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Week's War Activities Recounted

Aired January 21, 2007 - 13:00   ET


JOHN ROBERTS, CNN ANCHOR: Another staggering death toll in Iraq this week, as dozens of students are cut down by suicide bombs. But is there a chance the violence could begin to turn around? President Bush gives up his secret eavesdropping program while Democrats snipe at each other over Iraq.

And has al Qaeda found a new home in Pakistan? I'm John Roberts with THIS WEEK AT WAR. Let's take a look at what our correspondents reported day by day this week.

On Monday, Saddam Hussein's brother is decapitated by the hangman's noose. Tuesday, Prime Minister Maliki calls bombings at a university quote, a crime that would make humanity cringe. Wednesday, members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans stand up to President Bush and say no more troops for Iraq. Thursday, Prime Minister Maliki slams the White House, saying U.S. troops could go home if Iraqi troops had the weapons they need. Friday, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is back in Iraq, as his top general predicts more U.S. troops won't make Baghdad safer, until late summer.

Among our elite THIS WEEK AT WAR troops, Arwa Damon on the spike in violence in Baghdad, Aneesh Raman in Cairo, on rumblings of war with Iran and Dana Bash on the war of words on Capitol Hill, THIS WEEK AT WAR.

As more U.S. troops head for Iraq, is the Iraqi government finally cracking down on militias? And is there a new split between Iraq's leaders and the White House? Joining me now, respondent Arwa Damon in Baghdad, CNN military analyst Major General Don Shepperd, U.S. Air Force retired in Tucson and with me here in Washington, Rajv Chandrasekaran. He is the assistant managing editor for continuous news at "The Washington Post." He also served as the paper's Baghdad bureau chief and he's also the author of "Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone." Arwa Damon, there was some action against the Mehdi militia in the last couple of days. Is this the turnaround that the United States has been waiting for or is this just a show by Iraq's government to get the U.S. to back off?

ARWA DAMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, it certainly has all of the hallmarks, all the indications of being this change of stamp coming from Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki's government. I mean just the mere fact that the Iraqi government is now naming the Mehdi militia by name publicly saying that they're detaining its numbers is really stepping away from what the Iraqi government's policy used to be. But again, the prime minister's walking a very fine line here. On one hand, he cannot afford to not keep that promise to the United States, that there will be no more political involvement when it comes down to targeting certain militias, but at the same time, he's not going to want to aggravate the Mehdi militia. They are still out there in the thousands and they are very well-armed.

ROBERTS: The United States certainly hopes that this is the long-awaited change in position. Here is what the outgoing U.S. ambassador to Iraq Khalilizad said about that on Monday.


ZALMAY KHALILIZAD, US AMBASSADOR TO IRAQ: Any killer, no matter who he is, he'll be pursued. No militia will be a replacement for the state or control local security.


ROBERTS: He seems to have some faith that the Iraqi government is going to follow through. Really, what does all this mean? Do you have faith that they will?

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN, WASHINGTON POST: The proof is really going to be here over the next coming days and weeks. Are these militiamen that Maliki announced that they've arrested, are they the real deal or are they fringe elements and to what degree are the people they're going after rogue elements of the Mehdi army versus real operational commanders and people who are charged with really heinous crimes? There's a real worry around both Washington and in some parts of Baghdad, that this is simply an effort by Muqtada al Sadr to pony up a few fringe actors and help him consolidate power over a militia organization that is increasingly diffuse and hard for him to control himself.

ROBERTS: And maybe purge some rogue elements he'd like to see gone anyway.

CHANDRASEKARAN: Purge rouge elements and consolidate power, making him potentially even stronger at the end of the day.

ROBERTS: There's a big question, General Shepherd, about what would happen if the U.S. were to take on the Mehdi militia face-to- face. Here's what General Michael Hayden, the CIA director, had to say about that on Thursday.


GEN. MICHAEL HAYDEN, CIA DIRECTOR: There's a track record of Sadr being cautious. There's a clear indication at the present time he's not looking for contact with coalition forces.


ROBERTS: So General Shepperd, the U.S. military thinking about an all-out assault or major operation at least in Sadr City, which is the Mehdi militia stronghold, pros and cons of an operation like that? MAJ. GEN. DON SHEPPERD, US AIR FORCE (RET): John, basically an all-out assault is not something that's really feasible. When you go into Sadr City, there's nobody to attack. You don't see an armed army behind walls coming at you with vehicles and that type of thing. What you see is a bunch of unarmed man standing around in civilian clothes so there's no army to attack. And then the sniper shot rings out and then one of your troops is wounded. As you rush to aid him, then more sniper shots and then the action starts. So this is a very, very difficult operation and going against the Mehdi militia is not like going against an army. A lot of it is police work and then clearing an area and being able to hold it, which we have not had enough troops to do before now John.

ROBERTS: And one of the key of this plan working, if it is to work, is for the Iraqis and the United States to be on the same page, but this week Nuri al Maliki, the prime minister, did it again, slammed the White House. Here's what he had to say on Wednesday. I quote, I think that within three to six months our need for the American troops will dramatically go down. That's on the condition that there are real strong efforts to support our military forces and equipping them and arming them. Rajiv Chandrasekaran, he also had some other pretty terse things to say to the White House. Are we seeing a new split here between Maliki and the White House even though the White House is playing it down?

CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, I think what we're seeing is Maliki trying to assert himself as his own man, not trying to look like he's an American toady to the Iraqi people. Now it's a fine line that he's walking because while demonstrating independence, he can't be seen to be sort of sticking it too hard in the eyes of the Bush administration. But I think that this is part of the new Maliki. He's trying to show that can he crack down. He's trying to show that he can take tough action and he can sort of stand up to both fringe elements in Iraq, as well as to the Americans. But it all remains to be seen whether or not he's really sincere about doing it this time or this is just an effort to score some short-term political points.

ROBERTS: And of course in the middle of all this, the violence continues on Tuesday, more than 100 students killed in a double suicide bombing at a Baghdad university. Here's how Arwa Damon reported on that on Thursday.


DAMON: Inside the school where students chattered and footsteps sounded just days ago, only silence, hanging across the entrance, a sign of defiance. The banner reads, "we will not succumb to terror."


ROBERTS: Arwa Damon, is this going to be the start of a new round of sectarian reprisals just at a time when it's really critical time to get a handle on the violence?

DAMON: John the situation as you very well know here is just so dynamic in the sense that really any attack only serves to further the sectarian tensions that we're seeing on the ground. What was interesting in terms of the bombing at the (INAUDIBLE) university was even though the university has a reputation of being predominantly Shia, speaking with employees and students there, they said no, the campus was fairly mixed, and what we saw as a result of that, at least amongst the students, was an increased determination to stand up against what they are calling these acts of terror and what we also saw interestingly was Iraqis, both Sunnis and Shias lining up to donate blood, so in this case, especially because it really hit hard, especially because the target was students, and employees of the university, we saw Iraqis unite instead of divide, but again this is such a volatile environment that anything serves to spark the sectarian divide.

ROBERTS: It's nice to see, at the very least that coming out of this tragedy, some people are willing to stand up for unity. Arwa Damon in Baghdad, General Shepperd in Tucson, Rajiv Chandrasekaran here Washington, thanks.

Among visitors to Baghdad in recent days, U.S. Senator Hillary Rodman Clinton, my interview with her on Iraq opposing the president's war plan and doubts about the Iraqi leadership is straight ahead.

But first, a THIS WEEK AT WAR remembrance. Army specialist Raymond Mitchell was killed earlier this month when his patrol came under small arms fire in Baghdad. The Smyrna, Tennessee native was home this past Thanksgiving reassuring his family that he was doing exactly what he wanted to do, serve his country. At his funeral service, one of his superior officers remembered him as an energetic presence in the battalion.


SGT. HARLAN TERRY, FRIEND: He was a jokester. He always up- tempo, very high energy, always had respect no matter who he was talking to, just a real great kid.


ROBERTS: Mitchell was assigned to the 2nd battalion, 14th infantry regiment, second brigade combat team out of Ft. Drum, New York. He died one week after his 21st birthday.



ROBERTS: We're breaking away from the studio portion of our show for a segment out here to Scottsdale, Arizona, where our CNN warrior one Hummer is being auctioned off with the proceeds going to Fisher House because of some very big news that's breaking. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton has announced she's forming an exploratory committee to examine a run for president. She made the announcement on her website.

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D) NEW YORK: Let's talk about how to bring the right end to the war in Iraq and to restore respect for America around the world.

ROBERTS: Hillary Clinton made that announcement just days after returning from her third visit to Iraq. On Thursday she invited me over to her offices to talk about that. I asked her what her impressions of the war were this time around.

CLINTON: This time, there's been just a steady diet of bad news and setbacks, mistakes and problems and that was apparent. There is very little faith that this latest proposal by the president in and of itself, without all the other aspects of a comprehensive approach that many of us have advocated for, is likely to be successful. So as a result, many of us are trying to figure out how we can finally influence the president to change direction and choose a different course.

ROBERTS: You met with Nuri al Maliki, the prime minister. Do you have any faith that he is the guy who can bring Iraq back to a state of security?

CLINTON: I don't have any faith.

ROBERTS: No faith in al Maliki

CLINTON: Whether there's a gap between his intentions and his will and capacity is the real problem or whether he's doing what he intends to do, through mark time and further the, you know, the dominance of his sectarian supporters, it's hard to tell. So you know, there's a mixed message at best, and I think that's what the Bush administration has never come to grips with.

ROBERTS: The proposal that you articulated on Wednesday appears to really finally thread a needle here. You want to put a cap on the number of troops, but you're staying away from this issue of funding, which, if you were to run for president, could be something that comes back to haunt you.

CLINTON: Well, that's not the way I think about it. What I'm trying to do is to figure out what are our points of leverage on the Maliki government and frankly, on our own government. So what I try to do is to say look, let's not put more troops in. Let's cap the number of troops we have right now and let's begin the phased redeployment that I've called for, for more than a year and a half. At the same time, I am not prepared to vote to cut funding to American troops. So why don't we tell the Maliki regime that we will cut funding to their forces, including the private security forces that provide the security for members of that government, if they don't start demonstrating a willingness and a capacity to do what we all know needs to be done.

ROBERTS: The White House didn't like your plan very much. Here's what White House spokesman Tony Snow said about that on Wednesday.

TONY SNOW, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: It binds the hands of the commander in chief and also the generals and frankly also the troops on the ground, in terms of responding to situations and contingencies that may occur there. To tie one's hand in the time of war is a pretty extreme move.

ROBERTS: If you were commander in chief, would you accept this plan or would you feel it was tying your hands?

CLINTON: Other presidents have. You know, troop caps have been used, most recently in Colombia, where both the Democratic and Republican president have accepted limits on troops that could be sent to Colombia. I am not advocating a date certain and immediate withdrawal from Iraq. I certainly want to bring our troops home as soon as possible, but I accept the fact that we have vital national security interests in Iraq. So you know, I obviously believe that you know, there needs to be escape valves in proposals like this. Everybody who is reasonable assumes that. We're trying to get this president's attention. They have been impervious to evidence and the facts on the ground. It took years to, you know, finally get their attention, to even have them admit they've made mistakes.

ROBERTS: On the subject of mistakes, your 2002 vote to authorize the war, was that a mistake? Do you regret it?

CLINTON: I've said that I regret the way the president uses, used the authority that he was given, and certainly, if we knew then what we know now, there would never have been a vote and I wouldn't have voted for it. I take responsibility for that.

ROBERTS: Was it a mistake to vote for it?

CLINTON: I know people are all hung up on the words here. I think it's very clear that, if we had known then what we know now, the president would never have been able to come to the Congress and ask for a vote. I believe that, you know, the case that was made then, which I saw as a way of checking Saddam Hussein, the sanctions regime was falling apart, putting inspectors in made sense. I said at the time I was not in favor of a pre-emptive war, and you know, I don't think you get do-overs in life. I think you take responsibility for the decisions that you make and you try to make the situation better, which is what I've been trying to do consistently.

ROBERTS: With respect, if there's a knock on you, it's that you're too cautious when it comes to the Iraq war that your positions appear more political than they do genuine.

CLINTON: Well, you know, I obviously don't think that's fair. I mean, I think there is a role for politics. That's what being in the Senate is all about, but I've been a consistent, persistent critic of the way this president has conducted the war, of his secretary of defense, of many of the decisions that have been made. I've tried to be responsible. I think that is important. It's very easy to engage in, you know, heated rhetoric and make all kinds of claims, but that's not me. That's not what I intend to do, regardless of what the politics might be. I'm going to say what I believe. I'm going to take the positions that I think are right at the time. I'm going to look for ways to try to make a bad situation better. I think that's the responsible course to take.

ROBERTS: Senator Hillary Clinton, just one of many voices rising in opposition to President Bush's new plan for Iraq as he prepares to give his state of the union address on Tuesday.

Coming up next a closer look at that in our "war of words" segment on THIS WEEK AT WAR.



ROBERTS: With the president's state of the union speech coming up on Tuesday, everyone is jockeying for position on Iraq, and it's making for some intense debate in Washington. Joining us in our "war of words" segment this week, congressional correspondent Dana Bash. She's on Capitol Hill and with me here in the studio, White House correspondent Ed Henry and Mike Allen. He's the chief political correspondent for, a website that's launching later on this month. On Wednesday, Republican Senator Chuck Hagel spoke out for a second time against the president's Iraq plan.


SEN. CHUCK HAGEL (R) NEBRASKA: It is dangerously responsible to continue to put American lives in the middle of a clearly-defined tribal sectarian civil war, is wrong. I might feel somewhat different if I had any confidence that that would change things. It will not change things.


ROBERTS: Mike Allen, more tough words from Senator Hagel and a blizzard of measures from senators this week against this plan, but will they have any kind of an impact on what the president's got in mind?

MIKE ALLEN, POLITICO.COM: Well, John, of course they will. Even though they can't deny him money, they can make his life miserable and one of the key ways is they're keeping him from talking about things he wants to talk about. This week the president wants to be talking about energy, education and health care, immigration. Instead, every member who walks out of that chamber is going to be asked by your correspondents, "what do you think about Iraq? Where are you on Iraq?" And when they want to be spending, they're going to be talking about spending. They're going to be trying to argue, well, there can be 535 commanders in chief and they'll try to argue about what the alternatives would be to the president, what the consequences would be. Do you really want a destabilized Pakistan? Do you really want a fundamentalist Muslim hole in the Middle East? So even though the funding is going to keep going, this is really showing for the first time the consequences of Democratic, of a Democratic Congress, and the other thing it does is one of the fastest ways to stay in the minority is to have them fighting among themselves which is exactly what's going to be happening.

ED HENRY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The White House wants to focus the state of the union since it's the first one with a Democratic Congress on issues as Mike's pointing out, immigration, where he can work with Democratic leaders, trying to get some legislative victories. In fact Iraq is not one of the topics the White House says when they marked off about six topics. They said the war on terror is and Iraq will fall under that, but obviously as Mike points out, Iraq is the elephant in the room.

ROBERTS: But Dana Bash, as Senator Hillary Clinton told me, it looks like those troops are going to go ahead. There's nothing that Congress can do to stop them but it's interesting to see the zeal with which some Republicans are expressing their displeasure.

DANA BASH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Interesting, and I would actually say stunning and what happened this past week on Capitol Hill was that Republicans, many of whom, most of whom, who had been whole-heartedly behind the president's war plan, have come out and not only said that they disagree with the idea of increasing troops, but they are actively working and trying to figure out ways -- these are Republicans -- to put a resolution, non-binding resolution but still a resolution on the Senate floor saying that they disagree with him. It is something that we never, ever would have seen and just in terms of the dynamic, you have Republicans who talk to us privately and they say, you know they've been going down to the White House. They have been listening to the White House say, you know, you got to stick with us and there is not the kind of fear that Republicans have of the White House anymore. As a matter of fact, the fear has really changed. There is much more of a fear of their constituents back home.

One quick story. I did a story this past week about some Republicans coming to the defense of President Bush. I included one conservative southern Republican in that story and I got a call within minutes of it airing from his office saying, oh, no, no, no, you mischaracterized him. He doesn't support the president. Can you correct that? This is a conservative asking for a correction because I said he supported the president. Unheard of.

ROBERTS: Used to be you'd get calls if you said they were at odds with the president. Now if they agree with the president, you're getting calls. But remarkable, not all Democrats oppose the president. Here's what Senator Joe Lieberman, Democrat from Connecticut had to say about the plan on Thursday.


SEN. JOE LIEBERMAN (D) CONNECTICUT: I support the president's proposals because I believe we have so much on the line in Iraq. I think those who oppose the president's ideas have an obligation, responsibility to propose an alternative course that offers the hope of success.


ROBERTS: Ed Henry, you know, we're hearing some of these prominent people like Lieberman, like McCain, like Rudy Giuliani supporting the president. Does that give him any comfort or is the chorus of voices against him so big that he's really all alone?

HENRY: It's pretty cold comfort. I mean the bottom line is, the White House won't admit it, but when you talk to many Republicans around town, they basically say the president's speech, the week before, basically didn't get the job done. It was a so-called new way toward. Not so new, not so forward and Republicans are not buying it, let alone the Democrats.

ROBERTS: So these Republicans that he's had over to the White House to try to woo them to his side, make the case, is he making any progress?

HENRY: We haven't really seen any one really change their mind, any of the Republican senators who have come over and interesting, the ones who are coming over, people like Norm Coleman of Minnesota, up for re-election in 2008, Gordon Smith, Republican from Oregon gave that searing speech on the Senate floor in December, he's up for re- election in 2008. The bottom line is they're on the ballot in '08 and the president is not and they're breaking with him.

ROBERTS: The war of words this week isn't just between Democrats and Republicans. It's between Democrats and Democrats. Take a look at the presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton unloading, Hillary Clinton's campaign unloading on John Edwards, Barack Obama taking a kind of veiled shot at Hillary Clinton when he's talking about the wrong-headedness of this broad authority for war, that's got to go to her vote for the war in 2002. There's a lot of sniping going on here.

ALLEN: You're exactly right and one of the most significant things is you saw Senator Clinton none too subtly adjusting her position. She's always stood by her vote and now she's saying that if she knew then what she knows now, she came back from Iraq having said I've seen it for myself. I'm a member of the Armed Services Committee. I've listened to their testimony. I've talked to them. I've talked to the president and I now think that there should be a cap on the number of troops going into Iraq and of course, the White House says it's something that the president would never consider.

ROBERTS: Dana, some of these Democrats are being very careful about making sure that they're not boxing themselves in. When you look at Hillary Clinton's proposal as I talked about with her, she puts a cap on the troops, but doesn't touch that third rail of funding for them. Are they being very careful about what they say?

BASH: They're being very careful on the money issue, because that is just a political danger zone, as you said, the third rail of Iraq politics, but there is such intense jockeying. You know, we always knew this was going to be the place to watch because there's so many Democrats in the Senate, Republicans, too, but especially Democrats, running for president and just this week, I mean, what you saw, especially between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. We knew Hillary Clinton was going to come out with her legislation in the morning. The same day she did, I saw Barack Obama in the hallway and I said, are you going to be for a cap in the troops? Are you going to have your own bill and he was very noncommittal, saying well, I don't know. We have to wait and see, within minutes, within minutes of Hillary Clinton coming out with her proposal. We got a press release from Barack Obama. He too supports capping the number of troops in Iraq. So, they are so watching each other and really circling each other. And we are so far away from when this really gets intense. It's going to be quite a place to watch up here with people.

JOHN ROBERTS, SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Oh, yes. It's a horse race already.

Ed, real quick, the president dropped his plans for warrantless wiretapping. He said now that the FISA Court can oversee it.

Why did he do that?

HENRY: The bottom line is the election. November 7th. I mean, the Democrats are now in charge. The president realizes this is a policy that was no longer -- he was able to sustain. And I think you saw more frustration from Republicans than anything again this week, because they feel like they carried so much political water for the president on this issue all during the election and now he just gives it up, the same as defending Rumsfeld all through the election. The day after the election he's fired.

ROBERTS: Well, an excellent war of words this week. Lots to talk about.

Ed Henry, Mike Allen and Dana Bash, as always, thanks very much.

ALLEN: Have a great week, John.

ROBERTS: Thank you.

You, too.

How has al Qaeda been flexing its muscles in western Iraq, Africa and beyond?

Al Qaeda 3.0, coming up.

But first, soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Division are headed back to Iraq. On Tuesday, the Fort Stewart-based 1st Brigade Combat Team packed their bags and boarded a plane at Hunter Army Airfield in Georgia.

This will be Staff Sergeant Flowers' third tour in Iraq and she is ready to roll.


STAFF SGT. ABENI FLOWERS, U.S. ARMY: I am excited, you know, that I'm going to be a part of history and that, you know, changes are being made over there. So I'm just ready to see what this deployment is going to be like.


ROBERTS: The entire 1st Brigade Combat Team has now been deployed. That's almost 4,000 soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Division.



ROBERTS: Punch the words al Qaeda into your computer and stand back. You'll see how the terrorist group morphs into something dispersed, dangerous, difficult to crack.

Just this week, Pakistan raided insurgent camps along the Afghanistan border after U.S. National Intelligence Direction John Negroponte told Congress that al Qaeda leaders have what he called "a secure hideout in Pakistan."

The terrorist group is evolving again. Call it al Qaeda 3.0.

And here to tell us more is CNN terrorism analyst, Peter Bergen. He's the author of "The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of the al Qaeda Leader."

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was in Afghanistan on Tuesday.

Here's how he described the growing problem with al Qaeda in the region.


ROBERT GATES, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Pakistan has been an extraordinarily strong ally of the United States in the war on terror and that the border area is a problem, that there are more attacks coming across the border, that there are al Qaeda networks operating on the Pakistani side of the border and these are issues that we clearly will have to pursue with the Pakistani government.


ROBERTS: Peter Bergen, are these tribal areas of Pakistan becoming for al Qaeda what Afghanistan used to be?

PETER BERGEN, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: Yes, I think is the short answer. You know, the Pakistani government has done a number of peace deals with the tribal areas. Two out of seven they've done sort of -- some sort of peace deal. I think on balance, that helps al Qaeda, because the Pakistani Army is starting to recede, pull out of these areas. They're still in there, but that, you know, they don't -- al Qaeda doesn't have to look over its over its shoulder quite as much as it used to, according to U.S. intelligence officials who've been in Pakistan...

ROBERTS: But can...

BERGEN: ... that are -- all right.

ROBERTS: Is it as overt as it used to be in Afghanistan or more clandestine? BERGEN: Oh, no, it's very clandestine. It's, you know, you don't have barracks that satellites can see from the air. It's stuff that is happening inside compounds. It's maybe 20 people, calisthenics, bomb making classes, these kinds of things, smaller scale.

But still, you know, perhaps a few thousand foreign fighters in the tribal areas, a great deal of influence that al Qaeda if influencing back in Afghanistan again, morphing ideologically and tactically with the Taliban, the use of IEDs.

We've seen figures that have gone through the roof. Suicide attacks, 21 in 2005, 139 in 2006. Al Qaeda helping influence the Taliban in the way it's operating. It's become -- the Taliban is behaving a lot more like al Qaeda in terms of tactics and ideology.

ROBERTS: And we're seeing, in an article that you've written for "The New Republic," that there is a nexus to terrorism in other countries in Pakistan.

BERGEN: Yes. The big problem is in Britain. There are -- every year, 400,000 Brits with Pakistani descent visit Pakistan. 99.9 percent of them are there for, you know, non-nefarious reasons. The other very small minority are there to train with al Qaeda. And it's now the consensus view in the U.S. intelligence community and the Brit intelligence community that the London attack of July, 2005, that killed 56, was an al Qaeda-directed operation. It was badly misinterpreted initially, just a bunch of homegrown people.

Well, it turned out they weren't home -- two of the ringleaders had actually trained in Pakistan with al Qaeda and that is now regarded as an al Qaeda operation.

So al Qaeda is back to, you know, think about that operation -- thousands of miles from their base on the home -- on the Afghan border. It took them about a year to plan. It sort of looks like to me a little bit like the USS Cole attack in Yemen in 2000.

ROBERTS: So that they had been to training camps in Pakistan before they carried out the bombing in Britain?


ROBERTS: Does this represent a new centralization of al Qaeda control after it was so dispersed for so many years?

BERGEN: I think it shows they're regrouping. You know, they're regrouping in Afghanistan, on the Pakistan border...

ROBERTS: And what does that mean for us?

BERGEN: Well, you know, British citizens can visit the United States fairly easily and we already saw in August an attempt by a group of British citizens of Pakistani descent directed by al Qaeda, according to U.S. intelligence officials, trying to bring down 10 American airliners. If that had succeeded, that would have been a 9/11 event -- thousands of Americans would have been killed.

ROBERTS: Troubling intelligence.

Peter Bergen, as always, thanks very much.

BERGEN: Thank you.

ROBERTS: Appreciate your expertise.

Are the storm clouds of war building over Iran? Or is President Ahmadinejad in trouble at home for being too provocative?

We'll check in with our man in the Middle East next on THIS WEEK AT WAR.


ROBERTS: Is the White House gearing up for war with Iran over its meddling in Iraq?

What do Arab allies think about the plan to bring peace to Baghdad?

And is there any hope of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian crisis?

A lot going on in the region this week.

So we turn to CNN Middle East correspondent, Aneesh Raman.

He's in Cairo.

And with me here, Ray Takeyh.

He's a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of "Hidden Iran: Paradox and Power In The Islamic Republic."

Aneesh Raman, storm clouds gathering over Iran. People wondering, is the United States going to invade? Are we going to go to war with Iran?

What's the sense of it there in the region?

ANEESH RAMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, going into this year, John, many Iranians thought military confrontation was inevitable. Iran's president, at every opportunity, continued to raise the stakes.

But we've had a very significant, perhaps, week in Iran. An editorial published just in the past few days in a paper owned by the country's supreme leader has called on Iran's president to get out of the nuclear dispute with the West and has said some of his recent statements were "offensive."

Now in Iran, an editorial is never just an editorial, especially when the paper is owned by the supreme leader, the be all and end all of decision-making.

So it's being seen as a sign, perhaps, that the supreme leader is reigning in Iran's president.

The inevitability of war decreasing, as well, because in the past few days, 150 members of Iran's parliament have also called on the president to avoid foreign affairs and focus on domestic issues. A handful of them saying he should face questions in the parliament.

So there's some hope among many Iranians that perhaps change is in the air.

But Ahmadinejad is a man that responds slowly to change and increasingly seems eager to continue and defy the West -- John.

ROBERTS: Well, certainly the United States not backing down at all. Action against Iranian operatives going on in Iraq and in the wake of the president's speech, a lot more people are concerned about whether or not there is going to be military action.

Robert Gates, the new secretary of defense, was in Brussels.

Here's how he talked about Iran's increasing aggressiveness.


GATES: The Iranians clearly believe that we're tied down in Iraq, that they have the initiative, that they are in a position to press us, in many ways.


ROBERTS: Ray Takeyh, Gates went on to say that the United States doesn't have any leverage right now over Iran because Iran wants nothing from the United States.

So how do you gain leverage?

RAY TAKEYH, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS, AUTHOR, "HIDDEN IRAN": Well, it's not that the United States is completely without leverage. Some of the sanctions that Aneesh was talking about, about financial impositions on Iran, and the general confrontation between the United States and Iran, has created an inhospitable investment community within Iran itself, deterring financial institutions and oil companies and so forth.

So easing of the relationship between the two countries could actually have a better impact on Iran's domestic economic performance.

But in terms of actual military leverage, the secretary is quite right in the sense that the United States really doesn't have that particular option in light of the problems that it is experiencing in Iraq.

ROBERTS: As I mentioned a second ago, the big concern of the United States is Iran's meddling in Iraq right now. Robert Baer, a former CIA operative, wrote a piece for

Here's what he had to say. He said: "I have little doubt that the Bush administration is telling the truth when it says that Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard core is arming and training Iraqis to kill Americans. The IRGC is now so deeply woven into the Iraqi fabric that there's nothing we can do about it short of invading Iran."

Aneesh, on Thursday, Ahmadinejad said that he is "ready for anything."

What would be the consequences of military action against Iran?

RAMAN: Well, John, conventional wisdom right now in the Middle East among many is that if Iran was attacked, it would be a powerfully disastrous event for the Middle East. That division that I spoke of that now exists within the regime as to how to pursue Iran's right to peaceful civilian nuclear energy, that division would disappear if Iran's nuclear facilities were attacked.

You would likely see a uniform position by the regime. And keep in mind two very important things. Iran has one of the largest militaries in this region. It has been pursuing war games as this crisis has escalated. And these war games have focused on irregular warfare, a sign that Iran's military is aware that the fight to come will potentially be much different than the fight Iran fought with Iraq back in the early 1980s.

Now, the second thing is Iran, though it says it only supports through spiritual sense, Hezbollah in Lebanon; the Palestinian areas, Hamas; and Shia groups in Iraq; has entrenched connections with all of those groups. And if attacked, Iran would likely also fight proxy wars through those various organizations.

So it would be a hugely significant event and many people are fearful it would bust the war we're seeing in Iraq wide open into the entire region -- John.

ROBERTS: Let's switch up topics here, quickly.

Secretary Rice was in Saudi Arabia earlier this week, looking for support for the president's plan to increase troops. Lukewarm, at best, from the Saudis.

What are they worried about, Ray?

TAKEYH: Well, the Saudis are concerned about the fact that they are being asked to, in one case, to contain and confront Iran; on the other hand, to deal with the sectarian conflict in Iraq. And it's just somebody beyond their capabilities of doing.

So they want to also watch cautiously to see what happens to the American military strategy and whether it has any chance of success before they're signing on.

But it's been a long-term complaint of the United States that Saudi Arabia, despite the fact that it's flush with oil wealth, has contributed almost nothing to Iraqi reconstruction, an issue that would seem to be -- should be a pressing concern for them at this point.

ROBERTS: And, Ray, the secretary also in Israel talking with the Palestinians, as well, bringing the three of them together in February.

Why this new emphasis by the United States on trying to get those peace talks kick started again?

TAKEYH: Well, it's part of attempting to have Middle Eastern countries assist the United States in Iraq. And one of the prices that they have is some sort of a progress on the Palestinian-Israeli issue.

That doesn't mean a settlement, but at least a diplomatic move that tempers down the conflict in that particular area so it enables these countries to actually assist the United States, given their own public are so concerned about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

ROBERTS: So it's just a matter of showing interest more than progress?

TAKEYH: Yes, at least getting a process going.

ROBERTS: Got you.

Ray Takeyh, thanks very much.

TAKEYH: Thank you.

ROBERTS: Aneesh Raman in his new home of Cairo, as well.

Aneesh, thanks very much.

And coming up, a look at a new series, CNN's Special Investigations unit.

Christiane Amanpour reports on homegrown Muslim extremism in Britain.

But first, some of the fallen in this week at war.


ROBERTS: Wednesday, testimony began in London in the trial of six men who tried and failed to bomb trains and busses. Their plot surfaced only two weeks after suicide bombers killed more than 50 commuters in London.

What motivated these terrorists?

Tonight at 8:00 p.m. Eastern, CNN's chief international correspondent, Christiane Amanpour, opens a new series called CNN Special Investigations Unit with a look at homegrown terrorism in Britain. Here, part of "The War Within" and Christiane's conversation with a London youth worker.


HANIF QADIR, YOUTH WORKER, "THE WAR WITHIN": I put the question to some of these guys and the answers that I got back is when a bomb goes off in Baghdad or in Afghanistan and innocent women and children are killed over there, who cares for them?

So if a bomb goes off in America or in London, what's wrong with that?

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Indeed, a poll in the "Times of London" showed a shocking 13 percent of British Muslims believe the London subway bombers were martyrs and many British Muslims see the Iraq War as a war against Islam, against them.

(on camera): We're talking about England here. We're talking about young Muslims who've grown up in this country. I think people would be really stunned to hear you say that it is essentially foreign policy which is causing youngsters to blow themselves up on the subway system and youngsters to think that that's cool.

QADIR: Foreign policy has a lot to do with it. And -- but it's -- it's the -- the minority radical groups that use that to get to our young people.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): And some of those young Muslims are easy prey because they believe the British government crackdown is scapegoating them.


ROBERTS: Christiane Amanpour, "The War Within," airs at 8:00 p.m. Eastern, 5:00 p.m. Pacific.

Coming up, President Bush's next opportunity to pitch his Iraq War strategy.

The Iraq buildup turned personal for thousands of U.S. Navy families on Tuesday. The USS Stennis, a nuclear powered aircraft carrier with a crew of 3,200 left its home port of Bremerton, Washington for the Persian Gulf.

Sailor Antonio Estrada knows it means hard work for him and hard times for his wife and two children that he leaves behind.


ANTONIO ESTRADA, SAILOR, USS STENNIS: They're going to be good. I prepared them and they've been -- they've been part of the military for quite a while now. It's just a deployment. Every time there's a deployment, it's always going to be tough.

REAR ADMIRAL KEVIN QUINN, USS STENNIS: I think the American people recognize that sacrifice and that's one of the reasons they admire and respect the people in the military so much.


ROBERTS: Rear Admiral Kevin Quinn, commander of the Stennis, said the crew had trained for this deployment for more than a year and will arrive in the region next month "combat ready."


ROBERTS: Democrats and a handful of Republicans spent last week rushing to denounce President Bush's plans to send almost 22,000 more troops into Iraq. The chief measure was a non-binding resolution to express opposition to the plan, but do nothing else about it.

An avalanche of other measures were also introduced, none of which appears to have much chance of passing.

And Speaker Nancy Pelosi made it clear that cutting funding for the troops is off limits, at least in the House.

So what does it all mean?

It means that the troops will go to Iraq. House members and senators up for reelection in 2008 will have voiced the opposition to the war that their constituents want to hear and prospective Democrat candidates for president will not have boxed themselves in with statements that could come back to haunt them during the campaign. And no one will have proposed a viable alternative to the troop build- up.

In short, all politics playing for position.

A quick check now on what we'll be looking at for next week at war.

Tuesday, President Bush gets another chance to rally support for his revamped Iraq policy in his State of the Union Address.

Also Tuesday, the Senate Intelligence Committee begins hearings on how the United States spies on the world and uses the information.

Wednesday, Secretary of State Rice is in Paris, leading the U.S. delegation to a conference on rebuilding Lebanon after last year's devastating conflict with Israel.

Thanks for joining us on THIS WEEK AT WAR.

I'm John Roberts.

Straight ahead, a check of the headlines.

Then a Dr. Sanjay Gupta Special: Saving Your Life.


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