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New Firefight in Fallujah; Straight Talk Politics: Words Versus Image

Aired April 28, 2004 - 15:30   ET


JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: For the second night in a row, we are seeing U.S. Marines attacking positions inside the city of Fallujah. Presumably still in that northwest area where the insurgents are concentrated, holed up, if you will.
While we're watching these pictures coming in from Iraq, I want to bring back national security analyst Ken Robinson.

And Ken, ask you a question that you and I were discussing yesterday, and that is, just how accurate are these AC-130 gun ships? How accurate can they be in the job they're supposed to do?

KEN ROBINSON, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Judy, they're very accurate. In training situations, the Ranger Regiment and Special Operations Forces practice with this platform every month. And they do live fire, danger close missions, which fire right in front of their positions, even in training. They have that that much confidence, and they want to build that much confidence in the crews that command and control and direct the targeting.

When that aircraft fires in proximity of you, it chills your bones. The times that it has fired in front of myself and other soldiers, it's a memorable moment because you see it, you smell it, you feel it. And it shakes the earth around you. So it makes a great impression in terms of lethality, but also it's amazing how accurate it is, the targeting system on board.

WOODRUFF: Ken, we may have temporarily lost those pictures coming in from Iraq, but of course we're monitoring all the time to see when that video will resume. But how do the -- how do the Marines know, how do the people who make the targeting decisions know that they are going after what they intend to go after? What sort of intelligence do they need to have to know they're shooting the right target?

ROBINSON: The United States military uses what they call all- source intelligence. They use ground sensors, they use airborne platforms that are both manned, like an F-15 that was dropping bombs, also has two eyes and is observing the ground area. They use imagery from space satellites.

They're using their predator drone, which is also armed and weaponized to be able to deliver firepower. And they used patrols earlier today, moved into the railroad station area, where they suspected insurgents were planning and conducting future operations. And from there, a fire fight ensued. And so from each of these reports that comes from the field, that's called information. And when that information is taken and analyzed and compared with other information, combat information, it's turned into intelligence. And then intelligence then informs commanders, and commanders then make decisions about areas of operation and the tactics they want to achieve for a specific period of time. And then they apply that power on a target.

WOODRUFF: Ken, one other thing here. How is what you're seeing tonight, these attacks, which we're told are not just from the air, they're also on the ground, how are they different from what we were seeing yesterday, last night?

ROBINSON: I don't think they're very different at all, Judy. I believe they're simply moving the insurgency from one part of the district to another. As pool reporter Karl Penhaul was saying earlier, it seemed there was a shift from the northwest to the northeast in terms of it activity and in terms of targeting.

That may be representative of the fact that the combat operations yesterday has caused a group of insurgent combatants to move and seek safer terrain. And they've now, through intelligence or through ground patrols, have identified them in a new location. And they're seeking to neutralize them.

WOODRUFF: All right. Ken Robinson, our national security analyst, talking to me.

I want to bring in by telephone now Army -- retired Army Colonel Pat Lang, who's also watching these pictures, who's also been following the developments in Iraq.

Colonel Lang, given what we've seen tonight, last night, is it fair to say the U.S. military is any closer to getting things under control in Fallujah? Or do we just have to reserve judgment here?

COL. PAT LANG, U.S. ARMY (RET.): Actually, nothing's happened that's very different at all. The operations tonight are just like the ones last night. I would classify these airborne fires that are going on inside the city as essentially interdiction fires intended to weaken resistance.

I don't see any real reason to think that these insurgeries are confined to one part of the city. You hear people say that, but I don't know what would confine them to any particular part of the city. There doesn't seem to be any resistance to them inside the city from any particular group of people. And there are a lot of mosques from which there are being appeals made to people to fight the Americans, to fight the resistance.

So I think, you know, you've got a situation here in which the Marines are waiting to see how the political process plays out. In the intervening period, they're trying to defend themselves and weaken the enemy as much as possible.

WOODRUFF: When you say there's no real resistance to these insurgents inside the city of Fallujah, how does that square with what we're told at the Pentagon and at the White House and elsewhere that most Iraqis are in favor of what the U.S. is doing there and how this -- these insurgents represent a very small minority?

LANG: You know, I don't operate on the basis of what people tell me. I operate on the basis of what evidence I'm aware of and can perceive. And I don't see any evidence that shows that the people of Fallujah are really unhappy with the insurgents.

I mean, we can say that in Baghdad or in Washington, but where's the evidence of that? I don't see any evidence of any firefights going on inside the city in which the heavily-armed populous and everybody in Iraq who is armed are attempting to restrict the movements of these people. What we see is the insurgents fighting and us fighting the insurgents. I don't see any evidence of anything else at all.

WOODRUFF: Well, if that's the case, that raises the larger political question of what's the incentive for there to be an agreement worked out if people are perfectly happy with this kind of opposition to an American presence?

LANG: Well, I think the Marines understand that. They're down there in front of these places, and they're not observing anything that indicates there's unrest inside the city of Fallujah. And when Marine enlisted men, which I presume we're talking about, start talking about suicide patrols, they know what they're talking about.

This isn't a matter of theory from somebody's schoolbook from a war college or something like this. They're right up against the real thing, and they're going to operate on the evidence of what is. And so far as they can see, Fallujah is a hostile place. And there don't seem to be any friendlies (ph) inside Fallujah that are doing anything useful to us.

WOODRUFF: So just one last question, Colonel Pat Lang. What lies ahead then for these military commanders on the ground if facing this situation, you said they just wait to see whether the political solution can be worked out?

LANG: Nobody wants to assault this city and fight their way through it, because casualties will inevitably be quite heavy, both ours and in terms of the civilian populous. And so an attempt is being made to see if the insurgeries can be talked down out of the tree, so to speak, and made too surrender.

I think it's an unlikely thing myself. But I think that everybody owes it to the troops and their families and their own lives in order to do what you can to see if you can accomplish it that way. But I don't think the prospects are very good.

WOODRUFF: Retired Army Colonel Pat Lang with us on the telephone, talking about the reality on the ground there in Fallujah, facing what he describes as a very difficult job politically. Even more politically than militarily for U.S. forces.

Colonel Lang, thank you very much.

Well, as we continue to watch these pictures -- live pictures coming in from Iraq, I want to bring you up to date to what's been happening and what's been said here in the United States. President Bush vowing today that U.S. commanders, he says, will take whatever action is necessary to secure Fallujah. Whereas we just have been reporting a new firefight erupted about an hour ago.

Earlier today, Marine helicopters and snipers cranked up an assault on three buildings in Fallujah, harboring some insurgents. But despite the daily fighting there, the U.S. military has said it intends to let the peace talks play out in an effort to establish a cease-fire. President Bush says most of Fallujah, he says, is returning to normal, despite what he calls continuing "pockets of resistance."


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The closer we come to passing sovereignty, the more likely it is that foreign fighters, disgruntled Ba'athists, or friends of the Shia cleric will try to stop progress. That's what's happening.

They want to kill innocent life to try to get us to quit. And we're not going to. And our military commanders will take whatever action is necessary to secure Fallujah on behalf of the Iraqi people.


WOODRUFF: Even before this fighting flared up again in Fallujah, the Iraqis, we see in a recent poll, were conflicted about the war and its effect on their country. That is according to a new CNN-USA Today- Gallup survey, the most extensive poll yet of opinions inside Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion.


WOODRUFF (voice-over): Images from Fallujah raise this question: will they reinforce the views Iraqis shared with interviewers between March 22 and April 9, before insurgents stepped up there attacks? At that time, 46 percent of Iraqis said the U.S. invasion had done more harm than good. A third saw more benefits than drawbacks.

More than 3,400 Iraqis were surveyed face to face by fellow Iraqis in their own homes, across all parts of the country. More than half of those interviewed then said they believe U.S. military action in Iraq was unjustified. And more than half said U.S. troops should leave Iraq immediately.


WOODRUFF: But Iraqis' views of the war and its aftermath were not all negative. Sixty-one percent of those surveyed said ousting Saddam Hussein was worth it. Most agree that would not have happened without military intervention by the United States. Forty-two percent of Iraqis say they think their country is better off after the invasion. And they saw even more benefits closer to home. Fifty-one percent said their own families are better off now than before the war.


WOODRUFF: On a follow-up on that survey, CNN sent correspondent Ben Wedeman into the streets of Baghdad to talk with Iraqis about the war, about the United States, and the future.


BEN WEDEMAN, CNN CAIRO BUREAU CHIEF (voice-over): Iraqis have a lot on their minds these days. And unlike in the past, they don't hesitate to share it all with you.

A good place to find out what's on people's minds is Rasheed Street, the old heart of Baghdad. A place where Iraqis, Shiites, Sunnis, Christians have intermingled for decades. Here the results of the CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll are echoed.

Disillusionment with the U.S.-led experiment in nation-building, frustration with efforts to reconstruct the country, concerns about security, much of it blamed on the Americans, increasingly seen as occupiers, not liberators. "It's true," this man says, "America got rid of a germ, Saddam. But now, they're our occupiers."

On this day, Saddam's birthday, little love for the old leader. But not much affection either for the man behind his ouster. "We want to try Bush and try Saddam," says shop owner Ibrahim (ph), who calls them both war criminals.

For many, interaction with U.S. forces has been an unhappy experience. "The Americans set up checkpoints," says Allah (ph), a tire salesman. "They block traffic for hours and the soldiers, they just laugh at us."

"Saddam knew his opponents and killed them," says shop owner Abu Hazan (ph), who says his two brothers were executed under the old regime. "But the Americans, even if they don't mean it, don't know who is who. They put us all in danger."

And among all we spoke to, fear that law and order is breaking down. "These days, I'm afraid," Hatan (ph), a retired army officer tells me. "Afraid of being killed or shot."

But beneath the anger and anxiety, the hopes and dreams on Rasheed Street aren't much different from anywhere else. "Do you know what we want," Adnan (ph), the barber asked me? "We want this street to prosper. We want to work. We want stability, security. That would put our minds at rest."

A modest hope, but one that, at least to the Iraqis we talked to, seems far from being realized.

Ben Wedeman, CNN, Baghdad.


WOODRUFF: And almost as if to bear that out, new fighting tonight, new attacks by U.S. Marines, both ground and air attacks. You see them on the screen there, live pictures coming in from Fallujah, Iraq.

Our live coverage continues. We'll be right back


WOODRUFF: We're continuing to watch live pictures coming in from Iraq. Normally, this is the time for INSIDE POLITICS. We're going to try to get a little political news in this hour. But, of course, we are riveted right now on these pictures coming in from Fallujah, where, tonight, U.S. Marines launched new air attacks, new ground attacks in one part of the city where insurgents are said to be concentrated.

And on that point, I want to bring back CNN national security analyst Ken Robinson.

Ken, I don't know if you were listening. I assume you were a moment ago. I was talking to retired Army Colonel Pat Lang about where these insurgents are. He said he sees no evidence that they are concentrated in one part of the city. His expectation is that they're scattered around. He doesn't see much resistance to them coming from the population of Fallujah.

How do you read this?

ROBINSON: Well, first, our viewers need to know a little background on Colonel Pat Lang. He was a Middle East analyst for the Defense Intelligence Agency. And he's one of the few people in government during the first Gulf War that actually had the right assessment on what Saddam Hussein was going to do, vis-a-vis Kuwait. His analysis has always been spot on. And he's right in that there is not evidence.

What we're seeing targeted are targets of opportunity. That does not mean that those are the only targets which are in Fallujah. That means those are the targets that are presenting themselves to coalition based on intelligence. But they could very likely be spread out throughout the entire city in different areas, and they've simply targeted concentrations which they know they can identify through their rules of engagement, and then engage.

WOODRUFF: Ken, what about this other point that he was making, this notion that the population of Fallujah is -- there's no evidence that they are resistance to the presence of these insurgents. He said there's no evidence that they're fighting back, that they are resisting in any visible way. What I'm trying to get at here is, we've been hearing from some here in Washington that what's going on in Iraq is that there is just a very small minority who are causing problems, whereas the vast majority of people want to get on with their lives, in effect.

ROBINSON: Well, this is one of those difficult situations in politics and tactics where both points of view may have a source of truth. There is a very violent, dangerous minority whose numbers are unknown. They are assessed by CENTCOM as being 1,500 within Fallujah proper.

However, the desires of the population in that town are -- if you analyze it, they're disenfranchised. Many of them are out of work. They don't see themselves as being part of a new Iraqi government.

They fear a Shia majority. And so they are sympathetic to those who are fighting and lashing back at a coalition that came in and destroyed their country and overturned their government. They hated Saddam Hussein, but they hate the presence of the coalition just as equally.

WOODRUFF: Ken, we have to remind everyone that Fallujah is indeed the site where, what, just three weeks ago, four American contractors were killed in a horrific scene where their vehicle was set on fire. They were burned to death. Their bodies were hanged from a bridge over the river running next to that city.

It was a horrible time. It was horrifying, I know, for many Americans. And yet, you're now -- one is now reading -- at least I read in this morning's newspapers -- some are now saying the U.S. may have overreacted and caused the population of Fallujah instead of coming around to the American point of view, to say the U.S. has gone too far in reacting.

ROBINSON: Well, no one can second-guess the motives of the commander on the ground who is up close and personal and smelling it. The articles you're referring to, I read those as well this morning, regarding feelings that maybe they overplayed. But at what point does the coalition draw a line and say, stop, enough?

And when they will specifically targeted and lured those contractors in, and then how they defiled their bodies, you can't expect the coalition to sit back idly on that. And they started to take specific targeted action, the same way they're dealing with the challenge of Najaf and this very minor cleric who's now been elevated in prominence simply by his behavior and the reaction to it.

That's why the political and the tactical have to proceed simultaneously, and they have to do it very carefully. It's a very careful dance, and there's no clear end state as to how it will complete. Because the terrorists, the insurgents, the different groups get a vote. They may just blend into the countryside and stop for two weeks fighting and then reemerge, or they may choose to confront and create an Alamo situation.

WOODRUFF: So at this point, are the two tracks working in sync, the political and the military?

ROBINSON: The officers that we spoke with in the last 48 hours who are senior, who referred to the communications that they are conducting with coalition -- correction, with community leaders and with tribal leaders, that process is continuing. There are tribal leaders who are converging from around Iraq to Fallujah right now as we speak who are going to attempt to communicate and leverage the situation, as well. Because everyone sees that most moderate Arabs who are there -- and most are -- see it as in their interests to get beyond this because it's bad for business, it's bad for the future potential governance of the country.

But there's a very determined minority who doesn't want to see that happen. And some of those have a zero sum game. They're people that you may not even be able to negotiate with.

The people the coalition is talking to, the different factions, some of those factions are making promises they can't keep. And so this is going to play out day by day until they find out.

The weapons and arms which were turned in to date were all old, rusty hulks. The firing has continued ever since the cease-fire was put in place by the enemy. And the Marines have returned fire every time they've been fired upon. So it's a very difficult situation for the people on the ground.

WOODRUFF: Ken Robinson, CNN national security analyst. As we watch these live pictures coming in from Iraq, the area around Fallujah where U.S. Marines have launched a second night in a row of air and ground assaults on parts of that city. Reuters calling this, the previous 24 hours, the most devastating display of U.S. warplane firepower since American forces encircled the city three weeks ago in response to the killing of those four American contractors.

Our coverage continues. We'll be right back.


WOODRUFF: Ordinarily, INSIDE POLITICS would be on right now, but we are watching live pictures and following the developments in Iraq around the city of Fallujah, where just in the last hour or so, Marines have launched for the second night in a row ground and air attacks on a part of Fallujah where they say they know that there are concentrations of insurgents. Although some analysts we are speaking with say this is a particular target of opportunity. They know the insurgents are where they have been aiming the firepower, and that's what we're seeing right now in these greenish pictures coming to us live from Fallujah.

With me now in the studio here in Washington, CNN senior political analyst, Bill Schneider.

Bill, you are very much following the political campaign this year, you're following the American people. And if they're sitting out there watching these pictures and hearing the developments that we're talking about, how does all that play into this election?

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, you know, the polling shows that Americans are still behind the mission in Iraq. They say we're doing the right thing, but we may not be doing it right.

What they want to know is what's going on. Is there a plan? What they really want is straight talk.


SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Bill Clinton was not known for straight talk.

WILLIAM JEFFERSON CLINTON, FMR. PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It depends upon what the meaning of the word "is" is.

SCHNEIDER: Nor was Al Gore.

AL GORE, FMR. VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm advised that there is no controlling legal authority.

SCHNEIDER: Does John Kerry now have the same problem? There's a lot of confusion about whether he threw away his medals or just the ribbons in 1971 as a gesture of protest against the Vietnam War.

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Medals, ribbons, they were the same thing.

SCHNEIDER: Then there was the explanation for his vote for the Iraq war resolution.


KERRY: We gave the president the authority to use the threat as appropriately.

SCHNEIDER: And the explanation for his vote against the appropriation of funds for the occupation.

KERRY: I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.

SCHNEIDER: Which leads President Bush to call Kerry a flip- flopper.

BUSH: He's been in Washington long enough to take both sides of every issue.

SCHNEIDER: But President Bush has his share of flip-flops. Remember when he opposed using U.S. troops for nation-building?

BUSH: If we don't stop extending our troops all around the world in nation-building missions, then we're going to have a serious problem coming down the road.

SCHNEIDER: Well, what are U.S. troops doing now in Iraq?

BUSH: We will stand with them until they become a free country.

SCHNEIDER: The weapons of mass destruction the president knew Saddam Hussein had in 2002...

BUSH: If we know Saddam Hussein has dangerous weapons today -- and we do...

SCHNEIDER: ... turned into weapons programs in 2004.

BUSH: Had we failed to act, the dictator's weapons of mass destruction programs would continue to this day.

SCHNEIDER: Nevertheless, voters see a big difference between Bush and Kerry. By nearly four to one, they describe Bush as someone who takes a position and sticks with it. But they say Kerry doesn't fit that description.

Why the difference? Because President Bush has a well-defined image. This image...

BUSH: An axis of evil.

Wanted dead or alive.

And the world has learned this. When I say something, I mean it.

SCHNEIDER: Kerry's image to most Americans is undefined, which is why what they learn from the campaign has far greater impact.


SCHNEIDER: President Bush portrays himself as a steady leader, and Senator Kerry is uncertain and wavering. That can be damaging in a year when voters feel the nation is under threat. Kerry has tried to use Bush's image as unwavering against him. He calls the president stubborn.

WOODRUFF: So under these circumstances, Bill, what is it that President Bush needs to do in this campaign? Just keep doing exactly what he's doing right now?

SCHNEIDER: Well stay the course is his line and he intends to stay that course, but he's faced with a very difficult choice. If he goes into Fallujah, Najaf, arrests people, people are killed in large numbers, then he could create a wave of anti--Americanism in Iraq. That was the big surprise. A wave of anti-Americanism.

And if the America public sees that, that the Iraqis are against the occupation, against the liberation, they want the Americans out, then the Americans are going to say let's get out of there. What are we doing there. That's a big danger.

On the other hand, if we don't go in and we let the situation get worse, then we're not providing security.

WOODRUFF: But you could strike a middle course, couldn't you? And just wait out the insurgents, encircle some of these difficult places and just sit there, right? And wait for them to be smoked out, if you will. SCHNEIDER: For a while. But the fact is Americans are going to be very -- and military as well as civilians are going to be very impatient with that kind of endless protracted inconclusive engagement. They want something to happen. And they want to see what they regard as a victory.

WOODRUFF: One other thing, Bill. Something you said reminded me of something Bill Clinton said a year and a half ago after he was out of the presidency. He was lecturing Democrats and said something along the lines of politically these days, it's better to be wrong and strong than it is to be weak and right.

I may have mangled whatever he said. But was he on to something there.

SCHNEIDER: Yes, he was. That was after the 2002 midterm when he said to Democrats who wondered what happed in that election? Why did we get so badly defeated?

Clinton said strong and wrong beats weak and right. Meaning that, he believes is wrong. But he projects the image of strength and determination and resolve. And Americans are standing behind him at this point but they really want to know what's going on there.

I heard that when I went to the NASCAR race with all those Bush fans there. And they asked when it came to Iraq, what are we doing? What's going on there? We'd really like to know. And that's why they want straight talk.

WOODRUFF: That was a NASCAR race, Talledega, Alabama where you were just a couple days ago.

SCHNEIDER: Alabama, exactly.

WOODRUFF: All right we're talking with CNN's senior political analyst Bill Schneider watching live pictures coming in from Fallujah. We're about to hear some resumed commentary from Karl Penhaul who is the pool reporter just outside Fallujah.


KARL PENHAUL, U.S. POOL CORRESPONDENT: ... going live. We're standing on a rooftop in the northwestern corner of Fallujah, a rooftop of a U.S. Marine base. Our cameras are currently pointing east across the city of Fallujah.

You may be able to make out on the sky line there about two or three miles away from our current position the faint after glow of a very extensive fire that was burning earlier. We can still see despite the night sky a plume black smoke rising still in the sky.

An AC-130 Specter gunship was in action there earlier on this evening. It pounded a position in the northeastern section of Fallujah with what sounded like 105 millimeter Howitzer cannons. After cannon those rounds hit that position, we saw showers of sparks. We saw flames leap into the sky. And then we saw a series of secondary explosions which sent more sparks and flames into the sky. No confirmation from coalition commanders on the ground what that target was. But judging by the secondary explosions, one may surmise that certainly some kind of flammable material was being stored there possibly a weapons cache or an ammunitions dump for the insurgent forces that have been battling in that area in the course of the day.

In daylight hours, we did see heavy clashes across in that zone between the insurgents and U.S. Marines. Unclear at this stage whether there were any casualties tolls from that fighting. And also impossible at this stage to tell what the casualty toll would have been from that air strike by the AC-130 Specter gunship.

That gunship, incidentally, or one similar to it, was in action last night also in the northwestern sector of Fallujah, the area where we are staying. Last night, it hit two positions, two insurgent positions that we were told this morning did prove to be insurgent weapons caches and ammunitions stores.

The gunship has a very sophisticated array of eavesdropping devices on board. And it's role has been to patrol the night skies over Fallujah, spying down on the streets and buildings below, trying to detect insurgent positions, areas that the insurgents have been using as staging areas and also weapons dumps. And it seems not only has it done that last night, but it's also been in action again tonight.

There were chants and calls again going up from Fallujah's many mosques. We understand from Iraqi military translators based with the Marines at our position that over the last few days religious leaders from those mosques across the public address system have been putting out calls for a holy war against the coalition forces. And have been urging the Iraqi insurgents to carry on fighting.

At the moment, though, all seems fairly quiet. About 15 or 20 minutes ago, we did hear the bang of a grenade launcher going off and then some explosions after that. But certainly the AC-130 Specter gunship hasn't pounded any more targets. We can hear it still droning overhead. But it doesn't appear to have identified any more targets. That certainly hasn't engaged any in the last hour and a half, approximately.

This is Karl Penhaul reporting with the camera of John Templeton (ph) in northwest Fallujah, Iraq.

WOODRUFF: Karl Penhaul, of course, the pool reporter reporting for a number of television news organizations. He is just outside of Fallujah, watching as the action unfolds there, describing what he has seen over the last hour or so as U.S. Marines have launched, for the second night in a row, air and ground attacks on positions in what are believed to be positions where insurgents are holding up there inside it the city of Fallujah.

Back here in Washington in the studio, I'm joined by CNN's senior political correspondent, Candy Crowley. I was just talking to Bill Schneider, Candy, about what Americans are thinking about what's going on in Iraq. And whether right now, during this campaign, whether the candidates are addressing Iraq or whether they're talking about something else.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, they would tell you that they are addressing Iraq at this point. Both John Kerry and the White House would say that. The question has been really whether or not they have any real difference of opinion as to what should go on in Iraq.

John Kerry has said we need to stay there. We need to involve other nations. We need to involve the U.N. and NATO. Bush is moving in that direction. So there's been a real discussion as to whether there's much difference.

But what these pictures, I think, bring to light today is something else we've been working on. And that is we've heard a number of people today talk about what has been Topic A on the campaign trail. And it has not been Iraq. It's been about a war that happened 33 years ago.


CROWLEY (voice-over): On the third day, John Kerry's reinforcements were still arriving.

SEN. FRAN LAUTENBERG (D), NEW JERSEY: We know who the chickenhawks are. They talk tough on national defense and military issues and cast dispersion on others.

When it was their turn to serve, where were they? A-W-O-L. That's where they were.

CROWLEY: The "they" referred to are the president and the vice president. This is the latest in a bitter tit-for-tat over what John Kerry and George Bush did or did not do during the Vietnam Era.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: At least could we declare that the Vietnam War is over and have a cease fire and agree that both candidates, the president of the United States and Senator Kerry served honorably, end of story?

CROWLEY: Still, the president campaigning as a tough commander in chief in times of war, and the senator, campaigning as a war hero well suited to the times, cannot end this story.

The argument is beyond whether Kerry misled people into thinking he returned his medals in protest beyond the detail George Bush's service in the National Guard. The facts are 33 years old, the implications are strictly 2004.

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: They want you to believe that John Kerry, who put the uniform of his country on voluntarily, who felt an obligation to go to Vietnam when so many others didn't, who stood up and fought for our country, they want you to believe -- they want you to believe that somehow I'm not strong for the defense of our nation.

CROWLEY: Kerry's defense his war and peace record all but drown out his jobs tour through battleground states. Some supporters thought he should have dismissed the medals flap and moved on. But strategists think they had no choice but to press on. First because Kerry's service in Vietnam is at the core of his campaign. It comes up daily at today's town hall meeting in Ohio.

KERRY: Are you a vet?


KERRY: Navy vet. Well, go Navy. That's me.

CROWLEY: Last week during Earth Day trip to a Louisiana bayou.

KERRY: I looked over at the shoreline and I commented that there were parts of it that looked a lot like the rivers and coastline that I went through in Vietnam.

CROWLEY: But more importantly to ignore the assault on his credentials, to sit down, as one Kerry strategist put it, is to show weakness.


CROWLEY: Still on a day like today when the skies over Fallujah are lit up, more than one critic and on both sides of the aisle they are wondering if the candidate's time wouldn't be better spent working out a way to get out of Iraq -- Judy.

WOODRUFF: Candy Crowley, thank you very much.

And speaking of Iraq, as you just mentioned, we are watching these new pictures coming in second night in a row. Marines attacking insurgent positions in the city of Fallujah, the place where just a few weeks ago four American contractors were brutally murdered. Their car set on fire. Their bodies, some of them, strung up on a bridge over a river. A horrible scene that so many Americans remember just a few weeks later, we're watching marines, in effect, looking for payback, looking for the people who were responsible or who are sympathetic to what happened there in Fallujah just a few weeks ago.

And speaking of what Candy Crowley was just talking about, what -- this back and forth between the two candidates, President Bush and Senator John Kerry over Vietnam, just a short time ago, I spoke with John McCain about that call that he made this day for a partisan ceasefire and I also asked him about the fight for Iraq. I started by asking him if the Bush camp and its allies are the ones who generated much of the rhetoric that he wants stopped.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (D), ARIZONA: What I was discussing this morning was on the floor of the Senate a picture portraying President Bush as, quote, "chicken hawk" and other things that have been said on both sides, at least in the United States Senate, we should stop this. We have important legislation. And if I could say, as far as the nation is concerned, we are in a critical period in our conflict in Iraq. Americans are being wounded and dying as we speak. And we're talking about a conflict that took place over 30 years ago that's over. We should be together united trying to work out a common policy on how we can address Iraq. Senator Kerry and the president say we have to stay the course. We have to stay the course. How do we do that best.

WOODRUFF: Senator, I want to ask you about that. But it was one of the president's -- if not one of his closest adviser Karen Hughes who went on CNN this past Sunday, talked about John Kerry's service in Vietnam, the fact that he was there only four months, about his medals. Is this helpful discussion right now?

MCCAIN: None of it is, not the charges against President Bush who I think served honorably in the National Guard nor John Kerry who I think served honorably in Vietnam. It is not -- it's so inappropriate, especially at a time when we're at war in Iraq.

WOODRUFF: And yet, there's a lot at stake in this presidential campaign. Both sides feel it is in their interest to drive home their points that they feel very passionately about. Isn't that what we're seeing here, what some would say is a healthy vigorous debate.

MCCAIN: Well, impugning someone's service to the country is not exactly healthy debate in my view, but more importantly, most Americans were born after the Vietnam war was over. They're not interested in refighting it, and I'm certainly not because I spent the last 30 years trying to heal the wounds of the Vietnam war. Why can't we talk about Iraq, health care, education, social security. The issues that confront us rather than what's happened in the past. We cannot change the results of the Vietnam war.

WOODRUFF: Have you said any of this to the Bush-Cheney campaign?

MCCAIN: No, I haven't, nor have I said it to the Kerry campaign. I said it to my colleagues on the floor of the Senate because I thought it was appropriate there, and I've made public statements about my deep regret about reopening the wounds of this conflict.

WOODRUFF: Senator, let's talk about Iraq, and you're saying we are at a crucial, a critical time. There was a report I think just yesterday, I think, that General Abizaid is very concerned that the situation there may be slipping away. What are you hearing about what's going on in Iraq right now?

MCCAIN: We are in a critical time. Mistakes were made in the past. Mistakes are made in every conflict. I've already talked about those. I think the important fact here is we need to put down the situation in Fallujah, Najaf has to be handled separately, but we cannot afford to allow cities with large populations to be controlled by people who are against the democratization and freedom of Iraq.

WOODRUFF: How does one do that without harming or killing innocent people who are right next to the people you're talking about?

MCCAIN: Well, I'd make two comments. One, don't say you're going to do anything unless you're prepared to do it. Don't say we're going to go in and capture or kill somebody if you're not prepared to do it. Second of all, there reaches a point where negotiations, attempts at peaceful settlement don't work and you have to act militarily. I'm no armchair general, but obviously, we're coming very close to that point in Fallujah.

WOODRUFF: And so at this point, we're watching a standoff, and I mean, can thereby a wholesale -- full-scale whatever the term is -- assault on the insurgents, the people who are behind the unrest in that city?

MCCAIN: If they fail to meet the demands that we made which is turning in their weapons, then obviously we have to use whatever means are available. I'm sure of one thing. Some young marine will lose his or her life while attempting to minimize the damage and the casualties to civilians. If we weren't concerned about that, we'd just station artillery outside of Fallujah and level the place.


WOODRUFF: Going to interrupt the interview I taped a short time ago with Senator John McCain to go quickly back to the capital where Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is talking to reporters. He's been briefing senators.


DONALD RUMSFELD, DEFENSE SECRETARY: You have the ministers of all the cabinet departments who have shown courage. You have governors and city councils and provincial councils all across the nation. You have people who have 200,000 who have joined the Iraqi security forces and with only a few exceptions have performed well. We also know that the remnants of that regime killed those people. 300 of the Iraqi security people have lost their lives. We know that teachers have been threatened with guns and said close your schools.

So it takes courage in a violent environment for a person to stand up and say, I'm for law and order or I'm for freedom. I'm for a representative system. And there are a lot of them doing that. I don't see a lot of that in the newspapers, frankly. What we see are the ones who are critics and who are doing bad things. Here's a wonderful picture that just gives you a little sense of this is the mosque in Najaf and you can see they have all kinds of religious instruments called rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47s. That's what they do in their mosques. So that isn't in the paper.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Can you tell us -- are you concerned that the coalition might fragment further in the wake of Spain's decision and can you tell us what importance you now attach to remaining coalition members standing united with the U.S. at this stage?

RUMSFELD: Well, we have gone around to the, I think it's 33 or 32 countries now that are involved in Iraq with the United States and Great Britain. And with the exception of Spain and Honduras, the countries have been very, very standup. We've heard comments from Italy and we've heard comments from other nations who have said that they have considered it and they've made a considered judgment that they don't believe that appeasement is a good idea. They don't believe that you can make a separate peace with terrorists, that they believe this is noble task and it's important that it be finished. And I must say, I recognize that that takes political courage on the part of those governments and it also takes personal courage on the part of their troops and we darn appreciate it.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: ...conflict be avoided in Fallujah still?

RUMSFELD: Time will tell.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: What about the operations in the provinces outside of Anbar, in the Anbar provinces outside Fallujah?

RUMSFELD: What's going on is some terrorists and regime remnants have been attacking our forces and our forces have been going in and killing them.


WOODRUFF: We've been listening to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld who's been on Capitol Hill briefing senators. He's heading over to the House side to brief members of the House of Representatives. We were just before that showing you an interview I did just a few hours ago with Senator John McCain. Here now is the end of that interview where I asked him whether he believes the June 30 deadline can still be met.


WOODRUFF: How confident are you and I'm referring back to your speech here in Washington last week, how confident are you that this June 30 deadline can be met?

MCCAIN: I think the June 30 deadline can be met. The question is is how hard a struggle it's going to be to allow the Iraqi people to achieve full democracy. It's going to be very, very tough.

WOODRUFF: Will it be a true hand over if the United States is still in charge of all security in Iraq or most security in Iraq?

MCCAIN: Yes, because every Iraqi of any government is going to understand that security has to be ensured by American military, and we'll be there for a long time.

Hopefully, the scenario is, that at some point, we can withdraw into bases and we can start drawing down our troops. But that's a long time from now. That's a long time from now.

The fact that we didn't have more troops on the ground after the conflict, unquote, "was over," was a serious mistake, and we're paying a very heavy price for that now.

WOODRUFF: You're calling for more troops to go in right now. Are you getting any sort of positive response.

MCCAIN: Well we do have the extension. These brave young people are wonderful and they'll fight well, but it's very tough on them to be extended -- is taking place. And I am told that plans are being formulated by -- in the Defense Department for more troops.

Our military is not big enough. We're going to have to expand the size of the Army and the Marine Corps. And we're going to have to expand U.S. presence there for the foreseeable period of time. And the American people need to be told that.

WOODRUFF: You optimistic right now, or what?

MCCAIN: It's not a matter of me being optimistic or pessimistic. It's a matter of we cannot fail. The consequences of failure are so catastrophic that I have refused to contemplate it.

I have great faith in our military leaders, I have great faith in these young men and women who are doing the job over there. And I believe we can prevail.

WOODRUFF: Senator John McCain, thank you very much.

MCCAIN: Thank you.


WOODRUFF: And in a moment, we'll hear more on all this from retired General Wesley Clark, former candidate for the Democratic nomination for president. We'll be right back.



GEN. WESLEY CLARK (RET.), U.S. ARMY: But soon enough, we will get to all that. Actually do the job, finish the job, get it over with, get rid of the bad news. You've got to work Najaf separately. It should be negotiated and brokered and let Sistani and the Shi'a leadership handle it.


CLARK: But the most important thing is what happens after the 30th of June. I know we've got to get there. But think about this, Judy. After the 30th of June, what is it that our military is supposed to do there? What's the mission? It's not defense, it's not attack. What is it? We're not policemen. We cannot police Iraq.

WOODRUFF: Keep the peace?


CLARK: Sure, but what does that mean? Do we do house-to-house searches? We've already got Saddam Hussein. We know there are no weapons of mass destruction. We're there at the sufferance of the Iraqi people. And when they say it's time to go, whether or not they have the democracy that we want them to have, I think we're going to end up recognizing that we can't stay.

WOODRUFF: So at this point -- I just asked John McCain are you optimistic or not. I mean you talk to these people at the Pentagon and you've got sources. What do you hear? Are you optimistic?

CLARK: This is a mission that's been in trouble from the beginning. And I hope that it will lurch through because I think that, just as John McCain said, the consequences of a catastrophic mission and a sudden, abrupt U.S. withdrawal are devastating on the war on terror, our relationships in the region, U.S. power worldwide. We can't afford to fail.

But, there should be no mistake about it, the administration has been playing politics with this mission from the beginning in part by naming the 30th of June date, by not knowing what it was, by cutting the standards, by not putting enough forces in there to do the job. We need the forces in there that are necessary.

WOODRUFF: Speaking of politics, right now, John McCain saying both sides need to stop all this talk about Vietnam, stop criticizing. You wrote a column about this op-ed piece in "The New York Times" today.

And yet, there's so much at stake. Aren't both campaigns bound to talk about something like the national security experience of both of these candidates?

CLARK: Well, we're in the phase of the campaign here where people are trying to define John Kerry. And this is an effort by the Republican Party to define him. And they've gone through a whole series of different arguments, one after another. This just happens to be the latest about the medals and so forth in an effort to create an impression about him in the minds of the American people.

And this is what happens in politics. It's an ugly part of the Republican attack machine. I think we ought to be talking about the issues.

WOODRUFF: But the White House says all they're talking about is John Kerry's record on defense and where he differs with President Bush on defense policy questions. They say the questions about the ribbons and the medals have come from elsewhere.

CLARK: Well I think that it's very clear that Karen Hughes and many other people are speaking out and feeding the machine. I think John Kerry has a very strong record on defense. I think he's got a strong record of service. I think he will be a very good president, I think he'll be decisive leader.

And I think he'll be a strong leader who can bring this country together. And I think that the American people are tired of the bickering and the attack machine that's coming out of the White House. They want to hear the issues discussed.

WOODRUFF: But on this current back and forth, General Clark, there are Democrats now who are John Kerry allies who are saying that he should just drop it. He's the one who's been coming back bringing up Vietnam over the past few days. They're saying get over your anger, it's clear you're upset about this and move on. Don't let yourself be goaded into this debate by the Republicans.

CLARK: Well I don't think John Kerry is goaded into the debate. I think John Kerry has a great deal of pride in his service. And I think that the American people should share some of that will pride because he served in Vietnam honorably and heroically.

He did his duty, he protested. That was also his duty as he saw it.

I think it's a great record of achievement. And I think he has every right to be angry about the way the attack machine is trying to smear him. And I think he should defend himself. I think the people who need to be called off are the Republican attack dogs.

WOODRUFF: So you don't think he's doing himself harm by continuing to respond to all of this?

CLARK: I think John Kerry's doing a great job in helping the American people understand lo he is. And there would be a lot more to come on this.

And one of the things that the people will learn about John Kerry is this is a guy who fights back. This is not a man who is indecisive or ineffectual. He does take strong positions and he works to get those positions adopted and he fights back. That's one of the reasons I think John Kerry will be a great president.

WOODRUFF: We're going to leave it there. Retired general, former NATO commander, Wesley Clark. Former candidate for the Democratic nomination for president. It's good to see you again, thanks for dropping by.

CLARK: Thank you.

WOODRUFF: That's it for this hour of INSIDE POLITICS and our, of course, our on going coverage of the fighting in Fallujah. CNN's coverage will continue right now with "CROSSFIRE."


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