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Hamas Founder Killed; Interview With Ambassador Hasan Rahman

Aired March 22, 2004 - 08:02   ET


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Is the fuse burning faster than ever on the Mideast power kegs? The founder of Hamas killed by Israeli missiles. A wave of emotion is spreading across the Islamic world.
Did the president ignore terrorism in the months before 9/11, while an adviser urged more action? A fight between the White House and insiders raging this morning.

And a new phase of jury selection beginning today in the Scott Peterson murder trial, but not without a another fight.

Those stories are all ahead on this AMERICAN MORNING.

ANNOUNCER: From the CNN Broadcast Center in New York, this is AMERICAN MORNING with Soledad O'Brien and Bill Hemmer.

BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: All right, good morning, 8:00 here in New York.

The military in Pakistan is still trying to bring in the last of the militants fighting there in the remote mountains near Afghanistan. The latest news today: tunnels have been found in the area, at least one more than a mile long. Does that mean the fugitives escaped? We'll get to that issue, that topic this hour also.

O'BRIEN: Maybe a better question there is how many fugitives may have escaped as well.


O'BRIEN: Also, what is left for NASA's little rovers as they head off for the final phase of their mission on Mars? We're going to talk to Jack Horkheimer of the Miami Planetarium about that. Also, we'll talk about an asteroid that came very close to Earth last week.

What are we going to talk about when the rovers stop working and as they move on to a new phase?

HEMMER: Well, listen, they are going really strong right now. They said those solar panels would only last so long. So, they're still ticking.

Jack Cafferty, good morning to you on a Monday.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: How're you doing? Coming up in the "Cafferty File," we'll tell you who the British would select to be the official greeter in the event that aliens arrive on the planet Earth. And it ain't Tony Blair.

And McDonald's gets a surprising endorsement from some French nutritionists, which probably could be enough to kill McDonald's. It could be the end of the business.

HEMMER: It's not David Blaine going back to London by chance, is it?


HEMMER: They'd like that. Jack, thank you.

Top stories now, top of the hour.

The head of the U.S. Central Command meeting with Pakistani officials in Islamabad. General John Abizaid's visit described as routine by the U.S. and Pakistan. The trip comes as the Pakistani army continues to battle suspected al Qaeda militants along the Afghan border. There is also a discovery that has Pakistani security is quite concerned. More on that in a moment here.

In the former Yugoslavia, Kosovo is holding a day of mourning for some two dozen victims of last week's ethnic violence. Thousands of mourners turned out for the funerals yesterday of two ethnic Albanian boys. Their deaths sparked the worst violence in Kosovo since the end of the war back in 1999. Hundreds of people were injured during the fighting last week.

Intelligence officials from five major European Union countries meeting in Spain today to talk about terrorism. The summit triggered by the Madrid train attacks that killed more 200 people.

Here in the U.S. now, politics. President Bush and Senator John Kerry taking time out for some political humor. The two called into the annual Saint Patrick's Day breakfast held in Boston on Sunday taking some humorist political jabs at one another. Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney got in on the action as well, holding up a picture of Senator Kerry and singer Michael Jackson. Romney says -- I'm quoting -- "Neither one of these men has ever had cosmetic enhancements." That was the word from Boston over the weekend.

8:05 now in New York.


O'BRIEN: Palestinian groups Hamas and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades are vowing revenge after the death of founder of the founder of Hamas. Thousands of supporters joined the funeral procession for Sheikh Ahmed Yassin through the streets of Gaza City. Yassin was killed this morning by an Israeli air strike as he left a mosque.

Joining us by phone this morning is Chris Burns. He is at the Erez border crossing, which separates the Gaza Strip and Israel. Chris -- good morning.


We're making our way through this very eerie silent border crossing, a no-man's land between Israel and Gaza. Finally arriving here to the Gaza side to be checked by Palestinian police. Very quiet at the moment, but in the last couple of hours there were at least two explosions near here. One, the Hamas says that they fired a Qassam rocket at the Israelis. No injuries. And the explosion is believed to be a mortar explosion, which landed fairly close as we were waiting to go through.

So, very tense here. This has always been the site of numerous attacks by the militants, and the tension is very high, of course, because of the killing of Sheik Ahmed Yassin. The outrage in the streets in Gaza City today, the smoke rising from the bonfires from the burning tires, tens of thousands of people taking to the streets in anger that the Israelis could rocket a 67-year-old quadriplegic spiritual leader of Hamas in his wheelchair as he was leaving a mosque this morning after his regular morning prayers, causes outrage among many Palestinians.

The Israelis are, of course, contending that this man, the spiritual inspiration behind so many suicide bombings that killed hundreds of people.

So, very much raising the tension here in the region. Israel planning -- they're saying it's planning to pull out of Gaza. The militants want to make that look like a retreat. The Israelis want to make it look like it's the disengagement they contend it is.

So, this is a matter of the battle of perception in the killing of Sheikh Yassin could be seen as working into that game plan.

Back to you.

O'BRIEN: Chris Burns joining us by phone this morning. Chris, thanks.

Earlier here on AMERICAN MORNING, Israeli Consul General Alon Pinkus told us that Yassin was targeted because -- quote -- "It was the right thing to do."

For some Palestinian reaction now to the situation, we're joined by Ambassador Hasan Rahman. He is the Palestinian representative to the U.S., and he joins us from Ramallah in the West Bank.

Good morning, sir. Thanks for being with us.


O'BRIEN: We heard the ambassador say it was the right thing to do. What's your reaction to this killing? RAHMAN: Well, it is a very dangerous escalation by Israel. It will have very negative repercussions on the chances to move in the direction of making peace. I think it's a criminal action by Israel. Political assassination of political leaders can never serve a good purpose. It is just a plain crime committed against one paralyzed man and eight other innocent people. It's a massacre, and it has been condemned by everyone in the world. Of course, except the military (UNINTELLIGIBLE) in Israel.

O'BRIEN: This is more of what Israeli Consul General Alon Pinkus had to say about Yassin. Listen for a moment.


ALON PINKUS, ISRAELI CONSUL GENERAL: This is a man who embodies terrorism. This is a man who was arrested twice, who are arrested by the Egyptians to begin with, arrested twice. He's masterminded the killings -- the brutal killings of children, women, way up in the hundreds. He is a force of incitement, a force of hatred towards Israel, towards America, towards the West, towards the Palestinian mainstream for that matter.


O'BRIEN: Pinkus went on to say that he is no spiritual leader of the Palestinian people. Obviously you disagree. Why do you think he is wrong in that whole litany of reasons that he gave for why that man should have been assassinated?

RAHMAN: You know, this man was in Israeli prisons just four years ago, and he was released. Israel never brought any charges against him. You know, it is absolutely ridiculous to allege that a man who cannot see, cannot hear and who is on wheelchair can constitute a threat to the biggest military power in the Middle East and one of the biggest in the world. That's absolute nonsense.

It is a way for Mr. Sharon to destabilize Gaza and the region, and that is a very mad action by Israel. It would have no good outcome, absolutely. Political assassination is not a way to solve serious political issues.

The conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians is over occupation. Israel continues to occupy Palestinian territories, continues to kill Palestinians, continues to destroy Palestinian property, and that's why the Palestinians are angry. If the Israelis get out of the Palestinian territory, I assure you, there was -- nothing is going to happen against Israel.

Why we have those actions by so many Palestinians, which I personally and many Palestinians do not accept and reject, but it is the outcome of desperation. The Palestinian people are desperate because Israel makes their life a living hell. And that's why the Palestinians are angry.

Israel is trying to solve those issues by killing Palestinians. Killing more Palestinians is not going to solve the issue between the Palestinians and Israel. Only peaceful settlement. Only political solution can really achieve the objective of both peoples -- the Palestinians and the Israelis -- and not killing more Palestinians.

O'BRIEN: Ambassador Hasan Rahman joining us this morning. Thank you, sir, for your time.

HEMMER: About 12 minutes now past the hour.

Still overseas, where al Qaeda leaders may have slipped through secret tunnels and out of the hands of Pakistani soldiers. Several tunnels were found earlier today in the mountains where troops have been battling with al Qaeda fighters. Some of those tunnels said to be more than a mile in length. Pakistan is also no longer asserting that al Qaeda's No. 2 man, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is the so-called high- value target they were closing in on.

Nic Robertson is covering the story now from Islamabad in Pakistan.


NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Suspected al Qaeda fighters killed by Pakistani troops removed from the battle front, and, according to local intelligence sources, to be DNA-tested by U.S. officials.

Over the weekend, Pakistan's military lowering expectations al Qaeda's No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has been captured or killed.

GEN. SHAUKAT SULTAN KHAN, PAKISTAN ARMY SPOKESMAN: Nobody can be confident. It can't be said with certainty who is here and who is not here.

ROBERTSON: Also over the weekend, Pakistani artillery idled, allowing negotiations aimed at an al Qaeda surrender. Several thousand troops still on standby, and many more, according to the army, maintaining a cordon around suspected compounds; although, by their own account, a difficult job.

LT. GEN. SAFDAR HUSSEIN, PAKISTAN ARMY: Not knowing whether the locals, they are with us or with them. It's very difficult to identify them. And when an undefined enemy is there, it's practically just in the shadows.

ROBERTSON: Local newspapers have reported civilian casualties. The military played them down, and few here expect that to stop the operation. Questions here, however, are being raised. Why did Pakistan's president, General Pervez Musharraf, hint so strongly in an interview with CNN about a high-value target?

ZIA UDDIN, EDITOR, DAWN NEWSPAPER: Perhaps he wanted to divert attention of the international media from the real subjects, which were being discussed between him and Secretary Powell, which was nonproliferation.

(END VIDEOTAPE) ROBERTSON: Whatever the reason, it seems a swift capture of Osama bin Laden's deputy is now looking less and less likely, and given that latest statement from Pakistani officials about the tunnels found around some of the compounds that were being sealed off, perhaps that does give an indication Pakistani officials are perhaps beginning to feel maybe whoever they had holed up there has gotten away -- Bill.

HEMMER: Nic Robertson from Islamabad. Thanks for that, Nic.

In a moment here, the White House disputing claims it did not recognize the threat from al Qaeda. What will the political fallout be now for the White House? A closer look at that. Bill Schneider is going to be along in a moment.

O'BRIEN: Also, the Tyco is jury still out. They are deciding one of the biggest corporate cases of corruption in U.S. history. We'll bring you an update on that.

HEMMER: Medical talk today. Another negative effect of second- hand smoke on children. Dr. Sanjay Gupta has that still to come this hour on AMERICAN MORNING.


HEMMER: A former White House aide is leveling serious charges at the White House. Richard Clarke, former counterterrorism adviser, says the president was focused on Saddam Hussein when he should have been focused on Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Dick Clarke says Mr. Bush paid little attention to Clarke's warnings before 9/11.


RICHARD CLARKE, FMR. COUNTERTERRORISM COORDINATOR: I find it outrageous that the president is running for re-election on the grounds that he's been such great things about terrorism. He ignored it. He ignored terrorism for months when maybe we could have done something to stop 9/11.


HEMMER: And Clarke has a book coming out today. The White House strongly refuting what he's been saying.

Earlier, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice talked about Clarke's claims here live on AMERICAN MORNING.


CONDOLEEZZA RICE, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: He has a different view of how to fight the war on terrorism. It is a narrow view, that it has to do with killing bin Laden and dealing with Afghanistan. The president has a broader view, which is that you have to take the fight to the terrorists. We have eliminated their base in Afghanistan.

(END VIDEO CLIP) HEMMER: Senior political analyst Bill Schneider now in D.C. to talk more about this.

Bill -- good morning to you. Nice to have you back here on AMERICAN MORNING.


HEMMER: Political fallout is what right now? Do people look at it as politics, or do they look at it as substance and saying the White House screwed up?

SCHNEIDER: I think these charge are damaging, principally because Clarke's charges fit together with other charges we've heard. Bob Woodward (AUDIO GAP) wrote that Donald Rumsfeld, immediately after 9/11, argued that we should go after Iraq. And then David Kay's testimony that there never were any weapons of mass destruction when the war began.

It seems to fit together with Clarke's argument that the administration was looking for a pretext to go after Saddam Hussein. The administration is trying to say that you should dismiss these charges because of politics, because he was disgruntled, he had a grievance, because he's trying to promote a book. I don't think any of that sticks. At the moment, they have to answer those charges.

HEMMER: On the campaign hunt now, you consistently hear the talk from the White House saying there is a window of opportunity between now and the beginning of June when people check out for the summer with families and children getting out of school -- a window of opportunity to define the opponent before the opponent defines you. There is an advertising campaign, a major blitz across the country. Is it reaping rewards for the White House? Is it showing success at this point? Or do we know?

SCHNEIDER: Well, most people don't have a strong fix on John Kerry, and I think the administration -- some of those charges are having an impact. But the bottom line of this election is very simple. There's an incumbent president running for re-election.

This election is going to be a referendum on George W. Bush. They're trying to run against Kerry the way his father ran against Michael Dukakis in 1998. But there was no incumbent in 1988, so they could make it a referendum on Dukakis. That can't be this time. When the incumbent president is running, people are voting on whether to keep or fire that president.

HEMMER: What is Bush selling, and conversely, what is Kerry selling in this campaign as individuals?

SCHNEIDER: Yes. Well, what is Bush selling? Bush was on top of the world for a year after 9/11. He united the world behind the war in Afghanistan. He united the country. Even Democrats supported him. Then came Iraq. He spent his political capital on that, divided the country, alienated the world. He's trying to say, I can be the Bush after 9/11. I can once again manage and create that consensus. Kerry is saying, no, you can't. You blew it in Iraq. But Kerry's problem is he's trying to sell something very difficult to sell. You know, I always argue, Americans are looking for something that they're not getting from the incumbent. After Jimmy Carter, Americans were looking for leadership, and that's what they found in Ronald Reagan. After the first George Bush, who was famously out of touch with ordinary Americans, they were looking for empathy, and they found it with Bill Clinton.

I fear that what John Kerry seems to be trying to sell right now, without much success, is complexity, that Bush is simple, he's direct. He has very naive ideas about the world. And John Kerry looks at issues from both sides. But the White House portrays that as flip- flopping. It's indecisive, and they are calling attention to Bush's strength, which is his resolve. And I think that's not going to work for John Kerry.

HEMMER: Thank you, Bill. Good to see you, as always. Bill Schneider from D.C.

Our first topic will be picked up again tomorrow. Richard Clarke is our guest here live on AMERICAN MORNING. A similar topic, too, as we continue now -- Soledad.

O'BRIEN: That's right. With Jack and the question of the day.


CAFFERTY: Hi, there.

The question is: How much damage will Clarke's claims do to the president's re-election campaign? Here's some of what we're hearing from you this morning.

Darrin in Middletown, Delaware: "Although this should do damage to the president's re-election campaign, Karl Rove and his merry band of spin doctors will find some way to portray Clarke as a malcontent bent on getting Mr. Bush out of office. His claims, however, seem to be believable."

Steven in Charlestown, South Carolina: "Clarke's disclosures verify what many of us have known since the beginning: that President Bush's war on terror has been much more about political gain than national protection. The result of Bush and his re-election hopes will be as it should: total devastation."

Blaine writes: "I don't think it will have much effect. The American public is smart enough to recognize a partisan attack. Clarke has had months to make these accusations, but didn't. Now, at a well-timed political and book sale time, he chooses to speak. It sounds like the words of someone who was demoted and has an ax to grind."

Cameron in Cleveland Heights, Ohio: "Richard Clarke's comments alone won't hurt the Bush administration. It's just another leaky pipe. But there are so many leaky pipes in the Bush White House that their shoes must make squishy noises when they walk."

All right, Cameron.

O'BRIEN: An administration that prides itself on no leaks and no leaky pipes.

CAFFERTY: Squishy noises when they walk.

HEMMER: Thank you, Jack.

In a moment here, more violence in Iraq being blamed on the insurgents. What can be done to end that? We'll ask one man who used to represent Iraq at the U.N. Mohammed Al Douri is our guest in a moment on AMERICAN MORNING.


HEMMER: Find out what's happening now in the world of money. Andy is out this week. Susan Lisovicz is not. She's picking up where Andy left off.

Nice to have you here, by the way.

SUSAN LISOVICZ, CNN FINANCIAL NEWS: He's on the beach. We're in chilly Manhattan.

HEMMER: That's right.

Let's talk about -- before we get to the markets -- Dennis Kozlowski. Jurors went home for the weekend. They're back today.

LISOVICZ: They're back today. Deliberations start at 9:30 a.m. And, of course, we don't know what the jurors are thinking exactly, but we do have some insight from the questions that they have asked. We already know that the jurors -- their first question was criminal intent. Both the answer and the question, some legal experts say, favors the defense.

But also later on, the jurors also had a question about reading back some of the testimony from the CFO involved in this case, Mark Schwartz (ph), who had spent several days on the stand. This involving a particularly contentious $38 million loan, and that in particular could favor the prosecution.

So, a little bit of this, a little bit of that. Of course, this is one of the most high-profile corruption crimes that we've seen, white collar, 32 counts, 30 years in prison each, if convicted.

The judge on Friday, before he dismissed the jurors for the weekend...


LISOVICZ: ... said look both ways before you cross the street.

HEMMER: He said that? LISOVICZ: We need each and every one of you on Monday.

HEMMER: That's ominous.

O'BRIEN: That's a weird thing for the judge to say.

HEMMER: Yes, I would say.

O'BRIEN: But he's right. They do need them to do it. And how long do they think this trial is going to last, realistically? I mean, I know you can't pinpoint it.

LISOVICZ: Well, it's 32 counts. I mean, for instance, Martha Stewart had four counts. Thirty-two counts, and it's grand larceny, securities fraud, conspiracy. So, there's a lot on the line here.

O'BRIEN: A long time is what Susan is saying.

HEMMER: That's right.

O'BRIEN: Want to talk about the market?

LISOVICZ: Talk about ominous, what we've seen in the markets is pretty ominous. Of course, the second straight week that the three major averages are down, particularly brutal on Friday. The Dow losing triple digit decline there. Nasdaq and S&P 500 down 1 percent each.

You know, terrorism again in the fore, and that doesn't coincide well when you have a jobs market worrying, election uncertainties. And the market was really due for a pause, some observers say.

So, all of that going into the correction mode, and you have the three major averages down for the year.

O'BRIEN: Interesting. All right, Susan, thanks a lot.

LISOVICZ: My pleasure.

O'BRIEN: Still to come this morning, does Scott Peterson's attorney have a good argument for another change of venue? We're going to find out what he might ask for in court today. Stay with us. You're watching AMERICAN MORNING.



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