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Tracking Alberto's Path; President Bush Makes Surprise Visit to Iraq; Rove off the Hook

Aired June 13, 2006 - 08:59   ET


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Two big stories we're following for you this morning. Tropical Storm Alberto is heading for Florida's Gulf Coast. The storm a little weaker, but making lots of waves. Flooding, too.
We're tracking Alberto's path. We've got the latest just ahead.

Plus, a big sigh of relief from one of the president's men. No charges against adviser Karl Rove in the CIA leak case.

Good morning. Welcome back, everybody. I'm Soledad O'Brien.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Miles O'Brien. Thanks for being with us.

We're watching Tropical Storm Alberto as it heads toward the Gulf Coast of Florida. Alberto breaking up a little bit right now. Still a dangerous storm, nonetheless.

High winds, heavy rain already causing problems. There's also the possibility of some tornadoes, of course.

We've got correspondents all along the coast. We start, however, with our severe weather expert, Chad Myers, who is in the CNN weather center with that.

Chad, good morning.



MYERS: Back to you guys.

M. O'BRIEN: Thank you, Chad Myers.

Let's get right down on the ground now. And we begin in Cedar Key, where there's a mandatory evacuation this morning. Lots of low- lying areas there, of course. Cedar Key a fishing and resort town there that's kind of exposed and over the years has been clobbered by various hurricanes.

Rob Marciano is there.

Rob, good morning.


A big fishing industry here, especially shellfish. Clams, especially.

As you mentioned, there have been orders to evacuate because, really, the downtown business area, it's almost in a way like New Orleans. It's the lowest level of the island itself. Kind of shaped like a bowl. So that area gets flooded.

We've been getting peppered with rain, as we are right now. I mean, 10 seconds ago the sun was out. Now it is raining horizontally.

So, even though the center of the storm has -- has moved off to our north and west, we continue to get the wrap around the southeastern quadrant of it. And it's coming down pretty good.

Behind me is the Gulf of Mexico. We're almost at low tide, and still the water line is well above what the normal high tide would be. So we have seen a storm surge of between four to six feet above average, and we'll get another high tide later on this afternoon around 3:00.

So we'll just have to see how strong these south winds continue to blow, because that next high tide may very well surge up again to keep, if not so much here, but maybe the downtown area, keep the water in through that area. So not quite done here just yet, Miles. And still raining and blowing pretty good.

Back to you.

M. O'BRIEN: CNN's Rob Marciano in Cedar Key.

Thank you -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: All right.

Let's take you about 50 miles north along the coast to Steinhatchee. That's where AMERICAN MORNING'S Dan Lothian is this morning.

Hey, Dan. How is it looking there?


Getting blown around a little bit. That sideways rain also hitting us here. But not anything that is sustained.

We just got back from taking a little drive around this area here, probably going about a two-mile area just to kind of assess, perhaps, to see if there's any damage out there. We did not find any damage.

We were told that there's some scattered power outages and also some downed trees. We did not see any of that.

What we did see, we saw a number of people driving around and some residents going in and out of their homes. So (AUDIO GAP) on our sort of unofficial survey that a lot of people did not heed that evacuation order. Some 2,000 people who live in low-lying areas were ordered to get out, and it does appear that many of them stayed behind -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: All right. Dan Lothian for us this morning.

Let's move south now along the Gulf Coast and get to Clearwater Beach for you. That's just outside of Tampa, and it's where we find CNN's Susan Candiotti this morning.

Hey, Susan. How does it look where you are?


Well, for Tampa, St. Petersburg, Clearwater, obviously the wettest part of the storm is over. The sun is now shining. But they still have to deal with these high winds.

Over my shoulder you can see that they are moving around the lifeguard hut. And you can see beyond that the seas are kicking up pretty high, up to six feet or so. And because of that, and because of the high tide that even Rob mentioned coming in about 3:00, they are still worried about flooding in low-lying areas. Already, there has been some street flooding in a section of town called Shore Acres in northeast St. Petersburg that normally floods, although we're not hearing about any kind of water getting into anyone's home at the present time.

Sporadic power outages have been reported. About 2,700 people -- or homes, I should say, have lost power. But they expect to be back on line by later today. Above and beyond that, the three shelters that were opened in Pinellas County are expected to be shut down by noontime.

Soledad, back to you.

S. O'BRIEN: Susan Candiotti for us this morning.

Thanks, Susan -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Well, our coverage is bracketed by a pair of Susans. Susan Candiotti to the south in Clearwater, now to the west and north in St. George Island. That's where we find CNN's Susan Roesgen.

How are things doing there, Susan?

SUSAN ROESGEN, CNN GULF COAST CORRESPONDENT: Well, wet. A soggy day in the Sunshine State, Miles, up here on the Florida Panhandle, just a little bit south Apalachicola.

There is a church group here, about 40 kids from Montgomery, Alabama, who have come here to St. George Island to enjoy the sun and the surf. I talked to some of those kids just a few minutes ago, and I said, "Didn't you know there was a tropical storm coming?" And they said, "Yes, we did, but we thought it would be gone by yesterday."

Also today out this morning, I saw some surfers out in that surf. It's really pretty chilly out here. The air is pretty chilly. But the water is like bath water.

I walked out into the water, talked to some of the surfers. They run a little wave shop here on the beach. This is what they live for. But they said actually the waves weren't that good. And as you can see, they've gone now.

So a little bit of flooding in this area. Again, there is some concern that the bridge that connects St. George Island to the Apalachee coast area might have some gusty winds and a little bit of flooding across the bridge that might make it tricky driving. But no reports of anything major, no reports of any injuries. A few scattered power outages along the Apalachee coast, but no real problems right now -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Susan Roesgen on St. George Island.

Thanks very much.

Let's get right to the hurricane center in Miami. The director is Max Mayfield, working some long hours there.

Max, good to have you back with us.

Since we last talked an hour ago, where has the storm gone?

MAX MAYFIELD, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER: Well, it's still moving towards the Northeast here, Miles, and the center is just off the coast here up close to Dekel Beach is probably the closest town. That's not a very populated area up there.

But if you look at the western edge of the eye wall here, it has -- actually has some increasing thunderstorms there. So, as long as that flow remains onshore, remains to the east and south of where the center moves into there in Apalachee Bay, that's still going to pile the water up. But it should not be life-threatening.

As long as people are very careful here, I don't think we're going to see any major changes. It's not going to make it to a hurricane, and that's good news.

M. O'BRIEN: All right. So, you know, we always see those pictures of people, you know, surfing and so forth in advance of these storms. We've seen a lot of that this morning, that kind of thing, people fishing, surfing.

In this case, while I'm sure you wouldn't recommend it, it's not as big a concern as it would be if the storm had strengthened?

MAYFIELD: Well, that's right. But if you look at even Category 1 hurricanes and strong storms, we often have, you know, a few lives lost, you know, of people in the surf. So I would really urge people to be cautious there and not go in the surf here until the winds and seas subside.

M. O'BRIEN: In advance of this season, are you concerned, even at the outset, given what we went through last year, about hurricane fatigue?

MAYFIELD: It's amazing here, Miles. You know, just a couple of years ago we were talking about hurricane amnesia. Now we're talking about hurricane fatigue, and especially in Florida, when -- you know, where people are going through the drill here repeatedly.

I am worried about that. But at least the studies -- the surveys that I'm familiar with say that people are taking it seriously. The majority of people in the state do have a hurricane plan. And we need to emphasize that, you know, this is just the middle of June. We've got a long way to go, and the peak of the season is not even here yet.

M. O'BRIEN: Max Mayfield is director of the National Hurricane Center.

Thank you very much -- Soledad.

MAYFIELD: Thank you, Miles.

S. O'BRIEN: Let's get right to some breaking news. We're getting word from Reuters that President Bush is in Iraq. Also on our wires, AFP is saying that the president has arrived in Baghdad. That according to Iraqi state television.

Of course, there were reports that President Bush and his top administration officials were all gathered at Camp David, meeting about the future of Iraq, and they were going to do a conference call with some of the Iraqi leadership. But the word we're getting this morning is breaking news that the president is actually in Iraq.

So let's get first to CNN's John Vause, who is in Baghdad for us.

John, can you confirm this information that we're just getting from wire reports now?

JOHN VAUSE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We're working to confirm that right now, Soledad. Those reports on Iraqi TV.

What we can tell you is that earlier today the airport here was shut down. All we were told at that stage was that a very senior U.S. official was arriving in Baghdad today. The airport remains closed until about 11:00 tonight, which would indicate that a very senior member of the U.S. administration was arriving.

It could be the most senior member of the administration. At this stage, we're not entirely sure. But certainly those reports now coming from Iraqi television. And what we have seen around the capital today, as part of what we thought was a security sweep due to get under way just after dawn tomorrow, we've seen a lot of checkpoints out on the streets, we've seen a lot of barbed wire rolled out, we've seen cars being searched, IDs asked for, which would indicate that if it's not the president, then it's certainly somebody of a very senior nature who has arrived here in Baghdad.

Once again, we cannot confirm the reports that the president has arrived here in Baghdad. However, we have been told that the airport was shut down in expectation of a very senior member of the administration -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: John Vause for us this morning. We're going to work to try to confirm those reports. And, of course, interesting, because we've been reporting that President Bush was meeting with some of his top advisers, focusing on Iraq, but not in Iraq, necessarily. We're going to see if we can get some confirmation on that.

Those reports coming to us now from Reuters. And also, as John just mentioned, Iraqi state television is reporting it as well.

Karl Rove, senior adviser to President Bush, told he's not going to be indicted in the CIA leak case.

Elaine Quijano is live at the White House for us this morning.

Hey, Elaine. Good morning.


And still awaiting word from officials here on that report that you just mentioned. Officials are in a meeting at the moment, unable to get in touch with them. But as you mentioned, the story about Karl Rove certainly the cloud that had been hanging over the White House, with the question of whether or not Karl Rove, the president's top political adviser, would be indicted.

That cloud has now lifted. In a written statement, Rove's attorney, Robert Luskin, said that yesterday, "Special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald formally advised us that he does not anticipate seeking charges against Karl Rove." The statement goes on to say, "In deference to the pending case, we will not make any further public statements about the subject matter of the investigation. We believe that the special counsel's decision should put an end to the baseless speculation about Mr. Rove's conduct."

Now, we understand that Patrick Fitzgerald, the special counsel, called Rove's attorney late yesterday to tell him. Rove's attorney then contacted his client, who had just landed in New Hampshire for a fund-raiser. But Karl Rove made no mention of it during his speech to Republicans in New Hampshire.

Nevertheless, of course, this news is particularly timely for this White House and the GOP, who have been looking for some good news, especially heading into the congressional midterm elections -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Elaine Quijano is at the White House for us this morning.

And we also have this update for you. CNN has now confirmed that, in fact, President Bush has arrived in Baghdad. Those first reports coming to us from Reuters and also Iraqi state television. It looks as if President Bush, who was going to meet by phone or videophone with some of the Iraqi leadership might actually be doing it in person, as he has arrived in Baghdad today.

A short break. We'll be back in just a moment with a look at "House Call" this morning. Pregnant women and blood pressure medication, there's some new worries to tell you about over birth defects. That story is ahead.

M. O'BRIEN: Also, it's that time of year. It's time to slather on some sunblock, right? And it blocks everything out. Well, maybe not. We'll tell you what you're protected from when you put on that SPF 30.

S. O'BRIEN: And then later this morning, the cheese steak stand -- that's hard to say -- that's at the center of a big debate because of this sign that you're looking at right there. It says, "Speak English when you order." We're going to talk to the owner of that store and the sign just ahead.


M. O'BRIEN: Live pictures now. This is the radar picture, giving you a sense of where Tropical Storm Alberto is currently. Live pictures from Steinhatchee, which is in the northwest portion of the Florida peninsula, where the sky is a little bit dark and the seas are a little bit high, and there are evacuations ordered. But Alberto did not strengthen to a Category 1 hurricane, as was thought last night.

We're watching the storm. We have reporters all up and down the Florida coast, Gulf Coast, from the panhandle, all the way down to the Tampa Bay area. So we'll keep you posted on that -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Other breaking news this morning.

CNN now confirming that President Bush has arrived in Baghdad. That report following pretty good news for the White House. As we've been telling you all morning, senior White House aide Karl Rove will not be charged in the CIA leak.

So what does that mean for White House policy? Senior Political Correspondent Candy Crowley joins us live from D.C. on all fronts.

Candy, good morning to you.


S. O'BRIEN: The last time we saw the president in Baghdad was November of 2003. No big surprise in some ways that he's back there given the news of late.

CROWLEY: Absolutely. And also given what the stakes are here.

I mean, and he said this when he announced that Zarqawi had been killed, and that is, this is an opportunity right now for the Iraqi government to really take control of this country. That is what this trip is trying to do. It's something the Democrats have been pushing the president to do, something that Republicans have been pushing the president to do. Not the trip per se, but to push the Iraqi government as hard as could to take over control of their own country. And that's what this -- symbolically this trip is about.

S. O'BRIEN: Let's talk a little bit about what symbolically the news about Karl Rove is all about. It's good news. I mean, no matter how you read it, it's very, very good news. There was a big old cloud hanging over him as long as the investigation sort of focused on him.

CROWLEY: Absolutely. I mean, it's the -- you know, it's sort of the absence of bad news, you know, can come as such good news when the bad news would have been pretty awful.

I think if -- if the opposite had been true, had we heard that he were going to be indicted, we would have been writing end of the Bush administration stories. This certainly gives new life in November.

Karl Rove has been concentrating on the November elections. This takes a lot off his plate, and I'm sure a lot off his mind. And for the White House, it is one less distraction, so it can do things like go to Iraq.

S. O'BRIEN: When I was talking to Ken Mehlman a little bit earlier this morning, Candy, he said to me, you know, it's over, it's done. And it's not over and it's not done. I mean, maybe the Karl Rove portion is over, but it's not over by a long stretch, right?

CROWLEY: Well, it's not. I mean, first of all, you know, as far as what we know to be going on, which is very little, because, as you know, Mr. Fitzgerald doesn't talk much, or at all, is what we believe is going on is that Bob Woodward, the reporter at "The Post," apparently found out about the CIA operative's identity before it appeared in print. And that may be where the Fitzgerald investigation is going.

You also have the Libby trial coming up on charges not -- not directly linked to revealing the name of the CIA operative, but to concealing evidence, to lying to a grand jury and to the FBI. But it's important to note that that trial isn't coming up until January. And in the grand scheme of things, Scooter Libby was not as big a name as Karl Rove in terms of using it as political fodder.

So that trial is not until January. So for right now, this is a huge relief to the White House.

S. O'BRIEN: And then do the math for me. What does it mean for the -- for the GOP and the midterm elections? Huge relief, too?

CROWLEY: Well, sure. I mean, it's one less -- I mean, look at the themes that the Democrats have put out there. You know, corruption.

I mean, to have the man who is closest to the president in the White House get indicted would have been just nearly fatal. So to have him now working on it, Karl Rove is very good at this sort of thing.

He was in New Hampshire when he got this news. And what was he doing? He was up there saying to Republicans, you need to go out there and you need to campaign on the economy and you need to not apologize for this war. We don't need to apologize, in fact, for taking a cruel dictator out of a country.

So, you know, he was out there and slugging, but now, you know, obviously he can do that with great abandon. He's not worried about legal problems.

So, you know, Karl Rove is not why Republicans are sinking in the polls. But he can help them, steer them in a direction. Whether or not he can save Republicans this fall I guess we'll know on mid- November.

S. O'BRIEN: I believe it's the phrase only time will tell, Candy.

CROWLEY: Exactly.

S. O'BRIEN: Candy Crowley for us this morning.

Thanks, Candy -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Coming up on the program, the latest on Tropical Storm Alberto's path. We have reporters all up and down Florida's Gulf Coast as the storm moves in.

And in our "House Call" segment, some scary news for pregnant women. We'll tell you why some blood pressure medicine may lead to birth defects.

Stay with us.


M. O'BRIEN: Well, the Air Force crew was fueled up and ready. They didn't know quite who was coming on board, apparently, last night. And then one of the people said, "POTUS is on board." That's short for President of the United States. The person saying that was POTUS himself.

Where were they headed? Baghdad, Iraq. We're just getting word the president, instead of having a teleconference with the new Iraqi leadership, is there to meet eyeball to eyeball.

Let's get some further details now from CNN's Elaine Quijano at the White House this morning -- Elaine.

QUIJANO: Hello to you, Miles.

Well, apparently at this hour there is a short bilateral meeting taking place face to face between President Bush and the new Iraq prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. Apparently they are in the old Republican Palace. The president walked in and Prime Minister Maliki only had about five minutes notice that he was getting a special visitor. When the president walked in, Prime Minister Maliki said, "Good to see you." They shook hands, and the president said, "Thank you."

Apparently, this teleconference that we had all been talking about is still going to be taking place. This, of course, was supposed to be an opportunity, according to senior administration officials here, for the two cabinets to essentially get to know each other. Well, now, apparently, this will be happening still, but with the president in Iraq.

Now a little bit more on the logistics and the details.

Apparently, the president took off shortly after 9:00 last night. As you noted, that he announced himself by saying "POTUS is on board" to the pool reporters who were traveling with him. And then he walked into his cabinet -- his cabin.

They left from Andrews Air Force Base, and we understand, Miles, that among the top officials on board with the president for this trip, White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten, also his national security adviser, Steve Hadley, senior counselor -- or counselor to the president, rather, Dan Bartlett, and Tony Snow, the White House press secretary -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: All right. So we're getting -- we do have a tight pool, as they say, with them. And we're getting some of these interesting details.

This reminds back that Thanksgiving visit about three years ago when the president surprised everybody. Snuck out, and all of a sudden he was carving up a turkey there at a base near Baghdad.

You know, when you consider all the media, all the attention on the president, it seems like it would be difficult for him to escape our notice that way.

QUIJANO: Well, absolutely. But as you well know, the security situation obviously in Iraq continues to be a big concern. At that time, as you noted, during that surprise visit to Baghdad for Thanksgiving, at that time the White House went to the extent of releasing the Thanksgiving Day menu. And here, it's interesting to note, we even have word of a supposed 2:30 press availability, where the president was going to be appearing to reporters here at the White House.

Obviously that's not looking like that's going to be the case. But certainly a great deal of secrecy surrounding this presidential trip. We're learning more about it, but those are the details as we have them right now -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: All right. The teleconference happens, but the president is at the other end of that teleconference. We'll be watching things as they unfold on both sides of the -- of the connection. Thank you, Elaine Quijano, at the White House -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: All right.

We've got a disturbing new study to tell you about in a major medical journal about blood pressure medicines. When they are taken by pregnant women, can cause birth defects.

CNN Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen has our report this morning. Important for any woman, obviously, who is pregnant or might be thinking about getting pregnant.

Elizabeth, good morning.

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Soledad, this study came as a big surprise to many obstetricians. They had just assumed, they had always thought that blood pressure drugs called ACE inhibitors were safe to take in the first trimester of pregnancy. So they were prescribed to women sometimes in the first trimester of pregnancy.

Well, a group of doctors in Tennessee decided to test this assumption out, and what they found when they looked back through records of pregnant women who had taken ACE inhibitors in their first trimester, they looked at 209 pregnant women who were on these drugs and found that their babies were three times more likely to have birth defects, specifically birth defects of the cardiovascular and central nervous system. So as you might guess, an editorial in the journal says that doctors should switch these women to other types of blood pressure medications -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Elizabeth, a couple of quick questions for you. First, how many women are we talking about that are both pregnant and taking ACE inhibitors?

COHEN: ACE inhibitors are a very popular type of -- type of blood pressure medication. And, of course, many people have high blood pressure.

We don't know exactly how many pregnant women are taking these drugs, but what we do know is we have data that shows that 2.7 million women of childbearing age are taking ACE inhibitors and that more and more are taking them all the time. Their use went up 83 percent between 1995 and 2002.

S. O'BRIEN: Well, lots of women who have high blood pressure have to take the ACE inhibitors, and then they're pregnant. And sometimes you get pregnant and your -- you get high blood pressure following your pregnancy. What are those women who have a problem with high blood pressure supposed to do?

COHEN: Right. The key thing that women need to remember is that if they come into a pregnancy with high blood pressure, and their doctor tells them they need to keep taking medicine, they need to keep taking medicine. You do not want your blood pressure to get high and out of control during pregnancy. Bad for you and bad for your developing fetus.

So what doctors are urging women to do is to talk to their doctors about switching possibly. And if you think you might get pregnant, say, "I'm on an ACE inhibitor. Should I switch?"

This study found that other types of blood pressure medications -- and there are plenty of other types of blood pressure medications -- did not cause the same birth defects.

S. O'BRIEN: Elizabeth, why are they just figuring this out now? I mean, it seems like it would be so risky to have women taking any kind of medication in the first trimester. Why are they just discovering this?

COHEN: Well, in the aftermath of the study, Soledad, a lot of doctors are asking themselves the same question. They just said, look, there was no data showing that these were unsafe for the first trimester of pregnancy. There was data showing they were unsafe for the second and third trimester, and they wouldn't let women take them then. But there was just wasn't data showing that they were bad, so everyone just sort of assumed that they were OK.

And in fact, unfortunately, there hasn't been a lot of large- scale studies on the other type of blood-pressure medications, too. This one study found the other types were OK.

S. O'BRIEN: Especially when the "Journal" comes out pretty much clearly saying, do not take them.

Elizabeth Cohen for us this morning. Elizabeth, thanks.


M. O'BRIEN: Breaking news coming out of Iraq right now. President Bush catching us by surprise certainly, and nearly everyone else. He's just arrived in Baghdad for a meeting for the Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki.

CNN's John Vause is live now in Baghdad.

We have some video, by the way, I think that is just coming in, some pool video. This is a tight pool, as they say, of reporters along with the president. They went to the republican palace, 1950s- era palace, and made their way. As you can see the president arrived in his business suit and tie, shaking the hands of the prime minister. As they rewrap the tape, we apologize for this. This is obviously just coming in, saying nice of you to have us here, a little bit of an understatement there. Obviously he's pleased to see the president, as he tries to form a fledgling government.

While we get the tape feed worked out, let's go to John Vause, who's in Baghdad. We've been trying to figure this out. Just putting the pieces together, it all seems obvious now, this huge security crackdown that we're talking about earlier, the president in a secluded place, a teleconference planned. All the pieces were in place there for the picture that you see right here -- John. JOHN VAUSE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Miles, we can tell you that when the president arrived, the prime minister said to him, it's good to see you, and the president replied by saying, thanks for having me. We know a few more details about just what happened. Air Force One touched down on a distant runway at Baghdad International Airport. It is a sprawling airport complex. At 4:08 p.m., that's about an hour and 20 minutes ago, at 8:08 Eastern Time, he was taken by chopper. The airport was secured by U.S. forces. The president was flown by helicopter from Baghdad International Airport to the Green Zone. It was a six-minute flight, we're told. That was the most dangerous part of his journey here to Baghdad. He will be on the ground for five hours, holding these meetings with the new Prime Minister Nuri Al- Maliki. Everyone we are told in the chopper was wearing body armor except for White House aides. It is thought perhaps that maybe the president was wearing body armor as well, but no one knows for certain. That is yet to be confirmed.

This meeting, as they say, will be under way for about five hours. And the top-three items really in this meeting will be security, security, and then some more security. We're seeing that playing out now around Baghdad right now. The capital has seen a dramatic increase in security today with checkpoints on the street, police checking I.D.s, as well as checking cars for bombs, that kind of thing. It comes also as the interior ministry tells CNN of a massive security sweep due to begin just after dawn on Wednesday, tomorrow morning. That will involve about 70,000 Iraqi troops, police, commandos, as well as coalition forces as well. We have been told that this will be the largest operation in Baghdad since the U.S. handed sovereignty back to the Iraqis two years ago -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: John, as the two leaders meet face to face, instead of via teleconference, obviously one of the key issues will be the readiness of the Iraqi security forces, the police and the army there. The fact that they have been able to put 70,000 soldiers and police officers in the street today for the security sweep, does that say anything about their growing effectiveness, perhaps?

VAUSE: Well, what we have seen over recent months, and as the Iraqis continue to train and fill out their forces as they approach more than 300,000 Iraqi forces in all, is that they are taking an increasing responsibility for security, for the crackdown on the insurgency, as well as dealing with the militias. There's still no means able to carry out these operations on their own without U.S. forces and without coalition forces, but the hope is that as the year comes to a close, we heard this from the national security adviser, the Iraqi national security adviser, that the Iraqi government is hoping that the security forces, the homegrown security forces, will be in a position to take more of the responsibility away from U.S. troops, so that U.S. troops and other coalition forces can start going home. There's been no timetable set. There's been some targets spelled out. Maybe around 2008 they can start sending troops home en masse. That's still yet to be worked out.

But obviously the Iraqi forces are now in a position to at least secure Baghdad for the president's arrival -- Miles. M. O'BRIEN: And that's the key question many of us have here in the U.S., of course everybody wants to know when the men and women who are over there are coming home. But it seem very premature to be really starting to talk about any significant numbers doing just that.

VAUSE: Yes, exactly right. What we've heard time and time again from officials within the Iraqi government is that they still need the U.S. forces, they still want the U.S. forces here, they cannot survive without the support of the U.S. forces on the ground and without the coalition forces as well, which make up a small number of the multinational forces.

Without the U.S. troops, the 130,000 U.S. troops on the ground, this government will fall. There's no doubt about it. So that is why this Iraqi government needs the support of the president who is here to hold these face-to-face meetings with him. Of course this is an incredible morale boost for this the new prime minister, who's been in power for just over three weeks -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Fur Nuri al-Maliki, yes, when you put it all together, along with the death of Zarqawi, the naming of three key members of his cabinet, and now the president coming to visit, the idea here is at least to give the perception of momentum. How much of that is real?

VAUSE: Well, it is real in -- it is real in many ways. We have seen the Iraqi forces step up. We've seen them out on the street. There is a definite sense of optimism and momentum within this Iraqi government. But this country is still so very fragile that can turn on a dime in many ways. And what we have seen over the last 24 hours, just here in Baghdad, a lot of suicide car bombings targeting Iraqi civilians, last night in the evening in Sadr City, in the Mansor (ph) district, as well in the province of Balad, Iraqi civilians dying, dozens being killed just in the last 24 hours. So for this Iraqi government, what is crucial now to make the most of the momentum of having formed the government, having killed Zarqawi, now to move forward to try to get a handle on the militias, which are targeting innocent Iraqi civilians not just on a daily basis, but it seems like almost on an hourly basis.

M. O'BRIEN: John Vause watching things for us in Baghdad, and we'll keep you posted as we see more videotape of the president and Nuri al-Maliki. And as those meeting progress, we'll bring it you and we'll keep you posted on details as well -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Other big story that we're following for you this morning is Tropical Storm Alberto. We continue to keep our eye on it. Not as bad as it was first feared it might be. Still dangerous, though.


S. O'BRIEN: Let's get right to Rob Marciano. He's in Cedar Key this morning, which is the west coast of Florida, but on the east side of the storm, which is relevant here.

How is it looking where you are, Rob?

ROB MARCIANO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, the east side of the storm, as you know, Soledad, is the worst spot to be in. And Cedar Key is a piece of land, actually an island, that juts out into the extreme eastern part of the Gulf of Mexico, just south of the Big Bend area and the Apalachee Bay area, which is really vulnerable to storm surge, as we saw last year in Hurricane Dennis.

This area is vulnerable to storm surge as well, but because it is an island, the water can go up and around the island at times. But the very center of the island, especially downtown, is pretty low. So there's been a tremendous amount of flooding there, knee deep, and in spots waist deep high water. And this is going to be very slow to recede, as we still have these strong south and southwest winds continuing to push the water from the Gulf of Mexico into this area. And we have yet another high tide to go through later on this afternoon, 2:00, 3:00, so the waters there will be a little bit slower to recede.

Here on the beach, it comes and goes. It's about five to six feet above normal. We're at low tide now again, but still above where the typical high tide would be. So that's pretty much the main story. That combined with the rain, which as you know, Soledad, has been a good news story, at least on the east side. Here it's kind of stormy. It looks like we're in it for the next couple of hours -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: All right, Rob, thank you very much -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: All right, Let's head about 70 miles up the coast right now to Steinhatchee, Florida. I just can't do it. I apologize, Steinhatchee.

Dan Lothian is there.

Dan, what are you seeing there.

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, we continue to have this rain coming down here. It's actually tapered off a little bit now. More what we're seeing now is the heavy wind really pounding this area. In fact not long ago, within the half hour or so, we saw some white caps in this area here, but locals telling us the water level is much higher than it typically is.

Now one of the things we noticed a lot of people seem to be milling about here, and there was of course a mandatory evacuation order. We were talking to some locals, and they tell us that based on what they heard, a lot of people did not choose to leave. Obviously there's a lot of relief that this did not turn into a hurricane, because the last time we had a hurricane through here, Dennis, they had strong storm surge and some of the homes had about two feet of water in them. So a lot of folks, despite the warnings, from emergency management officials staying behind.

Back to you.

M. O'BRIEN: CNN's Dan Lothian in Steinhatchee. Thank you very much.

As always, CNN is your hurricane headquarters for the very latest forecast information. We're back in a moment.


S. O'BRIEN: If you want a classic philly cheesesteak from one of the city's landmark eatery, you are going to have to order it their way. The sign at Geno's Steaks in South Philadelphia says, "This is America, when ordering speak English." Owner Joseph Vento joins us from the City of Brotherly Love.

Mr. Vento, good morning. Nice to see you.


S. O'BRIEN: Why did you want to put the sign up?

VENTO: Well, the sign first of all, I thought it up six months, and I just checked out with e-mail, it's been up since -- at least nine months it's been up there. And what it says is basically this is America, when ordering please speak English. Now...

S. O'BRIEN: Hey, Joe -- Mr. Vento, I'm going to stop you there right now, if I may, because it looks like -- forgive me, we'll get back to you in a second.

Looks like we're seeing some of the first pictures coming to us from this breaking news of President Bush arriving in Iraq. So forgive me, sir, stand by with me for a sec. Obviously there's a pool of reporters onboard Air Force One. The big surprise when POTUS, president of the United States, came onboard, and said POTUS is onboard. They didn't know where they were going. He is in Baghdad this morning, meeting with the new cabinet, and this is some of the very first videotape that we're getting back this morning as they appear to be flying right over Iraq. We're going to obviously continue to follow this story.

And, Mr. Vento, forgive me, and we'll return to our interview, if we may. Guys, let's change our pictures back and get back to Joe Vento as we continue here. Forgive me, sir. Sorry about that.

VENTO: No problem.

S. O'BRIEN: We wanted to get those pictures to folks.

So it's been up for nine months is what you're telling me.

VENTO: That's correct.

S. O'BRIEN: And you're saying you put the sign up for what reason?

VENTO: Well, I was reading it from Theodore Roosevelt when immigrants and being an American. And what it say in excess is he says that to be an American, you know, you follow by rules, but you know, you can't have anything else. So being a true American means you're just an American period and nothing else. You can't be something else and be a true American.

S. O'BRIEN: OK. I buy that. You could be a true American and not speak English or not speak English well, right? I mean, you 're grandparents came to this country and didn't speak English.

VENTO: Well, you want me to finish or you want to...

S. O'BRIEN: No, go ahead.

VENTO: The bottom line is this is America. He says there's room for but one language, and that language is the English language. You must have loyalty to one -- one loyalty, and that loyalty is to the American people. You've got to excuse me. My voice a little out of tune here.

Now that being said, I feel like I'm a proud American, that I learned the English language. My duty is I am not an Italian- American; I am an American of Italian descent. America is first. Now that was my message out there.

Now I feel like you should learn English here, because I'm taking that from Theodore Roosevelt. Now anybody that says that's wrong, I'm trying to teach them. And at Geno's all you have to learn is cheesesteak. What's it take to learn cheesesteak?

Now if you don't learn it that way, we're going to go (INAUDIBLE). The bottom line is, nobody is turned away. The difference is, if you don't know, you're going to point. Unless you show a picture, you might not get quite what you wanted.

S. O'BRIEN: I hear you, sir. You know what it looks like -- forgive me, I'm going to have to interrupt again, because we're getting some new pictures from -- Oh, we don't have these pictures. OK, so then we'll continue on.

All right, let me stop you there then, because I get it. I get what you're saying. But why put the sign up when what you're telling me next is actually you're -- someone can do hand motions and still get a cheesesteak? I mean, what's the point behind the sign?

VENTO: The sign is what I'm - believe that I say -- hey, there are people here, let's face it, that are making it a very difficult thing to learn the English language. I think -- let's take the Spanish, Latino, Mexican, whatever it is there. There is no -- I'd like to say -- there is a second language.

My point is this. Why does the Spanish people have such a privileged opportunity of being able to speak bilingual in school? Or anywhere they go they have a choice of English and Spanish. You press one for English, press two to Spanish. People are fed up with that. So when I put that out there, I'm trying to -- we've got to eliminate that. You want these people to...

S. O'BRIEN: OK, but there's another side of this. And we're going to have a conversation. So I'm going to kind of jump in so we can keep it going. Your grandparents come to this country in the 1920s.

VENTO: That's correct.

S. O'BRIEN: They're Italians. They struggle to learn English. Don't you think it would be helpful for them to have someone who says, listen, try to learn English, great to be assimilated, but at the same time, we're going to put some signs in Italian to help you out while you try to learn your way. Or, you're calling an emergency number. Sure, press one for Italian, especially as the population demographics change. Why is it such a big deal?

VENTO: Because first of all, in my grandparents' days there was no special button of Italian. They didn't have things in Italian. It was strictly English. And they couldn't learn. They didn't venture out. But they didn't go to a store and say to the people, you speak Italian and give me what I want. They had to suffer. The second generation, which was my father, they picked up the language because when they went to school, it was strictly English. When they went to stores or shopping, strictly English. You were forced to learn English. That's called tough love. This is what it is. They had nothing special.

All these nationalities that came here -- you got the Koreans, you got the Vietnamese, the Japanese, the Germans; they didn't get no special privileges over here. They learned the English language because they wanted to assimilate in the country. If you don't learn the language, you're going to go nowhere. You can't have six or seven languages. There's no communication. The common...

S. O'BRIEN: Some people say it's not really a welcoming attitude. You know, the number of...

VENTO: How is it...

S. O'BRIEN: Hang on, let me just finish my question. It's not a welcoming attitude. And from a purely business perspective, someone would say, why wouldn't you just say, hey, good enough? You got money, come ahead and buy a cheesesteak. You know, from a P.R. perspective, do you remember six years ago, you sent me a bunch of cheesesteaks on the set, we talked about them on the show? You listed the celebrities who love your cheesesteaks.

You're considered a landmark in the city, a city of brotherly love. We love people, we love tourists, we love visitors. Aren't all the things not worth the sign?

VENTO: Listen, you just made a statement. Wouldn't it be nice to welcome all the people saying, oh, we welcome all languages and all this? That's fine. But they don't speak English so they couldn't understand them signs. So what is the problem -- I don't understand it? If they don't understand the language, they can't read the sign. The sign means nothing to them. So what is the controversy?

S. O'BRIEN: I guess you're not going to back down from the sign, as some of the critics have asked.

VENTO: I don't believe I'm doing -- I don't believe I'm doing -- I ain't right. I'm doing them a justice by trying to help them to learn English. They should be behind me. Say, well, he learned two words here. Maybe next week when you come back, you'll learn another word. Go to a grocery store, maybe a couple more. Go to your own neighborhood, learn a couple more. And the next thing you know, you're speaking. Because if you say cheesesteak, you're speaking English. I didn't ask you to recite...

S. O'BRIEN: You're helping them. You're helping the Mexican immigrants in your community.

VENTO: That's correct.

S. O'BRIEN: Joe Vento, we're out of time, sir. And, again, forgive me for the interruptions with the president. But we had a long time to chat.

VENTO: Yes, you ought to see shirt real fast. "Save this sign and save the taxpayers money on something smarter. Hey, I'll just say cheesesteak in English. It's that easy."

S. O'BRIEN: I hear you, sir. Mr. Vento.

VENTO: God bless America.

S. O'BRIEN: Thanks for talking with us.

A short break. We're back in a moment.


S. O'BRIEN: Some breaking news into CNN. You can see these pictures, fed into CNN just a few moments ago. President Bush meeting with the leader of Iraq. Big surprise. The president's in Baghdad. He's actually inside one of the palaces where these pictures are being taken. New videotape now to CNN. And he is traveling with a small pool of reporters, surprised when they left last night. No one on board actually knew where they were heading until the president himself got on board and said, "POTUS is on board." POTUS stands for president of the United States. And that was the president telling everybody just shortly before they took off.

Let's get right to John Vause. He's in Baghdad for us this morning. John, good morning. They cracked down, obviously, in the -- to time the arrival of the president in Baghdad to make sure security could be as tight as possible. What else is happening there this morning, John?

VAUSE: Well, that's right, Soledad. Around Baghdad, we've seen checkpoints being put up by the Iraqi police. They're searching cars, looking for bombs. There's been barbed wire, which has been rolled out, all part of a security crackdown, which we have now learned is part of this surprise visit by the president of the United States to the Iraqi capital. And normally we say these visits are unannounced, but this certainly was a surprise visit; a surprise for the Iraqi prime minister, as well, who was told just five minutes before he shook the hands of the president that George Bush was coming to see him. When they met, the prime minister said, "Good to see you" and the president replied, "Thanks for having me." No doubt they'll be talking about the security situation here.

Also this comes as the Iraqi government announces a massive crackdown. We've been talking about this security sweep, which will take place in about 12 hours from now here in the Iraqi capital, an attempt to try to and break the back of the insurgency here in Baghdad, a city of six million people.

What we know about the president's trip is that he touched down at 4:08 p.m. local time. Now, that's just getting on to two hours now. He arrived on a distant tarmac at Baghdad International Airport. The airport was secured by U.S. forces. He was taken by military helicopter from Baghdad International Airport to the green zone, where he is right now. That meeting with the Iraqi prime minister, Maliki, beginning about 30 minutes after the Air Force One touchdown at Baghdad International Airport.

We're told by pool reporters who are with the president right now that all those on the military chopper were wearing body armor, except the White House aides. It's thought the prime -- the president was also wearing body armor. But at this stage, that's yet to be confirmed -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: John Vause for us this morning. He's in Baghdad. John, thank you very much.

Obviously, throughout the morning and afternoon and all day on CNN, we're going to continue to monitor the president's trip. Big surprise as he lands in Baghdad this morning.

M. O'BRIEN: Daryn Kagan is at CNN Center, as a matter of fact, to do just that for you. Hello, Daryn.


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