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Iraq's Al-Sistani attempts to bring peace to Najaf, Suprise hearing in Kobe Bryant case, U.S. attorney general announces legal action against spammers, Terror-related strike in Wyoming?

Aired August 26, 2004 - 13:00   ET


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: A clerical conflict -- Iraq's most powerful holy man attempts to talk peace with the man leading a bloody rebellion in Najaf. We're live from Iraq.
CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I'm Chris Lawrence in Eagle Colorado, where a surprise hearing in the Kobe Bryant case -- coming up in a live report, we'll tell you why decisions made today could have a big effect on the trial.

KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: Spammers to the slammer -- live this hour, the U.S. attorney general announcing legal action against junk emailers.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Does the State of Wyoming really think there will be a terrorist-related strike in this state?


O'BRIEN: Homeland defense -- why the rural states are getting more money per person to fight terror. From the CNN Center in Atlanta, I'm Miles O'Brien.

PHILLIPS: And I'm Kyra Phillips. CNN's LIVE FROM starts right now. We begin this hour with a raucous return, a mosque massacre, and a 24-hour window of opportunity. All of it centers on the Shiite center of Iraq, where that nation's preeminent Shiite cleric led a convoy encompassing hundreds of cars and trucks into the shattered city of Najaf.

Iraqi leaders and U.S. Marines called a 24-hour ceasefire in deference to the ayatollah's homecoming. But even before that, U.S. forces denied any part in a mortar attack on a mosque in nearby Kufa, where at least 25 people were killed. They were gathering to march on Najaf, as Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani urged yesterday, and so were the 23 Iraqis killed by snipers a short while later. It's still not clear who's to blame.

Well, al-Sistani's homecoming is reportedly against the advice of the doctors who'd been treating him in London for a heart condition. With more on this and the seemingly monumental obstacles that he faces, CNN's Matthew Chance on the phone from Najaf. Matthew, what do you know? MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Kyra, thanks very much. And many hope this is the beginning of the end of the crisis in Najaf, which has been running for the past three weeks, with Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, arriving back in the holy city of Najaf. And in his absence, of course, fighting has raged between U.S. forces and fighters of the Mehdi militia here.

And now, we understand his representatives have been, at the very least, in telephone contact with the agents of the renegade Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to finally put an end to the violence that has so ravaged Najaf over the course of the last three weeks. We're watching developments very closely on that, though we understand there's no development in the peace efforts to date.

In the meantime, there's been more bloodshed, though, in the Najaf area -- at least 48 people killed in two separate incidents, the first an apparent mortar attack on the Kufa mosque, which is a town very close to Najaf... in fact, where Muqtada al-Sadr usually delivers his weekly Friday sermon. Twenty-five people killed, more than 60 injured in that. The U.S. forces, along with Iraqi forces, denying any involvement, saying they did not conduct any military operations in the area at the time of the attack.

Another 23 people killed, though, according to witnesses, when snipers opened fire on crowds of people who had gathered in response to Ayatollah Sistani's call for a march on the city of Najaf. The situation has calmed considerably since those scenes last night. The ceasefire has been declared, enforced in Najaf. U.S. and Iraqi forces suspending their military activity there for a 24-hour period to make way for those peace efforts.

If there is no result, though, the Iraqi government officials are saying that the battle for Najaf will resume. Kyra...

PHILLIPS: Matthew, quickly, al-Sadr' family and al-Sistani's family, for years, there's been a huge rivalry. What makes them think that al-Sistani will listen to the ayatollah -- or Muqtada al-Sadr, rather, will listen to the ayatollah?

CHANCE: Well, I mean, I think the fact is he may not have any choice, simply because Ayatollah Sistani does carry such a lot of authority, and he is regarded as the most influential figure in the Shia faith, and literally commands the following of tens of thousands of people.

Muqtada al-Sadr is a much lesser cleric in the Shia faith. He does have significant amounts of support, particularly among the youth and the dispossessed of Iraq, but nothing in the same, even, league as somebody of this sort of religious standing as the grand ayatollah himself. So he may have to listen.

PHILLIPS: Matthew Chance live from Najaf, thanks so much. And in southern Iraq this hour, these fires are said to be out, but some 20 oil pipelines were sabotaged yesterday. They're still out of commission and will likely stay that way throughout the weekend. Officials estimate that Iraq's daily output is cut in half now, though oil prices continue to slide on world markets, partly out of optimism for al-Sistani's peace mission.

And heartbreak is said to be the root cause of this fire that burned a Florida man over 50 percent of his body. Police say that Carlos Arredondo snapped when Marines came to tell him that his son, Marine Lance Corporal Alexander Arredondo, had been killed in combat in Iraq. They say Carlos smashed a window in the visiting Marines' van and set it and himself on fire with propane and gasoline. He is expected to recover.

O'BRIEN: In Russia, it is a day of mourning for the 89 people killed Tuesday night in tandem, still unexplained plane crashes. One official says the plane's flight data and cockpit voice recorders haven't yielded much information, but analysis, we believe, is still under way. In the meantime, that same official says terrorism is the leading theory, and a lack of recorded data could be an indicator of just that.

Of course, there's also the timing -- two midair disasters, three minutes and 450 miles apart. One Russian newspaper today ran the headline, "Russia Now has a September 11th."

Across America this hour, a federal judge in Miami has cleared the federal agents who took Elian Gonzalez from his Florida relatives more than four years ago. The judge says the feds are legally immune from lawsuits, and adds they didn't violate the constitution anyway. They were ordered in by then U.S. Attorney Janet Reno.

Reno, Nevada is keeping a close eye on wildfires triggered by a target shooter. So far, four homes on the city's outskirts have burned. Many more may be in danger. William Kennedy Smith again being accused of sexual assault. Ted Kennedy's nephew, famously acquitted of rape in 1991, was named yesterday in a civil suit filed in Chicago. The accuser is Smith's former personal assistant, who claims he forced himself on her after her 23rd birthday party back in 1999.

The two later had a romantic relationship. Smith says his family and personal history make him vulnerable to these kinds of allegations.

Well, it's jury selection eve in the Kobe Bryant case. But DNA, not jurors, is the subject of an emergency hearing today in Eagle, Colorado. CNN's Chris Lawrence is there. This is definitely an 11th hour ploy -- or maybe ploy is pejorative -- but a tactic on the part of the prosecutors, right, Chris?

LAWRENCE: Yes, Miles. This motion is being heard less than 24 hours before jury selection is expected to begin. And from what we now understand, that the prosecutors inside are contending that much of the DNA evidence that the defense has presented has been manipulated. It goes back to a defense DNA expert's conclusion that the young woman had sex with another man after Kobe Bryant, but before her hospital exam. In the last hour, we've seen the defense team arrive here at the courthouse without Kobe Bryant. He has waived his right to appear. And inside, the judge is now hearing that prosecution motion to dismiss part of the defense DNA evidence. Prosecutors will argue that DNA the defense attributes to another man is actually contaminated evidence. And some legal experts say whether this evidence is admitted could be one of the most important decisions made so far.


CRAIG SILVERMAN, FORMER DENVER PROSECUTOR: If the defense can put out credible evidence, through DNA, that this young lady had sex with Mr. X after Kobe Bryant but before she went to the cops, it's hard to see how the prosecution can possibly prevail. It destroys her credibility. And in a he said, she said case, that's everything.


LAWRENCE: Now, if the judge does what he's expected to do, which is dismiss this last minute motion, jury selection would begin tomorrow morning. Between 500 and 600 people would be sworn in, and then they would fill out extensive questionnaires. Over the weekend, the judge and the lawyers would review those questionnaires, and many of the people would be excluded based on their answers -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Chris, what do we know about the alleged victim's willingness to testify and participate in this trial in the first place?

LAWRENCE: Well, many legal experts speculated that when the civil suit was filed, that that might be a sign that she was backing out. As it gets closer and closer, it seems more likely that she is willing to go ahead. And many legal experts now say it is her willingness under all this pressure over the past few months to still pursue this case -- that may be the prosecution's strongest point.

O'BRIEN: All right, interesting twists and turns out there in Colorado. Thank you very much, Chris -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: Tales of the tapes -- the prosecution releases more recordings of Scott Peterson's phone calls. A live report from the murder trial coming up. He's Iraq's most powerful Shiite cleric, but can Ayatollah Ali Sistani bring peace? In-depth on the role of religious leaders in Iraq's future. And later, new findings on a popular arthritis drug that's apparently putting users at risk for serious heart problems. We'll explain.


PHILLIPS: Now to Najaf and a potential showdown of cinematic proportion. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most powerful Shiite cleric, made a dramatic return to his home today. Can he convince the forces of renegade Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to end three weeks of violence and restore order in the holy city? CNN analyst Ken Pollack joins us in our Washington bureau with more on what's at stake for all concerned. Ken, great to see you. KEN POLLACK, CNN ANALYST: Thanks, Kyra, good to be here.

PHILLIPS: Let's lay out, first of all, both of these men. Let's give a background on Muqtada al-Sadr, and then let's talk about Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and then talk about the history between the two, and the differences, obviously, but starting with Muqtada al- Sadr.

POLLACK: OK, Muqtada al-Sadr is a young man. He is believed to be, at his oldest, in his early 30s. There are some who say he's even younger than that. He is the scion of one of the great religious families of Iraq, the al-Sadr family. For the longest time, he was in the shadows of his fathers and his brothers, but they were killed by Saddam in the late 1990s. He was left to be the heir, basically, to that political faction.

He has staked out a claim in Iraq by making himself a one voice of opposition to the United States. And that's really been what's been motivating him ever since the fall of Baghdad. Iraqis, to the extent that they have supported him, have supported him primarily for what he stands against -- that is, the United States -- not what he stands for.

PHILLIPS: Now, this was someone that didn't have a lot of support, then all of the sudden tapped into this anti-American sentiment. Now, everybody's following him. Now, what do you know about the fact that maybe he's not mentally all there? I mean, when you compare him to some of these other leaders, and that he's being taken advantage of and sort of exploited in what he's doing, do you agree with that? Have you heard that?

POLLACK: Well, certainly, I think that some of the latter is going on. Whether he's mentally unbalanced I honestly do not have any independent evidence of it. I've certainly heard the case made by a number of different people. But again, I think we need to go back to the fact that he is a young man. He is very inexperienced in what he's doing. He's certainly never led this kind of a resistance movement before.

And as I said, he was always very much overshadowed by his fathers and his brothers. He was suddenly thrust into the spotlight both by their death and by the sudden American invasion. And I think that those factors probably have much more to do with why he has played his hand so badly, why he is seen to waffle, to go back and forth, and just been very difficult to pin down on any of these issues.

PHILLIPS: Then you've got the ayatollah, who's revered for a completely different set of reasons and ethics.

POLLACK: That's right. Unlike Muqtada al-Sadr, who is a rather minor clerical figure, who's important principally because of his family ties, Ali al-Sistani is one of the grand ayatollahs of Shia Islam. He is one of the leading figures. He is the leading source of emulation inside Iraq. He is beloved by Iraqis as this great figure. He's also someone, very much unlike Muqtada al-Sadr, who believes that the clergy should stay out of politics. He's what's called a quietest Shia priest. He has been saying for many, many years that religion and politics need to be kept separate. And that's why, since the end of Saddam's regime, what you've been seeing is Sistani saying to his followers, "Let's go along with the reconstruction. If it works out, it will be the best for we Shia inside of Iraq."

But he has not been a very activist leader. He has been a leader mostly by default, because honestly, there's no one else in Iraq who can stand up for the Shia population the way he can.

PHILLIPS: So now, the million-dollar questions. Would or will Muqtada al-Sadr listen to the ayatollah?

POLLACK: Well, I think that there's a pretty good likelihood that he will, and I think that there are reasons for at least two different causes. First, the ayatollah is a tremendously powerful and important figure. It would be very difficult for someone of Muqtada al-Sadr's rather minor standing to go against the major source of emulation inside of Iraq, the most important Shia cleric inside of Iraq.

Secondly, I think that Muqtada al-Sadr is probably looking for a way out at this point in time. Whether he's in the mosque or not, we don't know. But clearly, his fighters inside the mosque are in very bad shape. They have been slowly being constricted by the U.S. forces. They're being bled. They're not in great shape.

I think he's probably looking for a way out. And if Sistani gives him a face-saving way out, I think he'll likely take it.

PHILLIPS: Finally, my last question, there's been quite a history between these two families too, isn't that correct -- always sort of at odds with each other?

POLLACK: Absolutely. There has been a history of both personal conflict and ideological conflict. As I said, Sistani is very much associated with this quietest position, with this notion that the Shia clergy should not be involved in governance. And this goes back... has a long history in Shia Islam. It's all about interpretations of the faith.

On the other hand, Muqtada al-Sadr's family has been very much associated with a much more activist position, with the idea that the Shia clergy should be actively leading their people not just in the spiritual realm, but also in the secular realm.

PHILLIPS: CNN analyst Ken Pollack. Thanks a lot, Ken.

POLLACK: Thank you, Kyra.



UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I really can't afford to see a doctor. If I'm working fulltime, I deserve some coverage.


PHILLIPS: Millions of working Americans without health insurance -- what are the candidates prescriptions for fixing the problem. Later on LIVE FROM...


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: He lost his child. His child passed away.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And no, we have not seen this type of reaction.


PHILLIPS: Extreme grief -- a father sets himself and a military van on fire when Marines tell him his son is killed in action. How do the messengers prepare for breaking horrible news? And tomorrow, who's dominating the net? Days away from the U.S. Open, former tennis champ and ESPN analyst Luke Jensen gives us his spin.


O'BRIEN: Now, to the rising ranks of America's poor and uninsured. Nearly 36 million Americans lived below the poverty line in 2003. That's up more than a million people from the previous year, according to the Census Bureau. Also up, the number of people who live day to day without health insurance. Many of them are working. CNN's Chris Huntington reports.


CHRIS HUNTINGTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Patricia Orzano owns a 7-Eleven in Massapequa, New York, and she used to have no trouble providing healthcare coverage for her eight fulltime workers.

PATRICIA ORZANO, 7-ELEVEN FRANCHISE OWNER: Five years ago, I had a complete medical, dental, hospitalization plan for my employees that wanted it. And they either paid minimal $20 a week or nothing.

HUNTINGTON: But that's changed because of her skyrocketing insurance costs.

ORZANO: Just recently, in the last couple of years, we have not been able to afford healthcare coverage for our employees. The rising costs each year -- they used to go up 5 percent, but each year now, it's 10 to 20 percent, and the premiums are just outlandish.

HUNTINGTON: And that puts Orzano's workers, like Frank Martin, in a terrible bind.

FRANK MARTIN: I really can't afford to see a doctor. If I'm working fulltime, I deserve some coverage. HUNTINGTON: That situation is alarmingly common.

(on-camera): According to Families USA, a healthcare advocacy group funded by private foundations, there are more than 13 million low-income working Americans who do not get healthcare coverage through their jobs. And they're also ineligible for public assistance programs like Medicaid simply because they have a job.

KATHLEEN STOLL, FAMILIES USA: If you don't have employer-based coverage, and you don't have eligibility for Medicaid, you're really in a bad place. You may not be able to get any health insurance coverage at all.

HUNTINGTON (voice-over): Stoll and others wrestling with healthcare reform point to several problems creating this no coverage zone -- outdated Medicaid eligibility rules that deny coverage to working families, a dizzying array of state laws that require insurance plans to cover expensive elective medical procedures, and the fact that small independent businesses cannot pool together to share insurance costs.

President Bush supports small business insurance pooling, but the Small Business Health Fairness Act that passed the House last year is stalled in the Senate. Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry wants the government to subsidize premiums for catastrophic health coverage. Both plans make for good stump speeches, but so far haven't done much for Patricia Orzano, nor her employee.


O'BRIEN: Chris Huntington with that. In all, the census figures show 45 million Americans, almost 1 in 7, didn't have any kind of health insurance last year.

PHILLIPS: A popular arthritis drug is under fire. Rhonda Schaffler joins us live...


O'BRIEN: Well, spam ready to hit the fan -- the Justice Department sticking a big federal fork in some of the Internet's biggest junk email offenders as it winds up "Operation Slam Spam." You've got to love that stuff. Coming up in just a few minutes, Attorney General John Ashcroft expected to announce arrests and indictments. We'll bring it to you live. Hopefully, a few reporters will show up.

Iraq's most powerful Shiite cleric makes a dramatic return to his home in war torn Najaf. U.S. and Iraqi forces stand down while Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani begins a peace mission in a bid to end nearly three weeks of bloodshed.


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