, this evidence is coming in not to attack the accuser's character, but to show that there's an alternative source for the pinpoint lacerations, which are her injuries in this case.

The prosecution really opened the door to this by presenting testimony at the preliminary hearing from an expert, saying that the injuries she saw when she examined the accuser were inconsistent with consensual sex. And the defense has evidence from experts to the contrary. How can the defendant not be allowed to produce that kind of evidence? He's charged not only with sexual assault, but with sexual assault through the application of physical force.

If there is another cause of those injuries and the defense is saying that it is the repetitive nature, the repetitive sexual activity she engaged in, in the 72 hours up to the rape exam that are responsible for her injuries -- in other words, no one raped her.

BROWN: Yes.

MERRITT: The injuries were caused by consensual sex in a repetitive manner.

BROWN: Dahlia, is it possible we actually just don't know how to try in the criminal justice system date rape cases?

LITHWICK: I think so.

I mean, I think we've tried to reform rape laws. And we've been so schizophrenic in the way we've gone about it. And we're trying to sort of protect these eggshell accusers, but we're also trying to normalize one-night stands for women. We're trying to bring down penalties so that this looks like a normal assault at the same time that we're jacking up penalties because rape is so horrifying.

We're so schizophrenic as a society about how we feel about rape in general, but then date rape, that, when we try to use the laws to engineer how we're going to make it better, I think it is a disaster for everyone.

MERRITT: And I think that we really should get back to the point where we treat rape like we do treat other crimes.

If we want people to understand that rape is a crime of violence, that it is not a crime about sex, then we have to stop perpetuating the stigma that goes along with reporting a rape crime. And we should treat it the same way as we treat a burglary or a stabbing. And that really starts with, why are we keeping the accuser's name private, while we broadcast the name of the accused?

BROWN: Actually, there's -- that's a great issue there, I think, and a great question. And we'll come back to it another night.

Thank you both. Good to see you both.

MERRITT: Sure. Thank you, Aaron.

LITHWICK: Thanks.

BROWN: Thank you.

Ahead on the program tonight, a young photojournalist captures the elegance of a country torn apart by history and war, the images, breathtaking.

And morning papers are rarely breathtaking, but they're often really cool.

We'll take a break. This is NEWSNIGHT.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BROWN: We sometimes forget in this post-9/11 world that, before Iraq, there was Afghanistan. And today, the defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, arrived in Afghanistan. He'll meet with President Hamid Karzai. In less than two months, if all goes well -- there's certainly no guarantee of that -- Afghanistan will hold its first Democratic presidential election, a milestone already delayed by violence. Nearly 1,000 people have been killed in Afghanistan in the last year alone, some by the Taliban, some by warlords, grim facts, but not the entire story.

We recently caught up with a photographer who returned to Afghanistan, his homeland, in 2001 after the fall of the Taliban. What he found became a book, Aperture's "Return, Afghanistan," an exhibition now travelling the globe, or, to put it more simply, what he found was hope.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ZALMAI, PHOTOGRAPHER: I was born in Afghanistan almost 40 years ago and I had to leave when the Russians invaded Afghanistan in 1979. I'm a photographer. And today, as my country is in the headline of the news, and, of course, it is my duty to go back in Afghanistan and to bring their story to the world.

I use a panoramic camera in Afghanistan because it's a high plateau and mountain country. And I think it's better to open your vision to see a little bit better the situation in Afghanistan. And inside this landscape, you can imagine the greatness of this country and the difficulties of the people inside.

I travel in the center of Afghanistan in Bamiyan. And I'm sure you remember when the Taliban, they tried to destroy the Buddha of Bamiyan.

The Taliban just, they move all the Hazara people. They displaced them. And today, when you go in the same region and you have a gas station close to the Buddha of Bamyian, and for me, it's like very strange to see how the things change.

When I was taking pictures in Afghanistan, many people ask me, why you take pictures? And I said, this is for the history of Afghanistan. And I said, I promise you I will bring back this exhibition to Afghanistan. Most of economic activities in Afghanistan right now is in Kabul, because we have some kind of security in Kabul right now. And every day, you can see a new shop, a new restaurant, and this is all the sign for me again, they trust in their future.

Since the fall of Taliban, we had almost three million children, they went back to the school. They opened the school. The people have some hope for the future. And this, especially in this case, they built a classroom inside this bus. If you are going to wait for the real school, it is going to take time, years and years. And Afghanistan, they don't want to lose their time right now.

When you go, the countryside is totally a different world. And the people, they try to survive a different way. Sometimes, the people come back from exile. Their home was destroyed. It is a very difficult situation for Afghans. But at least, they said, we are home.

When I was traveling in Afghanistan, the people -- most of the people just said, we don't need to be assisted all the time. We need just a little bit help. The biggest things I saw is the hope of the country. And this hope, I can see in the eyes of everyone. And I think that our responsibility, Afghans, and the international community is to not let die this hope.

The point is, we have to talk about Afghanistan right now and to show the situation right now. We have to talk and we have to think about this country.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(ROOSTER CROWING)

BROWN: OK, time to check morning papers from around the country, around the world. I don't know how many we'll get to tonight, because I'm going to spend a bit on the first one.

"International Herald Tribune," published by "The New York Times." I expect this will be front page in "The Times" tomorrow. "G.I.s in Iraq Are Asking: Why Are We Here?" reported by Ann Bernard, Bernard, I think. It is a terrific story, young soldiers and marines, mostly young, with growing doubts about the mission there, whether they even want to do the mission, whether they're sick and tired of the Iraqis and the treatment they get by Iraqis, senior officers telling the reporter the young soldiers do not get the big picture, do not see the big picture. It's a very nicely done story, from what we can tell, on the front page. I'm sure it goes on and on, but that's what they got.

"Philadelphia Inquirer," like a lot of papers tomorrow appear to -- going to put the Olympics on the front page. "Time to Dive in. Fear and Scandal Can't Wreck the Appeal of the Olympics." But we'll pretty much ignore the Olympics, because they kill us in the ratings.

"The Des Moines Register." "Ridge Stops at State Fair, Talks About Security." I suspect -- I don't know this for sure -- that he had a pronto pup, which, as you know, is a loaf of bread, a pound of meat, and all the mustard you can eat. I used to do that.

"The Detroit News." I don't know. "U.S. Cautions Athletes to Mind Their Manners." I'm sure they will. "Ugly Americans' Behavior in Games in 2000 Sparks Lecture." So when they get to Athens, they're told to shape up. I hope they do.

"Farewell Without Fanfare." "The Times Herald Record" in Upstate New York. "Local Reservists Leave For Iraq." And nobody seemed to notice.

The weather in Chicago tomorrow...

(CHIMES) BROWN: Thank you.

"Bear weather." Yikes.

We'll wrap it up in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BROWN: Time to plan your morning TV watching. Here's Heidi Collins with a look at tomorrow's "AMERICAN MORNING."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HEIDI COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks, Aaron.

Tomorrow on "AMERICAN MORNING," sex, lies, and audiotape, another day on the stand for Amber Frey. Scott Peterson's ex-mistress paints an ugly picture of the man on trial for murder. And what about those taped phone calls between Frey and Peterson? We'll talk about that CNN tomorrow, 7:00 a.m. Eastern -- Aaron.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BROWN: Heidi, thank you. That's "AMERICAN MORNING" tomorrow.

"LOU DOBBS TONIGHT" next for most of you.

We'll all back tomorrow -- well, we're not all back tomorrow -- at 10:00 Eastern time. But you come tomorrow at 10:00 Eastern time.

Until then, good night for all of us at NEWSNIGHT.

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


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