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Letter From Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to President Bush Discusses History, Values, Religion; Interview With National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley; Mary Cheney Comes Out

Aired May 9, 2006 - 18:59   ET


JOHN ROBERTS, CNN ANCHOR: To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM, where new pictures and information are arriving all the time.
Standing by, CNN reporters across the United States and around the world to bring you tonight's top stories.

Happening now, it's 7:00 p.m. in Washington, where the Bush administration dismisses that historic letter from Iran's president as rambling rhetoric. But is the United States missing an opportunity to solve a nuclear standoff?

It's 3:00 a.m. in Baghdad, where bombs and bullets take a terrible toll among American troops. We're on the scene with the medical teams who struggle to save them.

And now it's her turn. Mary Cheney discusses everything from her gay lifestyle to her father's conservative politics. We'll look at her new book just out today.

Wolf Blitzer is off tonight. I'm John Roberts. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

It is the first direct communication from an Iranian president to an American president in a quarter of a century. Today, we are learning just what is inside that long letter to President Bush and just why the Bush administration says it has no plans to reply, despite a nuclear standoff that has led to urgent consultations at the United Nations.

CNN White House Correspondent Suzanne Malveaux is standing by, but we turn first to CNN's Brian Todd on those 17 perplexing pages from the Iranian president -- Brian.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: John, it does seem to have a little something for everyone, including an accusatory tone right off the top.


TODD (voice over): Mahmoud Ahmadinejad starts right in on George Bush's Christian beliefs, all but accusing his American counterpart of being a hypocrite. "Can one be a follower of Jesus Christ, feel obliged to respect human rights, announce one's opposition to the proliferation of nuclear weapons and WMDs, make war on terror his slogan, but at the same time, have countries attacked, the lives, reputations and possessions of people destroyed?"

TRITA PARSI, IRAN ANALYST: He's basically trying to show that he is not in a morally inferior position vis-a-vis the United States and vis-a-vis President Bush.

TODD: Ahmadinejad mentions Jesus Christ 10 times, Saddam Hussein three times, calling him a murderous dictator. But he doesn't mention his own nuclear program by name. Instead, writing, "In what other point in history has scientific and technical progress been a crime? Can the possibility of scientific achievements being utilized for purposes be reason enough to oppose science and technology altogether?"

AZAR NAFISI, JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY: This letter is very timely. It comes right on the eve of when the U.N. is going to make decisions about Iran. And this is to delay those decision or to confuse.

TODD: Later, a reference to September 11th, calling it a horrendous incident, but then implying that unnamed governments might have sponsored the attacks. Throughout the letter, references to a belief in one god. Analysts say this is to establish common ground with Bush and their faiths.


NAFISI: He's obviously also targeting the audiences in Muslim countries and coming out as the leader of the faith.


TODD: President Ahmadinejad signs off with the phrase in Arabic, "Peace be upon the one who follows god's guidance," but at no time does he directly or indirectly invite President Bush to talk.

Why not? Analysts say that was not the Iranian's intent. This letter, they say, was to preach to President Bush, to play to audiences back home, and to not be seen as begging for negotiations -- John.

ROBERTS: Our Brian Todd for us tonight.

Brian, thanks very much.

President Bush responded with no response. Our White House correspondent, Suzanne Malveaux, has that part of the story for us this evening -- Suzanne.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, of course the White House is making that very clear. This is the first time the Iranian leadership has reached out directly to the United States in nearly some 30 years, but the White House is not responding to this letter.

Even some administration officials believe that this is a publicity stunt. Today, the president made it very clear, as well as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, what they're focusing on are the international efforts, working with allies in the U.N. Security Council to try to get a resolution to hold Iran to account.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Obviously, part of making the diplomacy work is what will be the consequences if the Iranians decide maybe not to listen to the rational demands of the world. And you mentioned some -- you mentioned one, you know, economic sanctions. But we're -- and I'm not going to comment on that, because I think it's very important for good negotiators to keep their cards close to the vest and at the appropriate time make it clear what our intentions are.


MALVEAUX: Now, of course there's a debate that is taking place here in Washington. Scholars are really split over whether or not it's the right thing to do for the administration to refuse to have direct talks with Iran. Some scholars believe that this is a missed opportunity. There are others who say, however, they are not taking this offer seriously.


KEN POLLACK, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: The letter that Mr. Ahmadinejad sent to President Bush is full of claims and questions which, whether you like Mr. Bush or don't like him, you have to recognize are going to -- are calculated to insult him. There's nothing in that letter that I think the White House would look at and see as anything other than deeply offensive.


MALVEAUX: Now, John, as one scholar put it today, he said this is boilerplate Iranian rhetoric. However, it does not change the fact that there are still members of the U.N. Security Council that are split over how to make Iran accountable -- John.

ROBERTS: Suzanne Malveaux live for us at the White House tonight.

Suzanne, thanks.

At the United Nations, there are feverish consultations on Iran's nuclear program. There is no consensus yet on what to do about it, but Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice today said she and key counterparts see eye to eye on the problem.


CONDOLEEZZA RICE, SECRETARY OF STATE: We have considerable agreement on -- I would say total agreement on the view that Iran cannot be allowed to have a nuclear weapon, that Iran must see to the requirements put forward in the IAEA board of governors resolution and memorialized in a presidential statement, and that Iran needs now to suspend its programs and go back to the negotiating table.


ROBERTS: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at the United Nations today.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are voicing concern about the nomination of a military officer to head up the Central Intelligence Agency. Is there too much of the Defense Department in the CIA?

All of these issues we're going to discuss this evening with Stephen Hadley. He is the national security adviser to President Bush.

Stephen Hadley, thanks for joining us tonight. We really appreciate you taking the time.

Let me start, first of all, with Iran. What's your response to the Iranian letter? Is it, in fact, a publicity stunt?

STEPHEN HADLEY, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Well, we don't really know. We can tell you something about what is not in the letter. It does not discuss Iran's support for terror, does not talk about its treatment of its own people in terms of the freedom and democracy. But most importantly, it doesn't talk about issue that's on everybody's minds these days, which is the issue of Iran's intentions and aspirations for a nuclear weapon.

And that's, of course, the issue that is front and center. That's the issue that's being discussed up in New York among the leaders of the key -- of the key states there that have been handling the discussions with Iran.

ROBERTS: It certainly seems to all of us as observers, Mr. Hadley, that this is not going to provoke any kind of dialogue between the White House and Iran. And there were some people who were saying that that's a missed opportunity, that if you are to revolve the nuclear standoff, you need to talk directly to Iran.

Here's what Senator Dianne Feinstein said on that point earlier today on THE SITUATION ROOM.


SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), CALIFORNIA: If, in fact, they are developing a nuclear weapons program, there's three to five years. What if we come to the end of that time and no one has sat down with Iran directly? How do you reconcile that with the American people?


ROBERTS: So how do you reconcile that with the American people, Stephen Hadley, that if at the end of five years these negotiations do not put a stop to Iran's nuclear program, what do you say to the American people? HADLEY: Well, of course people have sat down with Iran and discussed this nuclear issue very directly. As you know, the EU3 has been in conversations with the Iranians. There was an agreement actually about two years ago that suspended the program and was going to be a framework for discussions.

There was most recently a further offer by the three countries, the U.K., France and Germany, of a way ahead. The Russians have entered the fray and have also made a suggestion that would have allowed enrichment of nuclear fuel for an Iranian civilian nuclear program to be handled in Russia, offshore, outside Iran.


HADLEY: So there have been plenty of discussions. The United States has supported those discussions and helped facilitate them.

So, the problem has not been conversations with Iran. The problem is Iran has not complied with the obligations it's undertaken. For 18 years it had a covert nuclear program that suggested that they had aspirations for a nuclear weapon.

That's the problem. The problem is getting Iran in a context where they will undertake and stick to the obligations that they've assumed.

ROBERTS: Stephen Hadley, let me ask you about the other headline of the day, and that's the nomination of Michael Hayden to head up the CIA. Are you confident that he'll be confirmed? Is the uniform going to be a problem?

HADLEY: We think that he will be confirmed. He's a strong nominee. We think as this process goes forward people focus less on the uniform issue and more on who Mike Hayden is, the kind of experience he's had.

He's run a major agency, the National Security Agency. Ran it for six years, transformed it, brought it into the 21st century.

He has been the deputy director of National Intelligence. In that capacity, he understands what Congress and the president have asked to be done in terms of building an integrated intelligence community. And he has an agenda for carrying forward reform at CIA.

He's a man of broad experience. He's exactly the right person to redirect the agency and to help it fit into the overall intelligence architecture in the 21st century intelligence community that we need.

ROBERTS: OK. So quickly, if you could, how do you square that with what Dennis Hastert said, which is that "I don't think a military guy should be the head of the CIA, personally." And he's upset that he was informed by not consulted.

What happened to this idea of the White House shake-up fostering better relations between 1600 Pennsylvania and Capitol Hill? HADLEY: There were a lot of conversations about this nomination. There had been both before the announcement on Monday and after the announcement. The issue about military uniform is one that has been raised.

There have been military officers who have headed the CIA. There are, of course, military officers in the CIA.

Look, intelligence is a -- is a business in which the military makes an important contribution, and it will be useful that Mike Hayden understands the military piece of that. But I think the issue is not the issue of uniform. The issue is whether he is the best person to meet the challenges of helping the CIA move into the 21st century and continuing the reforms that Porter Goss has started. And the president is very confident he's the right man for the job.

ROBERTS: Well, it's certainly going to provide us with one of the more interesting confirmation hearings for a CIA chief.

Stephen Hadley, thanks for being with us. We appreciate it.

HADLEY: Thanks very much.

ROBERTS: Our Jack Cafferty joins us now live from New York -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: You know, these won't be quite as good as the Harriet Miers stuff might have been if she had ever gotten to -- but it's going to be good.

ROBERTS: Well, I just meant for the CIA.

CAFFERTY: No, no, no. But I mean for all of us. I'm looking forward to these confirmation hearings. And the questions that they start asking him about being one of the architects of this domestic spying program, I think that may be where this whole thing may eventually rest. But we'll see.

It's amazing, John, what a 31 percent approval rating will do to the confidence of some Democrats. Senator Russ Feingold, a Democrat from Wisconsin, says members of his own party need to show more backbone and challenge the president on Iraq.

Feingold says some congressional Democrats gave into intimidation by the Bush administration when they voted to authorize the war in 2002. And Feingold warns that if they don't toughen up, they stand to lose again in 2006 and in 2008.

And you know what? He may be on to something.

When Feingold called for the censure of President Bush in March over the domestic spying program, two -- two other Democrats signed on as co-sponsors. Not exactly a profile in courage there, was it?

A couple of other would-be Democratic presidential candidates are also speaking out all of a sudden. Indiana's Senator Evan Bayh and former Virginia Governor Mark Warner called on members of their party to challenge President Bush on security, saying that their party would do a better job.

So here's the question: Senator Feingold says Democrats must show more backbone when it comes to the war in Iraq. How should they go about doing that?

E-mail us at or go to -- John.

ROBERTS: There should be some interesting answers.

Jack Cafferty, thanks.

Coming up, she helped President Bush on his way to the White House. Now Katherine Harris is being snubbed by his brother Jeb. We've got that story for you.

Plus, Mary Cheney is coming out of the shadows and her new book is going into bookstores. A look at how she handled working on her father's reelection campaign.

And on the front lines. We will take you inside an emergency room in Baghdad where military doctors work around the clock to save lives.


Tonight, the vice president's daughter, Mary Cheney, isn't exactly telling all, but she is saying a lot more than she once did about her sexual orientation and her political disagreements with the Bush-Cheney administration.

Our Mary Snow in New York has more on today's release of Mary Cheney's new book.

Good evening to you, Mary.


Some gay activists who once faulted Mary Cheney for not speaking out on gay issues are now applauding her for calling President Bush's stand on same-sex marriage "fundamentally wrong." The question is, will it have an impact?


RICHARD CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I, Richard Cheney, do solemnly swear...

SNOW (voice-over): Since Dick Cheney's first election as vice president, Mary Cheney has been very visible but largely silent about being gay, while serving as a top campaign aid to her father in both the 2000 and 2004 elections.

In "Now It's My Turn", for the first time, she gives her behind the scenes account of working to get the Bush-Cheney team elected, a team that opposes same sex marriage. Gay Republicans are applauding the move.

PATRICK GUERRIERO, LOG CABIN REPUBLICANS: We always hope and wish that people would come out in the midst of a culture war. But Log Cabin Republicans have always respected that Mary Cheney had a loyalty to her dad.

SNOW: In the book, Cheney writes that she almost quit the 2004 campaign when President Bush came out in favor of a constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage. She decided to stay on, but the issue didn't go away and came up during key debates.

CHENEY: Four years ago in this debate, the subject came up, and I said then and believe today that freedom does mean freedom for everybody.

SNOW: And in the presidential debates?

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We're all God's children. And I think if you were to talk to Dick Cheney's daughter, who is a lesbian, she would tell you that she's being who she was. She's being who she was born as.

SNOW: Mary Cheney's family came to her defense.

LYNNE CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT CHENEY'S WIFE: I'm speaking as a mom and a pretty indignant mom. This is not a good man. What a cheap and tawdry political trick.

SNOW: While Mary Cheney said her father always supported her, she chose not to join him on stage at the 2004 Republican convention, a convention where gay marriage turned out to be a big issue.

LARRY SABATO, UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA CENTER FOR POLITICS: You can argue that George W. Bush wouldn't have been elected to a second term without a gay marriage referendum in Ohio that increased Republican turnout just enough so that Bush could carry Ohio.

SNOW: Political observers expect Cheney's book to spark much discussion about gay marriage, but conservatives say it won't soften their strong opposition.

BOB KNIGHT, CONCERNED WOMEN FOR AMERICA: I don't think it will change the political debate in this country on marriage. People know that marriage needs protecting at the state and federal level, and I think the campaign is just beginning.


SNOW: And longtime Republican political adviser Mary Matalin held back the book. She calls Mary Cheney "not your mother's (ph) conservative" and says it shows the breadth and depth of conservatives -- John.

ROBERTS: Interesting story. Mary Snow in New York.

Thanks very much.

Still to come tonight in THE SITUATION ROOM, should a military officer head up the CIA? That's the question of the day. We will get the Pentagon's take on the confirmation of General Michael Hayden.

Plus, war zone ER. We will take you inside the U.S. combat support hospital in Baghdad and show you what medical teams see there every day.


ROBERTS: Zain Verjee joins us now from Atlanta with the news making headlines.

Hey there, Zain.


Congressional Republicans work out a $70 billion tax cut deal. It would extend for two years the 15 percent tax break for investors. It was set to expire at the end of 2008. The agreement would also stop middle class families from being hit this year with the alternative minimum tax largely aimed at wealthy families.

The House could vote on the bill tomorrow and the Senate later this week. If both houses agree, it would hand President Bush one of his top tax priorities.

In central Florida, fires are burning indiscriminately. Crews are battling nagging wildfires scorching parts of the state. Thick plumes of smoke are choking highways and have caused car accidents that have killed four people. About 9,000 acres have burned, so have three homes.

Governor Jeb Bush has declared a state of emergency and put the National Guard on alert.

If the Centers for Disease Control has its way, virtually everyone will be tested for the AIDS virus. The CDC is out with new guidelines.

They want all Americans age 13 to 64 to be tested for HIV. That's the virus that causes AIDS. Tests could begin as early as this summer if the guidelines are adopted.

Officials say about 250,000 people are infected with the AIDS virus and do not know it.

And John, just take a look at this, some pretty amazing video here. Today, a sandstorm enveloped Khartoum. That's the capital of Sudan.

Our Nic Robertson is in Sudan traveling with the U.N. humanitarian chief, Jan Egeland. So our thanks to our photographer there, Neil Bennett (ph), for some of these amazing pictures.

You can see a solid wall of dust just blowing over Khartoum, coming from the desert. This tends to happen quite frequently. And I understand, John, sometimes this gets up to as high as 5,000 feet. It destroys everything in its way.

And sometimes the winds themselves -- I mean, just look at that, you know, as it heads towards the camera. I mean, are strong enough to move the sand dunes in the deserts, the entire dunes themselves. So you can see it obliterate our view from the camera.

ROBERTS: Incredible. It's like night fell all of a sudden.


ROBERTS: And I remember -- I think it was about the third or fourth day of the Iraq war, a sandstorm blew in, and it was the darkest night that I have ever seen in my life.

Zain Verjee.

Thanks very much.

VERJEE: Thanks.

ROBERTS: Just ahead, fierce denial. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, he takes the press to task over reports that he is in a turf battle. It's all part of our "Strategy Session." James Carville and J.C. Watts coming up.

And on the front lines. We're taking you inside the combat support hospital in Baghdad.



ROBERTS: Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are voicing concerns about the nomination of a military officer to head up the CIA. The Pentagon is downplaying those concerns.

For that, here's our senior Pentagon correspondent, Jamie McIntyre.

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SR. PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, if the charge is that Pentagon officials are engaged in a petty turf war, then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is pleading not guilty.


MCINTYRE (voice over): The Pentagon in a turf battle with the CIA, setting up its own rival spy operation while jealously guarding its 80 percent of the national intelligence budget? Let's see, how many ways can Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld deny that?

DONALD RUMSFELD, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: The short answer is, no, we're not. The quality of the debate on this subject is pedestrian and unimpressive.

If you look at the debate and the articles in the newspaper and the comments that are being made, they are about theoretical conspiracies, they're about theoretical bureaucratic turf fights. They're all off the mark.

There's no power play taking place in Washington. It is a collegial and open process.

There isn't anything we're doing in the Department of Defense on intelligence that has not been working out with the Department of State, that has not been worked out with the White House, that has not been worked out with the Central Intelligence Agency, that has not been worked out with the director of National Intelligence.

MCINTYRE: But what about the story that Rumsfeld had to reign in General Mike Hayden after his 2004 congressional testimony advocating that some Pentagon spy agencies, like his own NSA, be placed under the new National Intelligence director, John Negroponte, something Rumsfeld opposed and President Bush rejected?

RUMSFELD: Now, is that a big deal?


RUMSFELD: Not that I know of. Nor was it then.


MCINTYRE: Rumsfeld did drop one bombshell, almost as a parting shot. Asked by a reporter how the American people could have confidence in U.S. intelligence about what's going inside Iran, given that the prewar intelligence about Iraq was so far off target. Rumsfeld conceded the point, "Does it give one pause?" he asked. "You bet" -- John.

ROBERTS: Jamie, thanks.

The president's nominee to head the CIA, General Michael Hayden, is reaching out to senators who will decide to confirm him or not. He made the rounds today on Capitol Hill where his nomination is giving some Republicans a new reason to side against President Bush.


ROBERTS: Joining us are CNN political analysts Democratic strategist James Carville and former Republican Congressman J.C. Watts.

Now, gentlemen, first question, I will throw it out there to whoever wants to field it. Is there any question that Hayden is qualified for this job?

J.C. WATTS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: John, I have looked at his resume, and I don't know how anyone could draw the conclusion that he's not qualified. I think, in this -- what I heard from -- from Republicans who are opposing Mr. Hayden, i.e. Pete Hoekstra, who is the chairman of the International Relations Committee -- Speaker Hastert, I think, even came out and said that he might have some concerns with this nominee -- you know, they would like to see a balance.

I mean, you know, they don't say he's not qualified. But they want another opinion outside of the Department of Defense. And I think that's an argument that Congressman Hoekstra made.

ROBERTS: Any questions, James Carville, as to Hayden's qualifications?

JAMES CARVILLE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Look, he's the perfect Bush appointee. He's a loyalist. He's a great briefer, which means he really knows how to suck up and please power.


CARVILLE: And that's a kind of code. Oh, he's a great briefer.

And will he go over there and be a team Bush player? Yes. And if you think that is what -- that agency is being run fine, and it just needs somebody to be a Bush loyalist in there, fine. Some people say that the whole agency is completely demoralized that it missed the 9/11, it missed weapons of mass destruction, that Porter Goss had completely decimated the -- what I call a FEMA-nization of the CIA.

And, yes, they will put this guy over there. And he will do everything that Bush and Rumsfeld and -- and Negroponte and the whole team tells him to do. And he's qualified, yes.


ROBERTS: Is it -- is it fair to say, J.C. Watts, this the whole shake-up at the CIA indicates that the system there is still broken, despite all of the hand-wringing since 9/11 to try to fix it?

WATTS: Well, but, John, we have to take into consideration, the CIA is broke -- been broken for a long time. You know, it was broken under President Clinton. It was -- probably had some, you know, flaws in Bush 41.

I mean, this is a process that's been in the making and should have been undertaken a long time ago. So, I think to put it all on this president, I think, is a little unfair. And I think it's a little unfair to characterize General Hayden as a briefer.

I think he's a little deeper than that. I think he knows what he's doing. But, again, if you looking for an objective view outside of the military, do you get that here?


WATTS: I think he you can do that. But the questions that have been raised, I think that's the concern that they have. CARVILLE: I have got to take minor issue here.

He's been in office for five-and-a-half years. The CIA is dysfunctional, and we shouldn't blame him. Well, if we can't blame him for the CIA being dysfunctional after five-and-a-half years, you well not blame him for nothing.


WATTS: But let's say -- but, John, consider this. You could say that about HHS. You could say that about every other federal agency.




WATTS: You could -- yes, you could say it about FEMA.

CARVILLE: Yes, I could say it. I could.

WATTS: But I -- but, James, the point...


CARVILLE: I would. You're right.

WATTS: But, James, the point that I make is this. We could have said it under President Clinton.

CARVILLE: No, you couldn't.

WATTS: And that's not a partisan shot.

CARVILLE: You couldn't.

WATTS: That's just a fact.

ROBERTS: All right.


ROBERTS: Let me move on -- let me move on...


ROBERTS: Let me move on by going backwards here.

You mentioned Dennis Hastert, speaker of the House. Here's what he said about the nomination: "I don't think they ought to have a military person in the CIA. And it looks to me like this guy is going to be subordinate to Negroponte. It looks like a power grab at the top by Negroponte. And I think that's the wrong thing to have happen." J.C. Watts, did the White House make a mistake by not consulting more broadly with Congress? I mean, I thought Josh Bolten, the whole thing about Josh Bolten being so great as -- as the White House chief of staff was he was going to keep Congress in the loop. And it looks like that didn't happen.

WATTS: Well, and, again, John I talked to some people on the Hill this morning that said that, you know, we continue to believe -- and they were Republicans -- that we continue to believe that the administration has a tin ear, that we told them our thoughts on this, and they were ignored.

So -- but, again, I don't think we should belittle the fact that General Hayden is qualified to do this. But those who are raising concerns say that we would have liked to have seen someone that would have had a little more separation from Secretary Rumsfeld and DOD.

ROBERTS: Is there a chance, James Carville, that, if this is all about the NSA spying scandal and not about Hayden's qualifications, that it could blow up in Democrats' face?

CARVILLE: Yes. But I don't think the Democrats are going to make it all about the NSA spying scandal.

I think they will ask him about that. I think it's really about the fact that the -- that made the -- that FEMA-nized the CIA. We have a dysfunctional intelligence agency, where we have got people under investigation. We got the number three-person, Dusty Foggo, that there's all kinds of things out there. Prosecutors are looking at it.

The I.G. in the CIA is looking at this as a major scandal. I'm sure that they are going to want to know that. And, also, you -- we got a man, I guess he's qualified. Like I say, his shoes are going to be shined. He's not going to cause trouble. He's going to be a real team player.

And that's what they -- mediocrity is what this administration is pushing at every juncture. They got it now.


ROBERTS: Up ahead tonight, saving lives on the front lines in Iraq. We're taking you inside Baghdad's combat support hospital. It's an extraordinary look at an extraordinary E.R.

And the woman at the center of the 2000 presidential ballot count, Katherine Harris. Find out why one of the Bush brothers is snubbing her now. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


ROBERTS: In Iraq's northern city of Tal Afar, at least 17 people are dead after a suicide car bombing in a crowded market. Officials say Iraqi women and children are among the dead. This bloody attack did not involve U.S. troops but a unique group of medics knows all too well what happens when U.S. servicemembers are the targets. But we must warn you, some of the images you are about to see are very disturbing. Here's our Ryan Chilcote.


RYAN CHILCOTE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Baghdad's combat support hospital is about to get busy. Information on the incoming is scant, nuances important.

DR. DAVID STEINBRUNNER, LT. COL. U.S. ARMY: The reporter were two that are urgent, and there sounded like there was some nervousness in the voice of the people calling it in, originally.

CHILCOTE: Colonel David Steinbrunner is the on-duty doctor.

STEINBRUNNER: We won't really know until they get to the door.

CHILCOTE: And in a war zone, even the most seasoned doctor can be surprised at what comes through that door.


CHILCOTE: The triage begins. The walking wounded goes to a nurse.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't have a medic.

CHILCOTE: Next door in the E.R., Steinbrunner is beginning his initial check on the soldier brought in on the stretcher. At first glance, things aren't looking good.

STEINBRUNNER: He's real pale, guys.

CHILCOTE: Through an oxygen mask, though, the soldier manages to mumble a message.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Please don't let me die.

CHILCOTE: The doctor relays it to the team.

STEINBRUNNER: He said, "please don't let me die."

CHILCOTE: In return, he gets the doctor's word.

STEINBRUNNER: I promise. I wouldn't lie to you. Don't you care try to die on me, OK? I didn't give you permission.

CHILCOTE: He's just as honest when the soldier asks if he can save his leg.

STEINBRUNNER: I don't know. That I don't know, OK? We'll try to save it if we can, OK? I just don't know. I can't give you an answer to that yet.

CHILCOTE: Also at the soldier's side, a chaplain. The anesthesia is administered but the soldier still stirs. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, we've got to put him down. The poor guy is waking up through all this.

CHILCOTE: Then another call rings out. More are on the way.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Two more inbound, two minutes.

CHILCOTE: But for this soldier, it's too late. They have been doing CPR on him for a half-hour. Five minutes later, he's pronounced dead.

In all, four soldiers were brought to the hospital after a bomb hit their vehicle. Private First Class Victor Vicente (ph) was behind the wheel. He's on the phone home. He doesn't tell his wife what happened to the others. That's the military's job.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I have a cut on my head but it's not a big problem.

CHILCOTE: But he won't be going home.

STEINBRUNNER: Hey, I hate to you this, but basically you're RTD, return to duty.

CHILCOTE: The casualties are separated only by curtains. There's little privacy.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, that guy over there is getting a needle in his back.

CHILCOTE: Take this day and turn it into every day, and you have Dr. Steinbrunner's routine since he arrived in Iraq.

STEINBRUNNER: It seems like it's been a long time but it's only been, you know, six or seven months.

CHILCOTE: With this system of medical care, U.S. servicemen and women are now twice as likely to survive wounds that would have killed in Vietnam.

STEINBRUNNER: Ready. Where do you push so far? You put a little ...

CHILCOTE: Today, that soldier is in the E.R. The x-rays are back.

STEINBRUNNER: There's no free air.

CHILCOTE: And they're looking good.


CHILCOTE: He's stabilized and ready for the operating room. Dr. Steinbrunner's job is finished for now.

STEINBRUNNER: He may lose an arm or a leg. He may save it, I don't know.

CHILCOTE: But Steinbrunner kept his promise.

STEINBRUNNER: He lost a lot of blood on the field so -- but he's a young, healthy guy so he was compensating. And that's why he could talk and maintain and everything like that. But you could see the color of his skin. I mean, he was pale. He was definitely looking very, very sick. So now I'm going to take care of his buddy. Thanks.

CHILCOTE: Ryan Chilcote, CNN, Baghdad.


ROBERTS: More now on our top story, that letter from the Iranian president to President Bush. Iranian exiles in this country are following this developing story very closely. CNN's Chris Lawrence is live in Los Angeles for us now with the reaction from that city's large Iranian community. What are you picking up?

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, the community here is about half a million strong, one of the largest anywhere outside of Iran. But the people here -- you know, when it comes to this letter, they're relatively split on whether it will actually do anything to repair relations between their old home and their new one.


LAWRENCE (voice-over): It's a slice of the Middle East in the middle of Los Angeles: Persian sounds and signs, the heart of what Iranian exiles call "Tehrangeles." Right now, it's a community caught in the middle.

SATAREH EGHBAL, IRANIAN-AMERICAN: I'm American right now. I'm proud to be American, but I have my Iranian citizenship, too.

LAWRENCE: Satareh Eghbal left her country just before the revolution in 1979. She read parts of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's letter to President Bush.

EGHBAL: I was very surprised, because he is a very stubborn person.

LAWRENCE: Eghbal thinks it's an opening, and she's urging Mr. Bush to give diplomacy a chance.

EGHBAL: We have to solve the problem with talking, not ignoring the people.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That letter doesn't have something new.

LAWRENCE: Some weren't sure to take the letter at face value and wondered if it's truly an invitation to open negotiations.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I hope he's serious about that.

LAWRENCE: This man runs his own flower shop, and he's skeptical about this olive branch from Iran's president.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's hard to believe all of a sudden he wants to come and talk to President Bush and send a letter to President Bush. I think that because he was totally against everything, and now all of a sudden I don't know what's in his mind, but I hope that he's honest about it.


LAWRENCE: Yes, for a lot of Iranian-Americans, it's more of a hope than any kind of realistic expectation, but a lot of people here have asked us, how could the U.S. pass up any opportunity to find what they look at as a peace solution -- John.

ROBERTS: Yes, Chris, a lot of people are saying that but the White House is sticking by its guns. They're not even going to respond to this letter. Thanks very much.

Up ahead, is a lightning rod from the 2000 election coming back to burn President Bush? We'll tell you about Katherine Harris, an uncomfortable reunion today with the president and his brother.

Plus, your answers to our question of the hour. Senator Russ Feingold says Democrats should show more backbone when it comes to the Iraq war. But how to do that? Jack Cafferty is going to have your e- mail ideas.


ROBERTS: A flashback today for President Bush from the disputed 2000 election, the one that put him and Dick Cheney into the White House. The president is in Florida to promote the Medicare Prescription Drug Plan, but he finds himself in the midst of a political drama. It involves his brother and the former Florida secretary of state, Congresswoman Katherine Harris.

Our White House correspondent Ed henry is traveling with the president. He has got more on this -- Ed.

ED HENRY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: John, the president came here to Sun City Center near Tampa, home to so many senior citizens, to promote his controversial Medicare Prescription Drug Plan. Democrats charge the program is too confusing and are demanding that the May 15th deadline be extended so seniors have more time to sign up.

The president today again rejected those calls. He insisted the plan saves money. He's hoping it will help Republicans during the midterm elections. But during his stop here, the president got caught up in another messy midterm election issue: the floundering Senate campaign of Republican Congresswoman Katherine Harris.

The president was greeted here on the tarmac by Harris as well as his brother. Florida governor, Jeb Bush, one day after the governor declared that Harris can't win the Senate race. Harris appeared to chew the president's ear off for quite some time as the governor looked on a few feet away. After that, Harris did not attend the Medicare here with seniors. Top Republicans have urged Harris to get out of Senate race charging that it could imperil Republican's chances of keeping control of the U.S. Senate. But Harris insists she's sticking around.

ROBERTS: She didn't bring the horse this time.

The World Trade Center memorial foundation is suspended fund- raising until it can tell exactly what their money is going to build. Internet reporter Jacki Schechner joins us now with the details.

JACKI SCHECHNER, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: The memorial is called Reflecting Absence. It was picked from some 5,200 entries. It includes two large squares with some waterfalls that fall some 30 feet. It lies at the base of the Freedom Tower. Underground there are memorials and remembrances. The budget for the projects is about $500 million. But a new budget estimate on the Web site puts the new total closer to $1 billion.

The fund says it will not start raising any more money until it can tell exactly what the money is going to go towards. It's afraid that certain amenities will be cut in the process. Governor Pataki's office told me today there's no intention of revising the design. Everything is on track. They will try to reconcile these new numbers and it is set to open September 11th, 2009.

ROBERTS: Let's take a quick swing up to New York and find out what's ahead on PAULA ZAHN NOW.

PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks so much. We will talk about the shake up at the CIA. We will also look back on memories of the night that took 100 lives. This was a scene three years ago when a nightclub caught fire. What happened in court today when the man who started the inferno faced the families of people who died.

Also, even though we know that too much time in the tanning bed and the sun can cause skin cancer are millions of Americans actually addicted to getting tan. A warning and a possible explanation coming up for you.

ROBERTS: Paula, thanks very much. We will see you soon. Let's go down a few floors to Ali Velshi. He has "The Bottom Line."

ALI VELSHI, CNN ANCHOR: We are focusing on a lot of things today. One of the things we're focussing on is the housing bubble watch. The National Association of Realtors says that the market is slowing down for homes but we're still on track for the third best year on record.

Existing home sales and new home sales are expected to drop. That's in response to rising mortgage rates. Here's what our viewers want to hear. Resale prices are still expected to go up by nearly six percent this year.

Believe it or not, real estate sales in the greater New Orleans area are booming. Sales of single-family homes jumped 60 percent compared to a year ago. However, experts say that shouldn't come as a shock, this is a pattern we have seen in Florida after Hurricane Andrew and in Los Angeles after the North Ridge Earthquake where displaced homeowners returned to buy new properties.

Finally we are also on Dow watch. The Dow rose 55 points today. It is now just 83 points shy of it's all-time high of 11,722. The Nasdaq wasn't at the party. It lost six points. Gold up to a 25 year high, hitting $700 an ounce. We will be back to break some records maybe tomorrow.

ROBERTS: Looking forward to it. That's what you call back to the future.

Still ahead, getting tough on Iraq. How can Democrats show some backbone? Jack Cafferty is taking your e-mail.


ROBERTS: Here's a look at some of the hot shots coming in from the Associated Press, Pictures that are likely to be in your newspaper tomorrow. In Fairfax, Virginia, memorial for a fallen officer, flowers outside a police station where a teenager gunned down three police officers yesterday, killing one of them.

In Onset, Massachusetts, a Marine stands at attention after a funeral service for Marine Lance Corporal Michael Ford. Ford was killed when his tank hit a roadside bomb.

Minnesota and prison school. Inmates cut each other's hair as part of a yes, cosmetology class. In San Diego, encounters with nature. School kids reach out to the hippos at the local zoo. Just watch how close to those hippos you get. Todays "Hot Shots," pictures worth 1,000 words. Jack is in New York City with "Cafferty File" for us.

CAFFERTY: I think I would get up close to the hippos than get my hair cut in a jail house by some convict with a straight razor.

The question is this. Senator Russ Feingold says the Democrats have to show more backbone when it comes to the Iraq war. How can they go about doing that?

Dan in Cleveland writes, "The Democrats can start by addressing the issue no one wants to talk about, the construction of permanent military bases in Iraq. They need to demand a pledge by the administration to not plan on a permanent occupation."

Bill in Scottsdale, Arizona. "In order to start showing backbone, the Democrats need to remove Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi from leadership positions and keep them from talking for the party. The two of them are pathetic when it comes to addressing issues, questions, policies and so on."

Kay in Tacoma, Washington. "I think Feingold is the only Democrat that has real guts lately. Maybe he should run for president next." Paul in San Pierre, Indiana. "If the Democrats want to get tough on Iraq and security, instead of just talk tough, the only thing they can do is become Republicans. History has shown this to be obvious."

Brad in Arcada, California. "Why is making change relegated to those who are not in power. Claiming the Democrats must muster the courage to fight ill-founded policies and leadership is like saying that Blacks are responsible for eradicating racism or women can eliminate sexual assault if they simply dressed properly. Great show, ask better questions.

OK, Brad. We'll try.

ROBERTS: I was listening to a conservative radio show this morning and they were taking suggestions from listeners on what the Republicans could do to try to up their game and they got some pretty good suggestions as you did today.

CAFFERTY: Like what, besides pack?

ROBERTS: Put on the tax return form a little box, check the box if you want to donate dollars to the building of a fence for immigration.

CAFFERTY: Not a bad idea, and maybe not extending those tax cuts would appeal to a lot of middle class voters as well.

ROBERTS: They didn't talk about that one. Thanks for joining us. For Wolf Blitzer, I'm John Roberts. Wolf is going to be back tomorrow. Up next, PAULA ZAHN NOW.


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