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CNN LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER

Special Edition: Crisis in the Middle East

Aired July 16, 2006 - 10:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: This is a special "Late Edition: Crisis in the Middle East."
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SHIMON PERES, ISRAELI VICE PREMIER: There is no Lebanese interest. There is no Israeli interest to protect Lebanon.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: The Middle East in crisis. Will things get worse before they get better? We'll go to the region and get insight from Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNKNOWN: President Bush is very sincere in extending the necessary support for the Lebanese government.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: What can the world do? We'll ask White House counselor Dan Bartlett and Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, both attending the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HASSAN NASRALLAH, HEZBOLLAH LEADER: We will go to the open war. We are ready for it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I call upon Syria to exert influence over Hezbollah.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: We'll ask Syria's ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha, about his country's next steps. Plus, two key U.S. senators on the intelligence committee weigh in: Trent Lott and Dianne Feinstein.

How will Israel's two-front war affect the situation in Iraq? We'll go to Baghdad and speak with Iraq's national security adviser, Mowaffak al-Rubaie. Special insight and analysis from Hisham Melhem of Lebanon's An-Nahar newspaper and Israeli Brigadier General Michael Herzog.

Synchronized multiple bombings strike terror in India. Are groups of neighboring Pakistan to blame? We'll ask Pakistan's foreign minister, Khurshid Kasuri. A special "Late Edition" lineup begins right now.

It's 10 a.m. in Washington, 7 a.m. in Los Angeles, 5 p.m. in Beirut and Jerusalem, and 6 p.m. in Baghdad. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks very much for joining us for this special "Late Edition."

Over the next four hours, we'll be covering every angle of the escalating tensions in the Middle East, including live reports from around the region. I'll also speak live this hour with Lebanon's prime minister, Fouad Siniora. But first, let's go to CNN's Betty Nguyen at the CNN Center in Atlanta for a quick check of what's in the news.

(NEWSBREAK)

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Betty. Here on "Late Edition," we're committing our full resources to bring you comprehensive coverage of the breaking developments in the Middle East crisis. CNN reporters are all over the region.

Let's go to the Israeli port city of Haifa, where a barrage of rocket attacks killed eight Israelis earlier today. CNN's Paula Hancocks is on the scene in Haifa with the late-breaking developments. Paula?

PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hello, Wolf. Well, this is the scene of the train depot that was hit by one of the rockets earlier on this Sunday morning. This has been the highest casualty toll we've seen on the Israeli side since Wednesday, when this escalation in violence really intensified.

Now, we understand that a rocket hit through the roof of this train depot. There were 30 people inside maintaining trains, and eight of those were killed instantly. We understand one more has been critically injured, and about 20 more have been slightly injured. This isn't the only rocket, though, that has been coming from southern Lebanon to Haifa this Sunday.

We know that others have hit open areas. No casualties reported there, but every two hours or so there's a siren, and that means you have to get into a bomb shelter because they suspect that there's more incoming targets. Now, we know that this town is an absolute ghost town at the moment. Haifa is the third largest city in Israel; 300,000 people, almost, live here. Very few of them are on the streets.

The police are saying stay out of open areas. Stay inside. No shops are open. No schools are open. And if you hear the siren, just get into a bomb shelter as soon as you can. There are a lot of bomb shelters here. We understand a lot of them were built in Israel just after the -- in 1991 in the Gulf War, when Scuds were sent to Israel. So they are prepared bomb shelter- wise.

BLITZER: Those Scuds, as all of us remember, coming in from Iraq. Paula, stand by. We're going to be coming back to you. Let's go to Lebanon, though, right now for a fifth straight day. Lebanon, Beirut targets of Israeli military strikes. CNN's Alessio Vinci is joining us from Beirut with more on the late-breaking developments in Lebanon. Alessio?

ALESSIO VINCI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hello, Wolf. Well, as you know, most of the areas in southern part of Beirut have been targeted over the last few days by the Israeli military. And we understand that attacks again there this morning and, of course, the people in that part of the town -- in that part of town are bracing themselves for more, especially after the deadly attack in Haifa that Paula was reporting about.

We've been visiting the area of southern Beirut that has been shelled dozens of times since the beginning of this confrontation. As you can see from these pictures, it is a scene of total destruction. Many buildings have collapsed, taking a direct hit we understand from the Israeli military. These are buildings that were used by Hezbollah either to work or to live, by the military, by the leadership there.

We also have seen people taking shelter in schools because obviously the people there can no longer live. Some people telling us that every time there is a strike the ground shakes like an earthquake, and they really were too afraid to stay home. And so they were taking shelter in the schools, of course, which are closed right now because it is the summer period.

We also are seeing some people who are beginning to leave the country by the thousands. We understand they've left and they're going to Syria where, obviously, they're trying to move away from here. A very dangerous road because Israel has been bombing that road as well. Wolf, back to you.

BLITZER: All right, Alessio. We're going to be coming back to Beirut and you often over the next four hours, but let's stay in Beirut. Juliet Wurr is the United States Embassy spokeswoman in Beirut, where planning continues right now in the possible evacuation of U.S. citizens trapped by the fighting.

Thanks very much for joining us on the phone. First of all, I understand there are about 25,000 American citizens in Lebanon right now. Is that the number that the U.S. Embassy has?

JULIET WURR, SPOKESMAN, U.S. EMBASSY IN LEBANON: Well, Wolf, there's a whole, a lot of Americans here because there's a lot of Lebanese Americans. There's people who have come here on vacation. So there's a lot of people.

Now we're not sure whether all of them would necessarily want to leave, but we are working on that right now. The safety of the American citizens, of course, is the first business of an American embassy. And so we are planning to how we could help Americans and would like to leave Lebanon in a secure and orderly manner. And that's exactly what we're working on now.

BLITZER: As you know, the Israelis bombed the runways at Beirut International Airport. So how is the U.S. government, the military as well as the State Department, planning to evacuate U.S. citizens?

WURR: Well, the U.S. Embassy here is working with the Department of State and the Department of Defense reviewing a number of plans to make that happen. In fact, we've just had a team who's arrived. We've had two helicopters that have arrived with people that can assist us, experts who helped move large numbers of people if needed. And so they're going to be reviewing all the different options for finding the best way we can do to get Americans out as soon as possible in a very safe and orderly manner.

BLITZER: When will the evacuation begin?

WURR: Well, it will begin as soon as we can find the safest way and the most secure way to get people out. Obviously, this is something when you're dealing with large numbers of people that you want to make sure that you've got everything ordered and lined up. And so that's what we're working on.

We've been working on this for several days now, and it's great that we've had a new team come in with some expertise that will help us do this in the best way. And American citizens should know that we're working on this. I know there's many people who are feeling quite panicked, but they should know that we're working 24/7 on this, and we'll get them out as soon as we possibly can.

BLITZER: All right, Juliet Wurr, good luck to you. Good luck to all the U.S. personnel on the scene in Beirut. And we'll stay in touch with you for more information.

What will it take for Israel to consider standing down in this conflict? Joining us now from Tel Aviv is Israel's vice premier, Shimon Peres. Vice Premier Peres, thanks very much for coming in.

First of all, on the attack on Haifa today, there's been various speculation that this was something bigger than a rocket, perhaps a missile given the range from southern Lebanon into Haifa. What exactly did cause that destruction in Haifa earlier today?

PERES: Well, the missiles they fired came from Syria, from the Syrian arsenal. I don't know if now or earlier. And we knew that this may happen.

And, by the way, missiles are killing; they can kill people, but there's one mistake that Hezbollah -- they won't break our spirit.

The people of Israel are today united and determined like never before. And I'm sure we shall overcome it, win it and return to peaceful relations. BLITZER: So you're suggesting that the Syrian government provided these missiles -- not rockets -- these missiles to Hezbollah and Hezbollah then launched them.

Is that correct?

PERES: No, I want to correct. I don't know when they supplied it. Maybe they did supply it earlier, not just now, as the Iranians have supplied the land-to-sea missiles as well, as there are 200 other cells of the revolutionary guard in Lebanon helping Hezbollah to fight Israel.

By the way, they were located in the buildings of Hezbollah, in Lebanon, that we have bombed. And if you noticed, nobody was killed. We knew that the headquarters were empty. And that was the warning to the Hezbollah.

BLITZER: But you acknowledge, though, that many innocent civilians in Lebanon have been killed.

PERES: What I can say, clearly, is that, on every single operation, we wait very carefully to see how to avoid the killing of any civilian life.

I wouldn't take the information of Lebanon or the Hezbollah as a true one. I know we are extremely careful to distinguish between hitting the Hezbollah and hitting Lebanon, between hitting military targets and hitting civilian infrastructure, whereas, as you know, we are being attacked indiscriminately.

BLITZER: We see now that Hezbollah has the capability of hitting Haifa, Israel's third largest city.

What about Tel Aviv, which is further to the South?

Does Hezbollah have the capability of hitting Tel Aviv?

PERES: Look, the whole country is a front. And the whole people are mobilized. It doesn't matter where they are. It won't change neither our mind nor our spirit. We should not let terror to win the day.

We shall not submit to any threats of Hezbollah. Hezbollah is a foreign body in the midst of Lebanon, which is a peaceful country. We don't have any conflict with them.

And I am telling you again, no matter where they will hit, we shall not submit. And we shall overcome it.

BLITZER: We had heard earlier that there was a higher state of alert put in place for the city of Tel Aviv, Israel's commercial capital along the Mediterranean.

Let me ask once again: Does Israel believe that missiles can be fired from southern Lebanon into Tel Aviv? PERES: Israel will take all the necessary precautions, to the highest degree, to save life. And we are ready for very event. Again and again, it won't change our position.

BLITZER: If the Syrians provided these rockets or missiles that hit Haifa earlier today, what, if anything, are you going do about that as far as the Damascus government is concerned?

PERES: Look, we are today fighting Hezbollah because Hezbollah declared and started a war against Israel. They're the aggressors.

We are fighting Hamas because they have started to shoot and fire at Israel. The two of them are submitted to Iran. This is the troika. We shall not let Hezbollah to win.

We shall not let Hamas to win. We shall let peace to win. And we shall let a better relations to take place between us and Lebanon.

BLITZER: With the exception of the buzzing, the overflight of President Bashar al-Assad's summer residence in Latakiya (ph) a couple of weeks ago, Israel has not hit any targets directly in Syria.

Do you anticipate that will change?

PERES: I hope that the international community will convince the Syrians to stop being a member of the terroristic camp. I hope that the talk between President Bush and President Chirac will help to convince Syria to get out of this blunder.

We are not looking for enemies. We are not looking for extending the front. We shall clearly prefer a diplomatic restraint that will keep Syria out of the front.

BLITZER: The French president, Jacques Chirac, said on Friday, this. I'll read it to you. I find, honestly, as all Europeans do, that the current reactions are totally disproportionate.

He was referring to your government reacting disproportionately to the provocation from Hezbollah. What's your reaction? PERES: With all due respect to President Chirac, can President Chirac, or can Europe as a whole -- can anybody in the world today convince the Hezbollah to stop their aggression, convince Hamas to stop their aggression, convince Iran to stop making a mockery of all the world?

If they can't do it on their own strengths, what do they expect of us?

We have to defend our life. I wish really, from the depth of my heart, that the French and the European, and the United States will be able to bring an end to this aggression.

If they cannot, we are left without a choice but do it ourselves. We are not fighting Lebanon. The first condition, I think, which is important to stop the fighting is to let the Lebanese government to govern. It is for the first time that the Lebanese government, in a way, stands up against Hezbollah, that Arab countries call upon Hezbollah to stop it. They, too, don't have any influence. The Arab League doesn't have any influence.

Those three or four parties that wants to run the world and overrule it. So I think we should be supported, not because we have the right to be supported, but also because there is a need not to let these groups take over.

BLITZER: You've hit several Hezbollah buildings in and around Beirut. Is it the intention of the Israeli military to kill the Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah?

PERES: We want to get rid of everybody that tries to get rid of us. But we knew that the buildings were empty. And we didn't anybody to be killed. But we think we shouldn't permit that a quarter in Beirut itself will be the fortress of Hezbollah and nobody will attack it.

As I said, nobody was killed. That was not by accident. But they won't be able to arm their terroristic acts from the heart of the Beirut city.

BLITZER: Is he, though, a legitimate target for what they call targeted assassination -- the leader of Hezbollah?

PERES: He's a killer. But we are not passing, now, judgments. We shall try to stop everybody that tries to kill us.

BLITZER: As you take a look, Mr. Peres, at the current situation, do you see it expanding into an all-out regional war?

PERES: No. I think, you know, the classical wars were armed by armies. I don't see, today, the army that wants to engage in a war. Countries that have armies are against the war, including Egypt, including Saudi Arabia. The Syrian army is old and weak. So I don't see the armies coming here. And I don't I don't see the governments willing to come in. It's a war of terror. It is of a different nature. It doesn't have a land. It doesn't have a state. It doesn't have an army. And they're killing indiscriminately.

We shall win this war, too. Let's not forget. It is our 58 years old. We have had to through five wars, outgunned, outmanned, and we won them.

We have had to go through Intifadas. Again, we were attacked for no reason. And even today, I am telling you, we prefer to return to the peaceful negotiations.

And we are telling the Lebanese people and the Syrian people that what can be achieved by negotiation will never be achieved by terror. What they are trying to achieve with terror will bring a great deal of damage and blood to everybody, unnecessarily.

So our preference remains peace. But our strength will prevent anybody to force us by terror or by killing.

BLITZER: In the past, Israel, as you well know, has negotiated with the other side for the release of Israeli soldiers held prisoner in Lebanon and elsewhere.

This time you say you won't do that. Why?

PERES: This time the Hezbollah has penetrated the Israeli border. They crossed it. They came to our land. They penetrated our sovereignty. And for the second time, they tried to take hostages of the Israeli army.

Would they run away with it, it would become a system (ph) again and again.

The United Nations and the Lebanese government called upon the Hezbollah to leave the frontier between us and Lebanon and let the Lebanese army deploy itself alongside.

Instead, they took over the border. They made from the border stations of ambushes against Israel. And if they would go away with it, it would mean that terror again would emerge as the winner. It's poor for Lebanon. It's dangerous for Israel. It's unnecessary for the rest of the world.

BLITZER: We're going to take a break, Mr. Prime Minister. We're all out of time. But coming up, I'm going to be speaking live with the prime minister of Lebanon, Fouad Siniora. Do you have a brief message you want to convey to him?

PERES: Yes, if Mr. Siniora wants peace, I think we're ready to meet with him face-to-face without prior conditions and talk sense. But if Mr. Siniora is a prisoner in the hands of Hezbollah, or a prisoner of the impossible situation in Lebanon, well, very little can be done.

If he is free and representing the wish of Lebanon, Lebanon is not our enemy. Lebanon can be our closest friend. We have sympathy for the Lebanese people. He's ready to come and negotiate face to face, straight ahead, straight forward. Why not?

BLITZER: Shimon Peres, the vice premier of Israel. Thanks very much for spending some time today. I know it's a hectic period for everyone in Israel and the region. Appreciate it very much.

And still ahead, after a short break, we'll speak live with the prime minister of Lebanon, Fouad Siniora. We'll get a complete wrap of what's going on in Lebanon. Stay with us. Our special "Late Edition" continues right after this short break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to our special "Late Edition." Lebanon's prime minister, Fouad Siniora, is calling for a United Nations-backed cease-fire in the Middle East crisis. He also had some tough words for Israel, which isn't letting up on its military strikes against targets in Lebanon. Joining us now on the phone from Beirut is the prime minister, Fouad Siniora. Prime Minister, thanks very much for joining us. Give us the latest information you have on the prospect for some sort of end to this fighting.

FOUAD SINIORA, PRIME MINISTER, LEBANON: Well, I can say the gates of hell have been opened on Lebanon. And there is a series of mad behavior and mass killing that is happening in Lebanon. For the past five days, Israel is subjecting the whole country to its continuous firing and killing. Practically, they are cutting the whole country into pieces, and they are bringing the country on to its knees, and hundreds of people are being killed and injured. And that is why you see that Lebanon is asking for an immediate cease- fire, because as long as this firing continues, then there are really great number of people who are being killed.

Now look what Israel is trying to do. They are trying to evacuate all of the people and all of the villages in the south to the north. There are hundreds of thousands of people that are being subjected to terror that Israel is exercising on them. They are behaving in an unhumanitarian way. You see, that's why Lebanon, we are asking for a cease-fire.

And actually, yesterday in my address to the nation and in the address to the world I have asked for an immediate cease-fire and asked all of the countries, the peace-loving nations to help Lebanon by exercising the necessary pressure on Israel. Israel, for the past number of years, they have been occupying and subjecting Lebanon to a series of invasions.

In 1982 they invaded Lebanon. In 1993, they had an aerial invasion, and in 1996 they had another aerial invasion, and they committed the Qana massacre, where hundreds of people were killed.

Now, yesterday again, they committed similar crimes against civilians in the village of Mirwaheen. They killed scores of people. This behavior of Israel is continuing, and they are not sparing every moment of subjecting the whole country to the terror.

BLITZER: All right. Prime Minister, the Israelis make the point, and the Bush administration here in Washington backs them up, that in the year 2000, Israel withdrew from Lebanon to what's called the blue line, the U.N.-recognized international boundary, and it was Hezbollah which violated that agreement by crossing that border and kidnapping and killing Israeli soldiers. Do you pin the blame directly on Hezbollah for the start of this current crisis?

SINIORA: Well, Wolf, when I was there in Washington, I really met with you, and I said that Israel has been really doing everything in order to create problems for Lebanon. It is true that they withdrew from Lebanon in the year 2000, but there is still an area that is still occupied by Israel, which is the Shebaa Farms.

They already kept certain number of Lebanese detainees. For the past 28 years, they are keeping these prisoners in Israel, and we have been calling on them and calling on all our friends around the world. Why should they keep these prisoners as a way of keeping a problem that is brewing?

They had already kept a number of -- thousands of land mines that are killing scores of Lebanese and being amputated. They are subjecting Lebanon to air and to daily violations of our air space. So Israel is not sparing a moment of subjecting the whole country to its terror. That is why, actually, the thing that happened. Nevertheless, there has been already a crossing of the blue line. That's correct, but what is happening now, it is subjecting Lebanon to a disproportionate retaliation, which is definitely unacceptable by any facet and it is non-humanitarian. Why, actually, we want to bring the whole country into a situation where we are encouraging the extremists instead of really trying to resolve the issues, trying to really release the prisoners?

BLITZER: Prime minister -- prime minister, the Israelis complained, and once again the U.S. backs them up, that over the past six years, through Syria supported by Iran, thousands of Katyusha rockets and other rockets and missiles were brought into Hezbollah forces in the southern part of Lebanon. And it was your government that has failed to take charge to disband the Hezbollah militia according to the U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559.

Are you now prepared to send the Lebanese army into the south to regain control of that area?

SINIORA: Well, yesterday in my speech to the nation I said that we are asking for a cease-fire and we are asking for -- reasserting the state authority over all of the territory of Lebanon. And we have come to the armistice of 1949.

Actually, the way how to really proceed towards that is by empowering the Lebanese government, by resolving these problems, rather than by creating additional problems that will add more extremism into -- into the country. This is not the way how to solve problems. We have really moving from one situation into another, from one crisis into another and we are not resolving these issues properly. So what is happening now is an additional -- a new manifestation of the same problem.

What is required is that to empower the Lebanese government so that it can really reinstate its authority over all of the Lebanese territory, as I mentioned yesterday, and to come back to the armistice of 1949, but Lebanon has to really be in charge. And that's what we have been saying.

In order to reach there, Israel has to really -- first of all to accept a cease-fire, and then we immediately stepped in, in order to resolve the issues of the two soldiers that were abducted, together with the Lebanese detainees in the Israeli prisons and to resolve issues so that we come back to whereby the state can really be in charge and that the -- that the country go back to the armistice of 1949.

BLITZER: Prime minister, I just interviewed before this interview with you, the vice premiere of Israel, Shimon Peres, and I asked him specifically if he had a message he wanted to deliver directly to you. And listen to what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) PERES: If Mr. Siniora wants peace -- if Mr. Siniora wants peace, I think we are ready to meet with him face- to-face without prior conditions and talk sense. But if Mr. Siniora is a prisoner in the hands of Hezbollah, or a prisoner of the impossible situation in Lebanon, well, very little can be done.

If he is free and representing the wish of Lebanon, Lebanon is not our enemy. Lebanon can be our closest friend. We have sympathy for the Lebanese people. Israel can come and negotiate face-to-face, straight ahead, straightforward, why not?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Prime minister, what do you say in response?

SINIORA: Let me tell you, we are used to these arguments that we -- have been attempted by Israelis over the past years. Lebanon has expressed it is position very clearly that it is committed with the peace initiative that was made by the Arabs in the year 2000, and it is high time that Israel really responds to that initiative and tries to resolve the core of the issues that are in hand.

This is in order to really put pressure on Lebanon to bring it to the negotiating table, where they are really imposed conditions on Lebanon. I think this doesn't really serve any purpose. It has been proven that this is the wrong way.

I presume that we had an issue now, which is Israel is waging an old war against Lebanon. The best way is to reach to, really, a point where, first of all, we can have a cease-fire, is to allow the Lebanese government to get back to be in control and the state can really address the problem of the two Israeli soldiers together with the detainees, Lebanese detainees in the Israeli prisons.

Israel stops violating our airspace and busses, the maps of the land mines that it has planted all over the south of Lebanon. And then Israel can take initiative for its own future.

Israel wants peace, that this is the way how they are, the right way how to renegotiate peace is to really get back to what was agreed upon in the international resolution, the various international agreements, is to have a comprehensive peace that is based on the 1967 borders. This is the way how it can really go.

You know, Israel wants security. The best thing how to achieve security for Israel is to build good relations with its neighbors. It is not through terror; it's not through war. It's not through killing that they can really achieve peace. This is what they have been doing for the past five days, and they are killing people and destroying the country.

This is not the way how to achieve peace. This is not the way how to achieve security for the Israelis, for the young men and women of Israel, like the young men and women of Lebanon. We want peace, yes; we want it the right way. BLITZER: Fouad Siniora is the prime minister of Lebanon. Thanks so much, Prime Minister, for joining us here on LATE EDITION.

SINIORA: Thank you.

BLITZER: And we're following this story very, very closely. We just learned that the Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, is about to make a statement in Lebanon. We're going to try to bring you that statement live as soon as it -- as soon as it comes in. Hassan Nasrallah and his latest statement. We'll bring that to you.

Also, how is the crisis playing among Arabs and Israelis? Will it raise tensions with the west? We'll get expert analysis from an Israeli military general and a top Lebanese journalist.

Up next, though, the very latest on the developments in the Middle East crisis and around the world when we check our top stories. Much more of our special LATE EDITION, "Crisis in the Middle East", right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: These are the special numbers the U.S. State Department has made available for information involving U.S. citizens in Lebanon.

If you're an American in Lebanon and need help getting out the number to call, if you're calling from overseas, 0-1-202-501-4444.

If you have loved ones in Lebanon, if you're calling from within the United States, you can call this toll-free number, 1-888-407-4747.

Welcome back to our special LATE EDITION, "Crisis in the Middle East". We're standing by to hear from the Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah. As soon as he makes his remarks in Beirut or Lebanon, wherever he is, we'll try to bring those remarks to you right here on LATE EDITION.

The latest conflict in the Middle East is now front and center around the world. Is there a potential for a broader war?

Joining us here for special insight, two guests. Israeli Brigadier General Michael Herzog. He's the former head of the Israel Defense Force's strategic planning division. He's now a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. And Hisham Melhem, the Washington bureau chief for "Annahar", Lebanon's largest daily newspaper. He's also the host of an important program on the Al Arabiya television network.

Gentlemen, thanks very much for coming in.

Hisham, let me start with you. Is it possible that the Lebanese government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora can break down Hezbollah, regain sovereignty in the southern part of the country, disband that militia, which was required under U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559? HISHAM MELHEM, JOURNALIST: Siniora government was trying to do exactly that and that's why it entered into very extensive dialogue with Hezbollah and other Lebanese groups, trying to convince Hezbollah to allow the army to be deployed to the south and eventually to disarm Hezbollah's military wing.

Hezbollah is very powerful. It's led by a very charismatic leader. It has a strategic relationship -- that's what they call it -- with Iran and Syria. The Syrians support Hezbollah. Hezbollah has allies in Lebanon. So it was difficult for the government to deploy the army without risking plunging the country into civil war, and this is what the Siniora government is trying to avoid.

BLITZER: Because presumably, Hezbollah would resist that kind of effort to take away its arms?

MELHEM: Absolutely. And in fact, when Hezbollah did its operation, and Nasrallah did its press conference, in essence, warned other Lebanese leaders not to do or to say anything that would undermine or would help the Israelis in their attack on Lebanon.

So it's a very complex situation. Siniora was trying to navigate these troubled waters. And now, with the Israelis subjecting Lebanon to this incredible punishment, they are going to either radicalize the Lebanese population or, because in the heat of the battle, even those voices that were critical of Hezbollah, who did not agree with its policy and its outlook, their voices are going to be muted at this stage, although when the dust settles, then people are going to ask serious questions of Hezbollah.

BLITZER: General Herzog, what is the Israeli military objective right now?

MICHAEL HERZOG, ISRAELI DEFENSE FORCES: I would distinguish operational objectives and strategic objectives.

Operationally, what Israelis want to do is to reduce the capabilities of Hezbollah. That's why they're targeting mostly Hezbollah military capabilities -- rockets, storage facilities, launch pads and so on -- to prevent Hezbollah from rearming itself during this confrontation.

Strategically, what the Israelis want to do is to end this confrontation with a different status quo, not go back to the old status quo, where Hezbollah is arming itself, deploys along the border with Israel and attacks whenever it deems necessary.

BLITZER: As you know, there's been a lot of criticism of the Israeli military, of the Israeli government, because over the past six years since Israel's withdrawal from South Lebanon, Hezbollah has built up that military capability with the introduction of rockets and even missiles which are capable of reaching at least Haifa and maybe even Tel Aviv. Was it a mistake, looking back, for the Israeli army to wait until now?

HERZOG: Israel was out of Lebanon for six years, and over these past six years Hezbollah built an array of 13,000 rockets and repeatedly attacked us over the border.

The fact that Israel did not react aggressively over the last six years was mainly because we didn't want to open a second front for ourselves while we are engaging in an Intifada.

But now the feeling is in Israel is that nothing is enough. And if we are reacting mutedly, than we're inviting further attacks and further arming of Hezbollah.

BLITZER: Hisham, it seems there's a split within the Arab community, within the Arab world. Some countries, like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, are saying that Hezbollah was wrong to cross that international border, kidnap and kill those Israeli soldiers. Others like Syria, of course, are supporting Hezbollah.

How serious is this split?

MELHEM: This is a serious split, and it was manifested in the last meeting, acrimonious meeting in Cairo among the foreign ministers of the Arab states. We have the Saudi Arabia -- Saudis, Egyptians, Jordanians, Moroccans and Kuwaitis and others criticizing the Israel attack on Lebanon and the attacks on the Lebanese infrastructure and the civilian casualties, but at the same time also laying the blame on Hezbollah for taking upon itself a decision that should be reserved by the sovereign states. That is, issues of war and peace should be decided by governments and not by political parties with their own military wings.

So this also reflects an unease or, in fact, deep concern on the parts of these Arab states over the growing influence of Iran and its allies in the Arab world, Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah.

BLITZER: General Herzog, we're almost out of time, but I'll ask you a question I asked the vice premiere, Shimon Peres. Based on the information that you have, and you're a top Israeli general, does Hezbollah have the capability of hitting Tel Aviv?

HERZOG: Yes, they probably have. We assume that they have long- range rockets that can reach Tel Aviv and possible beyond Tel Aviv.

BLITZER: And you assume they'll use those?

HERZOG: If this confrontation escalates, they will use those. They were -- these are Iranian missiles. They're provided by Iran to Hezbollah. I think they are waiting for the next phases of this consultation, but we assume that they will use them.

BLITZER: There is some suggestion that they might have the old Soviet-made FROG, surface to surface short-range missile. Is that your information, that they do have that?

HERZOG: They have Fajr missiles, Fajr-3 and Fajr-5, that they fired on Haifa tonight, this morning were Fajr missiles, Iranian manufactured and supplied to Iran. It's a kind of adaptation of the old Soviet FROGS. But they also have Iranian-manufactured missiles with a longer range, over 100 kilometers, and they could use them. BLITZER: General Herzog, Hisham Melhem, thanks to both of you for coming in. We'll continue this conversation, clearly, in the days to come.

Coming up, we're standing by to hear from the leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah. He's expected to make a statement in Lebanon. We're going to try to bring you that statement live as soon as it occurs.

Also, our special interview with the foreign minister of Russia, Sergei -- Sergei Lavrov, excuse me, Sergei Lavrov. That's coming up, as well. All of our special coverage of the crisis in the Middle East right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to our special LATE EDITION, "Crisis in the Middle East".

Leaders of the G-8 summit are keeping a close eye on the crisis. CNN's White House correspondent, Ed Henry, is at the summit, the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia. He's joining us now with the latest from there -- Ed.

ED HENRY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the host of this summit, Russian President Putin, has set a very ambitious agenda, touching on issues like trade, education, energy security, infectious diseases, the spread those diseases around the world.

But instead the agenda has really been completely overshadowed by the crisis in the Middle East. When they gathered today for their group photo, all of the G-8 leaders, really that was the talk through all of their meetings over the last day or so.

The Mideast also a major topic yesterday between President Bush and President Putin. In fact, it was an issue they split over. Mr. Bush yesterday solely focused on hitting Hezbollah, the terrorist organization, but did not mention Israel needing to show some restraint.

In contrast, President Putin touched on both: said it was deplorable, the violence from Hezbollah, but also said that the response from Israel had to be balanced. And he said that in a joint press conference with President Bush. Then later, late last night, President Putin had a press conference all by himself and came out and turned even more heat on Israel. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): We do get the impression that the aims of Israel go beyond just recovering their kidnapped soldiers.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HENRY: Very interesting, then, that just hours after those comments this morning, President Bush sitting down with his close ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

The president had a little bit of a shift in his comment from what he said yesterday. This time, he once again hit Hezbollah, but he also said Israel needs to show restraint. Take a listen to what the president said today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: Our message to Israel is as a sovereign nation, you have every right to defend yourself against terrorist activities.

And again, I repeat this started because Hezbollah decided to capture two Israeli soldiers and fire hundreds of rockets into Israel from Southern Lebanon. That's the cause of the crisis.

And so our message to Israel is, look, defend yourself, but as you do so be mindful of the consequences. And so we urge restraint.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HENRY: Also, interesting that President Bush ducked three questions today from reporters about whether or not he wants to support Lebanon's call for a cease-fire, Wolf.

BLITZER: Ed Henry in St. Petersburg, Russia, at the G-8 summit. Thank you very much.

The spotlight is on the Middle East crisis, but there's still deep concern about the nuclear threat coming from North Korea, which is reacting strongly to the United Nations Security Council's now unanimous resolution, demanding the country stop its missile program.

CNN's Zain Verjee is following the story from Seoul, South Korea. She's joining us now live with the latest -- Zain.

ZAIN VERJEE, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, hello from Seoul.

North Korean TV is saying that North Korea is warning that the U.N. Security resolution just passed is a prelude to a new Korean War.

Now, this is some of the rhetoric we've really come to expect from North Korea. They've said that sort of thing before.

The U.N. Security Council essentially wants this. They want North Korea to suspend its ballistic missile program. The North Korean position, Wolf, is this. They say that they totally reject the U.N. Security Council resolution. They say they have the right to test missiles and that they're going to continue to do so, because they are part of what it calls its military exercises.

North Korea also says it has the right to self-defense, and that's what this is.

North Korean TV, Wolf, put it this way. "The situation has reached the worst face, due to the extreme hostilities of the United States." Now, analysts we talked to here in Seoul today say, "Look, North Korea is playing a really dangerous game." They made a bit of a miscalculation, one analyst told us. They said they thought that China would veto any resolution that came to the U.N. Security Council; and as we know, this was watered down and there was a lot of back and forth over the language, but China did go along with it. And they say that that miscalculation could hurt Pyongyang -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Zain Verjee on the scene for us in Seoul, South Korea. Zain, thank you very much.

Much more to come in our special LATE EDITION, "Crisis in the Middle East", with leaders of the world's richest nations gathered in Russia right now. We'll get the host country's view on the Middle East crisis. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: This is a special LATE EDITION, "Crisis in the Middle East".

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: We're concerned about the violence. We're troubled by the loss of innocent life.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PUTIN: Bloodshed should stop as soon as possible.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: The Middle East crisis takes the spotlight as world leaders gather in St. Petersburg, Russia, for the G-8 summit. Is it time for the international community to intervene? We'll ask Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and one of President Bush's top advisers, White House counselor Dan Bartlett.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: Israel has a right to defend herself. Every nation must defend herself against terrorist attacks.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Plus, two key U.S. senators on the intelligence committee weigh in, Trent Lott and Dianne Feinstein.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HASAN NASRALLAH, HEZBOLLAH LEADER: You want an open war, we will go to the open war.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: A declaration of all-out war against Israel. What influence does Syria have over the militant group Hezbollah? We'll ask its ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha.

A radical Shiite cleric in Iraq threatens retaliation for Israel's actions. We'll talk with the Iraqi national security adviser, Mowaffak al-Rubaie. Our special "Late Edition" lineup begins right now.

Welcome back to our expanded version. We'll get the latest on the Middle East crisis from CNN reporters live throughout the region. Plus, my special interview with Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov. All that coming up.

We're also standing by to hear live from the leader of Hezbollah in Lebanon. That's coming up as well. Let's go to Fredricka Whitfield, first, though, at the CNN Center in Atlanta for a quick check of what's in the news right now. Fred?

(NEWSBREAK)

BLITZER: CNN has reporters blanketing the Middle East, coverage from every angle. We're going back to the region. First, let's go to Jerusalem. Paula Newton is standing by with the latest on how the Israeli government is explaining what's going on. Paula?

PAULA NEWTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Israelis had a cabinet meeting, and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that there would be severe consequences. Later, the defense minister here, Amir Peretz, really flushed that out for us, and saying that southern Lebanon could expect dramatic and devastating air strikes.

What they're doing now is trying to get the civilian population out of southern Lebanon. They're working with the community, getting the message out on loudspeakers. What they're trying to do here, Wolf -- and they're not really, they're being blunt about it. As they're saying, they're trying to neutralize and cleanse Hezbollah about 12 miles inside that Lebanese border.

And what they're trying to do is get rid of and annihilate mobile rocket launchers that, in fact, are multibarreled and that are in back yards of civilian homes in villages. They say that they've gathered intelligence that this is the way Hezbollah has operated for years. And now that the opportunity has presented itself, they will not allow Hezbollah to continue to operate that way in southern Lebanon. Wolf?

BLITZER: Paula Newton in Jerusalem. Thanks very much. We'll check back with you. Our other Paula, Paula Hancocks, is on the scene in Haifa for us. We're going to go to her shortly. But let's go up to Beirut first. CNN's Alessio Vinci is standing by with the latest from the Lebanese capital. Alessio?

VINCI: Wolf, Israeli air strikes have continued throughout this country, in particular in southern Lebanon, of course, where we understand a power station was hit earlier this week. They had the fuel depot nearby. Now the power station has been taken out. Also, Israeli jets in southern Lebanon have begun dropping leaflets, urging residents in certain, in a vast area, as many as seven villages there, to get out of there, because there will be a military operation ongoing, possibly a retaliation of the deadly attack against Haifa.

We also understand, of course, that many residents, especially here in the southern suburb of Beirut, are beginning to brace for more. And that area has been completely abandoned by most people, many of them seeking shelter inside schools nearby. The school season, of course, is off now. And so they do not -- the schools are available for that. People are beginning also to leave the country, and we understand also that the U.S. Embassy is organizing an evacuation plan. We understand a planning and assessment team has arrived earlier today. They flew by helicopter. They landed on the grounds of the U.S. Embassy there, here in the outskirts of Beirut. And of course, this is a team that will begin to work out the logistics of taking out some of the 25,000 Americans that are estimated to be here in Beirut at this time.

And finally, let's talk about Hezbollah. We have got three statements today from the militia leadership, the first one taking responsibility, of course, for the attack on Haifa. They also warned that if Israel continues its air strikes against Lebanon, they would also attack the fuel depots in northern Israel. And, finally, we understand that the leader of the Hezbollah, Hasan Nasrallah, will make a television appearance again on Al Manar any time soon now. Wolf, back to you.

BLITZER: Al Manar being the Hezbollah television station in Lebanon. Alessio, thanks very much. We're going to watch this story very, very closely. As soon as we hear from the Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, we'll bring that to our viewers in the United States and around the world.

CNN correspondent John Vause is watching this unfold from northern Israel. John, give us the latest from your vantage point.

JOHN VAUSE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, this is one of the many Israeli auxiliary positions which are now in place up and down the border with Lebanon. They've been regularly shelling those Katyusha launching areas inside southern Lebanon, as well as other Hezbollah targets within villages and towns. We are told not specifically what those targets are.

The same area has been hit by Israeli warplanes. Israel says that the civilian population there was given a warning about two to three hours ahead of time that this military operation would be stepped up, that it was time to pack up and leave their home. Israel has also been firing their own rockets from around this general area, what's known as MLRS, multiple launch rocket system. It is a precision-guided rocket as opposed to the Katyushas, which are simply fired and then seem to land randomly in the population.

And also, Wolf, Israeli media reports said a reserve infantry division has been called up for possible ground preparation for a ground invasion of Lebanon. That would fit with what I have seen over the last day or two with tanks and other armored vehicles being moved en masse into the northern part of Israel. Wolf?

BLITZER: So far, though, John, there's no indication that Israeli ground forces, armored units have actually crossed the line and gone into southern Lebanon. Is that right?

VAUSE: At this stage, the ground forces are on the Israeli side of the border. We heard a very telling comment from an Israeli military official saying that, at this stage, there are no plans for a ground invasion yet. So, that could indicate that there is something still to come, Wolf.

BLITZER: Is there basically, from what you can tell, speaking to Israelis -- and you're in northern Israel, clearly on the Israeli side of the border -- pretty much a consensus that the Israeli government is doing the right thing, or is there dissent?

VAUSE: I have yet to hear one word of dissent from anyone I have spoken to over the last couple of days. And here on this particular artillery position, morale is high, especially among many of the members of the Israeli army, the Israeli defense forces. There's a belief, a unified belief among many Israelis, in fact, the overwhelming majority of Israelis, that this military operation, the time has come, it must be carried out.

And really, this is an opportunity, one which Israel did not go looking for, but one which has now presented itself to try and wipe out Hezbollah and the threat of those Katyusha rockets once and for all. And this opportunity, if not taken now, may not come around for a very long time, Wolf.

BLITZER: CNN's John Vause in northern Israel watching this story. We have correspondents covering every angle of this story. Let's go to Syria right now. CNN's Aneesh Raman is joining us from Syria. First of all, Aneesh, where exactly are you?

ANEESH RAMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we're at one of the main -- the main border crossing between Lebanon and Syria. It is the main way into Damascus. There are a few others, but this is where, we're told by officials here, hundreds of thousands of people have been making their way through over the past few days.

You saw two vehicles go by. You'll recall that the Israelis have hit a main road just beyond here on the Lebanese side.

People tell us they've been able to route around that. A lot of people, as we turn this way, have literally walked their way in from Lebanon, carrying what little they could in bags. They've walked for hours out of Lebanon. They've spent hours trying to get in. And now they will walk further into Syria.

The majority of those that have come are Syrians who have been working over in Lebanon. They are coming home. We have met some Lebanese who have come out.

Given, of course, the complicated history between Syria and Lebanon, given as well Syria's relationship with Hezbollah, the Lebanese who are coming here tend to be supporters already of Hezbollah.

They have told dramatic stories of bombs detonating within meters of where they are. And they have said that people are afraid in Lebanon. They are gripped with fear, unclear as to what will happen next.

And as they come here to Syria, and as we hear from Syrian officials today, saying that if Syria is attacked, it will respond with swift, unlimited force.

They are worried that what is happening just across the border there will come further here into Syria.

Just very quickly, Wolf, I'm going to spin around. And this is the side going into Lebanon. You see two cars there. That's probably the biggest line we've seen all day.

As you can imagine, very few people are making their way into Lebanon. So taxis are going and buses, trying to make some money, pick people up.

We did meet one Lebanese man from Saudi Arabia who has traveled the whole way to go home. There are some Lebanese who simply have to be with their families amid this escalating crisis.

But the big question in Syria, given its relationship with Hezbollah: Will this be the next front of this crisis? Wolf?

BLITZER: I suspect the only people wanting to go into Lebanon right now are a few intrepid souls with loved ones there, or journalists. Aneesh, thanks very much for that report. We're going to check back with you.

Remember, we're standing by to hear from Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah. He says he's going to make a statement to the Lebanese people. Once he does, we'll share that with you.

Also coming up, with world leaders meeting right now in St. Petersburg, Russia, the host country is weighing in on the Middle East crisis.

My special interview with the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov; that's coming up.

Then, Senators Trent Lott and Dianne Feinstein: we'll get their take on the Middle East crisis and more.

And later, in case you missed it, some of the highlights from the other Sunday morning talk shows right here in the United States.

Our special "Late Edition: Crisis in the Middle East" continues right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

Welcome back to our special "Late Edition." The leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, is now speaking to the Lebanese people on al-Manar, the Hezbollah television station. Let's listen in.

NASRALLAH (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): ... this critical situation today that requires me to talk about, first, as far as the situations on ground, we said, from the very beginning that we tried to behave with calm and accuracy.

And we sent clear positions and clear warnings. The first day, we emphasized our bombardment on the military's positions only.

We did not hit any Israeli settlement in northern Palestine -- occupied Palestine, but the enemy's army was unable, before the mujahideen started, from day one, to target the towns and villages and civilians and civilian infrastructure.

Despite that, we were patient. And we continued our fight toward the soldiers, military and toward the military positions in the northern occupied Palestine.

And there were many hits, successful hits, particularly those hits that targeted -- that hit the positions that was in the headquarters of the northern region and the operational headquarters in the North.

And they were very important. But despite that, in return, we felt that the Zionists emphasized their attempts on the civilians and the civilian infrastructure.

They tried to advance in the area of Ayatash (ph), but the mujahideen destroyed one tank, one of the most important modern tanks, Israeli tanks, and the second tank was destroyed, and the third tank that tried to advance was destroyed.

And this incident was suitable to show the Israelis -- the main cities in Lebanon were targeted. They killed people in their homes in this town. The homes were hit. The husband, the mother and the children were killed. There were 10 martyrs, eight martyrs and seven martyrs, until we reach a situation -- the martyrdom of those who evacuated from the town of (inaudible), the majority of them were women and children, and the destructive shelling of many villages, particularly in the southern district.

From the first days, it appears to be that the Zionist enemy -- in reality, we were patient with this aggression.

NASRALLAH: We were responding to the military because we wanted to emphasize that the battle is with them. Since we were not supposed to hit the civilians, why should we do that?

But we are accomplishing another accomplishment when we hit the gun boat across from the Beirut shores, which was a clear signal that we are punishing those who are hitting our cities and committing aggression against our people.

But the increase of the Zionists and their faulty reading of what happened pushed them to continue their aggression, wide aggression on southern Lebanon and Bekaa particularly, and the city of Balbeq (ph) and to the north, and go on toward hitting targets and new infrastructure.

We have no choice but to keep our promise to hit the city of Haifa. And we know the importance of this city. And since we targeted with our rockets the petrochemical factories, it would have been a disaster on the civilians and citizens of those cities, but we meant not to target those factories because our weapon is not a weapon of revenge but deterrence to spare the civilians.

And we asked for everybody to have reason and to remove their complex of being superior. And we only say that they are stupid and idiotic, but this position does not mean that we will stay in that position.

And from the very beginning, we are required to defend our homeland, our people and our families. And, therefore, we will go to any means necessary that will enable us to defend, so long as this enemy continues his aggression.

And we will, our dear people, I say to you in this speech, I would like to emphasize some points after this logistical, and today we still, in our complete health, we will choose the space and time.

The enemy will not impose on us the method or how to choose our methods. And we still manage our positions in an organized way that the enemy did not expect.

And the first days, normally, will be the hardest raids. They were intending to the break down of communication on the leadership. And this did not happen. And it will go back to these points.

And the most important things that the enemy does not know our capabilities. And when they evaluate their positions, it is based on faulty evaluations and faulty information.

For example, they resort to lies. For example, the first day, all of the targets that were targeted in the southern towns were all civilian homes. It had no basis or rockets basis and nothing of that.

And the Israelis say that the vast majority of Hezbollah's rocket forces was destroyed. And I told the Israeli army this is faulty information.

What you killed were civilians who were children and the houses that you destroyed were civilian homes, empty of any of the weapons that you're talking about.

The weapons that you are worried about are still there. And we have not used but a little of those weapons. And we still have those.

The Zionists calculate their positions based on that Hezbollah has rockets that might reach Haifa, Aker (ph) or Tabariz (ph), or beyond Haifa.

They were supposed to be maybe in tens of rockets. If you based your battle based on this information, you will be, by God's grace, will be defeated. Our ability to respond to you -- and I tell the people of the Zionist entity that your government and your army is deceiving you in this operation and all its battles that -- and what the resistance owns, the fuel rockets -- and you were surprised that this information was wrong.

And I emphasize this point, that the Zionist enemy is ignorant of what we have and is ignorant of what we have, on all levels. What we have is a force we are proud of it. And we're proud that we are not penetrated by the Israeli intelligence. And we are proud that we were building our force on all levels and with secrecy, because we were careful to the day that Israel will penetrate Lebanon.

In the next stage, we are continuing, as long as they chose this open war and careful not to target civilians unless we were forced to. And we concentrated, in the past, even when we were forced to target the settlements and we were able to reach all settlements and every village and every village and every town in northern occupied Palestine in the minimum (ph), but we chose to use force to pressure this enemy.

Even in this context, when the Zionists behave on a basis that there is no limit for confrontation, it is our right to face that, return that of the same.

Today, we're in a violent bombardment. And what happened in the past was a light bombardment. And what Lebanese towns and villages have been through and what the southern district went through last night -- this, the world will witness that and will say that, even, that we have reservations about what happened, the amount of destruction that the Israelis have done. But this will not take us down. It will not demoralize us. We are continuing. And we have more and more and we're still in the beginning. And the Zionists will see, also, again and again, the truth of what I say and what I promised them with.

There are talks in the Zionist circles about advancement, infantry advancement in the west of Ayatashab (ph). And they've tried to do that in the middle of the night. And we've heard that they might use banned weapons.

At any event, we're in the south, still there. Our fighters are ready. And they love the confrontation and have the determination to defeat. And I'm not talking about people who are looking for martyrdom, but I'm talking about people who are looking to show the world a new vision of victory.

And as we surprised them in the sea, and as we surprised them in Haifa, we will surprise them beyond what's beyond Haifa.

And I promised them with surprises, surprises and a level of confrontation on the land. And we are waiting for that with great patience because it would allow us to engage the enemy's tanks, and those who are hiding in castles and in airplanes. And, for sure, that have the best Air Force in the region. We could not respond to that. Any advancement will be good news for the mujahideen because it will bring us nearer to the victory and it will humiliate them in the future as we humiliated them in the past.

This will not be a point for us. And I say to the people, to the good people, the people who are enduring, that we have heard them in the media, and we have heard of their patience and support and their love.

NASRALLAH: You are truly a great people, and this is not a word for exaggeration. And you are historical people. You are a people, hope is hanging on to take Lebanon out of this humiliating period and bring hope to this nation. And I tell you again that your support, your love, your patience, your steadfastness will bring us victory.

BLITZER: All right, we're going to break away from Hassan Nasrallah, boasting that his forces have the capability, in his words, to defeat the enemy. The enemy, he says, doesn't know our capability. Clearly, they have the capability of hitting Haifa, Tiberius, other Israeli towns and cities in the north, and he says they have a capability to hit even further. He did not go into specifics.

We're going to continue to monitor what Hassan Nasrallah is saying, and update you with more on that. Our special coverage of the crisis in the Middle East will continue with our interview with the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, from the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to our special "Late Edition." I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. We're following the crisis in the Middle East. Russia is calling for all sides in the Middle East crisis to exercise restraint. Just a little while ago, I spoke with Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, about the crisis. He's attending the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Foreign Minister, thanks very much for joining us from the G-8 summit. Good to have you here on "Late Edition." Let's get right to the hot subject of the day, the breaking news out of the Middle East, the crisis involving Israel and Hezbollah. Who's to blame for this crisis?

SERGEI LAVROV, RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER: I think that if we should start apportioning the blame, we would be hostage to the immediate crisis, which is very tragic, very important, but we must not lose sight of the need to have a comprehensive look at the situation. Because I believe that all what is going on in the Middle East now is rooted in the lack of progress in settling the Israeli- Arab conflict, and I hope that the leaders, while addressing the today tragedies, would not lose sight of that.

BLITZER: Yesterday, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, was not shy about saying that Hezbollah was responsible for crossing the international border from south Lebanon going into Israel, killing and abducting Israeli soldiers. Are you backing away from that today?

LAVROV: No. That's a fact. And I believe that this must be condemned, and that hostages, both those hostages whom you mentioned and the soldier who was abducted by some Palestinian groups, these hostages must be immediately and unconditionally released, and that firing of missiles at the Israeli territories must stop. But at the same time, attacks and strikes against Palestinian infrastructure, Palestinian civilians and civilians and infrastructure in Lebanon must also immediately cease. That's absolutely necessary.

BLITZER: Are you using Russia's influence with Hezbollah and Hamas to win the release of those Israeli soldiers?

LAVROV: We are talking to all those who can exert influence on the situation. All of our partners in the G-8 are aware of these efforts, and they ask us to continue, and we will continue. And we also support the mission which Kofi Annan is sending to the region. We dispatched our own envoy there to coordinate closely with him and with envoys of the other members of the quartet.

BLITZER: So do you have good contacts with both Hamas and Hezbollah that perhaps could help ease this crisis?

LAVROV: We have contacts with Hamas, as you know. And we continue to use these contacts to exert influence on their position, not only regarding the release of soldier, of the soldier, which they are trying to help -- they were trying to help, at least -- and we also want to influence their position as far as the requirements of the quartet are concerned, that they must recognize Israel, must accept the previous agreements and must abandon violence as a means of achieving any of their goals.

And Hezbollah was part of the effort undertaken by Prime Minister Siniora of Lebanon to initiate the national dialogue and for Hezbollah to become part of the political system and for the military wing of Hezbollah to become a legitimate security structure in Lebanon. It's tragic that those factions in Hezbollah who didn't like this process and who didn't like this prospect, they organized this abduction, in an attempt probably to provoke the response from Israel, and to undermine the process under way in Lebanon.

Unfortunately, the provocation worked, and what is going on is certainly something which we believe must be stopped. We strongly support the call of Prime Minister Siniora for a cease-fire.

BLITZER: Basically, what I hear you saying is that Hezbollah was responsible for the crisis, but Israel has overreacted. Is that right?

LAVROV: Well, you can say so, but it's still too simplistic. The situation is much more complex. And as I said, a lack of progress for many decades in implementing the Security Council resolutions on the comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict, is the cause of all crises which happened in the Middle East.

BLITZER: Here is what President Bush said yesterday on this crisis. I want you to listen to what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The best way to stop the violence is for Hezbollah to lay down its arms and to stop attacking. And therefore, I call upon Syria to exert influence over Hezbollah.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: The president and other U.S. officials are blaming Syria and Iran, and using what they call their proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas, to create this crisis, perhaps, perhaps as a diversion from the issue of Iranian nuclear weapons. Is that an assessment that Russia shares?

LAVROV: Hezbollah and Hamas have some of their leaders living in Syria. Therefore, of course, Syrians do talk to them, I understand, and can exert some influence on them, and we are using this fact in our action as well.

But don't forget that Hezbollah is a Lebanese phenomenon. It's not an imported product. And Hezbollah, as I said, was part of the national dialogue, accepted to participate in the national dialogue at the call of Prime Minister Siniora. And I hope that when this crisis is over, and it must be over soon because too many civilians are suffering already, that this dialogue could be resumed.

Lebanon is a country which suffered a lot in the past half- century, and we should not throw it again into catastrophe.

BLITZER: Let me rephrase the question. Is Syria and is Iran, are they in effect using Hezbollah for their own political purposes?

LAVROV: Well, I have heard the speculation. I've also heard speculation that Syria and Iran are involved in staging terrorist attacks. We take this very seriously, but we want to see facts. Whenever we ask for facts, there are not too many, if any. So we would be last to ignore the facts of this type of involvement, but so far we haven't seen any proofs, and we are working daily with both Syria and Iran, with Israelis, with Palestinians, with Hamas, with Hezbollah through whatever channels we have, coordinating our efforts with the Arab countries, with the United Nations mission, which the secretary-general dispatched, and it's only by combining all these efforts and by coordinating them that we can achieve peace.

But one must never lose sight of the need to have a serious dialogue, not from crisis to crisis, but a dialogue on the comprehensive, long-term, sustainable settlement in the Middle East, which includes not only Palestinian-Israeli track, but also the Lebanese track and the Syrian track.

BLITZER: I want to move on to some other issues, but do you believe it is a fact that Syria and Iran and providing extensive financial support and military equipment and training to Hezbollah? LAVROV: I have not heard any facts about this. I've heard allegations. As I said, if somebody is just looking for culprits, then the list should be much broader -- the list of candidates must be much broader.

BLITZER: U.N. Resolution, Security Council Resolution 1559, which Russia supported, calls for the disbanding and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias. That was seen as a reference to Hezbollah. Should the Lebanese government take steps with the support of the international community to disarm and disband Hezbollah?

LAVROV: Well, I just said that Prime Minister Siniora initiated the national dialogue, invited Hezbollah to participate. Hezbollah responded positively, for the purpose of reaching a solution which would make Hezbollah part of the political system in Lebanon and for the military wing of Hezbollah to be a legitimate part of the security forces of Lebanon. This dialogue was interrupted, and I just mentioned that I hope that immediately after this crisis is over, this dialogue could resume.

BLITZER: Let's move on and talk about Iran and its nuclear ambitions. Does Russia believe that Iran is trying to develop a nuclear bomb?

LAVROV: We're not in the business of believing. We are in the business of having facts, and on this one we rely on the only professional agency which can provide those facts, and that's the International Atomic Energy Agency, which, as you know, repeatedly reported to the governing council of the IAEA and to the Security Council that so far, they cannot conclude that there is no military aspect to the Iranian nuclear program, but at the same time they cannot conclude that there is one.

So we believe the best way to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue is for the IAEA to continue its work in Iran, to continue inspections, and for Iran to come back to full cooperation with IAEA, including under the additional protocol.

This was part of the proposal which the six countries and the European Union offered to Iran, and for which we still expect an answer, a positive one. Unfortunately, Iran taken too long, more than one month, even to indicate its attitude to these proposals, and we adopted a statement a few days ago, the foreign ministries of the six countries and Javier Solana, in Paris, saying that under the circumstances, we would have to resume the work in the Security Council, which was frozen in early May. But Iran still has the proposals on the table, and we hope for a positive and constructive response to start negotiations.

BLITZER: And if they don't do that, will you support sanctions?

LAVROV: We're in the business of not guessing, but trying to achieve what we all agreed, and we agreed to put this proposal in front of Iran and to support, with the authority of the Security Council, the demands which IAEA formulated for Iran. So we would be working for this goal, and not speculating what if.

BLITZER: The Security Council this weekend passed a resolution urging North Korea to cooperate. The North Koreans are refusing to do so. Would you support -- would you support sanctions?

LAVROV: I have heard the statement by the North Korean representative in the Security Council when this resolution was adopted last night.

And this was a statement which basically said that this resolution would not be heeded. But we're not jumping to conclusions. The Security Council just ended very difficult negotiations, achieving a balance which very strongly demands from North Korea to stick to its previous commitments, but at the same time, does not threaten North Korea, which would be entirely counterproductive.

So let's give some time to this resolution to work.

(END VIDEOTAPE) BLITZER: Sergei Lavrov, the foreign minister of Russia, speaking with me earlier from the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Coming up, what should the U.S. role in the current crisis in the Middle East be? We'll ask two key U.S. senators, Republican Trent Lott and Democrat Dianne Feinstein. Our special "Late Edition: Crisis in the Middle East" will continue right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Those are the phone numbers in case you have loved ones in Lebanon.

Welcome back to our special "Late Edition." Joining us now to talk about this week's dramatic developments, two key members of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee. Trent Lott is a Republican from Mississippi. Dianne Feinstein is a Democrat from California. Senators, welcome back to "Late Edition."

I'll start with you, Senator Feinstein. What do you think the Bush administration should be doing right now to ease this crisis in the Middle East?

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), CALIFORNIA: Well, I think the first thing is the Bush administration is clear. And I agree with it. Israel has a right to exist. Israel has a right to defend itself. In just four days, 700 rockets have come over from Hezbollah. And this is the opportunity to create a buffer zone to protect Israel.

These rockets go into Israeli homes, and it's a very serious situation. I think the most serious situation.

So I think the creation of a buffer zone, the disarmament of Hezbollah, and the Lebanese government being willing to pick up its responsibility, which is to see that lawless terrorists are not able to continue to do this.

BLITZER: Do you want a special envoy, a high-level envoy to be dispatched to the region to try to ease this crisis?

FEINSTEIN: I think it needs hands-on. And I think that's advisable. I think there are people that know this situation backwards and forwards, who could be of help. And one of them would be two former presidents, Senator Clinton, who knows -- excuse me. President Clinton, who knows this area like the back of his hand, and President Bush one. And I think that would not be a bad combination to be sent to the area.

BLITZER: The latest numbers we're getting, and these numbers are changing, unfortunately, all the time, 12 Israeli civilians killed so far, nine Israeli soldiers, 90 Lebanese civilians killed, three soldiers. These are numbers that I said are very fluid. What do you think of that proposal to send these two former presidents in to try to ease this crisis?

SEN. TRENT LOTT (R), MISSISSIPPI: That's one option. First of all, I want to just emphasize that I agree with what Dianne had to say. It's obviously a very serious, very difficult situation. Israel certainly has a right to defend itself. They were attacked. The Hezbollah group is, you know, an Islamic terrorist group of the worst sort, in my opinion.

I do think that the president is working very aggressively on this. I think you saw some impact of that by what you just heard from the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov. I thought his comments, for the most part, were very strong. So, seeking the G-8 and other leaders around the world, their condemnation, their involvement, and hopefully in a positive way to get the situation under control is good.

BLITZER: Do you think the Israelis are overreacting?

LOTT: I really don't. I mean, what do you -- they've been attacked. Their troops were murdered, kidnapped. There have been all these rockets fired into Israel. What are they supposed to do?

And I do think they have a right to try to push the Hezbollah out of that southern part of Lebanon, to urge the Lebanese to assert themselves, even though obviously they've got a very difficult situation with a weak government and Hezbollah in their government. Bring those troops in there or others in there to secure that southern part of Lebanon so that those rockets won't be rained down on the people in Israel.

BLITZER: Do you agree with that?

FEINSTEIN: Oh, yes. I think the whole Congress would agree with that. I think there's a very strong commitment to Israel's right to exist. And, as you listen to the Hezbollah leader speak and call Israel occupied Palestine, it's clear that there is not a recognition of this right. And if you allow the Iranians to come in, as they have come in, provide money to Hezbollah, provide people to help, I'm told there are 13,000 rockets that are sitting on the Lebanese side of that border. That's unconscionable.

LOTT: Where did they get those rockets?

FEINSTEIN: That's right. Well, some they may have built. Some may have come from Iran. Some may have come from Syria. So there is complicity from other countries in this. And it's got to stop. So I think Israel has to carry out this mission. Then I think there has to be a cease-fire, a buffer, and a concordant between the governments in the area to create and protect this buffer zone.

BLITZER: Have you seen the intelligence suggesting that the Iranians and the Syrians have been providing this military equipment, the rockets, the missiles to Hezbollah?

LOTT: You know, as members of the intelligence committee, I always worry about confirming or denying something that may be classified or maybe I shouldn't know. Let's just put it this way. I have no doubt that the Iranians and the Syrians have been involved -- and complicity is a good word -- with Hezbollah.

As far as intelligence, we do get intelligence information with regard to these terrorist supporters around the world, including Iran and Syria. I want to go back to one point. I do think that we need to have hands-on diplomacy. At some point, I would suspect that high- level people would be going in there. Some are already going in. At some point perhaps Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

I don't think you should preclude anything. We need to touch every button we can from a diplomatic standpoint, a pressure standpoint, but also to be firm in our support of Israel's right to defend itself.

BLITZER: You've been a critic of the bush administration, Senator Feinstein, on many issues. I take it on this particular issue, the way they're handling the crisis in the Middle East you're not a critic.

FEINSTEIN: I'm not a critic so far. I think it's a time for all of us to come together. I think, though, what's most important is you have to get hands on a situation. It's deteriorated. Israel pulled out of Lebanon. This is the result. Israel pulled out of Gaza. The result were rockets, 600 of them over three years into Israeli homes and a school. This has got to stop.

And if a solution can be brought about, I think Bill Clinton can do it. I think George Bush one can do it. I think it would be a masterful diplomatic stroke on the part of this president to bring together both political parties and address the situation.

BLITZER: Some analysts, Senator Lott, have suggested this is an opportunity for the U.S. to teach Syria and Iran a lesson. Is that your assessment?

LOTT: I don't know if I would call this sort of difficult situation an opportunity. But, hopefully, you know, they will get the message, as we go through this process, that using their surrogates, Hezbollah, will not succeed, and in the end it may wind up backfiring on them. I hope it does. BLITZER: Do you see it as an opportunity, as some analysts have suggested this is, to go ahead and degrade Hezbollah's capability and in effect weaken Syria's influence in Lebanon through Hezbollah, and Iranian influence?

FEINSTEIN: Look, Wolf, Hezbollah is a major terrorist organization. Before 9/11, it was number one in the world. There is no question about what their intent is. And their intent is to wipe Israel off the face of the map. And if they can do it with 13,000 rockets going into Israeli homes, this is what they're going to do. And it's got to be stopped.

And I think the G-8, I think moderate Arab countries have an opportunity now to create that buffer, to have that cease-fire, to disarm Hezbollah. And if they don't do it, this is not going to stop.

BLITZER: We're almost out of time. But a quick domestic question before I let both of you go. There's going to be a vote Tuesday, an historic vote in the U.S. Senate, funding embryonic stem- cell research, new embryonic stem-cell research.

I know, Senator Feinstein, you will vote for it. You strongly support it. The Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, will vote for it. Question to you, Senator Lott, how will you vote on funding of embryonic stem-cell research?

LOTT: I want to emphasize that it is narrow. It's specific in what it would do. It passed the House of Representatives overwhelmingly. I will vote for it, and I believe it will pass the Senate.

BLITZER: And the president is threatening to veto that.

LOTT: He may veto that. And it more than likely would be sustained by the House. But there is a real feel that there's a need to do something here. I believe something could be worked out. Something could have already been worked out. Now, I think the Congress has to go ahead and act, and then we'll take it from there.

BLITZER: You're not afraid you're going to get a backlash from some of your key supporters?

LOTT: Look, Wolf, you have to do the right thing as best you can see it. And if you do, I think people will understand. Some will disagree with the vote. To me, it's quite simple, where you have an opportunity here to make use of these stem cells that would be destroyed, to see if you can use it to help save life. To me, that is the pro-life position.

BLITZER: Senator Lott, Senator Feinstein, thanks for coming in on a very busy day.

FEINSTEIN: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: And there's so much more ahead on our special "Late Edition," including President Bush's plans for trying defuse the crisis in the Middle East. I'll speak with the White House counselor, Dan Bartlett, one of the president's top aides, from St. Petersburg in Russia.

Also, my conversation with Syria's ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha, about claims his country is helping to fuel the conflict. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: This is a special LATE EDITION, "Crisis in the Middle East".

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BUSH: Our message to Israel is, "Look, defend yourself but as you do so be mindful of the consequences," and so we've urged restraint.

BLITZER (voice-over): Is the Mideast on the brink of all-out war? What can the U.S. do to avert that? We'll ask White House counselor Dan Bartlett, attending the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia.

What role is Syria playing in the escalating crisis? We'll ask that country's ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha.

IMAD MOUSTAPHA, SYRIAN AMBASSADOR TO U.S.: Does it really pay Israel to really cripple, finally, a democracy like Lebanon? Does it really have stability in the region?

BLITZER: The Middle East crisis reaches into another struggling democracy, Iraq. We'll talk with the Iraqi national security adviser, Mowaffak al-Rubaie.

Our special LATE EDITION lineup begins right now.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

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

BLITZER: Welcome back. We'll check in with our CNN reporters throughout the region, covering this crisis in the Middle East, plus my interview with the White House counselor, Dan Bartlett. That's all coming up.

First, though, let's to CNN's Fredricka Whitfield at the CNN Center in Atlanta for a quick check of what's in the news right now -- Fred.

(NEWSBREAK)

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Fred. The Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, just made a speech on Lebanese television in response to Israel's heavy bombing. He's vowing to keep fighting Israel in the days to come. For more on the speech, let's turn to our senior Arab affairs editor, Octavia Nasr. She's joining us from the CNN Center.

Octavia, you listened to the speech. You listened to it in Arabic. What's the upshot?

OCTAVIA NASR, CNN SENIOR ARAB AFFAIRS EDITOR: The most important thing about the speech is that Hassan Nasrallah is still alive and well. He didn't call in, like he did a couple of days ago. He went in front of a camera to show his supporters that he is alive.

You may remember the last 48 hours have been so hot in Beirut. His area in the suburbs -- in the southern suburb of Beirut has been the target of some intense strikes, almost nonstop strikes, bringing his buildings, his headquarters almost to the ground, his office, his parliamentarian offices. And here's the man, not just appearing on television but threatening that more is yet to come.

Let's take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NASRALLAH: Mentioned what you killed were civilian -- civilians who were children. And the houses that you destroyed were civilian homes empty of any of the weapons that you're talking about. The weapons that you are -- worry about are still there and have not used but a little of these weapons. And we still have those.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NASR: So basically, Wolf, he's saying -- basically, he's saying that his militants are still ready to go and they're ready in the south. He made it clear.

And he said, just bring it on basically. He said, we are people who welcome attacks because we are not afraid, and we are not cowards. And basically he said that he did not use most of the weaponry that Israel is concerned about. He said it's all there and ready to be used.

And he said no limits basically. He said there are no red lines as to where they will stop. They will take it all out, as he said, not just to Haifa but way beyond that -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And he also said ominously, quote, "The enemy doesn't know our capability."

Octavia, thank you very much. We'll check back with you as we continue our special coverage of the crisis in the Middle East.

CNN reporters are stationed all across the region. Let's go to CNN's John Vause. He's in the northern part of Israel with an Israeli artillery battle.

John, what's the latest there? VAUSE: Well, Wolf, in the last few moments, these howitzers, about five of them here on this position close to the Lebanese border, have been firing into Southern Lebanon repeatedly for about 30 minutes. Now, it looks like they're about to fire again. They've changed position. The howitzers closest to us have spun around, which means they're now hitting another target in Southern Lebanon.

We understand those targets are, in fact, the launch facilities for the Katyusha rockets, which have been attacking targets and cities and towns in the northern part of Israel, more than 500 since all of this began on Wednesday.

These are incredibly powerful explosives. They travel about ten miles into Southern Lebanon, part of the far-reaching consequences promised by the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert. All the attacks by Hezbollah on Israeli towns and cities.

They're firing into an area which has also been struck by Israeli air power. They've been hitting similar targets, those launch facilities with the Katyusha rockets over the last -- over the last four days.

This is a stepped up military campaign in response to the attack on Haifa earlier today.

We're told by the Israelis that the civilian population in those towns and villages were given a warning about two to three hours before all of this began, that the military campaign would be stepped up. It was time for them to leave. Leaflets were apparently dropped in the area, warning them that they should leave for their own safety.

They're now firing again, Wolf. That's a 155-millimeter round going into Southern Lebanon. You can see the smoke rising. You can see the smoke -- you can smell, you can taste the TNT in the air, the smoke as it comes.

As I say, Wolf, these shells travel about 10 miles...

BLITZER: Let me interrupt for a moment, John. If you could tell your photographer, if they're going to continue that, to pan over and show our viewers the actual artillery shots being fired. That would be useful.

VAUSE: We could just get a shot of the -- just pan over to the howitzers.

So not only are the Israelis firing these artillery rounds from this general area, Wolf. They're also using MLRS rockets, multi launch rocket systems, which are precision -- precision-guided rockets. These two are sent in with coordinates. They receive their instructions from a command point after intelligence has gathered in Southern Lebanon to pick those launch facilities for the Katyusha rockets. They're mobile launch facilities, very hard to track. BLITZER: Hey, John, I'm sure those shells are exploding in -- it must be very, very loud. I want to make sure you're not that close if your hearing is going to be impaired. How close are you to those shells? VAUSE: Right now we're probably about 200 feet away from the nearest howitzer which is firing right now. We have ear protection in. It doesn't mean you can't feel it every time one of those rounds is fired. You feel the compression and you can taste the dynamite, the TNT, as the smoke comes over towards us.

BLITZER: And John, I just want you to clarify also...

VAUSE: Not just in this location.

BLITZER: John, clearly you have authorization from the Israeli military to be where you are?

VAUSE: That is correct, Wolf. We are not standing (inaudible) where we are. One of the conditions for us being here is that we are not allowed to disclose our location. The Israeli military obviously very concerned that if we give away any details about where we are, then Hezbollah militants will be able to fire Katyusha rockets on this artillery position.

They believe it's happened before when film crews, TV crews were doing live reporting from artillery positions. Those positions came under fire from Katyusha rockets. So one of the conditions of us being here is that we are not allowed to tell you precisely where we are. All we can say is that this is about as close as it gets to the border with Lebanon, as far as the Israelis are concerned, Wolf.

BLITZER: John, the assumption is that these continuing rounds that are being fired from these artillery pieces, presumably, presumably Hezbollah and Southern Lebanon, not very far away from where you are, might be able to pinpoint where these shells are coming from. How concerned are the Israelis and how concerned are you that your location could be targeted?

VAUSE: Well, it happened on Wednesday when all this began. We were at an Israeli military position similar to this one, broadcasting along with one or two other international broadcasters, as well.

We left that. We packed up in the early hours of the morning, woke up several hours to see that military outpost was on fire. It had been hit on the outskirts by Katyusha rockets.

So, yes, it is a concern that quite possibly the Katyusha rockets could be incoming, but the Israelis are fairly confident that this is a safe and secure location. We have been told by the base commander here that they're fairly confident that this area, Hezbollah militants would not be able to target. It is -- without giving too much away, it is a very secluded area, an area which would be very difficult, we've been told, for Hezbollah to attempt (ph) to fire on with Katyusha rockets.

BLITZER: John Vause, be careful over there. We'll continue to stay in touch with you. Thanks for that excellent report.

Very dramatic report, Israelis launching artillery fire into Southern Lebanon from that location where John Vause is. We'll continue to watch that particular part of the story.

Meanwhile, the crisis has sent thousands of Lebanese residents pouring into neighboring Syria. CNN's Aneesh Raman is on the Lebanese/Syrian border, on the Syrian side of that border. He's joining us now live with that part of the story -- Aneesh.

RAMAN: Wolf, good afternoon.

For many Lebanese, for Syrians, for expatriate Arabs in Lebanon, this is literally the only way out of that spiraling situation between Israel and Lebanon.

This is the main border crossing between Syria and Lebanon. There are two others, but this is the one that comes into Damascus. You're seeing basically vehicles coming in this late in the day.

There was a backlog of people, of vehicles on the Lebanese side. People have described that scene as one of chaos, thousands of people pouring into that Lebanese border crossing, trying to get into Syria. Many of them left their vehicles behind. They started walking.

Earlier today a steady flow of people were coming in. Officials here tell us hundreds of thousands of people have come through this crossing since this situation began. It is the busiest it has ever been.

The Syrians are keen to put some sort of humanitarian face on this. They are allowing people to come with pretty expedited visa process. We are here as journalists very quickly in terms of obtaining a visa.

The Syrians also know that they, whether they want to or not, are mixed into this situation. Their relationship with Hezbollah is coming under international concern and criticism.

The Syrians officially have been downplaying that connection, saying Hezbollah is an independent organization. It does not need Syria. But the Syrians, as well, maintain support for Hezbollah; and today the Syrian government warned that if Israel attacks Syria, it will respond with full force.

Over on this side is how people enter into Lebanon. As you would imagine, it is empty now. It has been empty for most of the day. The only cars really traveling in, some taxis looking to make some money and bring people out. We have seen the Red Crescent here. They have just arrived at this border crossing for the first time today. You're seeing a few cars go there now.

But Syria and the Syrians I've spoken to are afraid that what is happening in Lebanon could soon come here. The Lebanese that we've spoken to describe graphic scenes of destruction back home, being meters away from bombs. No one is happy with what is happening. Everyone wants peace here -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Aneesh Raman on the Lebanese/Syrian border, on the Syrian side, where thousands and thousands of people have been crossing over from Lebanon into Syria, seeking sanctuary, some safety there.

President Bush meanwhile, is at the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia. Our White House correspondent, Ed Henry, is traveling with the president. Ed is joining us now with the latest.

What is the latest, Ed?

HENRY: Well, Wolf, the rest of the agenda here at the G-8 summit has been almost completely overshadowed by the crisis in the Mideast.

The host here, Russian President Vladimir Putin, is hoping that he will be able to get all eight leaders who posed for a class photo today to sign off on some kind of a unity statement on the Mideast, in particular, but other issues, as well. Some unified position on the way forward.

But that's going to be easier said than done when you have some of the participants, like French President Chirac has said flatly that he believes the response from Israel, for example, has been, in his words, "disproportionate."

The Mideast also causing a bit of a split between Mr. Putin, as well as President Bush here. Yesterday at a joint press conference, basically President Bush solely focused on ripping into Hezbollah, the terrorist organization, but did not mention Israel; whereas Mr. Putin at that joint event singled out both sides, and then at a press conference of his own later last night, Mr. Putin really turned the heat up on Israel.

Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PUTIN: We do get the impression that the aims of Israel go beyond just recovering their kidnapped soldiers.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HENRY: It's very interesting then that just a few hours later this morning Mr. Bush met with his close ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Mideast, a major topic of their discussion, of course, and Mr. Bush today decided to talk about both sides sharing responsibility here, unlike yesterday: Hezbollah as well as Israel.

Take a listen to the president.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: Our message to Israel is that, as a sovereign nation, you have every right to defend yourself against terrorist activities.

And, again, I repeat, this started because Hezbollah decided to capture two Israeli soldiers and fire hundreds of rockets into Israel from southern Lebanon. That's the cause of the crisis.

And so our message is to Israel is, "Look, defend yourself but as you do so be mindful of the consequences," and so we've urged restraint.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HENRY: Also interesting that President Bush called for an end to the violence but would not answer three questions from U.S. reporters about whether or not he supports Lebanon's call for a cease-fire.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice later explaining to reporters here at the G-8 summit that basically the administration wants a sustainable end to the violence, and they're not convinced that Hezbollah could actually sign off on a cease-fire. They're concerned that within a couple of days of a cease-fire Hezbollah could start launching more rockets and they'd basically be back to square one, Wolf.

BLITZER: We're just getting across the wire, Ed, a G-8 statement, the leaders issuing a statement on the Middle East crisis. I don't know if you've actually -- you have that in your hand yet. I assume you'll be getting it very, very shortly.

HENRY: I'll check my e-mail right now. I do not have it yet, Wolf.

BLITZER: But let me -- let me read to you -- Ed, stand by for a moment -- what the wires are saying, the news agencies. They're saying the Group of eight on Sunday blamed an upsurge in violence on extremists in the Middle East, "These extremist elements and those that support them cannot be allowed to plunge the Middle East into chaos." That's what the text said.

Goes on to say, "We call upon Israel to exercise utmost restraint."

Sounds like a very carefully phrased statement that could unify all of the representatives at this G-8 summit. Not a huge surprise if that's the bottom line of what this G-8 summit says.

HENRY: Absolutely, because that's about as far as they can go to get all eight leaders on board basically, Wolf, is to -- no surprise there -- call for an end to the violence, saying that extremists cannot win here.

But on Israel, very careful treading there. President Bush in particular has not gone too far on that, only saying, of course, there should be restraint on Israel's response, but certainly not going as far as the French president, who has said flatly he believes Israel's response has been disproportionate. You are certainly not going to hear that from either President Bush or Tony Blair -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Ed Henry covering the summit for us. He's going to be standing by. We're going to continue to watch the latest statements coming out of the G-8. Also coming up, I'll speak with the White House counselor, Dan Bartlett, one of the president's top aides, about what the Bush administration plans to do in the Middle East. And then Syria's role in this crisis. Is the government supporting Hezbollah? We'll speak with Syria's ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha.

And later my special conversation with Iraq's national security adviser, Mowaffak al-Rubaie, about whether the crisis in the Middle East is undermining efforts to curb violence in Iraq.

Our special LATE EDITION continues right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Those are the numbers, if you have loved ones in Lebanon, you can call those special State Department numbers you just saw on the screen.

Welcome back to our special LATE EDITION, "Crisis in the Middle East".

A huge question now with the escalating violence is this: what should the United States government do? Just a short while ago, I spoke with White House counselor Dan Bartlett, who's with President Bush at the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Dan Bartlett, thanks very much for joining us from the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg. What is the Bush administration trying to do now to stop this crisis from escalating between the Israelis and Hezbollah and Hamas?

DAN BARTLETT, PRESIDENTIAL ADVISER: Well, Wolf, President Bush this morning met with Prime Minister Tony Blair, as well as President Chirac of France, and what we're seeing here at the G-8 summit is a growing consensus amongst these leaders that we have to speak very clearly about the violence, to do everything we can to try to persuade Hezbollah, who started and provoked this whole crisis that we're in today, to lay down their arms, to get back to the political process.

And as you know, Wolf, there was political process being made -- progress being made both in the Palestinian territories of Gaza, as well as this young democracy in Lebanon, and it's that -- those very actions of progress that these violent extremists, terrorist organizations are trying to stop.

And what we're seeing is Syria, unfortunately, as well as Iran, backing Hezbollah, backing Hamas, in a very provocative way. But the civilized world, the international community and moderate forces in the region are now coming together to say this must stop. We must have all parties come back to the political process that was working before this all happened.

BLITZER: Is there a desire on the part of the president to dispatch a high level emissary to the region, to try to calm things down? BARTLETT: Well, the president will never rule out that type of action. What he is focused on right now and what all the leaders here in the G-8 are focused on is addressing the root causes of why this violence started in the first place. What we had was Hezbollah coming across into a sovereign state, killing soldiers and taking some hostage.

We had a political process moving forward in that country of Lebanon. U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, which was brokered by the United States and France, it gave a process for Hezbollah to lay down its arms and let this new young democracy take root.

And what President Bush is focused on, both in his conversations with the people in the region as well as the leaders here at the G-8, is let's get people focused back on the root causes, so we can clearly define what the challenges are.

We all want the violence to stop, Wolf. President Bush is deeply concerned about the plight of innocent civilians on both sides of this conflict, and he will work hard, and he will do whatever necessary. And if that requires dispatching somebody to the region, I'm sure he would do that.

But right now, we believe the proper focus is getting the international community all on the same page, which we believe can happen in the coming days.

BLITZER: What evidence do you have that Syria and Iran are responsible for what Hezbollah and Hamas has done, in terms of killing and capturing, kidnapping Israeli soldiers?

BARTLETT: Well, what we have seen, unfortunately, is more and more evidence that Syria, who obviously gives direct comfort to Hezbollah; Iran, who is providing a lot of funding for Hezbollah, increasingly being overt in their activities and in their support of Hezbollah. That is a very deep concern, not only to the United States of America, not only to the other members of the G-8, but to a lot of moderate forces in the Middle East.

And what we're seeing now is in an unfortunate circumstance like this, a clarification, a drawing of the lines between those forces that are for peace and stability and those who are not for it. And what you're going to see is further isolation of the governments of Syria and Iran and more people joining the moderate forces, and that part of it is a hopeful sign, Wolf, as we move forward.

BLITZER: There have been -- there have been some analysts, including the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, who knows this part of the world rather well, as you well know, suggested that Iran might have been trying to change the subject from its own nuclear program, to try to get the world focused in on something else in an effort to stall, to delay whatever is going on over there. Is that an assessment that you share?

BARTLETT: I don't think you can rule that out, Wolf. The motives -- the true motives of the Iranian regime are very hard to ascertain, but it is clear that the international community was united coming into this G-8 summit, and sending a very clear signal to the Iranian regime to give up its nuclear ambitions, to rejoin the talks, stop the enriching process that they have found to be done or they declared they're doing, and try to find peaceful dialogue.

What we're seeing across the board in the Middle East, Wolf, is whether you look in the West Bank, if you look in Lebanon, and then if you even look in Baghdad for that matter, in these three areas, you see young, fledgling democracies trying to take root, and what you see is violent extremists, supported by Syria, supported by Iran, trying to crush that democracy in its infancy.

And it's critically important that the free world come together and try to support these democratic movements so they will succeed. And that is why they're fighting them so hard.

BLITZER: The Russians, the French, other European nations, even the more moderate Arab states, are saying that Israel reacted disproportionately, overreacted to the killing and capturing of these Israeli soldiers. Does the Bush administration share that stance, that Israel overreacted?

BARTLETT: Well, as the president has stated, you would expect any sovereign nation who has been attacked, has crossed their territory, and into their territory and has killed civilians, taken hostage soldiers, that you would expect them to defend themselves.

But as I've seen in the personal meetings the president has had today, yesterday and today with President Putin, President Chirac and Prime Minister Blair, that everybody recognizes that we're in this situation because of Hezbollah, and everybody recognizes that Israel has a right to defend herself.

Now, as the president also said in our messages to Israel is that they have to be restrained in their response, to ensure that the very motives or objectives they're trying to achieve don't backfire and that we strengthen Hezbollah and Hamas. And that means not letting this Lebanese government fall.

So that's something that we've been very clear with them, both privately and publicly. But President Bush is not going to sit here and do a play-by-play judging of tactics used. We do recognize a sovereign nation's right to defend herself.

But what you're seeing differently than in past times, you've always heard, Wolf, people condemning Israel. What we're hearing new this time is that we're seeing moderate forces in the Middle East, as well as Europeans leaders and other leaders here at the G-8, saying Hezbollah has started this, Hezbollah is the culprit here, and we are a growing united voice on that front.

BLITZER: When you and the president and the secretary of state suggest Israel should show restraint, what exactly do you mean by that? Should Israel stop its attacks?

BARTLETT: Well, again, we're not going to get into specific tactical decision-making, but what we're saying is let's not lose sight of the broader context or purpose of any objective, and that is to make sure that the young democracy in Lebanon succeed, not fall, and that is an important message that they take seriously. They say that they are doing everything they can to prevent the loss of civilian lives. They're doing everything they can to make sure that they focus this just on Hezbollah, or Hezbollah's infrastructure.

So we're going to continue to convey that message, Wolf, and it's important that they understand where the -- our government stands on that issue.

BLITZER: We're almost out of time, but I want to just read to you what the chief of staff of the Israeli army said on Friday. He said this: "Our goal is to hurt Hezbollah and wait for the Lebanese government to take responsibility, which means the removal of Hezbollah from the border area and its replacement with another force, a force that represents Lebanese sovereignty."

Do you believe the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora has the ability or the desire to disband Hezbollah, that militia in the south, and send the Lebanese army down to the south to control that area?

BARTLETT: Well, Wolf, that is exactly what U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559 was designed to help the Lebanese government do, and the international community can play a role to make sure they have a strengthened hand to take care of their internal affairs when it comes to Hezbollah.

I can't give you a flat determination about the capabilities of the Lebanese army. But what I can say is that the U.N. mission that is now being dispatched to Lebanon is going to do some fact-finding and report back to the U.N. Security Council in New York later this week, where we can make an assessment of how we can help this Lebanese government regain control of the south and give reassurances to Israel that they don't have to worry about rockets being lobbed into their civilian neighborhoods and killing innocent lives.

BLITZER: Dan Bartlett, counselor to the president, have a safe trip back. We'll see you back here in Washington.

BARTLETT: Thank you, Wolf. Take care.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And still to come on our special "Late Edition," Syria's ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha, on whether his country might take military action itself in this Middle East crisis. Also, we'll have a quick check of what's in the news right now, including the latest from Lebanon and Israel. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWSBREAK)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: Welcome back to our special "Late Edition." We're following this crisis in the Middle East. Both the United States and Israel are pressuring Syria to take a role in defusing the Middle East crisis by exerting influence on Hezbollah. That country has been blamed for fueling instability in Lebanon by both the U.S. and Israel.

Joining us here in Washington is Syria's ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha. Mr. Ambassador, welcome back to "Late Edition."

MOUSTAPHA: Thank you.

BLITZER: First of all, what are you hearing? What's the latest information you're getting from Damascus on this crisis that's unfolding? Because clearly it's having a dramatic impact. We just saw Aneesh Raman on the border between Lebanon and Syria. Thousands of people trying to flee Lebanon into Syria.

MOUSTAPHA: It's a human disaster on a large scale. Lebanese civilians are being killed around the hour. Actually an hour ago the Israeli army bombarded a residential building, five stories. It was totally demolished. Tens of families were totally wiped out. Children, women, men, elderly, no discrimination. We have opened our borders. Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese are fleeing into Syria.

BLITZER: Hundreds of thousands?

MOUSTAPHA: Yes, that's true. Add this to the at least 200,000 Iraqi refugees today in Syria, and you can understand the sort of crisis that is taking place today in the Middle East.

BLITZER: So normally, it's very hard to get a visa, if you're not a Syrian citizen, to enter into Syria. But what you're saying is, the Syrian government has basically opened up the doors to everyone, including U.S. citizens?

MOUSTAPHA: Let me refute what you're saying. Usually, we grant a U.S. citizen a visa the day he or she applies for a visa. But this is unimportant today. Because of the crisis, we have opened our borders to all American citizens.

I have been receiving telephone calls from American families throughout the past three days, asking me whether they can cross into Syria. And I was telling them, we are allowing all American citizens, without any exception, to go into Syria, regardless of their visa status.

BLITZER: Earlier this morning, the president of the United States, at the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg had, again, harsh words for your country and Iran. Listen to what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: One way to help deal in the Middle East is to address the root causes of the problems there. And the root cause of the problem is Hezbollah and Syria and the Iranian connection.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: The root cause of the problem, he says, is Hezbollah and Syria and the Iranian connection. The accusation against Syria and Iran is that you're sending military equipment, rockets, missiles, other equipment to Hezbollah, which has this vast array of military rockets, now, in southern Lebanon. And they're firing on towns and villages in the northern part of Israel.

MOUSTAPHA: When I heard President Bush saying we should address the root cause of the problem, I felt happy. I thought, finally, they will address the root cause of the problem, which is the ongoing occupation and humiliation of the Palestinians, the daily infringements on Lebanese sovereignty.

And then, once again, he said it's Damascus; it's Tehran. They do everything -- they talk about everything, but they never address the root cause of the problem. The Middle East needs peace. Peace can only be achieved and attained when the Israelis will end their occupation.

BLITZER: But does Syria provide military equipment, military training to Hezbollah in Lebanon?

MOUSTAPHA: No, Syria does not provide military training or military equipment to Hezbollah in Lebanon. This is not the issue.

It's always trying to ignore the big elephant in the room. The big issue is that, right now, while we are talking, Israel is committing atrocities in Lebanon.

President Bush has repeatedly said that he is a friend of Lebanon. When the Lebanese government rushed to the United Nations Security Council yesterday, asking the Security Council to interfere, to stop the massacre, the United States objected.

This is the time for the United States to prove that they are friends to Lebanon and to stop this bloodshed in Lebanon.

BLITZER: Does Syria allow trans-shipment of military equipment, these missiles, these rockets from Iran through Syria into southern Lebanon for Hezbollah?

MOUSTAPHA: Let us be very clear about this. While the whole world's attention is focused on what is going on on the ground in Lebanon, the massacre, the atrocities, destroying Lebanon for the third time by the Israelis, Israel is trying to change the paradigm.

They are trying to talk about Damascus, Tehran. Stop this. Damascus and Tehran are not the problem. The problem is Israel's aggression on other countries. Today you heard -- you had the vice premier of Israel on your program.

BLITZER: Shimon Peres?

MOUSTAPHA: And he was saying how he wants to be friends and he likes Lebanon and wants to be friends with Lebanon. And then you heard Fouad Siniora talking.

BLITZER: The prime minister of Lebanon? MOUSTAPHA: Yes. This was a big surprise to us to hear what the vice premier of Israel was talking. While a rapist is raping his victim, he is telling her, I want to befriend you; I really like you; and she is supposed to hear his message. He was saying this while his troops were actually burning Lebanon.

BLITZER: Does Syria allow the trans-shipment of military equipment from Iran into Lebanon?

MOUSTAPHA: Hezbollah does not need any logistics from Syria. We have to be very clear about this.

BLITZER: Where do they get these missiles?

There's thousands of them.

MOUSTAPHA: This is something for the military intelligence to decide, not for me to decide. What I'm trying to say is the following. Since these events started, we have been trying to convince the world community to de-escalate. We don't want to escalate the situation in the Middle East. This is so dangerous. What is happening today is concerning us. We in Syria are totally worried about the fate of the Lebanese people. We do not want to escalate the situation. Ask which country is escalating.

BLITZER: All right, listen to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice speaking out on Syria. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: I would just note that we have not had particularly warm relations with Syria for quite a long time.

I don't think it's a surprise to the Syrians that we think that they are a problem here. I think we've sent all kinds of messages in that regard.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: They recalled the U.S. ambassador from Damascus because of the accusation that Syria was directly responsible for the assassination of the Lebanese prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, last year.

MOUSTAPHA: Well, they think so. There is an international investigation that's being conducted. Let this investigation decide who was behind this terrible crime.

It is not a surprise to us that Secretary Rice, with due respect, has said this. In the past year, or a little bit more, this has been the habit of this U.S. administration.

Whenever there is a crisis, regardless of any real causes, immediately they will throw the blame on Damascus. This is not diplomacy. This is not international politics.

BLITZER: I'll read to you from the official State Department Counterterrorism report that was released in April of this year.

"The Syrian government continued to provide political and material support to both Hezbollah and Palestinian terrorist groups... Syria continued to permit Iran to use Damascus as a trans-shipment point to resupply Hezbollah in Lebanon."

And you're saying...

MOUSTAPHA: This is as credible as the United States' accusations about Iraq's WMDs and Saddam's relations to Al Qaida. Stop bluffing the American public opinion.

The issue is the occupation. Help, help us end the occupation. You are the closest ally to Israel. You have influence and leverage on Israel. Help the Israelis, convince the Israelis that they need to end their occupation of our territories and peace will be attained in the Middle East. BLITZER: We're almost out of time. But I want to read to you what the Saudi foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, said on Saturday.

He said, "Hezbollah's acts are unexpected, inappropriate and irresponsible. These acts will pull the whole region back to years ago, and we cannot simply accept them."

It seems like the Arab world is divided now, in reacting to Hezbollah's crossing the international border into Israel, killing and kidnapping these Israeli soldiers.

MOUSTAPHA: The Arab foreign ministers met yesterday in Cairo. And all of them unanimously agreed on asking the world community to interfere so Israel will stop its aggression on Lebanon.

What I want to remind everybody of is the following. It was not a peaceful, rosy Middle East that suddenly erupted into this latest crisis. Three weeks ago, Israel attacked a Palestinian family while they were picnicking on the coastline of Gaza, and a new round of tension, bloodshed and violence erupted in the Middle East.

We go around, we go around, we go around; we come back to the issue. Why doesn't Israel cease its occupation of our territories and allow us to live in peace, just like they want to live in peace?

BLITZER: We're out of time. But one quick question: We'd like to interview your boss, the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad.

Do you think he's ready to sit down with us and talk to us about Syria's role in this crisis?

MOUSTAPHA: I think this is possible; this can be arranged. It's always good to talk to each other and to engage and to explain the other viewpoint.

BLITZER: You'll let us know when he's ready and we'll fly over to Damascus and interview the Syrian president.

Imad Moustapha, thanks for coming in. MOUSTAPHA: Thank you.

BLITZER: Coming up next, we'll get an update on the U.S. effort to evacuate U.S. citizens from Lebanon. Barbara Starr, our Pentagon correspondent, has information.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back. A U.S. military team is in Beirut to try to oversee the evacuation of thousands of U.S. citizens trapped in Lebanon right now. Our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, is joining us on the phone. She has new details of what's going on. Barbara, what have you learned?

BARBARA STARR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, two U.S. military helicopters landed at the embassy just a few hours ago. They removed 20 people, medical patients, they took out to Cyprus. But before they left, they also dropped off a military survey and assessment team. That was at the request of the U.S. ambassador, ordered in by General John Abizaid, the head of the U.S. central command, of course.

This 10- to 20-man team now will conduct the final liaison, final preparations for an evacuation of Americans from Lebanon if and when it comes to that. What this team will do, Wolf, is they will establish a secure communications so U.S. troops coming in will be able to know exactly what the situation is on the ground. They will have the latest intelligence. They will have the logistics. They will work out the transportation routes inside Lebanon for Americans to get to a safe location so they can be taken out.

The plan, Wolf, as it stands now, remains what has been announced by the State Department. The U.S. military will facilitate getting Americans out of Lebanon, taking them to Cyprus so they can get commercial airline, airliners to go back to their homes or to other locations. But make no mistake, Wolf, the military is taking this very seriously.

It seems like an extraordinary thing to say U.S. troops going into Beirut. If it comes to that in the next few days, they will try and go in, get Americans out and get out as quickly as possible. Their desire, they tell us, is not to fire a shot, not to get involved in any combat operations, simply to ensure the safe passage and get Americans out of Lebanon, those who want to leave.

But they will go fully capable of defending themselves, and they tell us they are very aware they could face a threat from Hezbollah. They are coordinating, of course, with both the Israeli government and the government of Lebanon to ensure safe passage, but nobody can really predict what Hezbollah might do, and whether they will allow the Americans to come in and out in a very quick, safe manner.

BLITZER: There is, Barbara, there is a history, as a lot of our viewers will remember, in the early '80s during the Reagan administration when U.S. Marines went into Beirut, and that ended in disaster. two hundred forty-one U.S. troops killed in an attack on the barracks outside Beirut. The widely assumed assumption was that Hezbollah was responsible for that.

Barbara, we're going to stay on top of this story. We're going to watch it together with you, get more information as it becomes available. CNN has reporters blanketing the Middle East, covering the story from every angle. Stay with us for all the very latest developments. We're not going to go away far.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Coming up next for our North American viewers, John Roberts will host a special live edition of "This Week at War." We'll continue our coverage of the Middle East crisis, the war in Iraq and other hot spots around the globe. I'll be joining John for that. Until then, thanks very much for joining us.

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