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Week's War Events Recounted

Aired February 11, 2007 - 13:00   ET


JOHN ROBERTS, CNN ANCHOR, THIS WEEK AT WAR: U.S. helicopters, the latest target of insurgents in Iraq, a troubling new escalation. Iran's supreme leader warns President Bush, attack us and you'll be hit around the world.
And danger on the Delta we take you in the heart of darkness on the Niger River. THIS WEEK AT WAR starts in one minute after a check on what's in the news right now.


ROBERTS: It helped drive the Russians out of Afghanistan. Will insurgents change the landscape in Iraq by targeting U.S. helicopters?

New threats from Iran's supreme leader. Are they more bluster or is confrontation inevitable?

And Democrats already waging the 2008 election campaign with Iraq as the central issue. I'm John Roberts with THIS WEEK AT WAR. Let's take a look at what our correspondents reported day by day this week. Monday, a high drama political confrontation over the war, Congress versus the White House fizzles thanks to Republican maneuvering. Tuesday, in charge after the invasion, Paul Bremer defends his record and the handling of plane loads of cash, $12 billion. Wednesday, another U.S. chopper down, the sixth in three weeks. Thursday, in Iran, Ayotollah Ali Khomeni (ph) tells the United States to back off or risk attacks around the globe, saying even President Bush can be made to think. Friday, a new report out of the Pentagon rips at Bush administration officials for using intelligence of dubious quality or reliability to make the case for war in Iraq.

Joining us to connect the dots and tell you what it all means this week, Nic Robertson in Saudi Arabia on the Mideast power struggle and the war in Iraq. The political Jim Vandehei on the war of words in Washington and Jeff Koinage on the Niger delta rebels in Africa. THIS WEEK AT WAR.

A new report from the Pentagon's inspector general charges that prewar intelligence on Iraq was shaped to support a political agenda, not support the conclusions of the intelligence community. And on the ground in Iraq, a new and deadly tactic has substantially increased the death toll among American service members. Joining me now from Baghdad is our Michael Holmes, Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr is at her usual post and Rajiv Chandrasekaran of "The Washington Post" joins us from Washington. He's the author of "Imperial Life in the Emerald City, Inside Iraq's Green Zone." The Pentagon's inspector general had harsh words for former undersecretary of Defense Douglas Fithe (ph), suggesting he cooked the books on intelligence that took the U.S. into the war. The report released on Friday says, quote, the office of the undersecretary of defense for policy developed, produced and then disseminated alternative intelligence assessments on the Iraq and al Qaeda relationship, which included some conclusions that were inconsistent with the consensus of the intelligence community, the senior decision makers where he gave that intelligence. While such actions were not illegal or unauthorized, the actions were in our opinion, quote, inappropriate. Barbara Starr, this is just another piece of the increasing body of evidence that the American people were sold a bill of goods on this war, is it not?

BARBARA STARR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well it is, John. Coming up on the fourth anniversary of the war, we' still as a country talking about the flawed intelligence that led up to this war. That's not a surprise probably to anybody in this country. But the question is what has the country learned from it? The question is did having alternative scenarios about the intelligence which is what Mr. Fithe said he was doing, did that serve the country well? By all accounts, it did not. There's been a lot of intelligence reorganization since then and it remains to be seen whether it's really worked out.

ROBERT: Rajiv Chandrasekaran, you were very critical of the U.S. and how it engaged in the post invasion phase of rebuilding Iraq. Now, with this extra little piece of evidence here, does it seem like the whole thing was cooked?

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN, WASHINGTON POST: Well, you know, certainly there are interesting connections between what Fithe was doing before the war and the other work he was doing to plan for the post-war period. And, you know, though it was not a focus of the inspector general's report, a number of the most controversial decisions that were made by the Americans in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Saddam Hussein's government for instance, the de-Baathification of Iraq's government, the dissolution of Iraq's army, had some of their roots in work done in Doug Fithe's office in the Pentagon.

ROBERTS: So now we see also in Iraq a troubling new development and that is, the loss of these helicopters that are going down. It almost seems to some degree like what happened to the Russians in Afghanistan. Here's how General Peter Pace put that when he was before the Armed Services committee on Tuesday.


GENERAL PETER PACE, JOINT CHIEF CHAIRMAN: To my knowledge, each of those was shot down by small arms, not by missiles. And it's at this point in time I do not know whether or not it is the law of averages that caught up with us or if there have been a change in tactics, techniques and procedures on the part of the enemy.


ROBERTS: So Michael Holmes, General Pace a little unclear there as to, A, were they shot down and then B, what the weapons or tactics might have been. What's the talk there in Iraq? That these insurgents now have sophisticated surface to air missiles and what about this Islamic state in Iraq that keeps on claiming responsibility for these shoot downs?

MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, let's start with the Islamic state of Iraq, ISI if you like. It's really the latest incarnation John of al Qaeda in Iraq. It's a more coordinated, more focused organization. They're claiming the rule of six or seven of the 18 provinces here. Their news releases even come from their own ministry of information. Now, in terms of tactics, could they have done this? Yes, they could have. The questions are, maybe they had a lucky streak. I think Peter Pace put it pretty well there. The concentrated fire theory is that they perhaps are learning to triangulate from three different areas and put up a hail of lead. Choppers are susceptible to that if they're flying low as they do here. Is it a missile? There's been some chatter on insurgent websites that they do have some sort of new missile. No firm evidence of it yet, John.

ROBERTS: Well, certainly, they've been boasting about it by posting these videos on the Internet, as well. In at least one of those videos, you can hear sort of that signature blast of what would seem to be a surface to air missile taking off. Barbara Starr, at the same time as American forces are being increasingly targeted and in different ways, we see more and more attacks against Iraqi civilians, that terrible, terrible truck bombing last Saturday in that marketplace killing more than 130 people and complaints from the Iraqi government that the pace of this increase in troop strength is going too slowly. What's going on with that? What's the hold up?

STARR: What the U.S. is committed to is not sending the troops until all of these units are trained and ready to go. But that's the question, John. Is there time? You know, Secretary Gates, General Petraeus, the new commander saying they're going to get there as fast as possible, but still it could take until May until the surge is completed. It could be too late.

ROBERTS: Rajiv Chandrasekaran, we also saw an interesting development this past week when the deputy health minister was arrested on allegations of corruption and allowing Shia militias to have the run of hospitals in the Baghdad area. We have heard a lot about the death squads that go in there. They get patients or relatives. They take them out and they kill them. Do you see this as a positive step forward or could there be something to this idea that this is just one of the guys that could be sacrificed because he's probably not one of Muqtada al Sadr's favorite people anyway?

CHANDRASEKARAN: The jury is still out on that. American officials I've talked to are still trying to divine to what degree this individual is really a close lieutenant of Muqtada al Sadr's, but American officials do see it as a positive sign insofar as they have gone after and apprehended an individual who has been funneling some significant sums of money to Shiite death squads and other Shiite militia groups. So, you know, this is part of the multi-pronged effort to go after the Shiite militias. It is not simply just apprehending guys with guns on the streets but it's going after the sources of their funding, as well.

ROBERTS: And when all of the U.S. troops get into the Baghdad and Anbar area, we are going to see them going out and living in the neighborhoods. Michael Holmes, you went out with Charlie company earlier this week who are living in a house as opposed to one of those heavily fortified bases. How is that operation working? Is it too early to tell or can you get some sense of whether this tactic will make a difference?

HOLMES: John, I have had the opportunity to actually see about four of these (INAUDIBLE) around here in their infancy. Charlie company, quite an unique situation. As you said, they're in a house in the middle of Allamia (ph) which is one of the most problematic areas in all of Baghdad. The whole theory here is as you said, to get them out of the base so that you're not having these patrols zipping outside the wire driving around, zipping back in again without actually achieving anything. One soldier told me our job feels like we drive outside the (INAUDIBLE) drive around it until we get blown up. And the idea here is that these guys are staying out in the community, working with the Iraqi security forces and making some sort of eye to eye contact with people on a daily basis as well as show that all these security forces who often hate each other are going to work together for the people.

ROBERTS: The commuting to work idea wasn't working very well, so maybe this will have a bit of a different and perhaps positive effect. Michael Holmes in Baghdad, Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, Rajiv Chandrasekaranof the "Washington Post" from the "Post." Thanks very much.

Every action in Iraq unleashes a political reaction here in Washington. More on the debate that we didn't hear this week and our war of words segment coming right up.

But first, a THIS WEEK AT WAR remembrance. A small Utah town is mourning the death of one of its own. Specialist Eric Sieger of Layton (ph), Utah was killed earlier this month when his Humvee rolled over in Baritz (ph), Iraq. Sieger was assigned to the first battalion 12th cavalry regiment, first cavalry division out of Fort Hood, Texas. Sieger's sister, Lily, who was also serving in Iraq says she's having a hard time coping with her brother's death.


PFC. LILLY SIEGER, SISTER: Surprised to know and shocked and hurt all at the same time to know that it's over and we are never going to see each other again.


ROBERTS: Lilly has been given two weeks of emergency leave before she must return to Iraq. Sieger's family says Eric was scheduled to come home next month. He was just 18 years old.



SEN. MITCH McCONNELL (R) MINORITY LEADER: Our colleagues on the other side do not want to vote on whether troops should be funded, period. There is no more critical question at this moment.

SEN. HARRY REID (D) MAJORITY LEADER: This is a trick play by the Republicans. The real issue before this body is surge or no surge, escalation or no escalation. That's the debate the American people deserve.


ROBERTS: The minority leader in the U.S. Senate Republican Mitch McConnell and the top Democrat, Majority Leader Harry Reid on Tuesday. Monday had been billed as a battle of the titans, Congress versus the White House. Did supporters of a resolution against the troop build up get outmaneuvered? With me now is AB Stoddard associate editor of "The Hill" newspaper and Jim Vandehei, who's the executive editor of the "Politico." I want to get into that in just a second. But first of all Jim, let me ask you about this inspector general's report from the Pentagon, suggesting that Doug Fithe's office shaped the intelligence to match an existing policy. The most that any of Fithe's supporters on the Hill could say about it was, well, it wasn't illegal. This proves it wasn't illegal, but it sure looks bad.

JIM VANDEHEI, POLITICO.COM: Sure it does look bad and it looks a lot like what we've been hearing from what happened in the early days of the run-up to the war and when you have that re-amplified every single time, it only looks worse particularly when you think about this debate we are about to have about can we trust what President Bush is saying about what we should do with the surge and how effective that could be in Baghdad. So the story for a lot of people yes, we've heard this before but again when you pile it on top of what we have had and what people are thinking about, it's never good for the White House.

ROBERTS: It's another little gift to the Democrats here apparently at a time when they really need one. AB, what's going on with this resolution that they've been trying to drive through? Is it dead? Could it live to see the light of day?

AB STODDARD, "THE HILL" NEWSPAPER: No, it is not dead. On the Senate side, it died on Monday night, but I think we'll live to see it again. Of course, the House will take it up next week and I think Democratic leaders there will have the same goal, to try to get a majority of votes on the record opposing the troop increase. Republicans there will have the same goal as they do on the Senate, which is just to try to put Democrats on record saying the Congress promises not to cut any funds. We'll see what happens. But I think the Democrats there will be a little more careful not -- you know, in order to avoid a defeat (INAUDIBLE).

VANDEHEI: And the appetite, the appetite to take a much hard line approach among House Democrats is much bigger on the House side than it is on the Senate side. These guys are ready for a fight. You have a lot of people saying let's just cut off funding. Why don't we just do a resolution? Resolutions are empty.

ROBERTS: The White House still is panicked about this as they were early last week?

VANDEHEI: I think they certainly feel a little bit better that they're able to push off the debate in the Senate but the fact that you're now going to have a full week of debate in the House which is going to exert more pressure on the Senate because if the House passes this resolution, it grabs Republican support, then puts the Senate in a position where they're probably going to have to move forward some kind of resolution. How long can they hold that off?

STODDARD: And the Republican pressure among Republicans is building. Senator Voinovich of Ohio just came out yesterday saying hi is going to support the Warner resolution after much contemplation and prayer, he's decided to. They actually I think regret the fact that they missed a chance to get on the record earlier this week.

ROBERTS: So you think they're going to put the arm on McConnell on say, drop this idea or that you have to -

STODDARD: No I think they'll just - I think the Democrats will probably be able next time to pick off those votes for a procedural....

VANDEHEI: And at least have the debate. A lot of Republicans say it just looks bad that we're not having this debate. If you're a John Sununu, a Republican from New Hampshire and you have a tough race in 2008, you need to have the opportunity to say, listen. I want to stand by the president but I got to say when I can belly ache, I got to belly ache.

ROBERTS: Speaking of Sununu, another interesting debate on the floor of the Senate this past week. Sununu was one of 10 Republicans who voted no to confirm General Casey and we saw this reversal of political polarity where you had the GOP some of them at least against him and you had the majority of the Democrats with the exception of a couple including Hillary Clinton and Evan Bayh for him. Here's what Carl Levin, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee said about General Casey on Thursday.


SEN. CARL LEVIN (D) MICHIGAN: Year after year, we were told this is a successful strategy and now all of a sudden, a general who was assigned to carry out that strategy and did the best he could acknowledging some mistakes in implementation is going to be held accountable by some who will vote against his nomination for the massive failures at the highest level of civilian authority.


ROBERTS: So, what's going on here? Are Democrats trying to keep the blame sharply focused on President Bush where some of these Republicans would like to kind of spread it around to everybody? STODDARD: Absolutely. General Casey is sort of a punching bag here. Republicans needed to protest his nomination as they used to criticize Donald Rumsfeld who's no longer here to criticize because they need some cover on the war. And, the Democrats want the blame as they said sort of squarely at the hands of President Bush. Republicans were fond of General Casey before this election and clearly General Casey is perceived as an asset to our military in this administration or President Bush would not have elevated him to the Army chief of staff position.

VANDEHEI: Republicans want to do with this debate is use it as a chance to voice criticism against the White House where it really isn't going to hurt them as much as they feel it's going to help them and they're opposing the search. They even on a resolution that's non- binding. feel that really undercuts the White House. This gives them the chance to criticize without having to take --

ROBERTS: We also saw a little war of words this week between the Pentagon and the office of speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi over this aircraft. How much airplane does one woman need or one man for that matter?

STODDARD: I mean, apparently the one that she's requesting that can make the distance to California without refueling is quite large. It is a question of security and the White House backed her up yesterday talking about this situation as a silly story. But for Republicans, newly minted in the minority, still smarting from a loss of power after 12 years and desperate to change the topic away from Iraq, this is irresistible to be able to tell us that Pelosi has chosen to spend $300,000 on a trip that would cost the rest of us Americans $300.

VANDEHEI: It didn't help though when it came out that Speaker Hastert would himself take a large plane and also had a large entourage with him.

ROBERTS: But I'm going to tell you, I flown in those G-3s and even though they have to stop, a nice way do get to San Francisco. AB Stoddard, Jim Vandehei, thanks very much.


ROBERTS: More on Iraq coming up later. Straight ahead, we'll take you into the Niger delta and another war brewing over black gold.


ROBERTS: Oil spells trouble in many parts of the world. In Nigeria, it has fired up deadly combat between the government and rebels with civilians especially outside oil workers caught in the middle. Is this a fight that's doomed to intensify? The rebels have vowed that it will. Our Africa correspondent Jeff Koinage dove into the heart of the conflict in the Niger River delta. Here's part of his report from Wednesday.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) JEFF KOINANGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): We were an hour and a half up river from the delta town of (INAUDIBLE) when suddenly out of nowhere, masked gunmen in powerful speed boats surrounded us, shooting over our heads and demanding to know who we are. Their weapons, impressive, small machine guns. A boat-mounted .50 caliber and grenade launchers, far more fire power than I had ever seen in the delta. Simply put, in their black outfits and black ski masks, these guys were terrifying. And that's exactly what they've become, Nigeria's worst nightmare. They call themselves the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta or MEND. Their goal, they insist, is to mend what they say is the unequal distribution of the vast wealth reaped from Nigeria's oil bonanza. These murky waters contain some of the richest oil deposits and ironically some of the poorest people in the world.


ROBERTS: Jeff Koinange joins us now from Johannesburg in South Africa. Jeff, first of all, let me say that that's just an extraordinary piece of journalism and one that you are taking a lot of heat from the Nigerian government over. What are they upset about?

KOINANGE: That's right, John. Look, we took a lot of risk going down the Niger delta. We went to a place where hardly any journalist have ever been. It was risky. It was dangerous. You were up close with the rebels. They showed us the hostages which nobody else has been able to see where the Nigerian military has not been able to go and yet the Nigeria government is saying that organizations like CNN and other western organizations are advocating for the four Ds, mainly death, disease, despair and destruction. But look, this is the reality on the ground. I think the issues are why has this situation been allowed to deteriorate to this level?

ROBERTS: So what are you saying, that they're accusing you of helping the rebels get their message out?

KOINANGE: They're saying that we staged managed the entire story. And that's impossible, John. I mean it's preposterous for them to be able to -- to say something like that. The fact that we went down there, we exposed the situation. We let the world know what's going on in Africa's largest oil producer. And then they turn around and say we stage managed it, John. It's simply absurd.

ROBERTS: One thing you did, as well, Jeff, was you showed a lot of families in the Philippines, pictures of these hostages who were taken off of an oil tanker, I believe, you gave them the first hope that their people are still alive.

KOINANGE: And just imagine for a moment John, you haven't heard from your loved ones for nearly a month. You don't know where they go. They've been captured somewhere in Africa in a place they have never been before. Suddenly, you see these masked gunmen dancing around them in a trance with guns and rocket propelled grenades and the works. What is the first thing that goes through your mind? Why hasn't the Nigerian government done anything about it? How come journalists are able to get to that place and the government and the military which patrols those same waters hasn't been able to? Absolutely we are exposing this and it's really ticked them off.

ROBERTS: That was my next question. If Jeff Koinange of CNN can go in to the heart of darkness and talk with the rebels from MEND and find the hostages, why can't the Nigerian government?

KOINANGE: I guess the simple answer John and this is a really simple answer, they don't dare to go where the rebels are. The rebels literally control about 700,000 square miles. We're talking about an area twice the size of Maryland. There are creeks. There are swamps. You meander for hours and hours. We were in the water for 2 1/2 hours before we actually went on dry ground. If you took me back there today, John, I wouldn't be able to find my way around. That's how well the rebels know the area and that's what the Nigerian military fears. They cannot tread into those waters because they just don't know the area. And I know in this day and age, you have GPRS, you have satellites that can view all this but they don't have that and they can't beat the rebels, at least not right now.

ROBERTS: Well, it's just a fascinating story Jeff and one I'm sure we haven't heard the last of. Thanks very much.

As Jeff pointed out, the Nigerian government has criticized his reporting and the Nigerian minister of information and communications issued a statement titled, quote, the offensive unethical and subversive reporting of Nigeria on CNN by Jeff Koinange. It reads: the report utterly disregards the most elementary principle of journalism, because no government official was interviewed. It sends the wrong signals to the international community about the state of affairs in the country, creates unnecessary panic, foster the feeling of insecurity, advance an outdated thesis of neglect of the Niger delta and portray Nigeria as a country in perpetual crises. It also glorifies criminality and undermines global efforts at eliminating terrorism.

CNN has also put out a statement. It reads, CNN is working on a response to the minister's letter. We can tell you that CNN did make a considerable effort to obtain comment on the story from both the Nigerian navy and the Nigerian president's office. No one from the government was made available to CNN.

From an emerging war in Nigeria, we go back to full blown combat in Iraq and to a roundtable of our generals on downed choppers, more troops and how angry debate here plays in the U.S. ranks. THIS WEEK AT WAR.



ROBERTS: Troubling new developments in Iraq, with six helicopters downed in the past three weeks. Is it new technology or new tactics?

At the Pentagon inspector general's report on prewar intelligence, will it erase whatever support left for keeping troops in Iraq? We brought our generals together for more perspective on all of this. Here in Washington, Brigadier General James Spider Marx, U.S. Army, retired, and Major General Don Shepard, U.S. Air Force retired. And in Chicago, Brigadier General David Grange, U.S. Army, retired.

Spider Marx, start us off here. You're the intelligence guy. Talk about this inspector general's report from the Pentagon, which says that the Intel looked like it was shaped to match the policy rather than the other way around.

How outrageous is that?

BRIGADIER GENERAL JAMES SPIDER MARX, U.S. ARMY (RET.): Well, frankly, it is outrageous.

Now, the thing you have to realize about intelligence is it is fundamentally the competition of ideas. What concerns me about this is this came from the office of the director of policy, not intelligence.

So, certainly, that office can have its opinions and it can draw its own conclusions. So you want to have the competition of ideas, but you have to fundamentally fuse and blend together the different forms of intelligence and you've got to come up with the solution and, from that solution, you then derive -- intelligence drives operations.

It drives operations. It leads you to conclusions. It is a little bit outrageous.

ROBERTS: The big suggestion here is that they had the conclusion, now find me the intelligence to back up the conclusion that we've reached here, yes, exactly, that sort of thing.

And now that we're in Iraq, we see more and more American soldiers and Marines dying in these new attacks, Don Shepard, against helicopters.

It's beginning to look a little bit like Afghanistan there with the helos going down, as it was when the Russians were in Afghanistan.

Is this new weapons, new tactics?

MAJOR GENERAL DON SHEPARD, U.S. AIR FORCE (RET.): We don't know yet, John. But I would say be very careful about drawing conclusions too quickly.

The thing about these helicopters are they were different types of helicopters. They were operating in different areas. We need to find out what shot them down, if, indeed, they were shot down or whether it was missiles or light weapons or anti-aircraft fire.

All of those are very important and then look at your tactics. Were you flying at the same time, same altitude? You decide what to change, but don't be too quick to say this is new weapons and some new thing going on. ROBERTS: What do you think, General Grange, and what does it all mean? As we were pointing out here, that the Russians began to lose their stomach in Afghanistan when all their helicopters started being shot down.

BRIGADIER GENERAL DAVID GRANGE, U.S. ARMY (RET.): Well, the helicopter losses had something to do with it, but it was other factors, as well.

Actually, this is a very small number of helicopters to be lost in the war that's gone on this long, especially if you compare it to something like Vietnam.

So it could be some more sophisticated weapons, tactics, but it's probably focused on helicopters because, one, it's a sensational attack if they're successful and, number two, they can't stand the fact that U.S. forces rule the skies, that U.S. forces have a three- dimensional warfare capability

They can find with helicopters, kill them with helicopters, and move troops rapidly around the battlefield.

ROBERTS: And it certainly has accelerated the death count in Iraq, as well. The first seven days of February, 31 of our troops were killed. That would put it on pace to be a new high for a last couple of years. D

General David Petraeus takes over the command of American forces in Iraq this weekend. He's got a lot of supporters on Capitol Hill.

One of the people who's a very strong supporter of his is Senator Lindsey Graham from South Carolina, who had to say this in the "Washington Post," quote, "I've been selling Petraeus to anybody who would listen. He's the General Grant of the surge. He's our last best chance as a military commander to bring about a change on the ground."

Spider, is he going to be able to get the job done and is he the last chance?

MARX: This isn't about Dave Piraeus. This is about trying to make a difference on the ground, making sure the soldiers and Marines on the ground, all the service members have what they need.

Certainly you can't have an army or a service of lambs being led by a lion exclusively, but you prefer to have that. You prefer to have a great guy in charge.

So Dave Petraeus is the right guy. He's studied it, he's fought in it. He knows what he's talking about. We've got to give him the opportunity. But let's not call it a surge.

ROBERTS: General Shepard, you sent me an article earlier this week pointing that General Petraeus has surrounded himself with Ph.D.s, very bright people who also have a wealth of combat experience. What sort of advantage do you think that might give him in the field?

SHEPARD: Well, it's taking smart people that have been there and you're looking for ideas.

Dave Petraeus is the right guy at the right time over there. He has been there. He has studied it. He's helped train the Iraqi military. This is a guy that knows what he's doing, but he is on the hot seat. He will be held responsible for what happens over there and he's got smart guys helping him to think through the thing, because this is not just a military problem, it's a complex diplomatic political problem, as well.

ROBERTS: General Grange, I wanted to throw this at you. It's a report that came out on Friday from the Council on Foreign Relations, a fellow named Steve Simon, writing about the Iraq war, making the case that the U.S. should pull troops out by 2008, saying that "The crisis has now moved beyond the capacity of Washington to control on its own. The United States lacks the military resources and the domestic and international political support to master the situation."

He's suggesting that the situation in Iraq may be irretrievable, regardless of how this troop increase goes, that the U.S. has got to think about getting out as soon as possible.

GRANGE: I'm sure that's a course of action on the table. I always believe that there's a way to accomplish a mission. I don't think it's hopeless. I think it's very tough.

The international community has already lost their will. It's a good chance that the United States of America will lose -- we'll lose our will, as well, and when that happens, no matter what you do, you will not be successful.

ROBERTS: Well, there's a lot of people who have a lot of faith in David Petraeus and a lot of people hoping that he can make a difference on the ground.

General Grange in Chicago, General Shepard, General Marx, thanks very much. Really appreciate your time.

The White House again insists it has no intention to attack Iran. Iran's supreme leader warns, "You'd better not."

Regional tensions on the rise, coming up next.


ROBERTS: There was tough talk from Iran this week threatening to hit U.S. targets around the world if President Bush were to attack that country.

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued the warning amid speculation that the United States might try to stop the flow of Iranian weapons into Iraq and or even take out Iran's nuclear program. At the same time, Iran tested missiles that could be used against U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf.

Is all of this designed to deter the United States or just bolster Iran's standing through that entire region?

Joining us now is senior international correspondent, Nic Robertson, from a rare vantage point for outside reporters in the Saudi Arabian mountain town of Hile (ph), and Middle East correspondent, Amish Raman, in Cairo. He's back there after several recent trips to Iran.

Aneesh Raman, start us off here. All of this bluster from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is this just adding to the inevitable atmosphere and sense that confrontation will be upon us one day?

ANEESH RAMAN, CNN MIDDLE EAST CORRESPONDENT: Well, it certainly does. We have heard similar statements from Khamenei before, essentially saying that if Iran is attacked, it will retaliate.

Nothing surprising there. But what is fueling newfound concerns is the present context. His speech, his first address last week after the U.N. slapped sanctions on Iran last year came as Iran, as you mentioned, pursued another round of war games, a second this year.

It came as the U.S. is moving another aircraft carrier into the Persian Gulf, as Iran continues its nuclear defiance, as President Bush has said that the U.S. military should kill or capture Iranian agents inside of Iraq.

What does this all mean? To many, there is fear that there are a number of triggers that exist and, as we heard most recently from the head of the IAEA, Mohamed ElBaradei, fear that an uncontrollable chain of events is what the world is facing when it comes to the U.S. and Iran, that even if it's about posturing on both sides, despite the statements from President Bush on down that the U.S. doesn't want to invade Iran, that too many triggers are out there and that this might be an inevitable possibility, military confrontation.

ROBERTS: At the same time that the Ayatollah Khamenei was making his statements, we saw an op-ed piece in the "New York Times" from Javad Zarif, who is the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations, who said, quote, "The United States administration also appears to be trying to forge a regional coalition to counter Iranian influence. By promoting such a policy, the United States is fanning the flames of sectarianism just when they most need it to be quelled."

Nic Robertson, is that the sense where you are, in your part of the Arab world there, that the United States, by taking on Iran like this, is fanning the flames of sectarianism?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Perhaps not in Saudi Arabia, but in Lebanon, which is where I was last week, and in Jordan and in other countries surrounding Iraq, there is this idea that it is the United States that's fostering the division, fostering the sectarianism. Saudi Arabia, it seems, the United States' probably biggest and strongest ally in the region, is keen to the United States' support in whichever way it's coming at the moment and, indeed, is really stepping up to the plate politically and diplomatically.

ROBERTS: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice came in for some criticism on Wednesday in a Congressional hearing. She was asked about this offer that Iran made back in 2003 for dialogue, perhaps even recognition of Israel.

Here's how she responded to that.


CONDOLEEZZA RICE, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: I have read about this so-called proposal from Iran. We had people who said the Iranians want to talk to you. Lots of people who said the Iranians want to talk to you.

But I think I would have noticed if the Iranians had said, "We are ready to recognize Israel," and, Congressman, I just don't remember ever seeing any such thing.


ROBERTS: Aneesh Raman, how serious was that offer? Did the Iranians really want to talk?

RAMAN: Well, from what we know, the offer included virtually discussion on everything the Iranians were willing to talk about when it comes to U.S. concerns, full cooperation on the nuclear front, willing to discuss a path towards a two-state solution between the Palestinians and the Israelis, willing to discuss, as well, an end to Iranian support of Palestinian militant groups.

What Iran wanted in return on the table from the U.S. was discussion to an end of sanctions that the U.S. has levied on the Islamic republic for over two decades and for access to peaceful civilian nuclear technology.

Now, keep in mind, this was a different regime at the time in 2003. The president was a moderate voice. Hatami, Iran wasn't enriching uranium.

Now you have a hard lined president, Ahmadinejad, and Iran is pushing ahead on its nuclear program.

So Secretary Rice saying she doesn't recall something dramatic, but many who look back at what we think was offered see this as a potentially huge missed opportunity for the United States.

ROBERTS: And, Nic Robertson, Saudi Arabia, at the same time here, playing a central role in trying to get the Palestinian factions united so that they can talk to Israel about the way forward and the peace plan. What are the Saudis actually doing here and does this open up the potential that when Secretary of State Rice goes there for these three-way meetings, that they might actually bear some fruit?

ROBERTSON: Well, certainly, the Saudis have done a job that few others in the region have been able to do. There were talks in Syria between the Hamas and Fatah, the Palestinian factions, just a few weeks ago.

Those didn't come to a positive conclusion. The talks here in Saudi Arabia hosted by the King Abdullah in Mecca, a holy city here, really did seem to deliver a positive result. At least that's what we can see so far.

So, yes, it perhaps does pave the way for Condoleezza Rice in her meetings when she comes back to the region to make some a progress.

The Saudis have said privately that they will support the United States in its diplomacy in the region and they have been having behind-the-scenes talks, not just in Iran over the issue of Iraq, but over the issue of Hezbollah and Lebanon, over the issues we have seen of Hamas' sort of increasing drift towards financial aid that's now coming from Iran, because the West, because the United States, because Saudi Arabia's not giving it to Hamas.

They've been drifting towards the Iranians.

So the Saudis are perhaps playing a very pivotal role here that the United states cannot play. Although it supports the Saudis behind the scenes, it cannot take that stance and the Saudis are playing that role right now and perhaps this will help Condoleezza Rice.

But we've seen these deals made before and then fall apart.

ROBERTS: Well, it certainly would be something if this process actually takes a positive step forward.

Nic Robertson in Hile (ph) in Saudi Arabia and Aneesh Raman for us in Cairo, thanks very much.

Up next, chilling testimony on Capitol Hill and new questions about soldiers of fortune in Iraq.



KATHRYN HELVENSTON-WETTENGEL, MOTHER OF STEVEN HELVENSTON: I was told he was still alive when they tied him to the back of that truck and drug him through the streets of Fallujah. And that was before they decapitated him, dismembered him and torched him.


ROBERTS: That's Kathryn Helvenston-Wettengel. She is the mother of one of four Blackwater employees killed in Fallujah back in 2004. They were security guards, among the estimated 48,000 guns for hire now in Iraq. Congressional hearings are shining new light on so- called military contractors.

Are they operating without adequate training, support and oversight and do their big salaries siphon off the military's best?

Joining me now to talk more about this is Kathleen Hicks. She's a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here in Washington.

This intersection, Kathleen, of military and mercenaries seems to be fraught with problems.

KATHLEEN HICKS, SENIOR FELLOW, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: I think it is, but the battle space of the future is going to be a complex one.

There's noncombatants, there's NGOs at play. You have media there and private security firms just another piece of that complex environment.

ROBERTS: There certainly are critics. Let's listen to Jeremy Skahill. He's a journalist and author who's got a book coming out next month on Blackwater. It's called "Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army."

Here's what he had to say on Wednesday.


JEREMY SKAHILL, AUTHOR: It's like the OK Corral in Iraq right now. You have the unregulated, unchecked armies running around the country. Many of them are just soldiers for fortune.

They hire special forces operators from around the world. What are they doing in Iraq?


ROBERTS: So, Kathleen, what are they doing in Iraq? Is there a legitimate role for them? Do they fill a hole that the military can't fill?

HICKS: They fill a hole that the military is not filling. And I think that's really where the policy question comes for those in Washington, is what role do they want the military to perform overseas and what role do they think is nonessential and security firms can provide?

Many of these people are good Americans, they're good Westerners from the countries of origin. But it is very concerning that they're unregulated and that they are running around Iraq with guns.

ROBERTS: They certainly do have their supporters, as well.

Here's what Virginia Foxx, who is a Congresswoman from North Carolina, said about them at a House Oversight Committee on Wednesday.


U.S. REPRESENTATIVE VIRGINIA FOXX (R-N.C.): American contractors deliver critical supplies, infrastructure and security in an incredibly hostile environment.


ROBERTS: Perhaps not surprising that she supported them, she's from North Carolina, which is where Blackwater is headquartered.

You touched on this just a second ago? Is there enough oversight of these private contractors?

HICKS: There's absolutely not enough oversight of these contractors. We don't know how many contractors are even in Iraq today, how much they cost, what exactly their functions they're performing, and that's for the Department of Defense, Department of State, U.S. Agency of International Development and for the Iraqis themselves.

So there's no accountability really for these firms and there's a big cost to the American taxpayer.

ROBERTS: So they've been operating there for almost four years, nothing has changed in terms of that oversight. If there are to be changes on the ground there in terms of what their training is, what the oversight is, are they adequately protected, where is the impetus for that change going to come from?

HICKS: Well, there has been some change. In October of 2006, the Congress passed a provision that requires these contractors to be subject to the uniform code of military justice, so the same criminal statutes that would apply to U.S. military personnel, and that's a step in the right direction.

I think Congress is going to have be the engine for reform here and I think there is a lot of interest on the Hill on this issue.

ROBERTS: Kathleen Hicks, thanks very much, really appreciate your time.

Coming up, what President Bush will be doing to build support for the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

But, first, a look at some of the fallen in "This Week at War."




ROBERTS: As General George Petraeus takes command of U.S. forces in Iraq this weekend, we're left to wonder will this, in fact, be a new and different chapter in the Iraq saga or just more of the same?

Steve Simon of the Council on Foreign Relations suggests that the situation on the ground may be, quote, "irretrievable."

Petraeus is not known for giving up easily or, for that matter, giving up at all, but his aides are already lowering expectations for what may be possible.

I spoke with a member of Petraeus' inner circle this week, who told me that people need to be realistic. First, he said, it's going to take some time, until May, probably, to get all of the new troops in place.

Then there's the job of integrating them with Iraqi forces and then a period of time until that relationship becomes effective on the ground.

How long will it take before the new commanders have an idea of whether the new plan is working? Probably mid-August or so. And as for what happens if it doesn't work, at the moment, no one seems to know.

A quick check now on what we'll be watching next "Week at War." Monday, President Bush plays host to the president of Lithuania, an ally in the U.S. firght in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

Thursday, the Senate Armed Services Committee looks at whether the Army and Marine Corps up to current and future challenges. And, also, Thursday, students at Columbia, Berkeley and other colleges are planning a one-day walkout to protest against the war in Iraq.

Thanks for joining us on this "This Week at War." I'm John Roberts. Straight ahead, a check of the headlines. Then CNN "Special Investigations Unit: The Journalist and the Jihadi."

Christiane Amanpour looks at the real story behind the murder of Daniel Pearl.


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