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CNN LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER

Interview With John Abizaid; Interview With Ibrahim al-Jaafari; Interview With Dick Cheney

Aired June 26, 2005 - 12:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: It's noon in Washington, 9:00 a.m. in Los Angeles, 7:00 p.m. in Beirut and 8:00 p.m. in Baghdad. Wherever you're watching from around the world thanks very much for joining us for "LATE EDITION."
We'll get to our interview with General Abizaid in just a moment, and later we'll also get the views of Senator Edward Kennedy. But first, a quick check of what's in the news right now.

(NEWSBREAK)

BLITZER: On Tuesday President Bush is set to deliver a prime time televised address to the nation to try to explain U.S. policy in Iraq. Polls show support for that policy down dramatically here in the United States.

Just a short while ago I spoke with the commander of the U.S. military Central Command, General John Abizaid, about the challenges of battling a relentless insurgency in Iraq and a lot more.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER (on camera): General Abizaid, thanks for joining us. Welcome to "LATE EDITION."

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID, COMMANDER, CENTRAL COMMAND: Pleasure to be here.

BLITZER: More suicide bombings in Mosul, dozens of individuals killed once again. People watching what's going on in Iraq have to ask, is there an end to this?

ABIZAID: Clearly, there is an end to this.

The end comes when Iraqi security forces and Iraqi governance come together in such a way that they're able to dominate the insurgency. The end comes when the insurgency clearly understands and recognizes that they can't achieve any progress; the only thing they can achieve is killing innocent people.

And so I am very clear in my understanding that we're moving in a good direction, as long as politics moves forward and Iraqi security forces move forward.

But I'm also very realistic in understanding that there's a lot of violence ahead, especially as we move through the political process, and that the insurgents will try to challenge the government and the Iraqi security forces and American forces in an effort to break our will, and they do this by grabbing headlines.

BLITZER: So what I hear you saying is that the United States military alone can't crush this insurgency.

ABIZAID: I didn't say the United States military alone can't crush this insurgency. I wanted to make clear that crushing the insurgency has to do with the combination of politics, economics, military activity and diplomatic activity.

BLITZER: Would it make any difference -- let me rephrase the question -- if the U.S. had another 100,000 troops in Iraq?

ABIZAID: What we have to do is have the right number of troops in Iraq. We have the right number of troops in Iraq.

We have to build Iraqi security forces so they are capable of taking the lead in the counter-insurgency operation.

The strategy, really, is pretty simple, and it's pretty elegant, and General Casey has done a great job in developing it. We develop Iraqi security forces, we continue to give them experience, we connect the chain of command, we build good leadership, and over time they take the lead in the counter-insurgency fight.

The insurgents can't beat us. We are very strong militarily. There seems to be some notion out there that we're going to be pushed into the sea. That's not going to be anything even close to what you might see.

BLITZER: But I assume they think that if they keep this drumbeat, this deadly series of suicide bombings, IEDs -- improvised explosive devices -- if they just keep killing a lot of individuals, Americans and Iraqis, eventually the American public will get fed up and the U.S. will pull out.

ABIZAID: There's only one way for the insurgents to win: That's to drive us out before the Iraqis are ready to assume the battle space. If that's what happens, they could win.

But it's very, very clear to me that we're going to stay the course, that we're going to build Iraqi security capacity, that the Iraqis are serious about being a partner in this effort, and are very serious about taking over the effort. The insurgents can't win.

BLITZER: The vice president, Dick Cheney, recently said that the insurgency was now in its last throes. I pressed him on that issue when I interviewed him earlier this week. Here was his response in part.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICHARD B. CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If you look at what the dictionary says about "throes," it can still be, you know, a violent period -- the throes of a revolution.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Is the insurgency right now in its last throes?

ABIZAID: The insurgency is in a no-win position. The insurgency can cause casualties, they can grab headline.

But as long as the politics move forward in a positive direction that is considered to be legitimate by the majority of the Iraqi people, and as long as Iraqi security forces continue to develop at the rate that they're developing, and as long as American forces continue to stay there to provide the strength for those Iraqi forces as they develop -- we are, after all, the shield behind which politics takes place -- the insurgency won't make it.

BLITZER: There has been discussion already, as you well know, of a quagmire emerging in Iraq. Senator Kennedy suggested there was a quagmire. The defense secretary, Don Rumsfeld, insists there is no quagmire. Listen to this exchange that they had.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: We are in serious trouble in Iraq, and this war has been consistently and grossly mismanaged. And we are now in a seemingly intractable quagmire. Our troops are dying and there really is no end in sight.

DONALD H. RUMSFELD, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: There isn't a person at this table who agrees with you that we're in a quagmire and that there is no end in sight.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Give us your assessment.

ABIZAID: It's very interesting that we testified on Capitol Hill for about nine hours and we take the nine-second sound bites out that seem to get the most headlines.

But our message was pretty clear across the board. We're making progress. The insurgents can't win. We're the shield behind which politics and the development of Iraqi security forces will take place and eventually be decisive. And that we're in a partnership with the Iraqi people.

People seem to think we're fighting against Iraqis. Well, there are some small number of insurgents that we're fighting against. But we're fighting with a lot more Iraqis day by day and they're giving their lives in defense of their country.

This is not a quagmire. It is a marathon and we're at about the 21st mile, and we just need to not hit the wall. We need to get through to the end.

BLITZER: How many insurgents are there? ABIZAID: During the testimony, you heard that the maximum number was about 20,000. George Casey said 0.1 percent. But you've got to understand there are committed people, there are people that support the insurgency.

When politics move in different directions, the numbers go up, they go down. But there's probably about a thousand foreign fighters and about somewhere less than 10,000 committed insurgents in the field, most of which are in the Mosul western part of Iraq area, and to a certain extent in Baghdad.

They can't beat the Iraqi security forces. They can cause casualties. They don't really go after the Iraqi security forces. They go after Iraqi civilians. I mean, this is the most cynical strategy I've ever seen.

They can't be successful. They can't win.

BLITZER: The ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joe Biden, was just in Iraq. He came back, gave a speech in Washington this week.

He said of the 100 or so Iraqi battalions that you're training, only three of them right now are fully capable of going out and are battle tested and battle ready. Is that true?

ABIZAID: Well, he was shown a chart. And you can always look at a chart differently. And the chart said that three battalions were theoretically independent, capable of independent operations. That's not really a good description of what the Iraqi armed forces are doing.

Up in the north, there's two divisions that are fighting in the Mosul area. There's a division that is fighting down in the Baghdad area. There is a growing capability of the Iraqi security forces to be more and more effective against the insurgency. And we should not underestimate their improvement.

On the other hand, they're not ready to stand alone yet. But they will be.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Just ahead more of my conversation with General Abizaid, including his assessment of the morale of U.S. troops in Iraq and around the Middle East.

Then, we'll hear from a key U.S. lawmaker who's questioning the strategy in Iraq, Democratic Senator Carl Levin.

Plus, Lebanese President Emile Lahoud talks about the political unrest of his country and what it could mean for the entire Mideast region.

"LATE EDITION" continues right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Our web question of the week asks this: Should the U.S. set a timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq? You can cast your vote. Go to cnn.com/lateedition. We'll have the results at the end of this program.

Up next: More of my interview with General John Abizaid. He'll talk about training Iraqi troops. When will they be ready to move ahead on their own?

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to "LATE EDITION." We return now to my interview with the commander of the U.S. military Central Command, General John Abizaid.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Here's what The Economist magazine wrote about the Iraqi military in the June 20th issue: "Corrupt, patchily trained and equipped, often abysmally led and devoid of confidence. Most army units cannot operate above platoon size. Between Iraqis and Americans, there is deep mistrust. Iraqi units billeted on American bases are fenced off from their hosts as a security measure."

ABIZAID: The partnership that exists between Iraqi units and American units is certainly much stronger and much more robust than that article would indicate.

I don't agree with what that says. I think there is a good partnership. There is good coordination in the field.

And more Iraqis are dying on the battlefield fighting for their country against the insurgency than Americans. It's a point we've got to understand. We have to respect them for fighting the way that they're fighting.

Just look at how things were in the American Army in 1775, 1776, as we think about the 4th of July holiday ahead of us. We had a terrible time getting our act together to win against the British, but ultimately we did, and that's what's going to happen with the Iraqi armed forces as well. They need time. They need help. That's what we're giving them.

BLITZER: The Sunday Times of London has a piece today, suggesting that there has emerged a dialogue, discussions between U.S. officials and Iraqi insurgents. Is that true?

ABIZAID: I'm not sure that I would characterize it as a dialogue between U.S. officials and insurgents. I would say that U.S. officials and Iraqi officials are looking for the right people in the Sunni community to talk to in order to ensure that the Sunni Arab community becomes part of the political process. And clearly we know that the vast majority of the insurgents are from the Sunni Arab community. It makes sense to talk to them. But we're not going to compromise with Zarqawi.

We will look for opportunities to find out how to bring the Sunni Arab community under the political fold. And when we do that, and they participate in a peaceful way, I think Iraq will really start moving in a positive direction.

BLITZER: I sense that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, terrorist number one in Iraq, still on the loose right now, but is he -- do you have any idea where he is?

ABIZAID: We certainly have some ideas of where he operates. We know where his networks are. We put a lot of pressure on their networks. We've been pretty successful here over the last several months, working against his networks. It's only a matter of time for Zarqawi.

BLITZER: Can you give us a sense where he might be? In the north, the south, the east, the west?

ABIZAID: I don't think it ever serves any purpose when a military commander tells the international world, the international community where a particular enemy might be.

I think we have a good idea. We know what we're doing in our efforts how to get him.

But I want to also stress that it's not about one man. It's about his network. His network exists inside Iraq. It's connected to Al Qaida. It's got facilitation nodes in Syria. It brings foreign fighters in from Saudi Arabia and from North Africa. It is connected to what is happening in Afghanistan and what is happening in Pakistan. It is a global battle that we face.

The Zarqawi part of the network needs to be taken down. He needs to be captured or killed.

But we should understand, it's a long war ahead of us. It's a difficult enemy that we'll have to fight over time throughout the region.

BLITZER: Do you agree with the CIA assessment, in a recent assessment, that the terrorist training ground of Iraq today effectively has become a more effective training ground for Al Qaida and for international terrorists than Afghanistan under the Taliban ever was?

ABIZAID: No, I don't agree with it. The terrorists are going to train, organize, operate and strike wherever they can find a safe haven. They are certainly fighting in Iraq.

I would tell you, if you were a young Saudi that decides to volunteer for the jihad and you come into Iraq, the chances are extremely good you'll never come back from Iraq. And so, the mortality rate for foreign fighters is really phenomenal.

The place where terrorism really can get established is in places that are ungoverned spaces, that are like between the Afghanistan and Pakistan border area, in the Horn of Africa, down in parts of the Arabian Peninsula.

And we should not kid ourselves that Iraq somehow or other has made a difference. Iraq is part of the battle. It's central in the battle. But it's not the only battle.

BLITZER: Is it time to reconsider American women in combat in the aftermath of what happened this past week? More American women died in combat, were injured I believe at any time since World War II.

ABIZAID: No, it's not time to reconsider it.

BLITZER: You're happy with the rules that exist right now as far as women are concerned?

ABIZAID: Our armed forces are better than they've ever been. They're made up the way they are. That's how we fight; that's how we do our business. We need to keep them the way they are. We're being quite successful.

BLITZER: The CIA director, Porter Goss, recently said he has an excellent idea where Osama bin Laden is. Do you?

ABIZAID: We have a clear understanding of where the Al Qaida senior leadership operates, in a very, very large geographic area between areas of the Afghan and Pakistani border area. And I would say that's about the best I would be able to do in answering that question.

BLITZER: I heard your testimony this week before the House and the Senate, and I'm going to play for you what I thought may have been the most alarming words I heard from you. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ABIZAID: When my soldiers say to me and ask me the question whether or not they've got support from the American people or not, that worries me. And they are starting to do that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: What did you mean by that?

ABIZAID: We don't need to fight this war looking over our shoulder worrying about the support back home. We need to know we've got the support back home. American soldiers fight best when they know the people back home are behind them.

We are fighting for all the right reasons, against one of the most despicable and dangerous enemies this nation has ever faced. We need to know that the people are with us.

BLITZER: The American public strongly supports the troops. What they're concerned about is the war.

The most recent CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll showed that the numbers have gone down to 39 percent favor the war in Iraq, compared to 71 percent shortly after major combat operations were over. That's a disturbing element, I assume, for you, as far as the demoralization of the U.S. military.

ABIZAID: The only thing I can tell you, Wolf, is when I go to the field, the soldiers are uniformly confident about their ability to face this enemy; make Iraq, Afghanistan, whatever area they happen to be operating in, better; defeat the terrorists wherever they find them, and they all understand it's going to take time.

It's not a sprint; it's a marathon. We need people to understand that it'll take time, but that ultimately, we will prevail.

BLITZER: One final question: Your command, Central Command, has the whole Middle East. The new president elected of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- he's considered a hard-liner. What, if anything, from the military's perspective, does this mean for the United States?

ABIZAID: I'm really not in a position to be able to talk about the newly elected president. I don't know much about him.

Iran's an important player in the overall scheme in the Middle East. We need to have them working toward stability in both Afghanistan and Iraq. And we're hopeful that under the new leadership, they'll continue to do that.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, General, for joining us. Good luck.

ABIZAID: If I can just say one thing on this 4th of July weekend, if you wouldn't mind me saying it, I would really just ask people, as they are gathered with friends and families, to remember our young men and women overseas fighting. Our young people are doing a great job. They're really the finest generation we've ever put in the field.

BLITZER: And I can testify to that. I was with you only a couple of months ago in the region, and I saw firsthand what they're doing. Appreciate it.

ABIZAID: Thanks, Wolf.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And up next, we'll get a quick check of what's in the news right now.

Then, is it time for U.S. troops to leave Iraq? We'll ask the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin. He's standing by.

We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: Welcome back to "LATE EDITION." I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

Joining us now from New York, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin of Michigan. He's also a key member of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee.

Senator Levin, welcome back to "LATE EDITION."

SEN. CARL LEVIN (D), MICHIGAN: Great to be with you, Wolf.

BLITZER: You just heard General Abizaid say that the U.S. military is now at what he said "mile 21 in a marathon," as far as dealing with the insurgency in Iraq. There are 26.2 miles in a marathon. By my math that would be -- what? -- about 75 percent of the way there. That sounds pretty upbeat.

LEVIN: Yes, it was a very upbeat assessment. I hope it's realistic.

When he testified in front of us, it didn't sound that way quite this week. He said that the insurgency has not declined. He said that there's an increased number of jihadists coming across the border into Iraq to fight.

That doesn't sound like decline to me. It's not the kind of dynamic which I think we ought to say is acceptable. And the status quo to me is just simply not working, and we've got to change the current dynamic in a number of ways.

BLITZER: The vice president also, as you know, for the last several weeks has had an upbeat assessment. I want you to listen to what he said a few weeks ago, what he told Larry King and what he told me on Thursday. Listen to this, these two excerpts from the vice president.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHENEY: I think they're in the last throes, if you will, of the insurgency.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHENEY: If you look at what the dictionary says about throes, it can still be a violent period -- the throes of a revolution.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: He doesn't seem to be backing away from those controversial comments, "the last throes of the insurgency."

You're privy to all the intelligence as both the member of the Armed Services and the Intelligence Committees. What's your bottom- line assessment? LEVIN: Well, the bottom line is that that assessment of the vice president is a rosy-colored scenario just the way going into Iraq was rose-colored.

When he relies on the dictionary to define the word "throes," he's leaving out the word that he put before "throes," which is the word "last." He said it was "the last throes of the insurgency," and I think he's got to just have his eyes closed to what the reality is over there.

Our troops deserve the most objective, clearest assessment that they can possibly get. They are tremendous people. The men and women over there in harm's way deserve everything we can provide for them and that includes the most realistic assessment we can give them.

And to suggest that this insurgency is in the last throes flies right in the face of the testimony of our leaders, which was given to us this week and also the testimony, for instance, of the spokesman for the Central Command, who said that this insurgency is not declining, and that the number of jihadists coming across the border is increasing.

BLITZER: But you will acknowledge that General Abizaid, at least this morning here on "LATE EDITION," seemed to get close to what the vice president is saying when he said the U.S. is at mile 21 in a 26- mile marathon.

LEVIN: Well, I haven't run a marathon. You probably can see that for yourself. But I'm not a marathoner. But nonetheless the last five miles I understand are the toughest.

I hope we're at mile 21, but I've got to tell you I just don't see from the casualty numbers which continue to be about the same even getting worse.

And what General Abizaid also said this morning was that, as long as the political process keeps moving along, that then there's some real hope that there will be a good conclusion fairly soon.

But in order for the political process to move along, that means that there must be a constitution which is agreed upon by August the 15th. There's one six-month extension permitted but that's it.

There's a timetable which the Iraqis have set for themselves and accepted, and we must insist and this administration must insist -- and I hope the president will insist on Tuesday night -- that the Iraqis live up to that timetable. Because if that political process does not move along on that timetable, the military solution cannot solve this problem.

And they ought to tell the Iraqis -- the administration -- that we expect them to live up to that timetable, August 15th, one six- month extension, elections -- first of all, approval of the constitution by the people, then elections this year. And they should be told that, "We cannot make an open-ended commitment to you." We cannot stay there the way Secretary of State Rice said, "We'll stay there as long as they need us." That is too open-ended. They should be told that, "We will have to reconsider our position if you don't live up to your timetable, including the withdrawal of American forces." That, to me, is the key.

BLITZER: But you're not calling for a timetable directly right now as some other Democratic and even a few Republican colleagues are suggesting, that there should be a timetable. You're not going that far.

LEVIN: No, I am not saying we should set the timetable now. What I am saying -- and this is critically important -- is that we should tell the Iraqis not just that we expect them to live up to their own timetable for adopting a constitution, but that if they do not live up to that timetable -- since the political process is the only hope for defeating the insurgency, if they don't live up to their own timetable we would then have to consider all options, including, but not limited to, removal of our troops.

BLITZER: The defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, testified before your committee, other committees and Congress this week.

I want you to listen to what he said about the battle- readiness, the readiness of Iraqi troops right now.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RUMSFELD: Today dozens of trained battalions are capable of conducting anti-insurgent operations, albeit with coalition support.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: You don't dispute that?

LEVIN: No, it's the number that can operate independently, which is just a few. That's the key issue. They can work with us and be with us, but how many can handle the insurgents on their own? It's very few. The reports that have been printed say three.

BLITZER: Do you want the defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, like Senator Kennedy does, to resign?

LEVIN: I think the problem is the policy that Rumsfeld is implementing. If I thought his resignation would change the policies and would help to change the course and change the dynamic, then I would favor it. But I don't think so.

I think that the problem here that we've had right from the beginning is overly optimistic predictions on the part of what would happen if we attacked Iraq, and it's these policies which need to be changed, and the resignation does not effectuate the change in policy.

So, I'm focusing on the policies, and what needs to be done to change those policies. BLITZER: You heard General Abizaid also express concern about the morale, if you will, of the U.S. men and women in Iraq and elsewhere. Increasingly he's being asked questions whether the American people are behind them, support what they're doing.

How do you, as a concerned critic of the policy of the war in Iraq, deal with that kind of situation?

LEVIN: By telling the men and women how much we're determined to support them as long as they're there; that we're also determined to be constructive critics of the policies which not only sent them there, as unequipped, and without international support, and without plans for the aftermath. Those chickens are coming home to roost constantly.

But constructive critics of the policies nonetheless are totally committed to support the men and women in our military. They deserve no less than the best thinking, the most realistic thinking that we provide them. They're entitled to that, and, as far as I'm concerned, the critics are determined that this time, it's not going to be like Vietnam. This time, as long as our men and women are there, everything we possible can do to support them is going to be done, including realistic thinking and constructive criticism.

BLITZER: A final question, Senator, on the Karl Rove controversy that erupted this week. The deputy White House chief of staff said this in New York. I want you to listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KARL ROVE, WHITE HOUSE DEPUTY CHIEF OF STAFF: Conservatives saw the savagery of 9/11 and the attacks and prepared for war. Liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding to our attackers.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: The White House insists he was referring to moveon.org and Michael Moore. What do you say in response to what Karl Rove said?

LEVIN: Well, the context is that the opposition to this administration is somehow or other weak and doesn't respond to terrorism.

I thought it was shameful. They ought to apologize for it. The president ought to disown it.

And it is just so disgraceful to split Americans, to divide Americans for any kind of perceived political gain. I think it backfires when something like that is done. And I hope that the president would disassociate himself and tell Karl Rove that he ought to be ashamed of himself for stooping to that level, to divide us, in order to try to pander to a particular audience or to make some kind of perceived political gain.

Thank God those kind of attacks backfire.

BLITZER: Senator Levin, thanks very much for joining us on "LATE EDITION."

LEVIN: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Up next, political winds of change in Lebanon. I'll speak with that country's president, Emile Lahoud.

"LATE EDITION" will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER (voice-over): An ex-general and former head of the Lebanese Army, President Emile Lahoud, himself a Maronite Christian, has been in power since 1998. With his term set to expire last November, Syria demanded and the Lebanese parliament approved a constitutional amendment extending his presidency until 2007. But with the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in February, the anti-Syrian winds of political change are blowing.

Earlier this year what's called "the power of the people" managed to dissolve the Syrian-backed Lebanese government, force the removal of Syrian troops and called for new elections. The opposition movement headed by Hariri's son Saad won a majority in parliament and is now poised to lead Lebanon.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Today we are facing a new era in the life of Lebanon.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: With the blame focused on Damascus and pro-Syrian Lebanese officials, opposition leaders have called on President Lahoud to resign. He has condemned the killings, insisting he's not responsible for them.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And just a short while ago, I spoke with President Lahoud from the presidential palace in Lebanon.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Mr. President, thanks very much for joining us. Welcome to "LATE EDITION."

You're seen as a close ally of Syria. In the aftermath of the Lebanese elections, are you inclined to move Lebanon away from that close alliance with Syria?

PRES. EMILE LAHOUD, LEBANON: First, I'd like to say that there are historic links between Syria and Lebanon that has been a long time. And we have been very friendly terms for long time. And if you look at the geography of Lebanon, you see that we have the sea and we have Syria on most of our border, and in the south we have Israel. So we have to be on very good terms with Syria and continue to do that.

BLITZER: Mr. President, there have been a series of assassinations, though, in Lebanon, including the former prime minister, Rafiq Hariri; two other anti-Syrian personalities were assassinated in recent weeks.

Many see the hand of the Syrian government behind these assassinations. Do you?

LAHOUD: Well, I can tell you that the ones that did this abominable assassination against late Prime Minister Hariri are the enemies of Lebanon and they want to do harm to Lebanon.

And who could be the enemies who benefited from that? For sure, it's not Lebanon nor Syria. Because until the assassination, everything was fine. The stability and security were at its best. According to Interpol, we were number one on the list of security in the world.

And what happened made us go back because we lost a lot by it. And I am sure that nobody harms himself. So it couldn't be Syria nor Lebanon. It must be the enemies of Lebanon.

BLITZER: Who do you see as responsible for those assassinations therefore?

LAHOUD: Well, it could be one of two.

First, we had troubles, as you know, a few years back with the fundamentalists. And even before 9/11 we had an attack on our soldiers, and we lost a lot of them, and we had to react and we put them in prison. That was before the 9/11.

And at the time, we were asked why we did that. We said, "Because they were trying to unstable Lebanon."

And another thing happened only a few months before the assassination of President Hariri. And that was when they tried to put a bomb in the Italian embassy.

BLITZER: So are you accusing Al Qaida, Mr. President? Excuse me for interrupting. Are you accusing Al Qaida of being responsible?

LAHOUD: I can say it's a fundamentalist group. I don't know who they belong to. But we had them a few years back and we had it a month ago. They are fundamentalists. That could be one of the reasons.

BLITZER: Listen to what the spokesmen at the White House, the press secretary, Scott McClellan, said on June 10th. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) SCOTT MCCLELLAN, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: There are reports that we have been hearing about for some time about a Syrian hit list targeting key Lebanese public figures.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: He suggests that there's a Syrian hit list targeting Lebanese politicians. You totally disagree with the White House on the possibility that Syrian intelligence may be responsible for these assassinations.

LAHOUD: I can tell you that Syria is the one that is losing because of these assassinations. So why should they do it?

Whereas, as I said, the fundamentalists, who tried a few years back, and only a few months before the assassination, could be one of the suspects.

Another one could be our permanent enemy. As you know, we have still troubles in the south, and it could be that they are trying again. And we've had assassinations before Mr. Hariri. We had an ex- minister, Elit Bariah (ph). We had Gibril (ph). We had Salleh (ph). And at the time, Israel was accused. So why now they're trying to accuse Lebanon and Syria?

BLITZER: A lot of observers of Lebanon blame Syria's interference in Lebanese politics over the years, most recently getting the parliament to extend your term of office for another term, for another three years, as being responsible for this current wave of anti-Syrian attitudes, reflected in the elections that have occurred over these past few weeks.

Are you thinking about resigning?

LAHOUD: For sure, I'm not resigning. I'm staying until the end of my term.

And I can tell you, I was elected by the Lebanese parliament. The ex-prime minister, Mr. Hariri, gave me his vote as well. So why do they say that it was the Syrians that did that? It was in a free will by the members of parliament.

BLITZER: The United Nations secretary General, Kofi Annan, said this recently. He said, "We are now receiving reports that there may be elements that are still there, and we are considering the possible return of the verification team to ascertain what's going on."

He was referring to the possibility that Syrian intelligence agents are still operating inside Lebanon, even though the Syrian military has withdrawn.

Have Syrian intelligence operatives left Lebanon?

LAHOUD: Well, I can tell you that there is a fact-finding mission by the U.N. that is looking at this subject, and they will be reporting in two weeks. And we will know the answer. But all I know myself is that all the Syrians have withdrawn, with their intelligence, and now there is nobody of the Syrians. And I can tell you that you will hear a lot of speculation always about this subject, but never somebody showing any proof of that.

BLITZER: United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559 calls for, and I'm quoting now, "the disbanding and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias." Do you want the Hezbollah militia to disarm, to give up their weapons, and only have a Lebanese army that has weapons?

LAHOUD: Well, I can tell you, this matter, for Lebanese, the Hezbollah, the majority of Lebanese consider it as a national resistance, because they freed Lebanon of Israel. We still have the Shebaa Farms.

And this subject, you cannot do it by force. It must have a consensus between the Lebanese. And the Lebanese agree on that, and because of that it's a matter of Lebanese to decide. And it shouldn't be done by force.

All I can tell you that in Lebanon, it's at war, it's not at peace.

As you know, we still have problems, and they haven't finished.

One of them, is the implantation of the Palestinians who are in Lebanon. And this is a very grave problem for Lebanon. Lebanese considered in their constitution that there would not be any implantation of the Palestinians, nor there will be a partition of Lebanon.

So all these problems haven't finished yet. So it's up to the Lebanese to decide between themselves and not do it by force.

We are so happy that we have reached this stability that many countries in the area envy us. So we don't want to lose that stability.

All we say is that we are in a hurry to know what will the U.N. investigation team concerning this assassinations will get to.

And just between brackets, before the decision of the U.N., I had asked for an investigation U.N. team to come. And when they will come, reach a point when we'll know whoever is doing these assassinations, then the truth will be known. And be sure, there are people who are against Lebanon.

BLITZER: Mr. President, we're unfortunately, all out of time. Thanks for spending a few moments with us here on "LATE EDITION."

LAHOUD: Thank you. All the best. Thank you.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And don't forget our Web question of the week, "Should the U.S. set a timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq?" Log on to cnn.com/lateedition to cast your vote.

We'll take a quick break. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: This is "LATE EDITION," the last word in Sunday talk.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We are there to complete a mission and it's an important mission. A democratic Iraq is in the interests of the United States of America and it's in the interests of laying the foundation for peace.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: The fight for Iraq: Are Iraqi troops ready to take the lead against insurgents? We'll get perspective from Iraqi prime minister Ibrahim Al-Jaafari.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHENEY: We'll defeat the insurgency. And in fact, it will be an enormous success story. It'll have a huge impact, not just in Iraq but throughout the region.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Iraq, the spread of democracy in the Middle East and the war on terror. Vice President Dick Cheney speaks out in a special interview.

And we'll get a very different perspective from Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts.

ANNOUNCER: Live from CNN in Washington, this is "LATE EDITION" with Wolf Blitzer.

BLITZER: Welcome back. We'll have our interview with Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Al Jaafari in just a moment.

First though, let's get a quick check of what's making news right now.

(NEWSBREAK)

BLITZER: Following his talks with President Bush at the White House on Friday, I had a chance to speak with Iraq's Prime Minister Ibrahim Al-Jaafari about his country's new government, the nonstop insurgent attacks and a lot more.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER (on camera): Mr. Prime Minister, welcome to Washington. Good to have you in the United States.

IBRAHIM AL-JAAFARI, IRAQI PRIME MINISTER (through translator): Thank you very much.

BLITZER: Do you agree with the vice president of the United States, Dick Cheney, that the insurgents are now in their last throes?

AL-JAAFARI (through translator): I think we can make this a reality through a set of measures that we should do.

We should look at their sources. It's not impossible to tackle them at their sources. Some of them are based abroad. We need to tackle their bases abroad.

We also need to raise the capacity of the Iraqi police and army. Iraqis are doing great job at the moment.

Also we need to empower the courts so that they'll put punishments on those who are violating the law and carrying these deeds.

We also need to create better conditions in the country, creating a better labor market to remove all the incentives that would push some people into these criminal activities.

BLITZER: Is it your sense, when you said that "You have to go to some of these bases for the insurgents that are abroad" -- what do you mean by that?

AL-JAAFARI (through translator): There are bases in other countries outside our borders that are feeding these terrorist networks. They are training them. They are giving them money. What's happening in Iraq is not isolated. In fact, those terrorist networks are not simply Iraqis. It is in the context of the whole region. We cannot look at it in isolation. In fact, we should look at the impact of what's happening in Iraq on the whole world.

We are not confronting this in a compartmentalized way. What is exceptional in Iraq is because of the deterioration of situation it has become hard for these terrorists, but terrorism is a global phenomenon.

BLITZER: Do you specifically refer to bases, let me say, in Syria or Saudi Arabia or Iran? Where are these bases that you are referring to?

AL-JAAFARI (through translator): Because terrorism has many components, some of these groups organize others abroad and then they would come in the country, inside Iraq to carry out their -- I would say governments might not know what's happening in their countries. But in reality, their countries have become hubs where young people are being trained, are being indoctrinated to go and commit mass murder.

Some countries -- they are allowing loose control over their borders or transfer of monies. Or some countries even are sympathetic to these insurgents and they do not condemn the terrorism that is taking place in Iraq.

Hence, when we need to tackle it, we need to tackle it as a comprehensive plan looking at all of these causes and sources.

BLITZER: Which countries are you referring to specifically?

AL-JAAFARI (through translator): After the confessions we had in Iraq, many of them are referring to the training that they had in Syria. We are looking at passports. They indicate that they are Saudi citizens and from other Gulf countries. Some of those people we arrested came from Sudan.

I am not saying that their governments are responsible, but we are looking at their nationalities. This gives us an indication that there is a regional dimension to this terrorism. It's not simply an Iraqi phenomenon. It has intermingled with these sources. We expect governments to do more to tackle this issue.

BLITZER: A recent CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll had some very disturbing numbers from the U.S. administration's perspective and from your government's perspective as far as favoring the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

After the war, in 2003, 71 percent of the American public favored the war, but now it's down to only 39 percent.

How worried are you that, given the American public attitudes, the administration, the U.S. government might decide to simply pack up and leave?

AL-JAAFARI (through translator): As far as I'm concerned, I do not look at the Iraqi attitude -- the difference between me and others, I look at Iraq way from inside where others just look at it and they develop attitudes from a distance.

I can tell you and I can reveal to you the realities in Iraq. The presence of U.S. forces in Iraq is not simply an Iraqi request. In fact, I would say it should be an American request for a simple reason. Terrorism that has prevailed in Iraq is not a threat against Iraq alone. It is a threat to the whole region and, in fact, it will be a threat to America.

Terrorism affected you on September 11th. That was the first time when you were hit. Now you realize that terrorism is a global phenomenon.

In Iraq, when we are trying to terminate terrorism, we are actually doing the whole world a service. The presence of U.S. troops in Iraq is not simply a service to Iraq. In fact it is a self- interest of the U.S. Once we terminate terrorism, I think it will make a lot of sense for the U.S. to pull out of Iraq. But to do it prematurely is simply leaving that field free for terrorism and it will come back to haunt the U.S.

BLITZER: How long do you believe, approximately, it will take for the U.S. troops to get the job done? In other words, when will they be able to start leaving?

AL-JAAFARI (through translator): The timing cannot be simply put on a time scale. Withdrawal can be linked to conditions, not to a timeline.

It can be quickly. It depends on the capacity Iraqi police, their training, their arming, their intelligence. The more we can build them up in an effective way, the less reasons we have for having foreign troops in the country.

If we simply were to put a timeline for it irrespective of the ability of the Iraqi forces, we are simply handing this back to the terrorists and letting Iraq down and then creating a problem.

If we focus more at the condition of the country, then I think that is a responsible way of dealing with it. Otherwise it will be perceived as yielding to terrorism.

BLITZER: Will you be able to draft the new constitution by the August 15th deadline?

AL-JAAFARI (through translator): Yes, we can do that.

It is true that the constitutions outlast governments by many, many times. However, we face tremendous difficulties in forming the government recently, and we managed to overcome them, so I believe we can overcome the obstacles ahead of us.

Similarly, we had difficulties in doing the elections. They were real threats, yet people responded to that challenge and actually stepped out, voted, despite all the threats.

So we have met these deadlines. I think we can do it.

In fact, let me remind you that prior to that we attempted to draft a law, the Transitional Administrative Law in Iraq, and we agreed to it. In fact, we agreed on time and that provided us a framework.

So all these give me confidence that we can do it. In fact, I formed a ministerial committee that will support the constitutional process in order to give it a push. Although it is the responsibility of the general assembly that we as a government try to encourage it and push it as much as we can.

BLITZER: So you don't think you will need a six-month extension?

AL-JAAFARI (through translator): I really do not see the need for six months. In fact, I'll do my best to have that draft ready on time.

BLITZER: You're a Shia Iraqi. The Sunni Iraqis complain that they are really not being part of the process. How worried are you about a potential civil war in Iraq?

AL-JAAFARI (through translator): Please let me allow myself to put that question in a different format.

I am an Iraqi Shia and there are Iraqi Sunnis, and I am not a Shia Iraqi and I'm not a Sunni Iraqi. We are Iraqis. We see ourselves as such and we should behave as such.

While I am in power I think of myself as an Iraqi, and the Sunnis in Iraq are part of the mainstream. They are part of the government. Deputy president, deputy prime minister, head of the General Assembly, six ministers in the cabinet, including the minister of defense, which is a very powerful ministry, they are all Sunnis. This gives me assurances that they're not marginalized.

We are going to add more members to the assembly to make sure that the Sunni point of view is represented, although the members of the assembly are not as they should be. So we've done all these measures.

Moreover, the constitutional committee will not simply vote on a draft, it will, in fact, seek consensus. So irrespective of the numbers, we seek consensus.

By the way, the attacks that we are having today, what makes people worry about civil war, they are not simply against Shias or by Sunnis. In fact, these attacks are against anybody who is participating in the political process, Shiite and Sunnis.

So, in fact, it cannot be looked at as Sunnis against Shias. These terrorist acts are by those who are enemies of Iraq and they are attacking all of Iraqis.

BLITZER: Some have expressed concern that Iraq could emerge as another Islamic republic like Iran. Is that possible, in your opinion?

AL-JAAFARI (through translator): I think this is a worry that is so ill-placed. What happened in Iran cannot be duplicated in Iraq.

Iraq is very different from Iran in many ways. In fact, in Iraq, we seek to benefit from the experiences of other nations. But we are all realistic. We know that Iraq is very diverse. Unlike Iran, it is diverse in its religious -- in its sects, in its ethnic making, in its political trends. This diversity simply would provide the checks and balances that will not pave the way for a repetition of what's happened in Iran.

BLITZER: We have time for one final question, Mr. Prime Minister.

You're a very courageous man. How concerned are you about your own security?

AL-JAAFARI (through translator): As far as my life in concerned, I learned from a young -- years ago, I assume the worst. I am more concerned about the life of my nation and my people than of my personal life. In fact, I will be happy to sacrifice my life if this would lead to the happiness of my nation.

As in your nation, many of your leaders were killed or assassinated in the course of duty. Abraham Lincoln was killed in his course of duty as a president. I think anybody who puts himself in the front line of a public responsibility, there is a risk, and in fact there is a price that sometimes must be paid. In fact, in our countries it is so much so, that when we were in a position, we always risked our lives, and now we are in power we are risking our lives again. It is something we expected all the time.

There is no room for the weak-hearted. It takes courage. I hope that I have that courage to fulfill that mission.

BLITZER: And as you say, inshallah, good luck to you, good luck to all the people of Iraq, Mr. Prime Minister. Thanks very much for joining us.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And coming up, my exclusive interview with the vice president, Dick Cheney. He weighs in on the criticism of the U.S. effort in Iraq. We spoke earlier in the week.

Plus the response from one of the most vocal critics, Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy.

"LATE EDITION" will continue right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to "LATE EDITION."

This past week, I sat down for an exclusive interview with Vice President Dick Cheney, who offered his thoughts about where things stand right now in Iraq.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Let's talk about some controversial comments you recently made, suggesting the insurgents in Iraq were, in your words, "their last throes." You want to revise or amend those comments?

CHENEY: No, but I'd be happy to explain what I meant by that.

If you go back over a year, a year ago, we intercepted a message from Zarqawi, the top terrorist in Iraq, sent to Osama bin Laden. And it basically said that if the Iraqis were successful in establishing a democracy in Iraq, standing up a viable government, that he'd have to pack his bags and go elsewhere. And he was, obviously, very concerned about that possibility.

And what's happened since then, of course, is that we've had considerable success. We've transferred sovereign authority about a year ago, held elections in January, first free elections in Iraq in a very long time. We've set up an interim government. There's a constitutional process in place now to draft a constitution. Later this year, there'll be a referendum on the constitution, and then national elections, finally, at the end of the year in the fall.

So the political process is going forward, making significant progress.

At the same time, we're making progress in terms of training up Iraqi security forces.

I think the months immediately ahead will be difficult months. I think there will be a lot of violence, a lot of bloodshed, because I think the terrorists will do everything they can to try to disrupt that process and that flow that's well under way.

But I think it is well under way. I think it is going to be accomplished; that we will, in fact, succeed in getting a democracy established in Iraq. And I think, when we do, that will be the end of the insurgency.

BLITZER: The commander of the U.S. military Central Command, General John Abizaid, has been testifying on Capitol Hill.

CHENEY: Right.

BLITZER: He says the insurgency now is at a strength undiminished as it was six months ago, and he says there are actually more foreign fighters in Iraq now than there were six months ago. That doesn't sound like the last throes.

CHENEY: No, I would disagree.

If you look at what the dictionary says about throes, it can still be, you know, a violent period: the throes of a revolution.

The point would be that the conflict will be intense, but it's intense because the terrorists understand if we're successful at accomplishing our objective, standing up a democracy in Iraq, that that's a huge defeat for them. They'll do everything they can to stop it.

I mean, if you look back at World War II, the toughest battles, the most difficult battles, both in Europe and in the Pacific, occurred just a few months before the end. The Battle of the Bulge in December of 1944 and Okinawa in the spring of 1945.

And I see this as a similar situation, where they're going to go all out. They'll do everything they can to disrupt that process. But I think we're strong enough to defeat them. And I think the process itself of establishing a democracy and a viable security force for the Iraqis will, in fact, signal the end, if you will, for the terrorists inside Iraq.

BLITZER: Do you want to offer an assessment of how much longer this insurgency will continue?

CHENEY: No. No, I can't say that.

But I do believe, because this has happened in the past -- we've seen these political milestones are very important. When we transferred sovereign authority to the Iraqis a year ago, very important. When we held those elections last January, very important. The president's been insistent, and I think properly so, in pushing forward on getting these things done. A lot of people said, "You can't possibly hold elections in January." Others said, "If you hold elections, there'll be a civil war." None of that came to pass.

In fact, we held the elections. The president insisted on it. The Iraqis did a great job.

And I think that the success of the venture ultimately turns upon establishing a viable government in Iraq. And I think we're well on our way to doing that; much farther down the road than we were six months or a year ago.

BLITZER: But is this going to be a time frame within a year, two years, five years? How much longer will this insurgency require the troop level of the United States in Iraq right now?

CHENEY: I think the way to think about it is defining it in terms of achieving certain conditions on the ground. We don't want to stay a day longer than necessary, but we want to stay long enough to get the job done.

And the key here, from the standpoint of the security situation, is getting the Iraqis into a position where they can take care of their own security.

BLITZER: The Iraqi president, Jalal Talabani, has told me he thinks by 2006 the U.S. can start to significantly reduce its troop levels. Do you agree with him?

CHENEY: Well, I hope he's correct.

But again, we've been very careful not to put a timeline on it and say, "We'll be through by X date," or, "We can begin to bring the troops by a certain date." We can begin to do that once the Iraqis are in a position to be able to provide for their own security.

Now, there'll probably be a continued U.S. presence there for some considerable period of time, because there are some things we do they can't do: for example, air support, some of our intelligence, communications and logistics capabilities.

But I think the bulk of the effort will increasingly be taken on by Iraqi forces. We've got about 160,000 now that are trained and equipped. They're increasingly more and more capable. We've got more and more of them fielded. They'll take on a bigger and bigger role, in terms of the ongoing struggle against the insurgents.

And simultaneously with that, we'll have the political process going forward, as it is demonstrated that we're already able to do that. And once we get to the point where you have a freely elected Iraqi government under a constitution written by Iraqis, representative of everybody living in Iraq -- Shia, Sunni, Kurd -- then I think we'll have created the conditions and circumstances that will make it possible for us to begin to draw down our forces.

But I think about it in terms of those conditions being achieved rather than a specific timeline.

BLITZER: Senator Joseph Biden, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, just came back from Iraq. He says that the U.S. is currently training 107 battalions of Iraqi troops and only three of those battalions are fully capable right now to take charge.

CHENEY: Well, a year ago, there weren't any Iraqi battalions at all.

It takes time to get a battalion up to speed, where you take in the recruits, you train them, you equip them. It takes time to create a fully competent U.S. battalion, if you start it from scratch.

We've got a lot of them in the pipeline. There are several different stages. There are three or four now that are up to the top level, in terms of competence and capability, able to operate on their own. There are a lot more coming along behind them.

So I feel very good about where we are with respect to training.

BLITZER: So you won't speculate how long it will take to get all those battalions up to speed?

CHENEY: No, but what I'd recommend you do is talk to Dave Petraeus, the former commander of the 101st, the man who's in charge of the training program over there. He's doing a superb job.

And in fact, there are more and more Iraqis taking on the fight, equipped to take on the fight, with the leadership developed and the capabilities developed so that they can take over important responsibilities.

BLITZER: How many insurgents are there?

CHENEY: I don't think you can put a figure on it. I mean, you've got the different kinds of people involved in the process. I think most of the suicide bombers are jihadists, people from outside Iraq. There aren't that many Iraqis who want to commit suicide.

There was a public discussion recently. Somebody sat down and did analysis of Al Qaida Web sites, where they were posting the names of people who had become martyrs by blowing themselves up, killing Iraqis. And the vast majority of them were, in fact, from outside. They were from Saudi Arabia, from Syria, from North Africa.

So I think you've got that category of people. I think they're responsible for the deadliest attacks, if you will, especially the ones against Iraqi civilians and Iraqi security forces.

Then you've got others who I think are tied into the former regime, Saddam loyalists.

BLITZER: Are there thousands of them, hundreds of them, tens of thousands?

CHENEY: I would guess there are some who are dedicated to their point of view and their participation in the conflict. I think they go out oftentimes and buy people to participate in these raids; that they'll pay somebody, for example, to go take a shot at an American soldier or to plant an IED in a road someplace.

And then there are the basic criminal elements. Remember, shortly before we took Baghdad, Saddam Hussein released all the convicted criminals in all the prisoners all over Iraq. And so they're in the streets too.

BLITZER: So what I hear you saying the United States doesn't really know how many insurgents there are.

CHENEY: We can make estimates, but nobody can put a hard number on it.

BLITZER: Do you want to offer an estimate?

CHENEY: No.

BLITZER: OK.

Let's talk about the CIA report, which I'm sure you read, suggesting that Iraq today has become, in effect, a more effective terrorist training ground for sending jihadists around the world than Afghanistan under the Taliban ever was.

CHENEY: I think -- I haven't seen that specific report you're talking about, or at least I don't know whether it's public or you're talking about a classified report...

BLITZER: There's been a lot of newspaper articles and we've independently confirmed it. It's a classified report.

CHENEY: Well, I don't talk about classified reports. So set aside the report itself.

Again, I think it's important to remember that an awful lot of the jihadists don't ever leave Iraq. They go in and literally strap themselves into a carload of explosives or they put on a vest full of dynamite and blow themselves up.

BLITZER: But isn't Iraq becoming a training ground for these kinds of international terrorist activities; that they go there, it's, sort of, a lab for them, then they go out?

CHENEY: I think we're killing an awful lot of them. And I think the fact of the matter is there may be a few that migrate from there back out, but most of the folks that are going in there -- and we've got some evidence of this because we've been able to capture some and been able to interrogate them and so forth -- they come in and are fairly quickly run through the pipeline, given an assignment and literally then in the course of completing their mission blow themselves up.

BLITZER: Let me read to you what Senator Chuck Hagel, a friend of yours, a Republican, from Nebraska, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, told U.S. News & World Report.

"Things aren't getting better, they're getting worse. The White House is completely disconnected from reality."

And he goes on to say, "It's like they're just making it up as they go along. The reality is that we're losing in Iraq."

CHENEY: Wolf, as long as I've been vice president, and since 9/11, we've had people like Chuck Hagel and other politicians and we've had people in the press corps and commentators who've said, "You can't do Afghanistan."

Once we got into Afghanistan, we'd been there a couple of weeks and Johnny Apple of the New York Times, that front page story about how we were in a, quote, "quagmire"; we were going to get trapped in the mountains, winter was going to make it impossible for us to complete our mission in Afghanistan. They were all wrong.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And the vice president went on to say that Chuck Hagel, the Republican senator from Nebraska, is simply wrong in his assessment. That interview with the vice president conducted Thursday at the Old Executive Office building, the Eisenhower Office Building next door to the White House.

Up next, we'll get a check of what's in the news right now.

Then, is Iraq becoming a quagmire for the United States? We'll hear from Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy.

"LATE EDITION" will continue after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to "LATE EDITION."

After my conversation with Vice President Cheney, I spoke with one of the most influential Democrats here in Washington, Senator Edward Kennedy.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Senator Kennedy, thanks very much for joining us.

KENNEDY: Hi.

BLITZER: Let's get to the issue of Iraq first and foremost. What do you want the Bush administration, specifically, to do? Simply pull out?

KENNEDY: No. No one is really talking about cutting and running.

But what we have had is complete incompetency in Iraq over the period of these last -- since the war in Iraq. We had a secretary of defense that thought we were going to have weapons of mass destruction, and we didn't. The general in the Army that said that we needed more troops to go in there was immediately dismissed.

We had a secretary of defense that didn't understand that we needed the kind of armor for our troops, which was necessary. And a secretary of defense who appears before the Armed Services Committee and said that we can take Iraqi troops and train them quickly and take a responsibility -- all that has been wrong.

And the American people see on the television screen every night what is happening in Iraq.

We need the president, next Tuesday, to speak to the American people and, one, outline a strategy about what he's going to do in changing our policy on security; what he's going to do in terms of reconstruction; and, three, what new initiatives he's going to have from a diplomatic effort. That is what is really called for.

The current policy is incompetency and is just not working.

BLITZER: But the American people knew all that before the last election, and yet they went ahead and reelected this president. What has changed since then?

KENNEDY: In the last year -- a year ago, we had 800 American service men that had been killed, and now we're up to 1,700 that have been killed. We're seeing three Americans killed every single day. The violence is continuing. All the indications of war are happening.

We're having trouble in recruiting, both in terms of the Army and the National Guard and the Reserve. The Army is being stretched. Are we able to meet our other national security interests around the world?

Even Republicans like Senator Hagel say that this policy is a disaster. This isn't a Republican or Democratic comment. It's just a comment that is more out of sadness and sorrow that we have a failed and flawed policy, and the president of the United States owes the true facts to the American people; not the rose-colored glasses that we get from the vice president of the United States or the secretary of defense.

The American people expect to get the facts. They can deal with the facts. They're not getting them today.

BLITZER: So let me rephrase the question.

What specifically do you want the president to do differently? What do you want him to do in Iraq to get the job done?

KENNEDY: Well, first of all, he has to outline what the plans are in terms of our national security. Where we are going to -- whether we are going to need additional kinds of troops or what is going to be our situation. Secondly, he needs to have a rebuilding program to make sure that we're going to have an economic aspect.

And third, he has to do something about diplomacy. Why aren't we asking the Europeans, for example, to try and secure the border with Syria? Why don't we have people in the Damascus airport that are filming and taking a reading on the kind of killers that are coming from Saudi Arabia and causing this havoc over in Iraq today?

There's a whole series of questions that have been outlined in the Armed Services Committee.

This current policy is failed and flawed. The president has to give the facts to the American people and outline a new strategy.

We have a losing strategy at the present time. Not just the Democrats are saying, but people like Chuck Hagel and other Republicans are saying.

BLITZER: But, Senator, you heard General John Abizaid, the commander of Central Command, General George Casey, the commander of U.S. troops in Iraq, testify before your committee, the Armed Services Committee, saying that progress is being made, that it's going to be difficult, but they think they can get the job done if the United States stays the course.

KENNEDY: Well, General Abizaid said that the rate of violence in the insurgency is just about what it was six months ago. General Vines, who spoke just last week, said that effectively it's a static situation.

I don't think anyone could feel -- the American people are rejecting this rose-colored view of Iraq today.

The vice president indicates that everything -- the insurgency is in its last gasp. He ought to talk to the generals and listen to the generals. It's not.

The current policy is not working. It's not effective. And the administration -- and we need accountability as well.

And that's why I think the secretary of defense should resign. I think we need a new look at Iraq from a military point of view, reconstruction and also diplomatic.

BLITZER: You have been calling on the secretary of defense to resign now for some time. You have any reason to believe that he's had a change of heart? He told you he's twice offered to resign but the president declined.

KENNEDY: Well, where does the buck stop? I mean, with all frankness, where does the buck stop?

It's stopping today with American service men and women. They are fighting heroically. They are dying bravely. They are exceeding themselves in terms of their willingness to carry forward their missions.

This is a policy judgment, a policy decision. They are the ones that ought to be held accountable. The buck has to stop someplace. It stops with the secretary of defense and the administration. And the current policy is not working. The American people understand that, and we ought to hold them accountable.

BLITZER: Do you want a specific timetable for a withdrawal?

KENNEDY: I don't think you can establish a deadline. I think what you can do is expect that the Iraqi troops are going to be able to be prepared to defend their own country.

And we have all the number of trainers in the world that are prepared, the Europeans and the United States, and as they are trained to take on the responsibility, and as they get a constitution and ratify that constitution, I don't see why they can't accept the security and that we can't have some kind of negotiation so that you can bring American troops home with honor.

I think that ought to certainly be our goal. What's wrong with that?

BLITZER: Some of your colleagues -- and you're certainly old enough to remember the Vietnam War -- are making comparisons to Vietnam. Is this an apt comparison in your opinion? Is this a Vietnam-like quagmire that has emerged?

KENNEDY: Well, the basic failing and flaw -- there are two, among many, basic flaws. One is that the Americans weren't given the facts about Vietnam. And secondly, we always believed that there was a military solution to a political problem. And I would say in both of those areas that Iraq is absolutely consistent with Vietnam. They don't like to hear about it. The administration doesn't like to hear about it. Every time that you mention it, they attack those that mention it.

But there has to be a political resolution. There has to be a military presence, but a political resolution to this problem, ultimately. It cannot be solved militarily. That is the lesson we learned in Vietnam, and we don't want to have to repeat that again in Iraq.

BLITZER: The United Nations secretary general, Kofi Annan, suggests that political progress inside Iraq is making progress. He writes an op-ed in The Washington Post in which he says, "Let us not lose sight of the fact that all over Iraq today, Iraqis are debating nearly every aspect of their political future."

It's a lot better today than it was under Saddam Hussein. I think you'll acknowledge that.

KENNEDY: Well, that isn't really the issue. The issue is Al Qaida terrorism; what is the threat to American security?

Osama bin Laden is still alive today, four years after the attack on 9/11. Al Qaida is still a factor and a force. The threats that Americans have here at home are Al Qaida. They're not the people that live in Mosul, they are the Al Qaida.

We ought to get the focus on where the threat was, and that was with Al Qaida and with Osama bin Laden. That administration has taken the focus and attention completely off where American security interests are threatened.

And this today, Iraq is a breeding ground now for future terrorists.

BLITZER: Well, on that point, the CIA, in a classified assessment that has now been widely reported, suggests that Iraq today has become a more effective training ground for Al Qaida and international terrorists -- a laboratory, if you will -- than Afghanistan under the Taliban ever was.

You could read that both ways. But one way you could say is, the U.S. has now more of an interest in dealing with Iraq than ever before.

KENNEDY: Well, with that logic, we can stay there forever. We'll have the biggest training ground in the world in Iraq. I mean, come on.

We know that what we have to deal with, that Iraq is a training ground today for Al Qaida. The quicker we get this resolved, the better off that we're going to be.

Our current policy is a disaster. The American people are sensing that. They're understanding it. The policymakers are misleading the American people with rose-colored glasses. The president of the United States should speak next Tuesday night and explain what he's going to do about it.

BLITZER: Have those 1,700 U.S...

KENNEDY: I think I've got to really roll.

BLITZER: All right, I'll ask you this final question, then I'll let you go, Senator Kennedy.

Have these 1,700 military personnel who have died in Iraq died in vain?

KENNEDY: Absolutely not. They are honorable men and women that have served this country. We have the utmost respect and honor for them, each and every one of them individually.

We've lost 35 from my own state of Massachusetts. I know those families. I have enormous respect and admiration for those families, and for each and every service man and woman that is serving in Iraq. They are doing an honorable job.

It's the policymakers that we have to alter and that we have to change. BLITZER: Senator Kennedy, thanks for spending a few moments with us.

KENNEDY: Good.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And still ahead, the results of our Web question of the week: Should the United States set a timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq?

We'll also share some of the highlights of the other Sunday morning talk shows in case you missed it.

We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: And now, in case you missed it, let's check some of the highlights from some of the other Sunday morning talks shows.

On "FOX News Sunday," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld warned against overstating the support of the insurgency in Iraq.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RUMSFELD: The insurgents know they have a great deal to lose. The election was a big success. There is political progress. There's economic progress. The insurgency's been about level. And the progress on the political side is so threatening to the insurgents that my guess is it could become more violent between now and the constitutional referendum and the election in December.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: On NBC's "Meet the Press," activists and U2 lead singer Bono talked about why he thinks debt relief and aid for African nations is so important.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BONO, CO-FOUNDER, DEBT, AIDS, TRADE, AFRICA: The rest of the world are very suspicious about the G-8 countries, about the industrialized world. They're not sure, you know, if we have any values. They're not sure who we are. They meet us with our military. They meet us with our trade, our movies, you know, our commodities. But they need to meet who we are on a deeper level.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: And on ABC's "This Week," the former FBI director, L. Patrick Gray, shared his feelings about learning, along with the rest of us recently, that his deputy was Watergate's so-called Deep Throat.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) L. PATRICK GRAY, FORMER FBI DIRECTOR: Mark Felt, who was my trusted number-two man, has come out, identifying himself as Deep Throat. This was a tremendous surprise to me. I could not have been more shocked and more disappointed in a man whom I had trusted.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Highlights from some of the other Sunday morning talk shows right here on "LATE EDITION," the last word in Sunday talk.

Up next: the results of our Web poll question of the week. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Our "LATE EDITION" Web question asked this: Should the U.S. set a timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq? Here's how you voted. 72 percent of you said yes, 28 percent said no. Remember, though, this is not a scientific poll.

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

Newsweek probes the scary new world of identity theft.

Time magazine looks at the real Abraham Lincoln.

And U.S. News & World Report features America's best vacations.

That's your "LATE EDITION" for Sunday, June 26th.

Please be sure to join us next Sunday and every Sunday at noon Eastern for the last word in Sunday talk.

And tune in next Sunday 1:00 P.M. Eastern for a special "LATE EDITION," when we go behind the lines with U.S. troops in Iraq.

Until then, thanks very much for watching. I'll be here Monday through Friday. 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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