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Military Death Toll in Iraq Reaches Grim Milestone; Saudi Arabia Allies in War on Terror?

Aired August 26, 2003 - 20:01   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: We begin this hour of LIVE FROM THE HEADLINES with a very grim statistic: Two more U.S. troops dead in Iraq, bringing the death toll since May 1 to 139.
Now, that exceeds the number of Americans whose died before May 1, when President Bush declared that major combat was over. According to the Pentagon, of the 138 American whose died in Iraq before May 1, 114 died as the result of hostile action, while 24 died of other causes. Of the 139 Americans who have died since May 1, 62 have died in hostile action, while 77 of the deaths are classified as nonhostile.

The rising death count raises military questions for U.S. commanders and political repercussions for the President Bush.

Ben Wedeman is standing by in Baghdad tonight. White House correspondent Suzanne Malveaux joins us from Saint Louis, where President Bush addressed the American Legion today.

Welcome to you both.

Let's get started with Ben tonight.

Does this mean that everyday life in Iraq is more dangerous than Iraq was during combat operations?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, actually, Paula, if you look throughout the country, really, most of the country is in some sort of relative peace. It's only in isolated pockets.

But those pockets are, indeed, proving very dangerous for U.S. troops. The latest casualty was a member of a U.S. Army service brigade that was hit by a homemade bomb as its convoy went by. According to U.S. officials, there are, on average, 12 attacks on U.S. troops a day, however, which makes it a very dangerous place. But, really, if you look at the south of the country and the north, the Kurdish areas, it is, indeed, in fact peaceful. It's really just this area that's otherwise known as the Sunni triangle north and west of Baghdad that has proven dangerous -- Paula.

ZAHN: Ben, talk a little bit about the threat that U.S. troops face, particularly with some of this action coming from very desperate groups. You talk about the Sunni triangle. You have talked about the jihadis in the past and the threat they represent. Is it your inclination to believe that things are just going to get worse because these people are being drawn to these very volatile areas? WEDEMAN: Well, it's a combination of things.

You have, first of all, the continued lawlessness. A fair number of these attacks in fact are conducted by what we can only describe as bandits, really. Then there's the situation whereby Iraq really has, to a certain extent, because a cause celebre for some of these extremist jihadi organizations that have been drawn to Iraq because it's a place where it is seen as a battleground between the United States and Islam, for lack of a better description of it.

And then, of course, you have the continued remnants of the old regime that are out there. And you have Iraqis who are frustrated or angry with the American presence. And they take it out on U.S. troops. It does seem to be the situation that things are not getting better. They may have reached a certain plateau. But it's a very bloody plateau, which is very difficult to maintain the situation for the American troops, who, as I said, really are beginning to feel as if they are in hostile territory, certainly in Baghdad and to the north of it -- Paula.

ZAHN: Ben Wedeman, thanks so much for that update.

Let's go back to Suzanne Malveaux, who rejoins us from Saint Louis.

Suzanne, we're going to play a short clip of that much talked about stop that the president made on an aircraft carrier when he announced the end of major combat operations. Let's replay that and I want you to analyze it for us.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: My fellow Americans, major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.



ZAHN: In light of the statistics that came out showing that post-combat deaths exceeded combat deaths, how much second-guessing is there going on at the White House tonight about the wisdom in making that speech?

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I spoke with a number of officials today.

And, essentially, if you go back and you listen to that, that was very carefully vetted. There were a number of considerations that they were thinking about when the president made that statement. First, as you know, instead of saying, the end of war, it was the end of major combat. There's a legal distinction in terms of how to treat the POWs, Saddam Hussein, Uday and Qusay and so forth.

But also, of course, the political concern is, well, the fear was, was that we would be right where we are now, is that American people would say, well, you said this was all over with and then look what's happened here. Americans are being killed now almost on a daily basis.

One senior administration official says, though, you've got to look and look at the speech. And it says -- he says every word of it is correct, that the president still warned that, yes, it's going to be a tough fight, it's going to be a long battle.

But, really, the political calculus in all of this is that, right now, there's really no groundswell. There's not a lot of people who are demanding that Americans get out of Iraq. What is going to happen, what the fear is, is that, if it does reach that threshold, where Americans say, what are we doing inside of Iraq, Afghanistan, even our involvement in the Middle East, is it worth it, that's going to have some political consequences for Bush in 2004.

ZAHN: Suzanne Malveaux, thanks so much.

We're going to move on now. Once again, that was Ben Wedeman reporting from Baghdad, Suzanne Malveaux in Saint Louis for us this evening.

Now, the rising body count may be taking a toll on President Bush's popularity.

Joining us now to talk about politics and the war are "TIME" magazine columnist Joe Klein, here with me in New York City tonight, and Republican strategist Rich Galen, who joins us from Washington tonight.

Welcome, gentlemen. Glad to have both of you with us.

So, Joe, what do you think will be the long-term impact of the president's declaration? Is that something that you think the White House just wished they could take back?

JOE KLEIN, "TIME": Oh, absolutely I think it is.

And the situation in Iraq is an extremely serious one. Let's look at those statistics today, the 139 who have died since the war, 77 noncombat fatalities. And we as journalists have to start looking at that a lot more closely, because the medical situation on the ground for a lot of these troops in 135-degree heat is really serious. The morale impact on the United States military is really serious.

And I think that, before long, you're going to see some Democrat make the argument that the president has put the American -- has the American Army trapped in Iraq and he has weakened our defense posture in the world.

ZAHN: And, Rich, might that Democrat be John Kerry, when he announced his candidacy, apparently, we were told, when he stands on an aircraft carrier and launches his campaign?

RICH GALEN, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Well, they don't have to. In as much as my friend Joe just did it for them, I guess they don't have to.

But let me make a couple of points. No. 1 is, the president said, the battle of Iraq was over. He didn't say the war against terror was over. That's like -- if we were covering D-Day today, like -- in 1944, as we it today -- the graphics here on CNN and every place would be D-Day, what took so long? The fact is that the president has warned from the very beginning that this is going to be a long and difficult struggle.

Joe, I was just in Kuwait about -- not just -- it's been about six weeks now. I was in Kuwait and I spent a good deal of time with American soldiers who are rotating in and out of Baghdad into Camp Doha. And their morale -- I'm not sure who you talked to. Their morale -- and these weren't people that the public affairs officers brought to me. I was just wandering around the P.X. Their morale was very good.

They understood what they were doing there. They understand what their mission was. They knew that when they signed up to be in the Army, that they were going to have a job and it probably was not going to be in a temperate climate in a really nice place. And they were in pretty good shape.

KLEIN: Well, I'm glad to hear that. I think that we should all be really happy to hear that.

However, a great many conservatives are now beginning to call into question the Bush strategy, from Bill Kristol at "The Weekly Standard" to John McCain. We need help from the rest of the world. The administration isn't asking for it. This is an absolutely crucial battle. The president was absolutely right today when he said that retreat is impossible. But if we're going to win this, we need to have the entire world on our side.


ZAHN: Isn't it a bit disingenuous to say the Bush administration is not asking for help? What was that whole exercise with Colin Powell at the U.N. last week?

KLEIN: Well, he wasn't -- well, if you talk to Colin Powell and people at the State Department, you will hear that, if you're going to ask for burden sharing, you're going to have to give up some power sharing as well.

And the United States government, at this point, including Colin Powell, are not prepared to give any power sharing to the United Nations, to the Security Council.


KLEIN: Now, there's a deal that can be made. And it's going to have to be made, or else we're going to be in a lot of trouble. We're going to be pinned down there for a long time.

(CROSSTALK) GALEN: We haven't been pinned down a long time.


KLEIN: We're not going to be pinned down for a long time?

GALEN: No, we haven't been pinned down for a long time yet. This is like the day of the sandstorm when the active war was going on. There was a quagmire because we had a 24-hour sandstorm.

KLEIN: Rich, we've been in Bosnia for nine years now.

GALEN: And who put us there? Your guy.

KLEIN: And that's an easy one compared to this. My guy, by the way?

GALEN: Well, but America has a responsibility and an opportunity that has not existed in the world in a very long time.


KLEIN: Absolutely. We have to step up to that responsibility and really do it.

GALEN: I agree with you, Joe. And the president is stepping up to the responsibility. And here's the thing about this president.


KLEIN: Not adding troops, not seeking help, not putting in money.

GALEN: That a lot of people, I think, believe in him.

No. 1 is that he is not afraid to change his mind if he thinks we need a new direction, A. But, B, he won't be intimidated into changing his mind. And that's where the terrorists who are coming back into Iraq now -- where, by the way, we can find them -- are making a mistake.

ZAHN: All right, gentlemen, I want to move you to some of the latest statistics. And it's interesting to note the change in this "Newsweek" poll taken in just April, where it had 38 percent of registered voters saying they didn't want to see Mr. Bush reelected.

In a poll out this week, that number was now at 49 percent. That same poll had 69 percent of voters concerned that we will be bogged down in Iraq for many years to come.

Rich, how worried should the White House be about these statistics?

GALEN: Well, you always want to be on the top of any poll. I don't think there's any question about that. But in that same poll, it also said that 61 percent still thought that -- and still do believe -- that we were right to go into Iraq. And the "Newsweek" article actually pointed out the disconnect between those two things. One of the things that -- and I know Joe knows this, because he's covered politics for as long as I've been in it -- is that it's one thing to say in the abstract, I don't like what's going on. It's something else when you are presented with an actual alternative.

And right now, as Joe has said, and as you pointed out, Paula, we have not heard an alternative strategy from anybody anywhere in the world, much less in the United States.


ZAHN: All right, closing thought on a viable alternative strategy.

KLEIN: Paula, these polls don't mean anything at this point. It's too far in advance.

But one very important statistic in that poll was that two-thirds of the American people don't want to spend more money in Iraq. And if we're going to succeed there, we're going to have to spend a lot more money in Iraq and we're going to have to get the rest of the world to join us in doing that. That's the president's job now.

ZAHN: You dodged my question, Joe.



ZAHN: What about who has the alternative strategy? Will John Kerry announce one?

KLEIN: Oh, I don't know which Democrat is going to do it. And, at this point, that is not as important as the fact that we as a country have to do the right thing here, which is to spend more money and get the rest of the world to back us.

Now, I'm sure that every Democrat out there would probably say the same thing, but that's not as important as what happens now, because America's strength, its prestige in the world, and those troops on the ground are at stake.

GALEN: Yes. And, Joe, that's what's called leadership. And that's what the president is showing, I believe.

ZAHN: Rich Galen, Joe Klein, thank you for both of your perspectives tonight.

GALEN: Thanks, Paula. Good night.

ZAHN: Good night -- not to the rest of you watching. We want you to stay with us. We're going to move on to a question about Saudi Arabia, that country today dismissing U.S. claims that Saudi citizens have been entering Iraq to fight Americans. Saudi officials say they have not seen any evidence to back up that charge.

For months now, the Saudis have been defending themselves against charges they are soft on terrorists. And just recently, they agreed to set up a joint task force with the United States to investigate claims that Saudi citizens are actually funding terrorist operations.

Joining us from Washington is Adel Al-Jubeir, an adviser to Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah.

Welcome. Glad to have you with us tonight.


ZAHN: First of all, do you think this task force will make a fundamental difference?

Al-JUBEIR: Absolutely.

It's something that has never been done between two countries. It makes your officials and our officials work as one group. And this way, we will have no delays in terms of exchange of information. And we will have no delays in terms of being able to pull together our resources to make them effective. Incidentally, Paula, this will be the second task force that we've now set up. This first one was done in May, which combines law enforcement and intelligence officials who go after terrorists. And they have done a splendid job so far.

ZAHN: Mr. Al-Jubeir, what a lot of Americans are wondering is, why is it that the Saudis were not able to do this on their own? Why do you need U.S. help to find out where this money is going?

AL-JUBEIR: Well, Paula, we are looking. And we have frozen bank accounts. We have put people in jail. We have done a lot of things that other countries have not been able to do. We still get criticism from the U.S.

What we ended up doing is to say, fine, show me. Come here. Let's do it together. And that's what we're doing. The United States has tremendous resources at its disposal. Maybe we have better analysts. Let's combine the two. There may be areas where we have better resources and you have better analysts. Let's combine the two. Let's put together our minds and put together our resources and fight this, because this is a threat that both of us are confronting.

And unless both of us do everything we can, we're not going to succeed. And we have no intention of failing here.

ZAHN: What do you say to the Americans who believe that -- not your sole motivation, but a major part of your motivation for moving ahead on this task force was that you -- or your country was the victim of some terrorists bombings several months ago, where 34 people lost their lives?

AL-JUBEIR: Well, that, in part, is true.

America moved in the war on terrorism after September 11. That is also a fact. We have been fighting terrorism in Saudi Arabia since the late 1960s. We have been fighting al Qaeda, or going after them since the mid-1990s without any help from anyone. Now we have decided, after September 11, to work with the international community and the U.S. in particular to go after them in a serious way.

And we've done everything we possibly can. May 11 for us, or 12 for us, was a massive jolt that shook us into action, just like September 11 shook America into action. Now, definitely, the extent of the tragedy between the two is vastly different. But just like America was shaken up in September, we were shaken up in May. And we have every intention of going after the terrorists and destroying them.

ZAHN: You raise the issue of September 11. And we can't ignore the fact that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi Arabian. As we come up on this two-year marker, what is it that your government has learned about the climate that allowed for these young men to be encouraged to do what they did on September 11, 2001?

AL-JUBEIR: Well, Paula, we take issue with this.

Bin Laden has over 60 nationalities in his organization. He could have picked any citizen to put on those planes, including Americans. He chose Saudis to give this operation a Saudi face and create problems between our two countries. And in that sense, he almost succeeded. We have no intention of allowing him to succeed.

We have taken a serious look at our domestic situation, whether it involves education, whether it involves creating jobs, whether it involves what is being said in the mosques, whether it involves what is being said in our media. And I believe we have done more in that area than almost every country in the world. I can't think of any country that has done more than we have.

ZAHN: Mr. Adel Al-Jubeir, always good to have you on. Thanks so much for your thoughts tonight.

AL-JUBEIR: Thank you.


Arabia Allies in War on Terror?>

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