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CNN LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER

Interview With Mowaffak Al-Rubaie; Interview With Ki-Moon Ban; Interview With Barham Saleh

Aired February 13, 2005 - 12:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: It's noon in Washington, 9 a.m. in Los Angeles, 8 p.m. in Baghdad, 2 a.m. in Pyongyang, North Korea. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks very much for joining us for "LATE EDITION."
A huge day today in Iraq with the election results now announced. We'll have extensive coverage this hour. First, though, let's get a quick check of what's in the news right now.

(NEWSBREAK)

BLITZER: Let's get back to our top story, the results of Iraq's national elections. Although still uncertified, the numbers announced today show a decisive victory for Iraq's Shiite population.

CNN's Nic Robertson joining us now live in Baghdad with more details.

Nic, give our viewers an assessment of where the situation stands right now.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, certainly there was a mood of celebration for the politicians that have done well in this. And the politicians who have done well were those who were expected: the United Iraqi Alliance, the religious Shia grouping.

The Kurds did exactly what they wanted to do, got about a quarter of the seats in the new national assembly. They believe that, in this position, they can be really the arbiters in any argument across the sectarian divide in this country.

The Sunnis seem to be the big losers, if you will, in this process. In Al Anbar province -- Fallujah and Ramadi are in that province, those (UNINTELLIGIBLE) towns -- only 2 percent of voters turned out. Now, of course, some of those voters may have voted in other areas, but an indication of how low the Sunni turnout was.

The message from politicians today, particularly from that religious Shia bloc of parties, one of tolerance, one of inclusivity, one of building a new and better future for Iraq, indeed a very rosy and optimistic outlook.

A question from the international community very much: This is essentially the religious party doing very well, so will the country tend toward a theocracy? One of the potential partners for that Shia bloc, a Kurdish politician, put his view forward.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That Iraqi state must respect Islam and Islamic values of the state. And there should be no legislation that will violate the core values of Islam. I think that represents the area of consensus between different Iraqi political movements and communities.

Any attempt to establish a fundamentalist religious state in Iraq will backfire and will undermine efforts to retain Iraq's national unity.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTSON: And some of the other people who thought they were losers, the smaller parties, the independent players not getting the 31,000 votes needed to get a seat in the assembly, saying that wasn't fair play and that this is not representative.

But perhaps the lesson everyone learning, that unity really pays off here in these elections.

Wolf?

BLITZER: All right, Nic Robertson reporting from Baghdad.

And just a short time ago, I spoke with one of the big winners, Iraq's Mowaffak Al-Rubaie, the country's national security adviser.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Mowaffak Al-Rubaie, thanks very much for joining us.

Congratulations. Your party the big winner in these elections.

So what do you do now? How do you put together the president, the vice presidents and then the prime minister, which will have the real power, we're told, in this new government?

MOWAFFAK AL-RUBAIE, IRAQ'S NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Wolf, tonight millions of Iraqis are going to celebrate. It's a huge wedding, it's a national wedding, if you like, in this country. Because this election is a paradigm shift in the history of this country. We are transformed from a totalitarian regime, dictator sectarian regime, to a democratic federal regime.

This is what we are talking about. This is a huge transformation of Iraqis. Millions of Iraqis are rejoicing tonight of this outcome. Today...

BLITZER: There is no doubt, Mr. Al-Rubaie, that millions...

(CROSSTALK)

AL-RUBAIE: ... is the victory of democratic forces over the black forces.

BLITZER: There is no doubt that millions of Shiite Iraqis, millions of Kurdish Iraqis are rejoicing. But there is some doubt whether millions of Sunni Iraqis are rejoicing, if you take a look at the results of this election.

AL-RUBAIE: Well, certainly several hundreds of thousands of voters, well, probably 1.5 million of the Sunni Triangle have taken part and cast their votes in the ballot boxes, and they have chosen their deputies.

This is a real transformation of this country, I can tell you. And we are heading toward formation of a national reconciliation government. And we are going to spare no time in including all communities: Sunnis, Shia, Arab and Kurds and Turkomans and Kurdo- Assyrians, Assyrians and Sabians. All of them are going to be included in this transitional national assembly, as well as in the transitional government.

So this is going to be one of the most inclusive and certainly the most representative government in the history of Iraq.

BLITZER: Let's take a look at the results and go through what happened.

The main Shiite list, the United Iraqi Alliance, backed by the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, had about 40, almost 48 percent of the vote, more than 4 million votes.

The Kurdish coalition had about 25 percent of the ballots, a little bit more than 2.175 million votes.

The Iraqi National Accord -- that's Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's list -- came in with about 13.5 percent, 1.168 million votes.

The other parties, including those led by some of the Sunni leaders, like Adnan Pachachi or Ghazi Al-Yawar, came in way, way, way down.

Which Sunni leaders do you see emerging as part of this next Iraqi government?

AL-RUBAIE: Well, I'm not going to predict who is going to represent the Sunnis in the national assembly.

But I can tell you, within the Kurdish list and within the Shiite list -- you called it the Shiite list -- there are several Sunni candidates there. And there are very strong Sunni candidates within the United Iraqi Alliance and within the Kurdistan national list.

And I think Ghazi Al-Yawar is a very, very good national figure, as well as Dr. Pachachi.

And there are smaller national parties as well, emerged from the Sunni Triangle, that are representing the interests of the Sunni Arabs. But this is not all about communities. This is not all about the Shias are winning, or the Sunnis are losing, or the Kurds are that or this. This is all about the political, democratic process, establishing democracy.

Iraqi people have paid heavily in treasure and in blood to get to this stage, to get to freedom, to liberty, to a democratic federal system. This is what we have -- to observe and monitor human rights. This is all about democratic process.

And this is all about Iraqi people who won this war, a democratic war if you like, against the terrorism. Because terrorists and Zarqawis and the Saddam loyalists wanted to derail the political process. And you have seen the Iraqi people. A few days ago, they defied all expectation. And 8.5 million went to their ballot boxes and cast their votes.

This is a miracle. I can tell you in the West, during the election day, if it is raining or if it's a snowy day or if it's a very hot day, people will stay home, indoors, and they will not go to cast their vote. These people were threatened to be killed, and 8.5 million went to cast their vote.

This is history we are making. And this is a birth of a new nation called a new Iraq.

BLITZER: All right. There's a lot of speculation, as you well know, Mr. Al-Rubaie, that the finance minister, the current finance minister, Adel Abdel-Mehdi, will be the next prime minister of the new government. Is he the leading candidate?

AL-RUBAIE: See, Wolf, it's very important we should not concentrate on personalities. We're talking about policies and strategies.

The United Iraqi Alliance has agreed on a political program composed of 23 points. This is basically shaping and designing the new alternative vision for Iraq.

How are we going to build a new Iraq? Democracy, federalism, human rights, free-market economy? Are we going to re-Baathify the country? Are we going to incorporate some of these old criminals who have committed crimes against our people? Who are going to be our priorities: those who are the families of those who are in the mass graves? The political prisoners of the old regime are going to be our top priorities? The pensioners? The low-income people? Who are going to be our -- those who were disadvantaged during the old regime, those who were disenfranchised and disenchanted and discriminated against in the old regime?

This is the issue. The issue is about policies and strategies. The issue is not about appeasement policy, appeasing the old Baathists or old criminals who have committed crimes against our own people.

BLITZER: What about you, Mowaffak Al-Rubaie? What position would you like to have in the new government? Al-RUBAIE: Whatever the United Iraqi Alliance wants me to serve, I will serve. And I will serve in any office the United Iraqi Alliance wanted me and chose me for that office. I don't mind working in any position, literally in any ministry.

BLITZER: Mowaffak Al-Rubaie, congratulations to you. Congratulations to your list for being the big winner in the election results announced today. I appreciate it very much. Good luck to you, and good luck to all the people of Iraq.

Al-RUBAIE: Thank you very much, indeed. Thank you for having me, Wolf. Thank you.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And another big winner in the Iraqi elections, Ahmed Chalabi. His United Iraqi Alliance took the lion's share of the vote. Ahmed Chalabi joining us now on the phone from Baghdad.

Mr. Chalabi, thanks very much.

Give us your immediate reaction to the results. I guess it wasn't a huge surprise. The only major surprise was how few Sunnis actually voted.

AHMED CHALABI, UNITED IRAQI ALLIANCE: Well, this is a great victory for the Iraqi people. It's a great victory for the United Iraqi Alliance.

And I think we now must move forward. We will have an assembly which is elected by the people and the government which is completely legitimate and elected by the people with full sovereignty, who will take power in Iraq as a result of this democratic process.

BLITZER: Do you want to become the prime minister of Iraq?

CHALABI: I am nominated for position of prime minister. And I will work with my colleagues to win this position.

BLITZER: Do you expect that you will be elected prime minister?

CHALABI: I will work hard. I cannot guess the result of this. But I'm supported by many of the winners in the United Iraqi Alliance.

BLITZER: Who do you see as your biggest challenger to that post?

CHALABI: Well, there are two other candidates, and we are all friends. And we will work together, whoever wins. And we will go through the democratic process to decide.

BLITZER: Talk a little bit about your relationship right now with the Bush administration. There, at one point, was a very excellent relationship, before Saddam Hussein's fall. But then it's become strained. Some accusations that you were providing classified information to Iran.

What kind of relationship do you have with top U.S. officials, including the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, John Negroponte?

CHALABI: I am not -- the relations have been restored somewhat, not at the level that they were before. I have met with a senior American diplomat here in Baghdad, but I have not met Mr. Negroponte while he has become ambassador in Iraq. And I think we can work together quite well.

The accusations that were made were not substantiated. And my lawyers have written to the attorney general and to the director of the FBI about this, and we have heard nothing from them. I believe that those will be laid to rest, because there is no evidence at all to support the charges that were played out in the press.

BLITZER: Did you not meet with John Negroponte because he has not invited you to a meeting, or you didn't want to meet with him? Who's responsible for the fact that Ahmed Chalabi and John Negroponte, the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, who's been there now for many months, have not met?

CHALABI: Well, I think you better ask Mr. Negroponte about this question.

BLITZER: We will.

CHALABI: I have met him before, and I admire him. We have met before, when he was ambassador in the U.N. But we have not met when he came to Baghdad.

BLITZER: But you would like to meet with him, right?

CHALABI: It's a matter of relations that exist between the assembly and the U.S. representative in Iraq, and I think a dialogue would be useful to both sides.

BLITZER: The United Iraq Alliance was the big winner in the Iraqi elections. Ahmed Chalabi very much on the top of that list.

Appreciate it very much for joining us, Mr. Chalabi. We'll get back to you in the days to come.

Much more coverage of the Iraqi elections coming up on "LATE EDITION."

Also, we'll turn to North Korea. How dangerous is the country's leader, Kim Jong Il? And what are the chances of him launching a nuclear strike? We'll ask South Korea's foreign minister, Ban Ki- Moon. He's standing by.

Then, assessing the threat from a nuclear Iran: We'll talk with two top members of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee.

And later, two U.S. governors debate President Bush's budget and Social Security reform.

You're watching "LATE EDITION," the last word in Sunday talk.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to "LATE EDITION."

North Korea's surprise announcement that it does indeed have nuclear weapons is presenting a serious hurdle for the Bush administration. But the stakes are even higher for North Korea's neighbor, South Korea.

Joining us now to assess North Korea's nuclear ambitions, what the world response should be, is the foreign minister of South Korea, Ki-Moon Ban.

Mr. Foreign Minister, welcome to "LATE EDITION." Welcome to Washington.

KI-MOON BAN, SOUTH KOREA'S FOREIGN MINISTER: Thank you. It is a great pleasure for me.

BLITZER: The North Koreans made this declaration this week. I'll put the words up on the screen:

"The U.S. disclosed its attempt to topple the political system in the DPRK" -- that's North Korea -- "at any cost, threatening us with a nuclear stick. This compels us to take a measure to bolster our nuclear weapons arsenal in order to protect the ideology, system, freedom and democracy chosen by our people."

First of all, do you believe North Korea, the North Korean government? Do they have a nuclear bomb or more?

BAN: Well, the intelligence community believes that North Korea seems to -- might have made one or two nuclear weapons out of plutoniums, about 10 to 14 nuclear materials that they have reprocessed during the last seven years...

BLITZER: They've never tested a nuclear weapon.

(CROSSTALK)

BAN: ... but the intelligence communities and government concern, they're closely assessing this information.

BLITZER: What does South Korea believe, your government?

BAN: We think that, still, we need to assess this situation very closely, whether they have, in fact, made nuclear weapons.

But at the same time, we take note seriously that North Koreans has made official statements through their spokesperson of the foreign ministry.

BLITZER: Because you know the defense secretary of the United States, Donald Rumsfeld, this week said, you know what, we don't know, the United States doesn't know if they have a nuclear weapon. It's possible they may just be saying it. They could be bluffing for their own political purposes. BAN: I think they may have tried to use the situation to raise the stakes to strengthen positions in the negotiating tables.

But as Secretary Rumsfeld said, that we have to yet to analyze carefully the situations and intelligence and also the statement North Korea has made this week.

BLITZER: If North Korea does, in fact, have nuclear weapons, will South Korea follow suit?

BAN: I don't think so. Korean government has declared and signed the joint declaration to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula in 1992, together with North Korea. North Korea must abandon this nuclear weapons development program, and Korean government adheres to this principle.

BLITZER: What if they don't, though? What if they go ahead -- what if they were to test a nuclear bomb? Would you reconsider your position?

BAN: That is exactly why we are now trying to resolve this issue peacefully, diplomatically, within the framework of six-party talks. And we will continue to do so. And we will continue to urge in close cooperation with the countries concerned to North Korea to abandon nuclear weapons development program.

BLITZER: The North Korean government insists on bilateral talks with the United States. They don't want the six-party talks, including Russia and Japan and South Korea and China. They want only talks with the United States.

Should the Bush administration -- and you'll be meeting with Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, tomorrow -- should the Bush administration engage in bilateral negotiations with the government of Pyongyang?

BAN: We believe that nuclear issues is not a bilateral issue between the United States and North Korea. It is, rather, a regional and global issue. Therefore, it is a consensus of the international community that this kind of issue of weapons of mass destruction, like the nuclear issue, should be resolved in close cooperation of international community.

This time, six countries are cooperating closely to resolve this issue within the six-party framework.

BLITZER: So the answer is, the United States should not have separate bilateral negotiations with North Korea?

BAN: In fact, during the three rounds of six-party talks in the past, North Korea and the United States have had some direct talks within the framework of six-party talks.

Once the six-party talk is held, I think the United States and North Korea can have more direct talks.

BLITZER: Within the framework of the...

BAN: Within the framework of the six-party talks.

BLITZER: There was a story in the Financial Times that quoted a South Korean defense ministry paper on February 5th that said this: "In case of an emergency on the Korean Peninsula, the United States has a plan to send more than 40 percent of its entire navy, more than half of its air force, and more than 70 percent of its Marine Corps to defend South Korea."

Is that true?

BAN: Yes.

BLITZER: That's the U.S. plan, based on the information the U.S. government has given you?

BAN: We have been maintaining combined defense posture, together with -- between the United States and the Republic of Korea. We have been assured by or (ph) even strengthened defense capabilities by the United States. And we are maintaining very close alliance with the United States.

BLITZER: So you're not concerned that the U.S. military may be overstretched right now because of the fighting in Iraq?

BAN: We think that the United States has enough capabilities to deal with all these regional conflicts while they are concentrating their military forces in Iraq. I think the United States and Koreans in close combined defense capabilities can maintain and can deal with any threats.

BLITZER: Let's talk about the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Il. A lot of speculation, he's erratic, he's crazy. Others say he's very sophisticated, very shrewd, very savvy.

No one understands him as well as other Koreans. Give us your assessment. Who is this man? Is he capable, for example, if he had a nuclear bomb, of using it?

BAN: Well, I'm not in a position to predict what he will do with this nuclear weapons program. We know that he has been controlling the North Korean society fairly well and maintaining social and political regimes in North Korea.

In fact, there was a summit meeting between the two presidents, two leaders of South and North Korea in 2000, and we hope that North Korean leader will adhere to joint statement of June 15, 2000, issued between the two leaders.

BLITZER: But the bottom line, is he stable or is he erratic?

BAN: I think that he is stable at this time, as far as we have our informations and intelligence.

BLITZER: The foreign minister of South Korea, right at the heart of this enormous problem for not only your region but the entire world.

We appreciate your joining us very much. Thanks very much. Welcome to Washington once again. Good luck.

BAN: Well, thank you very much.

BLITZER: Ki-Moon Ban, the foreign minister of South Korea.

And still ahead, insight from the two top members of the United States Senate Intelligence Committee on the implications of the Iraqi election results, the tough talk from North Korea and more.

But up next we'll have a quick check of what's in the news right now, including Pope John Paul II, back out in public at the Vatican after his hospitalization.

More "LATE EDITION" straight ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to "LATE EDITION."

Joining us now to talk about the Iraqi election results announced today, North Korea's latest move and more, the chairman of the U.S. Senate Select Intelligence Committee, Republican Pat Roberts of Kansas, and the panel's vice chairman, Democrat Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia.

Senators, welcome back to "LATE EDITION." Thanks very much.

SEN. PAT ROBERTS (R), KANSAS: Thank you, Wolf.

SEN. JAY ROCKEFELLER (D), WEST VIRGINIA: Thank you.

BLITZER: Let's talk about the reaction to the results today. Good news for the Shia, good news for the Kurds.

The Sunnis, apparently, didn't vote in very large numbers at all. And there's some concern, will they be accurately represented this new government?

ROBERTS: Well, Wolf, I don't think there's any surprise in that. I think that most of the intelligence that we got, or most of the intentions that were publicized, is there would be a huge vote on the Shia side and also on the Kurd side.

But it's the outreach by the Shia leaders and those who are elected to include the Sunnis in the process that will be most important.

So I don't think there are any surprises here. It's just that I'm very hopeful that the Shia majority and the Kurd majority will work with the Sunnis so that they can be part of the process.

BLITZER: Are you confident that will happen, Senator Rockefeller? ROCKEFELLER: It has to happen.

I think there are two main stories out of this. One is I think the 20 percent of the Sunnis who did vote is a much larger number than we expected.

The Shia do not have the majority. And therefore, I think the second story is that the Kurds have enormous leveraging power. They are going to be able to negotiate, I think, with great effectiveness for themselves.

BLITZER: So you think one of the Kurdish leaders, like Jalal Talabani, for example, could emerge as the president of Iraq?

ROCKEFELLER: Yes. Or just have negotiating power in setting up the next stage, or that, or be president.

BLITZER: Let me ask you this question. Because I remember you were on here a few months ago, and you suggested that, yes, you voted for the war, the authorization for the president to go to war in Iraq. Later, based on the findings there there were no WMD that the U.S. could find, you regretted that vote.

How do you feel now in the aftermath of this election and the results announced today?

ROCKEFELLER: The same way. Because I had -- the vote, which was that moment in time, back then, it was based upon information which turned out not to be correct.

And I think that's why Pat Roberts and I both feel very strongly that when we get to Iran, that we can't make the same mistakes. We have to ask the questions, the hard questions before, not afterwards, and get the right intelligence.

BLITZER: Are you worried, Senator Roberts, there could be a civil war, ethnic, sectarian violence emerging in Iraq right now?

ROBERTS: Well, I'll go back to the British experience in 1921. And they were never really able to put it together to the degree that you could have stability, let alone a democracy. That's always the case.

But I think the chances of civil war have been significantly lessened. And I think they're going to have a real experiment in democracy, whether they know it or not, in terms of the Shias reaching out and what Jay has indicated in regards to the Kurds.

Again, I would agree with Jay. I think a 20 percent Sunni turnout is rather remarkable under the circumstances.

BLITZER: Are you concerned about a Shiite-led theocracy, an Iranian-style government emerging in Iraq?

ROBERTS: Well, that's part of the concerns that we've had. But, you know, let's see what happens. Let's look on the optimistic side. I think there's a lot of optimism there. I know that story in the United States has sort of faded from the picture, but it has not in regards to Iraq. The number-one song now being played by the cabbies and everybody else over there is still the national anthem prior to Saddam Hussein.

BLITZER: What about you? Are you afraid of a theocracy emerging?

ROCKEFELLER: I'm not afraid of it, but it's on my mind, that, you know, they're saying that they want this not to be Islamic law but they don't want it -- they want to reflect the power of Islam.

And Sistani is for keeping the two apart. On the other hand, there are a lot of other Shiites whose would like to have it that way.

So, I think getting closer and closer to the Sharia, so to speak, the Islamic way of law, is a possibility. And I do worry about it.

BLITZER: Let's move to Iraq's neighbor, Iran.

Story in The Washington Post today that the U.S. is already gearing up potentially for military action by flying these drones, as they call it, over Iran to search for evidence of nuclear weapons capability or, at least, development.

What do you make of that story?

ROBERTS: Well, number one, I make that the person who wrote the story doesn't know the difference between a UAV and a drone. But other than that...

BLITZER: All right, let's explain to our viewers the difference between a drone and an unmanned vehicle.

ROBERTS: Well, the UAVs have capability, and the drones don't.

And so, I think we ought to be using all of our capabilities in terms of collecting the intelligence we need.

As Jay has pointed out, after 511 pages and 250 analysts, we found out that the intelligence was not credible in regards to Iraq. It was a world community intelligence failure. We can't let that happen again.

We have both made a very dedicated promise that the Intelligence Committee will be more proactive, as Jay has said, preemptive, as I have said, to look at the capability.

So we have to use every available opportunity...

BLITZER: All right, let's get back...

ROBERTS: ... to really collect the intelligence.

BLITZER: ... these unmanned aerial vehicles, UAVs.

ROBERTS: Right.

BLITZER: Based on what you know, is the U.S. flying these unmanned aerial vehicles, not drones, UAVs, over Iran right now, searching for evidence of nuclear capability?

ROBERTS: We will monitor that situation in the Intelligence Committee. How's that?

BLITZER: You're not allowed, you can't -- you know what's going on, but you're just simply barred, because of classification, from discussing it?

ROBERTS: Well, that's your words, not mine. So I think...

ROCKEFELLER: Can I answer that?

BLITZER: Please.

ROCKEFELLER: I think another area where Pat and I strongly agree is that, you know, Iran, like North Korea, is very, very dangerous. It's very focused against Israel. It's very focused against us. It has not forgiven us for overthrowing Prime Minister Mossadegh back in '53, you know, the shah, all of it. They really dislike us.

They are a dangerous country, and they're much more sophisticated than Iraq.

And I think we both agree that everything we can do to gather intelligence and information, no matter who is doing it, among our intelligence or military agencies is for the betterment, because we're stretched so thin. We need all the eyes on the ground that we can possibly get.

BLITZER: One of the comments from Mohammed Khatami, the president of Iran, on Tuesday: "Will this nation allow the feet of an aggressor to touch this land? If, God forbid, it happens, Iran will turn into a scorching hell for the aggressors," referring clearly to the threats they perceive coming from the United States.

Should we take Mohammed Khatami seriously?

ROCKEFELLER: I think not taking Iran seriously is an enormous mistake. I've always felt that it was much more of a problem than Iraq was.

Unlike Iraq, which didn't have nuclear weapons, they certainly are working on it and may have other areas that we haven't even discovered yet that they're working on. And I think it's their ambition to have one, and my guess is they will get one.

BLITZER: How soon?

ROCKEFELLER: I don't know.

BLITZER: Do you know? ROBERTS: I don't think there's any specific time period. The intelligence community is monitoring that (ph), like we do in terms of North Korea. That gets us right back to square one. And both Jay and I feel very strongly that we have to take a look at the capabilities.

As to that statement, I think it's more rhetoric. I think he was playing to a crowd. If you read what he said before that and then more especially after that, I think that was more of a political statement that he made.

BLITZER: Without getting into specifics, in your opinion, does the U.S. government have good intelligence right now on what's happening in Iran?

ROBERTS: That's why we have to look at the capabilities. We were told that in regards to WMD when we made the inquiry in regards to Iraq.

And again, it was a global intelligence failure. Everybody assumed, after the first Gulf War and after the inspectors left, that certainly Saddam Hussein would reconstitute his weaponry. And they found out in addition, he was about a year and a half away after the first Gulf War.

So they said we're not going to let that happen again. Now, I can see how that happened. But the inquiry that we conducted -- and by the way, I think it was a very seminal report on the Intelligence Committee -- indicated it was wrong.

So what we want to do is look at the capabilities. Do we have the collection? Do we have the right kind of analysis? Do we have real human intelligence on the ground? Do we have a consensus, threat analysis that you can give to the policymaker -- you're the policymaker, we give that to you, you can make a credible decision on what we should do? And there are question marks.

And that's why the Intelligence Committee is determined to do that job.

BLITZER: Those are all excellent questions. You totally support this review ongoing. In other words, not have a review after the fact, but going into some sort of situation with Iran, you want to make sure the intelligence is accurate?

ROCKEFELLER: Absolutely. Because there even is an effect when you ask a question of an intelligence agency or a military group or whatever, just asking the question sometimes opens their eyes up just a little bit.

We didn't do that in the case of Iraq. We accepted too much. Pat and I are not going to accept any more. We're going to, as he says, be proactive or preemptive.

ROBERTS: And we've even asked for a national intelligence estimate or we've asked...

BLITZER: They're doing that now.

ROBERTS: And they are doing that, and we will get that, and then we will delve further into it.

BLITZER: All right. We're going to take a quick break.

Lots more to talk about, though, with Senators Roberts and Rockefeller.

Later, inside Syria: I'll talk with Syria's ambassador to the United States about concerns his country is trying to play both sides of the war on terror.

"LATE EDITION" will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to "LATE EDITION."

We're talking with the two top members of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee: Republican Pat Roberts of Kansas, Democrat Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia.

The North Korean statement this week on the nuclear -- claiming they have nuclear weapons, the United States has declared a new ideological standoff aimed at regime change in the DPRK, which is North Korea, while talking much about a peaceful and diplomatic solution to the nuclear issue and the resumption of the six-party talks in a bid to mislead world public opinion.

We just heard from the foreign minister of South Korea, which certainly has an enormous amount at stake in this whole standoff with North Korea on the nuclear weapons.

What's the best U.S. intelligence right now? Are they bluffing, or do they really have nuclear weapons, North Korea?

ROBERTS: Well, the intelligence community has been monitoring this for some time. We're not going to get into numbers, but yes, they do have the capability.

And I think that the rhetoric is intended to play that card on the stage. That's the only card he has. I'm talking about Kim Jong Il, who has professed himself to the populace as a deity.

I've been there. I've been to Pyongyang. It is a very bizarre, surreal place.

Really, negotiating with them is very difficult. We were trying to get a third-party grain sale in the midst of a famine. You would think that they would really be eager to do that. All we got was rhetoric.

So I think a lot of what they say, in terms of the United States going to attack North Korea, that's just not in the cards. We're not going to do that, unless some military contingency would develop on his part that would necessitate that, and I just don't see that happening.

I thought -- both Senator Rockefeller and I watched the foreign minister, and we both agreed that he did a fine job, and that what he said to you, in terms of trying to keep up the six-party talks, was by far the best source or the best path that we could take to monitor that situation.

BLITZER: What's wrong with bilateral negotiations between the United States and North Korea?

ROCKEFELLER: Nothing, if it's done in the right way. And, you see, the multilateral is very important to keep going again. China, for example, has an enormous leverage. They provide 80 percent of North Korea's electric power.

BLITZER: They have more leverage than anyone over North Korea.

ROCKEFELLER: Than anybody.

But they're also -- and they have 300,000 North Koreans who have come over the border. But they also are consumed by what's going on inside their own country. And we have to put pressure on them to take more of a -- you know, to put more...

BLITZER: What, if anything, do you want the Bush administration to do on trying to ease this crisis?

ROCKEFELLER: I want them to go back into the multilateral, but...

BLITZER: The six-party talks?

ROCKEFELLER: The six-party talks.

But I also think it's very important -- and I know something about Asia, and I've lived there for a while -- that, in Asia, face is very important, prestige, the image of one person, of a head of a country talking to another very important person of another country.

And I do think that, within the six-party talks, there can be, over a period of time, contact directly between the North Koreans and the Americans at high levels, where we talk about ratcheting up our help to them, economically and fuel and the rest of it, light-water reactors, in return for -- see, I think that has to go on, and will not necessarily come out of six-party talks.

BLITZER: Let's move on, talk about the Intelligence Committee. You're the chairman of the Intelligence Committee. Are you going to be having hearings on abuse of detainees at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo, CIA interrogation methods? What's going on on that front?

ROBERTS: I wouldn't use the word "investigation." We're going to monitor that. Both the chairman and the vice chairman are repeatedly briefed on that situation. We have been.

I know of no incident other than the ongoing investigation by the inspector general on very few cases where there's been any violation that would violate the Constitution, a treaty or a law.

I can't get specific in regards to some of the things the Intelligence Committee has at its disposal in regards to protecting lives and getting the best intelligence. But we are going to monitor this, and we are going to insist that they keep us informed. They have been, and we will continue to do so.

BLITZER: You want to weigh in?

ROCKEFELLER: Yes. I mean, I agree with Pat. I mean, our committee has jurisdiction over the intelligence that can be gathered, incidentally, also from Guantanamo Bay, although that's an American territory, if it involves foreign intelligence.

And I think we have to exercise our jurisdiction of oversight aggressively and forcefully. I don't think it matters what we call it, just exercising our need to do oversight. And...

BLITZER: What's your biggest concern?

ROCKEFELLER: ... it keeps going on, you know. I mean, every week you're reading about new allegations of this or that. And nobody really has done anything about it, except the Pentagon, and precious little there.

I think it's a very important subject about the future of American relations with the rest of the world in wartime and out.

BLITZER: Senator Rockefeller, thanks very much.

Senator Roberts, thanks to you as well.

ROBERTS: It's our pleasure.

BLITZER: We'll have you back.

Still ahead, President Bush's new budget, how will it impact Americans' financial future? We'll hear from two key U.S. governors.

Don't forget our Web question of the week: Which country poses a bigger threat to the United States -- North Korea or Iran? You can vote right now. Go to cnn.com/lateedition. We'll have the results in the next hour of "LATE EDITION."

We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to "LATE EDITION."

We'll talk about today's Iraqi election results with one of the country's top Sunni leaders in just a moment. First, though, let's get a quick check of what's in the news right now.

(NEWSBREAK) BLITZER: Another historic step for Iraq, today's announcement of last month's election results. As expected, Iraq's Shiite-led alliance had a clear victory. The results still must be certified in the coming days.

Our Jane Arraf, standing by north of Baghdad in Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit. She's joining us now live via videophone with the results from there and her assessment, what's going to happen now.

Jane?

JANE ARRAF, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, in the heart of the Sunni stronghold, Saddam's hometown, as you mentioned, and we're talking from Saddam Hussein's former palace.

Now, people around here did turn out to the elections in perhaps greater numbers than they thought they might. But still that was only about 30 percent in many areas, and a lot of the Sunnis stayed home. They said they didn't feel they were part of the process. They didn't have anybody to vote for. They didn't know who they'd vote for if they went to the polls.

And a lot of what's going to happen now is an attempt to bring Sunni Muslims in Iraq back into the fold, to find a way to make them feel as if they're part of this country.

And we can imagine that a lot of those back-room deals go on are discussing just that -- how to build a coalition that doesn't fracture this country but instead tries to heal those divisions that we've seen through the election.

Wolf?

BLITZER: Jane Arraf reporting for us from Tikrit.

Jane, thank you very much.

While 58 percent of Iraq's registered voters turned out for last month's historic elections, the country's minority Sunni population voted in relatively modest numbers. They were either afraid to vote, given the death threats, or they boycotted the elections in protest.

Joining us from the phone from Baghdad, one of Iraq's top Sunni leaders, the former Iraqi Governing Council member, Adnan Pachachi.

Mr. Pachachi, thanks very much for joining us.

What's your reaction to these election results announced today?

ADNAN PACHACHI, FORMER MEMBER, IRAQI GOVERNING COUNCIL: Well, of course, we were disappointed, naturally, because of the very small, low turnout in many areas. It made it impossible for us to be represented on the national assembly.

But, of course, I still say that the elections were a good thing. They are an important step forward in establishing democracy in Iraq. And I do not question the legitimacy of the elections.

But it's unfortunate that large areas of Iraq and large segments of the Iraqi population were disenfranchised.

BLITZER: Do you expect the Iraqi Sunnis to play a significant role in this national assembly, even though they weren't elected in significant numbers? Especially in the new government, will Iraqi Sunnis like yourself be visible and effective?

PACHACHI: Well, I took the initiative of calling for the political parties that did not take part in the election to be invited to share with other members of the national assembly in writing the constitution. That initiative was well-received by all concerned, including those that have a majority in the national assembly.

And we are going to continue working on this because this is very important. If we have the constitutional process move smoothly, then we can look forward to a much more inclusive election next December, in which I hope that all parts of Iraq will participate and all segments of the Iraqi population will also vote. But...

BLITZER: Mr. Pachachi, let me interrupt for a moment.

Do you believe you speak for the vast majority of Iraqi Sunni Muslims? Or is there greater support, shall we say, for the insurgency, for the boycott, for the opposition to this election?

PACHACHI: Well, I have a feeling that many of the Sunni parties that boycotted the elections are having second thoughts now, and they may have regretted their not taking part in the election.

And so, we have to rectify this and try to minimize the harm by including them in the process of writing the constitution and eventually to take part effectively in the election next December.

And so, we have to wait and see.

BLITZER: Adnan Pachachi, thanks very much for joining us for a few moments.

Adnan Pachachi, one of the most-respected Sunni leaders in Iraq.

Today's announced election results represent a major victory for the Kurds, whose alliance came in second in the vote tally.

A short while ago I spoke with one of the Kurdish leaders, Iraq's deputy prime minister for national security affairs, Barham Saleh.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Barham Saleh, congratulations to you.

I know this is a big day in Iraqi Kurdish history. Give us some perspective. How important is this for the Kurds?

BARHAM SALEH, IRAQ'S DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, Wolf, this has been a long, arduous journey for us to be accepted in the capital of Iraq and as national players and to take part in deciding the future of this country and make sure that there will not be another genocide against the Kurdish people.

And makes me feel very proud, makes me feel a sense of responsibility. And I hope that this time we will get it right. We will build a democratic nation that will be at peace with its people, including the Kurdish people.

BLITZER: Are you at all concerned that the Kurds voted in very big numbers, the Shia voted in big numbers, but the Sunni did not, the Iraqi Sunnis did not vote? And that's certainly reflected in the results of the major wins, for the major lists on the ballot.

SALEH: Undoubtedly, that is a concern. But we have to all accept the challenge and make sure that we reach out to all of the communities of Iraq. Because as we build this new nation, as we embark on devising a new political contract in Iraq, we must emphasize inclusiveness and we must reach out to all elements of society. We cannot afford another era of conflict and turbulence.

In time, Iraqis enjoy stability and democracy. And that would require bringing all key players and all key communities on board. And we will do so.

BLITZER: There is a lot of speculation that the new president of Iraq, the new government, will be a Shia, but one of the two vice presidents probably would be a Kurd.

Who would that be, in your opinion? Who is the most likely Kurdish leader to emerge as a vice president of Iraq?

SALEH: In fact, the Kurdistan Alliance list will be nominating Jalal Talabani to the post of the president of Iraq. And we believe that he has the qualities of leadership and respectability to assume that position. And we are working with other blocs in the parliament that we anticipate will be represented there to make sure that that will happen.

And it will be important to emphasize, should a Kurd assume the top presidency slot in Iraq, it will be a statement about the direction of the new Iraqi state, that we want to have an Iraq in which the Kurds will not be treated as second-class citizens.

BLITZER: So, in other words, if there's a Shia president and a Shia prime minister...

SALEH: A Shia prime minister. The expectations are that there will be a nominee, a Shia nominee, to the prime minister's slot. And as I said, that we in the Kurdistan Alliance are nominating Jalal Talabani, the veteran Kurdish leader, to the post of president of Iraq.

BLITZER: Who would you like to see emerge as the prime minister? There's been a lot of interest, a lot of anticipation involving the finance minister, Adel Abdel-Mehdi. Is he the most likely person to emerge as prime minister?

SALEH: Adel Abdel-Mehdi is a friend of mine, and we have been working together in the cabinet. And he's a gentleman who is known to the Kurdish leadership and to the Iraqi polity at large.

But he's not the only contender. There are a number of other candidates. Let us wait and see what will be the decision of the United Alliance list.

And not only based on personalities, but from our perspective, there will be key policy issues that we want to quiz every candidate on -- policy issues like the issue of democracy, like the issue of separation of powers, like the issue of federalism in Iraq.

And we will be dealing with this thing based on what is good for the cause of democracy in Iraq and the issue of institution-building here in Iraq.

BLITZER: One Iraqi Shia who is very controversial is Ahmad Chalabi, who was high on the list, the winning list. Is he someone acceptable to the Kurds?

SALEH: I think all of these candidates are out there at the moment. And as I said, we will be dealing with whomever would be nominated to this position based on policy issues and based on solid guarantees that they will remain true to the ideals of democracy, working on the constitutional process and being committed to the rule of law and justice in Iraq.

BLITZER: Barham Saleh, what about you? What job would you like to have in the new government?

SALEH: Wolf, you're talking to a duly elected member of parliament, and that makes me very proud.

We are witnessing the birth of a new nation. The challenges will be very grave ahead of us in the next few months. And I hope that we will all work together and make sure that Iraq will come out from the ashes of tyranny a nation that is democratic, federal, peaceful. And enough is enough of this cycle of violence.

And if I can play a role, whether in parliament or in government or even outside it, it will make me proud.

I have lived to witness the moment to vote and to witness the declaration of results without any violence. This is the first time that is happening in the heart of the Islamic Middle East a change of government is taking place without a coup and without me being a member of this government fearing that I will enter the gallows.

You cannot imagine the sense of excitement that I and many colleagues of mine have about this moment in history.

BLITZER: Well, let me simply say congratulations to you. And good luck on this difficult road. The next several weeks will be fascinating, no doubt. SALEH: Thank you.

BLITZER: Good luck to all the Iraqi people.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: One of the leading candidates to become Iraq's next prime minister is Adel Abdel-Mehdi. He's currently the country's finance minister. Mr. Mehdi's joining us on the phone now from Baghdad.

Congratulations to you, your Shiite-led list for coming in first on the election. Do you fully anticipate you will become, Mr. Mehdi, the next prime minister of Iraq?

ADEL ABDEL-MEHDI, CANDIDATE TO BE IRAQI PRIME MINISTER: Well, it depends on the alliance itself and their decision.

So we are congratulating each other as Iraqis. That was an Iraqi victory.

Now we have internal discussions in between ourselves. We'll have discussions with the other slate. And during the coming days, we will announce our decision.

BLITZER: There's some concern, as you know, here in the United States and the West, that some sort of Islamist government, a theocracy sort of along the lines of Iran, could emerge in Iraq. Is that a legitimate fear?

ABDEL-MEHDI: Well, we announced in our program, our ideas, we don't want a Shiite government. We don't want an Islamic government. We are not that. And now we are working for a democratic government. This is our choice, and we announced it so many times.

BLITZER: I know at the highest levels of the Bush administration, sir, they fully anticipate you are the leading candidate now to emerge as the next prime minister of Iraq, replacing Iyad Allawi.

How does that make you feel, that you could become the first Iraqi prime minister under this new system?

ABDEL-MEHDI: I should have the support of my slate and the support of the national assembly to take this post.

BLITZER: What about Ahmad Chalabi? He wants to be prime minister, as well. He was on the same slate as you.

ABDEL-MEHDI: Well, all candidates are really qualified to occupy the Iraqi posts. There are no vetoes on anyone. We have to make our best choice, and we'll make it.

BLITZER: We heard Barham Saleh say that he would like to see Jalal Talabani emerge as the president of Iraq, the Kurdish leader, the famed Kurdish leader. What do you think of that? ABDEL-MEHDI: Well, why not? I worked so long with Mr. Jalal Talabani. He is an old friend of mine and any Iraqi.

Now we don't have to really divide or to make vetoes on people. Kurds, Arabs, Sunni Arabs, Shias can have any post they want. And of course, Jalal Talabani is a well-known personality. And we will see what we will decide about that.

I am very encouraged, really, to see such names. They were deprived of any power years ago. Now they are coming on the heading posts, on very key posts. So we are very happy that we witnessed this change in Iraq, this democratic change in Iraq.

BLITZER: Adel Abdel-Mehdi is the interim finance minister. He is widely expected to be a leading candidate for prime minister.

Congratulations to you. Thanks very much for joining us.

And we're just getting a statement in from the White House reaction to the results being announced of the election. A White House spokesman saying, "The election was a positive and significant accomplishment." Going on, it says, "We congratulate candidates who will be members of the transitional national assembly when these results are certified. We congratulate also the Iraqi people for their courage and vision and in ensuring the success of their elections."

That statement coming from the White House.

We'll have more coverage of the Iraqi election results; that's coming up.

But just ahead, from Social Security to the new budget, President Bush has a number of domestic challenges on his agenda. We'll talk with two leading members -- two leading U.S. governors, that is: New Mexico's Bill Richardson and Colorado's Bill Owens. They're standing by to join us.

Then, a new beginning in Israeli-Palestinian relations. But what role will Syria play? I'll speak with that country's ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha.

"LATE EDITION" will continue right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back.

President Bush took his case for partially privatizing Social Security back on the road this past week, as he sent a new $2.57 trillion budget proposal to Congress at the same time.

Joining us now to talk about how all of this is playing out, two leading United States governors: in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Democratic Governor Bill Richardson. He's the chairman of the Democratic Governors Association. And in Denver, Colorado, the Republican governor of Colorado, Bill Owens.

Governors, thanks very much for joining us.

And, Governor Owens, I'll begin with you. Are you at all concerned, as some Republicans are, that there's been this enormous expansion of the federal government in all sorts of areas over the past four years, going against the grain of smaller federal involvement in day-to-day matters of the American people?

GOV. BILL OWENS (R), COLORADO: You know, I think there is some concern about that. And I think that that's why, in this second term of President Bush, you're going to see him starting to use the veto pen and actually start to slow down the rate of growth in government.

That's where his budget this year comes from, and yet it does seem as if my friends in the Democratic Party, who have been talking about the deficit and are so concerned about government spending all of a sudden, seemingly don't want to support this budget, which is a conservative budget, which fits the needs of the times.

BLITZER: Is that true, Governor Richardson?

GOV. BILL RICHARDSON (D), NEW MEXICO: Well, the president's budget is a $300 billion deficit.

The problem here is what the president is doing is he's saying to the states -- there's been a traditional federal-state partnership on health care, Medicaid, education, No Child Left Behind, veterans' services, transportation -- he's saying to the states, "You're on your own." He's got massive deficits but also dramatic cuts in services.

And the problem is that, at the state level -- this is where people are, people are not in Washington, D.C. and in the Congress -- what you're going to see is, on Medicaid, on health care, when we have so many Americans uninsured, we add to the problem by basically adding $40 billion in cuts in Medicaid, to seniors, to disabled, to children, and then governors are asked to do their own state budgets to make up for it. We'll you can't do it.

BLITZER: What about...

RICHARDSON: There has to be a partnership...

BLITZER: Yes, I was going to say, let Governor Owens weigh in.

Is that true? Is the governors -- are the states going to be burdened because of some of these proposed cuts by the president?

OWENS: You know, Wolf, this is why it's so very hard to actually cut the budget, because in the last presidential campaign, again, our friends in the Democratic Party talked about the deficit, they talked about the fact that we're spending way too much, more than we're bringing in -- this president is now addressing that in very concrete terms. He's slowing the rate of growth of government programs.

And when you try to do that, all of a sudden it becomes political, because...

BLITZER: But, Governor Owens, let me interrupt. You didn't do that as far as Medicare is concerned. That prescription drug benefits he got through Congress at the end of the last session...

OWENS: Sure.

BLITZER: ... that's a huge entitlement for years to come, some suggesting it's going to cost a trillion dollars, perhaps, over the next eight or 10 or 12 years.

OWENS: And that was a bipartisan plan that had a lot of Democratic and Republican support. Many people think it's going to be too expensive.

What the president's budget now is trying to do is start to slow these rates of growth in programs that are otherwise simply unaffordable. And we're seeing that in Medicaid, both at the state and federal level.

We start to have to learn to say no. We need to start to have to slow the rate of growth of these programs, because we simply can't afford it. That's what the president's budget addresses.

BLITZER: All right.

Governor Richardson, on the issue of Social Security reform, we asked our CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll -- I'll put these numbers up on the screen -- "Will Social Security be bankrupt in 2042 if no major changes are made?" Sixty-four percent of the American public said yes; 30 percent said no.

That's what the president is arguing. That's why he's calling for partially privatizing, creating these private retirement accounts.

You disagree with that assessment?

RICHARDSON: Well, I do disagree, Wolf. I believe that the president -- what voters and Americans, people out in the heartland want out of Washington is partnerships, not this partisanship. And the president is basically saying, on Social Security, "This is my issue. This is my proposal. Take it or leave it."

Look, there is no question that if we're going to reform Social Security, the only way it's going to happen is if it's bipartisan. And the president is not reaching out to Democrats. He's not reaching out across the country. He's saying, "The solution is private accounts."

Well, you know, in 2042, there is going to be a financing problem with Social Security. It's not going to be a crisis. So I think we should address this issue with fundamental principles: one, that we have a bipartisan solution; two, that we don't increase the massive deficits that right now are going to be needed if the president persists with the private security accounts that could cost $700 billion; and third, let's have an assurance that benefits for seniors and then younger people down the line are not going to be cut. It's a financing issue that needs to be dealt with.

BLITZER: Governor Owens...

RICHARDSON: President Clinton tried to do it when he had a surplus in Social Security.

BLITZER: Governor Owens, the speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert -- you're a Republican -- said this this past week. He told the Chicago Tribune, "You can't jam change down the American people's throat unless they perceive there really is a problem, that there's something there that isn't going to work 12 or 14 years from now, and it's going to be a catastrophe when we reach that point."

A lot of Americans don't think there's a crisis right now that would justify spending $1 trillion or $2 trillion to create these private accounts.

OWENS: Wolf, it's one of the reasons why it's such a challenge to change Social Security.

First of all, in terms of my friend Bill Richardson's statement about it not being a bipartisan approach, I haven't seen a Democratic approach to Social Security other than to continue on the present track.

The present track starts to run off those rails in 2013, just eight years from now, when we no longer will be able to fund what we're funding today with the revenues that are available.

This president is addressing a future crisis now when it's easier to address it. Relatively small changes now, Wolf, could put this program in place for decades to come. What's frustrating to me is, if we wait too long, it's going to be much harder to deal with.

This president is putting his political capital on the line; he doesn't need to. He can do as President Clinton did and choose to just pass it off to the next president. This president is addressing it, and I'm proud that he's doing it.

BLITZER: One final question to you, Governor Richardson. During your previous life as a U.N. ambassador, you did make a visit to North Korea. This is an issue very much on the agenda right now.

Should the Bush administration be engaged in bilateral negotiations with the North Korean government to try to do something about this nuclear threat?

RICHARDSON: Yes, it should, Wolf. But the Bush administration should do three things.

One, it should tone down the rhetoric against North Korea. I know it sounds good, but it aggravates them. It causes them to become even more irrational than they are.

Secondly, what they might think of doing is, within the six-party talks, which are good, get, for instance, China, which supplies 70 percent of fuel and food aid to North Korea, to be stronger, to put some leverage on the North Koreans to come to the table.

A third alternative might be, Wolf, to say to the North Koreans, "All right, let's go into the six-party talks, but then let's have within the six-party talks a bilateral discussion on our differences."

And, by the way, I do believe the Bush administration has put on the table a proposal that, in exchange for a nonaggression pact, North Korea starts dismantling its uranium enrichment, its nuclear weapons, and then South Korea and Japan and others provide food aid.

There's already a framework for an agreement on the table. Let's not let protocol and semantics and ideological concerns within Bush administration stymie us from a deal that needs to be verifiable but right now is being shunted aside because of aggressive talk and intransigence and not wanting to talk to them directly.

What's wrong with talking to them directly? I don't see any downside.

BLITZER: We've got to leave it right there. Unfortunately we're out of time.

Governor Richardson, as usual, thanks very much.

Governor Owens, thanks to you, as well.

We'll take a quick break. Much more "LATE EDITION" right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: The Bush administration isn't willing to let Syria off the hook in the war on terror. And this year the Damascus regime made its debut in President Bush's State of the Union address.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: Syria still allows its territory and parts of Lebanon to be used by terrorists who seek to destroy every chance of peace in the region. We expect the Syrian government to end all support for terror and open the door to freedom.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Officials in Damascus deny they support the Iraqi insurgency.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Syria doesn't help the insurgents. On the contrary, we are helping the Iraqis to be united, to go to the elections, to accept the political process. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: So why is the U.S. concerned?

For one thing, the State Department lists Syria as a state sponsor of terrorism, citing its support for Hezbollah, Hamas and other groups.

In addition, Syrian troops are still in Lebanon, which they've occupied for a quarter of a century, despite U.S. trade sanctions and a U.N. Security Council mandate to withdraw.

And there's other concern as well. A meeting last month between President Bashar Al-Asad and Russian President Vladimir Putin raised fresh questions about a possible new weapons deal between those two countries.

So is Syria the next U.S. target in the war on terror?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're not in a position of hostility. It's not our policy to destabilize Syria.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And joining us now here in our Washington studio, Syria's ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha.

Mr. Ambassador, welcome to "LATE EDITION." Thanks very much for joining us.

IMAD MOUSTAPHA, SYRIA'S AMBASSADOR TO U.S.: Hi, Wolf. The pleasure is mine.

BLITZER: The administration says Syria can get off the list of state sponsors of terrorism if it stops supporting Hezbollah, Hamas, these other groups. Is Syria prepared to do that?

MOUSTAPHA: I don't think this is the core issue. The core issue is the following: Do we support terrorism? This is preposterous. Actually, it's the other way around.

Since September 11, and even now while we are talking, Syria helps the United States in its war against terrorism. Our intelligence organizations cooperate with your intelligence organizations.

What we hear sometimes on the media disappoints Syria and -- let me be honest about this -- shocks Syria because it has nothing to do with the actual reality on the ground.

BLITZER: On that point, there was a story in The New Yorker magazine this week that the U.S. handed over someone suspected of terrorism to the government of Syria for interrogation. Is that a policy? Is the U.S. sending individuals over to Syria for interrogation that might not be interrogated here in the United States?

MOUSTAPHA: No, this is not actually happening. What is actually happening is we exchange information and intelligence on possible terrorist groups throughout the Middle East.

While this is happening, here on the American media -- this is so important for the American public to know -- we get a very different story, and we think this is unfair toward Syria.

BLITZER: Because, as you know, there was this Canadian young man who was picked up at John F. Kennedy Airport, and since he was born in Syria, he was sent to Syria for months, and he claimed he was tortured in a Syrian prison. Is that true?

MOUSTAPHA: What happened is the following: The United States arrested this person. They extradited him back to Syria. The Canadian ambassador in Damascus visited him, and he came out from that visit and said he is extremely well-treated. Now, once the guy was released and sent back to Canada in a gesture of goodwill from us to Canada, the guy started saying different sort of stories.

However, let's not make this the issue. The issue is the following: Syria has repeatedly called Israel to re-engage in peace talks. When President Bush said in the Congress that Syria is helping people who can become an obstacle to peace, we were dismayed. In the past 18 months, we have repeatedly invited Israel to engage, re- engage, in peace talks.

BLITZER: So you're ready to resume negotiations with Israel?

MOUSTAPHA: Categorically. What happened is the following: Sharon has publicly stated in Israel that Israel is not ready to re- engage with Syria because he knows the price Syria wants for peace. We want back our occupied territories.

BLITZER: Are you demanding conditions in exchange for the resumption of peace negotiations with Israel?

MOUSTAPHA: No. This is an invitation with no preconditions whatsoever. We want to engage in peace. We want to have a comprehensive, fair peace that will allow the grandchildren of both Israel and Syria and the rest of the Arabs to live in peace together with each other.

BLITZER: Why not do what the Palestinians have done? Have a meeting, the president of the Palestinian Authority, Abu Mazen, Mahmoud Abbas, have a meeting with Ariel Sharon, the prime minister of Israel? Is President Bashar Al-Asad ready to meet face-to-face with the Israeli prime minister to start this peace process going?

MOUSTAPHA: This is not the issue. The issue is the following: In the past 18 months, we have repeatedly and publicly -- and we are repeating this right now on this platform -- invited Israel to resume peace negotiations. Once...

BLITZER: Where do you want the negotiations?

MOUSTAPHA: Once these negotiations...

BLITZER: Where?

MOUSTAPHA: That is unimportant. Geneva, Washington. We have...

BLITZER: You had negotiations at the Wye Plantation in Maryland.

MOUSTAPHA: Yes. Three times in the past 10 years, we were on the verge of signing a peace treaty with Israel. This never became a reality because of one major obstacle: Israel is still not willing to return to us our occupied territories.

BLITZER: So your bottom line is that, as part of a full peace agreement with Israel, Israel would have to withdraw from all of the Golan Heights?

MOUSTAPHA: What I'm trying to say is, once all parties sit together, creative solutions can be reached to almost every obstacle.

Everything else you might hear from anybody else about reasons for Israel not to engage with Syria in peace talks is a pretext. The core issue is, does Israel want peace with its neighbors or not?

Now, instead of saying, "No, we do not want," they come out with pretext like, "Well, Syria is supporting terrorism." No, Syria is not supporting terrorism. We're not allowing anyone, anyone, whoever he might be, to work from Syrian territories toward creating obstacles facing the peace process.

BLITZER: One final question. Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian terrorist in Iraq, the U.S. government suspects he has made several visits to Syria.

You're smiling.

MOUSTAPHA: If he come to Syria, he will be immediately arrested.

This is -- we don't blink an eye about this. Syria has had its fight against those terrorist groups for at least the past 20 years. Those are our arch enemies.

And we are actually cooperating with the United States against those groups. Don't listen to what you hear in the media.

BLITZER: Imad Moustapha, the ambassador of Syria to the United States, thanks for joining us.

MOUSTAPHA: Thank you very much.

BLITZER: Appreciate it.

Just ahead, we'll get the Israeli response. We'll talk with that country's ambassador to the United States, Daniel Ayalon, about what we just heard and more.

"LATE EDITION" will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: The United States will do its part. We will be active in this process with our partners.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: The secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, reaffirming the Bush administration's promise to put Israelis and Palestinians on the path to peace.

Welcome back to "LATE EDITION."

We're joined by Israel's ambassador to the United States, Daniel Ayalon.

Mr. Ambassador, welcome back to "LATE EDITION."

DANIEL AYALON, ISRAEL'S AMBASSADOR TO U.S.: Good to be here, Wolf.

BLITZER: Well, you heard your Syrian counterpart throw out a challenge to Israel: Syria is ready, without preconditions, to resume peace negotiations with Israel.

Is Israel ready to respond?

AYALON: Well, Wolf, it's hardly a challenge, because you cannot talk peace and at the same time sabotage it by promoting terror, by supporting terror, by directing terror.

You know, Israel did not negotiate with Arafat because he was incorrigible and he was acting as a terrorist. We are engaging with Abu Mazen.

The same thing is with Syria. If Syria would close all of the terror organization offices in Damascus, if they would stop supporting the Hezbollah, who is feverishly now trying to derail the peace process which we are starting with the Palestinians, then we can talk.

But until then, Syria should be isolated. There should be a lot of political pressure put on them to stop harboring and supporting terror.

BLITZER: Israel negotiated a full peace treaty many years ago with Egypt in exchange for a full withdrawal from the Sinai. Is Israel, in principle, ready for full peace with Syria in exchange for a full withdraw from the Golan Heights?

AYALON: I would say, this would be a due course discussed in direct negotiations between the parties.

When we had peace with Egypt, there was no terror activities from the Sinai or from Egypt against Israel. So the same thing should be here.

It's like the United States. The United States did not negotiate with Saddam Hussein. The United States did not negotiate with North Korea because they are attacking the U.S., because they are sabotaging any attempt for peace.

If Syria would change its course and would absolutely fight terror and stop supporting the terror, then we can talk and negotiate about everything, and everything is on the table.

BLITZER: But you did have negotiations with Syria at the Wye Plantation in Maryland years ago, and he says you got pretty close to a peace deal that the United States was trying to broker.

Why were you willing to then to negotiate with Syria, but you're not willing now to negotiate with Syria, when presumably Syria was supporting Hezbollah and Hamas just as much then as it is now?

AYALON: Well, they were different times there. And the support there was also stopped during negotiations, or it was very much mitigated or lessened.

Right now, we see Syria as the single most dangerous, together with Iran and Hezbollah, dangerous element against any kind of peace process.

BLITZER: So what you're saying is that you're not going to have negotiations with Syria, at least any time soon?

AYALON: At least until they change their ways and stop supporting terror.

BLITZER: He says that he's cooperating, Syria's cooperating, with the U.S. in the war on terror, giving intelligence information, helping the United States fight terrorists.

AYALON: Well, I would say that at some point they may do something just to get off the hook. But overall, I think there is a reason why they are still prominently put on the U.S. terror list of the State Department and other agencies.

BLITZER: What about the peace process with the Palestinians? The talks this week seemed to go off very well. Are you encouraged?

AYALON: Yes.

BLITZER: You're just back from Israel yourself. You met there when Condoleezza Rice was there.

Are you encouraged that Abu Mazen, Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian authority, is now ready to make peace with Israel? AYALON: Well, we are encouraged, and we're very, very hopeful. I think that we see a totally different ball game with Abu Mazen there. We see the change in rhetorics and intentions and also in some actions. And this is very, very important.

Of course, it is not enough. We would like to see a permanent way to do away with the terror organizations, disarming them and disbanding them. But we will give him the space and time to do that.

And so long as we are cooperating together, understanding that there is a mutual goal for the two parties, and isolating the extremists and the terror organizations, whether it's Hamas, Islamic Jihad or the Hezbollah, or Iran and Syria, then we have a good chance.

And we very much welcome the support of the United States and the rest of the international community. And there was a very, very good visit of Dr. Rice in our area.

BLITZER: The release of Palestinian prisoners announced today, approved by the cabinet, how far is Israel willing to go in releasing these prisoners, especially some high-profile prisoners like Marwan Barghouti, a well-known Palestinian serving a life sentence?

AYALON: Well, I wouldn't go into details about specifics, but Israel is willing to go a long way.

And we have already just today, Wolf, the cabinet approved the release of 500 prisoners. There are 400 more. And there will be even more, as we go along.

And we are taking great risks, because we're talking about murderers, we're talking about real hardcore...

BLITZER: Are you releasing murderers?

AYALON: Well, when we talk about the whole issue of prisoners, many of them or most of them are hardcore terrorists with blood on their hands.

There are some criterias that we have to consider. We will do it together.

And this is the new approach that we have, as opposed to the past. We are going to talk with the Palestinians together about new criterias, so they understand our concerns, we understand theirs, and hopefully we can get into a happy middle ground.

BLITZER: But if you release murderers, terrorists with blood on their hands, aren't you concerned they're going to simply do the same thing once they're free?

AYALON: Absolutely. And we are not doing it right now. But as the peace process goes along, we may have to consider that. I don't know what will be the result, but I think this is part of what we have said, and Israel is willing to take great risks in order to achieve peace. There is one thing we cannot compromise on, is Israeli security. But the issue of prisoners is one of the permanent issues. We know, we understand how important it is for the Palestinians. And we're willing to work together with them, with the bilateral committee, to discuss the criterias and how to, I would say, include everybody's interest there.

BLITZER: Daniel Ayalon, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, thanks for joining us.

AYALON: Thank you.

BLITZER: We'll take a quick break. When we come back, we'll have the results of our Web question of the week. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Our "LATE EDITION" Web question asks this: Which country poses a bigger threat to the United States -- North Korea or Iran? Here's how you voted: Sixty-nine percent of you said North Korea; 31 percent of you said Iran. Remember, this is not a scientific poll.

Let's get to some of your e-mail.

W.L. in Florida writes this: "The United States should give in to North Korea's request for bilateral talks. It is better to negotiate with them directly than cut off all communication with such an unpredictable country."

But Joe in Ohio observes, "Unlike Iraq and Iran, North Korea is not afraid to admit they possess nuclear weapons. President Bush needs to be tough with the North Koreans and make sure that they know the consequences for any reckless behavior."

We always welcome your e-mail, by the way. Send us one at lateedition@cnn.com.

Let's take a closer look now at what's on the cover of this week's major news magazines right here in the United States.

U.S. News and World Report takes an in-depth look at Abraham Lincoln -- provocative stuff.

Time explores what teachers hate about parents.

And Newsweek focuses in on the myth of the perfect mother.

That's your "LATE EDITION" for Sunday, February 13th. Please be sure to join me next Sunday, every Sunday, at noon eastern, for the last word in Sunday talk.

I'm here Monday through Friday, twice a day, noon and 5 p.m. eastern.

Until then, thanks very much for joining us. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.fdch.com


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