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THE SITUATION ROOM

Israel Resumes Air Strikes on Beirut

Aired July 18, 2006 - 19:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks very much, Lou. And to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM where new pictures and information are arriving all the time. Standing by CNN reporters across the United States and around the world to bring you tonight's top stories.
Happening now -- breaking news, the Lebanese capital of Beirut under attack again. Only in the past few minutes, Israeli strikes have resumed and Hezbollah has resumed strikes on northern Israel, the latest rockets landing within the past few hours. Our correspondents are on the front lines of the warfare between Hezbollah and Israel. It's 2:00 a.m. right now in Beirut as these new explosions rock the Lebanese capital. Thousands of Americans are preparing to finally flee a battered Lebanon. A Greek ship has just arrived in Cyprus and a cruise ship to safety full of Americans is expected to head for Cyprus in a matter of hours.

But tonight, critics are asking why an all-out evacuation was slow in coming and why evacuees have to pay a price. And could the Middle East crisis explode into a much larger regional war? It's 7:00 p.m. here in Washington where the stakes are sky high for the Bush administration right now. I will ask the former secretary of state Madeleine Albright about U.S. policy and U.S. diplomacy.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Just a short while ago, huge explosions rocked in the area around Beirut, especially near the airport. Even as the Bush administration prepares to carry out what it calls a dramatic ramp-up of the evacuation of Americans from Lebanon. We have reporters covering all these stories. CNN's Nic Robertson has -- is telling us that he heard huge explosions, two large bombs going out -- going off apparently very shortly after the aircraft were heard buzzing overhead.

The new Israeli air strikes on Lebanon coming only seven days -- after seven days of cross border attacks between Israel and Hezbollah fighters. At least 143 -- excuse me -- 183 people have been killed in Lebanon and at least 456 have been wounded. And only hours from now, a cruise ship called the Orient Queen is expected to leave the port of Beirut, that first flight with as many as 1,000 Americans on board.

More then 1,000 others are expected to escape to safety in Cyprus tomorrow on a second cruise ship and aboard U.S. military helicopters. Hezbollah fighters unleash new attacks today from their home base in Lebanon, pounding northern Israel once again with rocket fire. At least 25 Israelis have been killed in seven days of cross border fighting. More than 300 have been injured.

CNN continues to monitor every angle of this ever-evolving stories. We have reporters posted throughout the Middle East and watching developments here in the United States. Our Chris Burns is watching the story from Cyprus. Nic Robertson is in Beirut. Christiane Amanpour is joining us from northern Israel. Mary Snow is watching all of this unfold in New York.

Let's go to Nic Robertson first in Beirut. Explosions heard only in the past few minutes. Nic, tell our viewer what we know.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SR. INT'L CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, right before the explosions we could hear Israeli aircraft flying overhead here, flying relatively low. Low enough for us to hear them. Then there were two very loud explosions. They sounded as if they were sort of bunker buster type bombs because it was a -- sort of a thump and then momentarily after that, a huge boom coming up.

Now the Lebanese television stations who have been providing excellent coverage, video coverage of where all these bombs have been coming down have differed in where they say these latest blasts have occurred. It seems possibly in the southern suburbs or possibly north, in the northeast area of Beirut. It's just not clear to us at the moment exactly what was the target or indeed exactly where those bombs came down.

But we could hear them in the center of Beirut here. We could hear them very loudly, very clearly. There have been attacks in the rest of Lebanon to the south, to the east along the port city of Tyre as well. There have been evacuations, about 120 Americans got out of Lebanon today on four Marine CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopters. They flew out to Cyprus. It was about a 50-minute ride.

There were women and children on board those helicopters. They're wearing flotation devices. These were people who had desperate humanitarian needs to get out quickly. There are expected to be two large ferries docking in Lebanon, docking in Beirut very soon. They will take out as many as 2,400 Americans. As many as 25,000 Americans waiting to get out of Beirut right now and the rest of Lebanon -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And they're waiting to get out and go to Cyprus. Nic, we're going to come back to you shortly. I know earlier you spent some time in some of those bombed out areas in Beirut. We're going to go back to Nic in a few minutes.

But right now in Larnaca, Cyprus, there are evacuees arriving. Chris Burns is on the scene for us. I understand, Chris, a ship has just managed to reach port.

CHRIS BURNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. Over my shoulder a Greek frigate with about 400 people aboard including young Jackie Huetti (ph) and she has joined us. She is sort of personifying the drama that is going on for a lot of families. She's 11 years old. She's with her mother here, Victoria. And she was on vacation with her family, with her relatives inside Lebanon when the bombings started. You were at the airport -- at Beirut airport when the bombing...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes.

BURNS: ... when the Israelis bombed the airport. So you immediately became used to this bombing.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes.

BURNS: You tried to leave yesterday aboard the French ship, correct?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Correct.

BURNS: And what happened?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well we -- they made us wait in a French school for over eight hours and then when we got into the bus and we were ready to go, we were about to leave and then they said, you have to get off the bus, the boat left without you.

BURNS: And that's because the ship...

(CROSSTALK)

BURNS: ... was full or the ship was -- it had to leave early, right, and they couldn't take you on.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes.

BURNS: Now what did you feel at that time? Were you afraid?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, I felt scared because I was alone, but I also felt frustrated and disappointed because I was going to see my mom and then...

BURNS: And Victoria, how did you feel at the time? You must have been terrified, right?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I did not sleep the whole night. And I was calling everywhere, trying you know to find someone to pick her up from the school and you know take her and try to arrange her to bring her today or...

BURNS: So she stayed. She stayed with your aunt or with some friends, correct, overnight?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Last night we had to call a friend from Beirut because we are from the north. And she had to go to that school, trying to find her between you know all those people over there and took her to her house to spend the night. And, you know...

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: ... we were calling the embassy, the (inaudible) embassy all night.

BURNS: Because you are a Lebanese Cypriot.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, I'm a Lebanese Cypriot.

BURNS: Right. And how do you feel now that you're back together again?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I can. I don't know. I mean I cannot tell you. I mean I'm so happy. I'm so happy she's here.

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I did not believe it. For three days, you know I did not believe it.

BURNS: What you just went through is what so many other families have gone through as well. And you have other family members also that over there...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I still have...

BURNS: ... that you're trying to get out.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: ... over there.

BURNS: Right.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, of course I mean, everything is going through a very, very tough period.

BURNS: Victoria, thank you very much.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thanks for you.

BURNS: As well Jackie, and have a great summer the rest of summer.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you.

BURNS: Thank you very much.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you.

BURNS: Wolf, this drama is playing out among so many other families. The friendship (ph) that is going over there tomorrow is going to be picking up hundreds, many of them children who are non- accompanied. We're seeing this also among the American evacuations, among the other countries.

These are children who are in Lebanon with their grandparents, with other family members spending summer vacation suddenly caught in this conflict and having to be evacuated. This is what these teams of psychologists are dealing with, trying to council some of these children who have gone through, literally, hell -- Wolf.

BLITZER: A moving mother/daughter reunion. Thank you very much. Chris Burns on the scene for us is Larnaca, Cyprus.

And this just coming into CNN, we are learning that President Bush has now spoken directly with the Saudi King Abdullah only in the last few minutes about this Middle East crisis. White House officials say they spoke for approximately 13 minutes. The king expressed his concern about the humanitarian crisis.

We're getting more details. We'll bring them to you live as soon as we get them. This comes in advance of a summit tomorrow between King Abdullah and the French president, Jacques Chirac. Presumably the president also thinking King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia for criticizing Hezbollah for initially crossing the border into Israel and killing and capturing those Israeli soldiers.

More on this part of the story coming up -- let's and to northern Israel, though. The target of Hezbollah, a rocket fire once again today and the scene of growing fear and anger among Israelis. Our chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour is on the scene for us once again tonight.

Christiane, what's the latest there?

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INT'L CORRESPONDENT: Well, we've been here and we are right at the very northern border between Israel and Lebanon and we have heard a constant barrage of outgoing heavy artillery from where we are. There are positions and units who are stationed not far from where we are and all along the north obviously, and they have been ratcheting up their pressure over the last four to five days. We were with an artillery unit this afternoon and we watched them for several hours and it was just constant.

We have been told by the commander here, the brigadier general who's in charge of all the battle operations up north that they are going to do it for as long as it takes to push Hezbollah back, they say that's their aim and most certainly to create some kind of buffer zone in anticipation of eventually the Lebanese government and army being able to assert itself in this area or indeed potentially what's been talked about in the international circles, which is a force coming here to do that.

But absent that, they are going to do that, they say and what the brigadier general told us to dismantle the components of the Hezbollah military machine piece by piece. We don't know from them how well they have done so far. We know that Hezbollah rockets are still coming in. There was one in Nahariya that landed and killed somebody as it hit a house. And there were more rockets that came into Haifa, which so far is the southern most range of the Hezbollah rockets.

And they have today not caused any casualties but did land in some industrial areas. In fact, one that had been hit on Sunday and did cause casualties. And when we talk to them about what we've been hearing from Nic and from Chris Burns, the incredible civilian casualty in toll in Lebanon, the general here was telling us that he feels sorry and he feels bad about that. But their mind is focused on the threat to the citizens here and they say that they're going to continue until that threat is neutralized. BLITZER: A quick question, Christiane. Have you gotten an answer from the Israelis and what they believe why if Hezbollah has rockets that can go further south than Haifa and maybe even reach Tel Aviv, why they haven't been launched or fired yet?

AMANPOUR: Well, we asked about that. Do they have these extra long-range missiles and they believe that they have and they're not sure why. They're going after them. That's what they're saying. And depending on who you ask and what reports you see, some say that they've managed to target, you know, significant and placements of those long-range ones. Others say that they're just going to still keep up the pressure so that they are not able to use them. But they do have that fear in the back of their mind that they might happen.

BLITZER: Maybe they're saving them for down the road. Thank you Christiane Amanpour. We'll come back to you as news warrants.

Jack Cafferty is in New York right now. He's joining us with the "Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: The personal intervention of the president of the United States could make something happen. Examples include President Nixon going to China at a time when a lot of people thought he was crazy to do so. President Carter personally brokering the Camp David accords between Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat, and President Clinton inviting Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat to Washington, where they signed a historic agreement.

Some people are beginning to wonder if we're at another one of those turning points. One Arab diplomat said today -- quote -- "just like only President Nixon could go to China, only President Bush can push Israel" -- unquote. So here's the question.

What is the appropriate role for President Bush in the current Middle East crisis? E-mail us at CaffertyFile@CNN.com or go to CNN.com/CaffertyFile -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you, Jack, for that. And coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM the toll of the attacks from Hezbollah's side. Our Nic Robertson will return with an exclusive tour of the damage.

Also, back to Beirut, a larger force of U.S. Marines is now there but they're haunted by the memory of what happened the last time U.S. Marines were dispatched to Lebanon. That was back in 1983 and that's when 241 U.S. troops, most of them Marines, were killed in a suicide attack. And how should the U.S. government respond to the current crisis? I'll ask the former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: For the Israelis, this is clearly a two-front war. Only within the past few minutes, the Israeli military is confirming to CNN that Israeli tanks right now are rolling across the border into Gaza going against the stronghold and what's being described as a Palestinian refugee camp, a serious movement on the part of Israel. Ground forces, tanks moving into Gaza right now.

This is in the aftermath of the kidnapping of one Israeli soldier in Gaza. That was several weeks ago and now there is a two-front operation the Israelis are engaged in, in Gaza, as well as in Lebanon. We're going to continue to monitor what's happening in Gaza and go there live as soon as we get some more specific information on this latest Israeli operation. We are following all of the late breaking developments in the Middle East crisis tonight.

Among them, fresh Israeli air strikes targeting Beirut's southern suburbs. And President Bush accusing Syria of trying to get back into Lebanon through its support of Hezbollah.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Syria to is trying to get back into Lebanon it looks like to me. We passed the United Nations Resolution 1559 and finally this young democracy or this democracy became a hole by getting Syria out. And there's suspicions that the instability created by the Hezbollah attacks will cause some in Lebanon to invite Syria back in and that would be -- it's against the United Nations policy and it's against the U.S. policy.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: For the past five days, six days that is, Israeli raids have targeted the southern suburbs of Beirut where Hezbollah has had its heartland of support. Hezbollah has sealed off the worst hit areas and made it nearly impossible to discover exactly what's been hit. The Israelis say they're targeting Hezbollah military and Hezbollah leadership. Today a Hezbollah media representative and a Hezbollah security team took CNN's Nic Robertson on a very brief tour of the damage. Let's go back to Beirut. Once again Nic Robertson is standing by with this exclusive report -- Nic.

ROBERTSON: Well, Wolf, just in the last couple of minutes we did hear a distant thud. It sounded like a bomb going off in the distance. Not as loud as those two huge explosions we heard about 20 minutes ago. We went in to those southern suburbs of Beirut with that media representative from Hezbollah. They haven't let western reporters into some parts of that very, very, very carefully controlled southern suburbs.

They have people going around there on motor scooters stopping you operating freely in that area. They have blockades set up on some of the roads. We had a media representative from Hezbollah. We had security representatives around him, informing him about where and when there might be Israeli aircraft coming over. But they took us in because they wanted to show us what was being damaged. What they wanted to tell us was -- and show us was how the civilian infrastructure in that area was being damaged.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ROBERTSON: Where are we going now? HUSSEIN NABULSI, HEZBOLLAH PRESS OFFICER: Now we are moving to where Israeli jet fighters bombed what it's called Hezbollah headquarters. I'm going to show you on the ground that this is -- these are buildings inhabited by civilians, innocent civilians.

ROBERTSON: We're moving around very quickly here I notice. Are you concerned that there could be strikes at any time?

NABULSI: You never know when Israeli jet fighters come and hit any target in this area. So now we are objected to any fire from Israel.

ROBERTSON: It could come down right here at any moment...

NABULSI: Right now. Right here. There's now jet fighters in the sky.

ROBERTSON: There's jets in the sky right now.

NABULSI: Exactly, so you never know when they hit this area.

ROBERTSON: What happened here?

NABULSI: This is one of the bombs that fell and look what happened to this building, which is only like -- inhabited by innocent civilians living there. People who are just working like everybody else. No military bases. Nothing. (inaudible) aircraft fire, just building, people living there.

ROBERTSON: How many people were killed and injured in this particular attack here?

NABULSI: Thank God people evacuated these buildings early and luckily no one was killed in this -- in such attacks. But I want to tell you something. Where is the international community? Where is the Security Council? Where is the United Nations? Where is the whole world? We are under fire.

ROBERTSON: You're really worried about another strike here right now, yes?

NABULSI: Of course. Of course.

ROBERTSON: How dangerous is it in this area at the moment?

NABULSI: It is very, very dangerous. We are now the most dangerous place, the most dangerous moment.

ROBERTSON: In civilian housing. Well what was here?

NABULSI: Just -- look. Shoot. Innocent civilians. Buildings. Look at this building. Is it a military base? Is it a military base or just civilians living in this building?

(END VIDEOTAPE) ROBERTSON: You know, in all that time we were there, which was a very, very brief period, we didn't see any evidence of any military equipment. We didn't go into the buildings. We didn't search underneath the rubble, but some of the buildings were really torn up. There was a lot of debris hanging out of broken -- the sides of buildings, a lot of debris strewn across the roads.

And in all of that we didn't see any evidence of military infrastructure or anything like that. Again, though, Wolf, I have to say it was a very, very brief and swift tour escorted by Hezbollah -- Wolf.

BLITZER: (inaudible) Israeli officials point out that Hezbollah often would put their military equipment in heavily civilian populated areas, but you didn't have a chance to really inspect that?

ROBERTSON: We didn't, Wolf. And I think that's one of the huge difficulties of anyone that wants to un-take Hezbollah's military capability. That it is an organization that's grown out of the people. It is -- it doesn't have huge formal bases where you can target obvious stockpiles and obvious barracks such as the Lebanese army might have.

And you know without picking through the debris, without going into the -- some of the bombed out crated basements of buildings, we wouldn't get a good assessment of what was there. You know what you can see though is that there are a huge number of civilians living right there, right where the bombs are coming down, right in those buildings that are collapsed and broken in the streets -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Nic Robertson, one of the most courageous television journalists in the business today. Nic, be careful over there. Thanks very much for that exclusive report.

And still to come tonight in THE SITUATION ROOM. Breaking news out of Gaza. As we've been reporting for the past couple of minutes, Israeli tanks now moving into Gaza. We're going to take you there live. Plus, outrage over the pace of evacuation plans to make the evacuees pay. We're going to show what some lawmakers are trying to do about that.

Plus, thousands of families across the United States living a nightmare tonight, their loved ones trapped in Lebanon. We're going to have the latest on what's going on. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: You're back in THE SITUATION ROOM. Thanks very much for joining us. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

Right now Israeli forces are moving on another front. CNN has confirmed that Israeli tanks now are moving into a refugee camp in Gaza. Israel has been on the offensive against Hamas militants in Gaza even as it pounds Hezbollah targets in Lebanon. Tonight there is some breaking news out of Beirut. New Israeli air strikes rocked the Lebanese capital just a short while ago. CNN's Nic Robertson reports two large explosions were heard that sounded like what he described as bunker buster type bombs and a third explosion he says only in the past few minutes has been heard as well.

And the exodus from Beirut to Cyprus continuing right now, the United States stepping up its evacuation effort after seven days of cross-border attacks. A cruise ship with up to 1,000 Americans on board is expected to leave Beirut when dawn breaks.

The crisis in the Middle East is sparking a flurry of desperate diplomacy. Our senior national correspondent John Roberts is here with more on that -- John.

JOHN ROBERTS, CNN SR. NAT'L CORRESPONDENT: A flurry of diplomacy, Wolf, but it's slow in getting going. In fact, it doesn't look like anything substantial is going to happen on the diplomatic front this week. The U.S. is not about to ask the Israelis to stop their offensive and Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, has no firm plans yet to travel to the region.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ROBERTS (voice-over): At the White House this afternoon President Bush outlined a very simple diplomatic goal.

BUSH: I want the world to address the root causes of the problem and the root cause of the problem is Hezbollah.

ROBERTS: But according to the secretary of state, the diplomatic track is not yet ready to be paved with a personal visit.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, SECRETARY OF STATE: When it is appropriate and when it is necessary and will be helpful to the situation, I am more than pleased to go to the region.

ROBERTS: So what's the hold up? Shouldn't Rice rush to the Middle East to put out the fire before it spreads? Well according to Israel, no.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Certainly right now it's not the time.

ROBERTS: Not the time because Israel first wants to make sure things in Lebanon will change and Hezbollah is just as determined to see they don't.

MICHAEL O'HANLON, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: I think the problem right now is that frankly both sides to this conflict want it to keep going.

ROBERTS: In the near term, Rice has limited options. She can't talk to Hezbollah or Syria. Lebanon's government doesn't have the power to make a deal. And she's not about to go to Israel if she can't make an impact. TONY SNOW, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Well you don't go there with an empty satchel. You go there if you have business that you think you can go ahead and transact.

ROBERTS: Rice's task will be to build international pressure for a deal. The U.N. and British Prime Minister Tony Blair are pushing hard the idea of a multi-national stabilization force for Lebanon.

TONY BLAIR, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: That can stop the bombardment coming over into Israel and therefore gives Israel the reason to stop its attacks on Hezbollah.

ROBERTS: But hold on says the White House. A U.N. force should only go in once hostilities have ended. And while they won't say so publicly, administration officials are content to give Israel more time to weaken Hezbollah. But with civilian casualties growing on the Lebanese side, there's a risk Israel could quickly squander what goodwill it has with moderate Arab states.

O'HANLON: I think there's a balancing act here and it's not likely that the White House will stay quiet and comfortable with these Israeli tactics too much longer.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ROBERTS: In fact, President Bush put a call in, as you mentioned, Wolf, to Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah late this afternoon. Abdullah apparently was concerned about the humanitarian situation in Lebanon. The president said he shared his concerns about innocent civilians hurt by this crisis, adding that it was sparked by Hezbollah's unprovoked attack on Israel. It's all part of the effort to keep those moderate Arab states on his side and against Hezbollah.

And we should also mention that this diplomacy is going to be taking place at the highest levels among some of America's biggest allies, like France. And, in fact, King Abdullah will be talking with French President Jacques Chirac in Paris tomorrow about this.

BLITZER: John Roberts, thanks very much for that comprehensive report.

The Middle East has been a high stakes hot spot for numerous administrations, including former President Bill Clinton's top diplomat.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And joining us now is the former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

Madam Secretary, thanks very much for coming in.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: Good to be with you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Do you have a problem, a basic problem, with the way President Bush is handling this current Middle East crisis?

ALBRIGHT: No. I think that he is, obviously, very serious about it. And I just hope very much that the United States gets more involved diplomatically. That is something that I have been calling for, for some time, and I hope very much that Secretary Rice can make it to the region and begin to do some diplomacy there.

BLITZER: She says she's going to go, but she's waiting for the right moment to go. The Israelis say they need another week or two to get their job done militarily. So, do -- if you are the secretary of state, do you wait for the Israelis to complete their mission, or do you go in advance?

ALBRIGHT: I that think there's a lot of preparatory diplomacy that can be done. I understand that there are other leaders there.

The prime minister of France, Villepin, was there. The U.N. group is there. Prime Minister Blair said he was going. I do think that it's obvious that conditions have to be ripe, but conditions don't happen on their own. They have to be created.

And, so, I do think that there's an important aspect for American diplomatic involvement.

BLITZER: The criticism being leveled against Israel is that they have overreacted to the killing and capturing of these Israeli soldiers. Are you among those who are criticizing Israel for overreacting?

ALBRIGHT: No. I think that a country has to be able to defend itself and, again, the facts have to be out there.

Hezbollah rained rockets on Israel and captured Israeli soldiers. And I would presume that the Israelis are being very careful not to hit the civilian targets, and that they understand what President Bush was saying, which is, it's very important not to destroy the Lebanese state, because, ultimately, what has to happen is the government of Lebanon has to exert control over the territory of Lebanon.

And that's been the problem, frankly, Wolf. I mean, there was a resolution of the U.N., 1559, that said that Lebanon was supposed to control its territory. And, frankly, I don't think that enough support was given to the Lebanese by the French and the Americans and the international community to have that happen.

BLITZER: After the assassination last year of the Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri, the Lebanese themselves, backed overwhelmingly by the international community, managed to kick the Syrians out of Lebanon.

Today, the president of the United States is saying, the Syrians are trying to find a way to come back into Lebanon through their control, through their alliance, if you will, with Hezbollah. Do you agree with that assessment?

ALBRIGHT: Well, I think part of the problem, Wolf, has been is that the Syrians never truly, completely left, and that they were, in fact, in some way, protecting Hezbollah, providing it with a variety of arms.

I think Iran has also been very much supportive of that, and that the problem has been is that this new Lebanese state of Siniora has not been able to fully exert its control and it needed international help.

And we have a tendency to think that once something has been passed in the U.N. or some decision made, that everything takes care of itself. It all takes incredible work, follow-through, and not just checking things off a list.

BLITZER: The criticism of the U.S., this administration -- I guess, there was a similar criticism of the Clinton administration when you were secretary of state -- is, the U.S. can no longer be an honest broker because of its strong support of Israel, that right now the U.S. doesn't even talk to Syria or Iran, and it accuses both of those countries, for example, of fomenting this current tension in the Middle East.

What do you say to those critics?

ALBRIGHT: Well, actually, Wolf, we spent a lot of time talking to all the parties there.

And I went to Syria, and I spent a lot of time in the region. And I talked to the Palestinians, and the Israelis, and the Lebanese. And, so, I do think that it's important for us to be involved across the board, and that the U.S. can, in fact -- and not just can, but must -- play a role in this, because we are the only ones that can.

But we have to be able to understand what's happening across the board in all the countries and have a dialogue. It doesn't do us much good -- you know, the -- our ambassador in Syria was withdrawn after Hariri's assassination, and nobody has been there. It's a little hard to know exactly what's going on without the eyes and ears of the diplomats.

BLITZER: So you would send an ambassador back to Damascus?

ALBRIGHT: Well, I definitely would have some kind of discussions.

And, you know, there are those people who think if you talk to a country that you disagree with, that it's appeasement. I don't believe that. I think it's really important to be able to deliver tough messages. And you can't do that through second- and then third- hand voices.

BLITZER: Let me read to you from your new book, a best-seller that has recently come out, "The Mighty and the Almighty."

This is what you write in that book: "Officials in the major Sunni capitals of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt worry about the emergence of a Shia 'crescent,' running from Bahrain to Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. We should be aware of the potential for conflict, from verbal jousting, to assassinations, to the instigation, eventually, of a nuclear arms race between Sunnis and Shiites."

Is this problem in Lebanon right now, Hezbollah being a Shiite group, part of the bigger problem in the region, as you see it, between Sunni Arabs and Shiite Arabs?

ALBRIGHT: I'm afraid that it has the potential to develop into exactly what I was saying, because what we have is the Iranians, who are obviously Shia, supporting Hezbollah.

And, interestingly enough, the Sunnis in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt are critical of what Hezbollah is doing. And I think that we have to be very careful of what is happening here and the fact that the Shia and Iran are the ones that have gained the most out of the war in Iraq. So, that is what has worried me.

And I have been saying that this particular conflagration that's taking place right now, we are at a crossroads. And that's why I think the United States has to get involved diplomatically, so that this does not morph into a much larger regional war.

BLITZER: What's wrong with calling on the Israelis and everyone else to accept an immediate cease-fire, to stop the fighting, to stop the killing?

ALBRIGHT: Well, there's a tendency, with doing that, having a cease-fire, is to kind of give moral equivalence to the two sides that are involved in it.

And I think it's very clear that Israel was attacked. And Israel, after all, withdrew from Lebanon. That happened while we were in office. And they left the place. And they hoped very much, as I said, that the Lebanese government would be able to take control of it.

So, it's not an equivalent issue. But it would be good if diplomacy were involved, we worked towards stopping the fighting, so that, in fact, there can be a resolution to what is clearly a very dangerous situation.

BLITZER: I am going to be speaking in the hour with the former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who was prime minister in the year 2000, when the Israelis did withdraw from Lebanon.

Is this situation hopeless right now?

ALBRIGHT: No. I never -- I don't think anything is ever hopeless.

But it requires a lot of work, Wolf. And we have to be involved in it. And I think that there need to be a very active American involvement. And I hope that Secretary Rice is really able to be part of creating the conditions that would allow this to end. And I would be very supportive of that.

BLITZER: Madeleine Albright, the former secretary of state, thanks for coming in.

ALBRIGHT: Thanks, Wolf.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And just ahead, the other battle Israel is fighting right now, this one against Palestinian militants in Gaza. We're falling breaking news tonight. Israeli tanks are moving into Gaza right now.

And evacuation outrage -- Americans in Lebanon hoping to get out as controversy swirls over whether the government will actually charge Americans to be evacuated. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Much more on our top story, the Middle East crisis. That's coming up, including American citizens right now scrambling to get out of Lebanon, and the commercial cruise ships coming over to pick them up. Much more on this story coming up.

First though, let's go to CNN's Betty Nguyen at the CNN Center for a quick look at some other important stories making news -- Betty.

NGUYEN: Hi there, Wolf. Florida fire department officials say a child has been critically injured in an incident involving a Princess Cruise Line ship. You see them there at the dock. The Crown Princess was on the way to New York from Port Canaveral when a rudder problem apparently caused it to tilt hard to one side. Now, witnesses say people ran for life jackets, and there was broken glass just everywhere. The injured child is being flown by helicopter to a Florida hospital, and officials say at least six people were seriously injured. The ship is now back at Port Canaveral.

Well, despite a promised presidential veto, the Senate has voted to loosen President Bush's ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. Today's vote was 63:37, just a few votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto. And CNN has just gotten word that President Bush will have remarks on this very issue tomorrow afternoon at 2:15 Eastern. The measure, which was passed by the House back in May, would let couples donate embryos frozen for fertility treatments to researchers. Now, supporters say that could lead to treatment advances for spinal cord injuries, Alzheimer's and other diseases. But opponents say it is unethical. We will have more tomorrow, Wolf.

BLITZER: Presumably, that's when the president is going to veto this legislation, which also was already passed in the House. We will monitor that situation. Betty, thank you very much.

Up ahead tonight, Americans caught in the crossfire in Lebanon, hoping right now to escape with their lives.

And very important work that brings back bitter memories. U.S. Marines getting Americans out of Lebanon are also haunted by the memory of Marines killed there more than 20 years ago. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Right now, U.S. Marines are among the U.S. military personnel helping to evacuate Americans from Lebanon. But despite their very important work, it's hard to forget the grim evens that happened the last time U.S. Marines were on a mission in Beirut. Let's bring in CNN's Brian Todd. He is joining us to explain what is going on -- Brian.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hard to believe it's been 23 years, Wolf, but that was an ill-fated mission that still has a great deal of bearing on what the Marines are doing right now in Lebanon.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): Boots on the ground in Beirut. Some 2,200 U.S. Marines sent to evacuate Americans. A deployment that evokes memories of the last time the Marines were there.

BRIG. GEN. JAMES MARKS (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: It brings you back to 1983.

TODD: October 23rd, 1983. Suicide bombers linked to Hezbollah drive two trucks packed with more than 10,000 pounds of TNT into the Beirut headquarters of American and French forces. 241 U.S. servicemen are killed, most of them Marines. They had been there to stabilize Lebanon in the wake of heavy fighting between the Israelis, Hezbollah and other factions.

Days after the bombing, the American president is resolute.

RONALD REAGAN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If we were to leave Lebanon now, what message would that send to those who foment instability and terrorism?

TODD: But just months later, the Marines pull out.

REAGAN: We're not bugging out. We're just going to a little more defensible position.

TODD: Analysts believe that withdrawal sent a message to terrorist groups that they still carry with them.

EDWARD LUTTWAK, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: All of September 11th, everything else goes back to this thing. Here, we blow up a building and we change policy. That's how they started.

TODD: Another tie-in. The alleged mastermind of the 1983 attack, Imad Mugniyeh, is, according to U.S. and Israeli intelligence officials, still likely hiding out in Lebanon. Mugniyeh, they say, has long-standing ties with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.

Privately, the Israelis say they're looking for him in the current operation. But even if Mugniyeh is busy eluding capture, the Marines have taken his deadly lesson to heart. This mission, experts say, will be different.

MARKS: It is to evacuate U.S. citizens. Do that precisely, do that as quickly as you can, albeit that's a tough task, and then get out of there.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: That means no plans for now for the Marines to go beyond what they call predesignated evacuation points. But a Marine official tells me they're not ruling out having to fan out into more remote areas to get some Americans who are hard to find, Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian Todd, solid reporting. Thank you very much for that, Brian Todd, reporting from the newsroom.

U.S. efforts to evacuate some of the estimated 25,000 Americans in Lebanon are picking up. About 350 people have already been flown by helicopter to Cyprus, and with the arrival of a chartered cruiseship today and a fleet of U.S. navy vessels on the way, the Pentagon and the State Department estimate they will be able to move out some 2,400 Americans by Thursday.

But there's still growing criticism of the U.S. evacuation effort. Tonight, CNN's Mary Snow is joining us from New York with that part of the story -- Mary.

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, coming under fire, the pace of the evacuation and the fact that it comes with a price. Americans are being charged commercial rates to fly or board ships. And as families grow desperate to get loved ones out of Lebanon, their anger is also growing.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW (voice-over): From her New Jersey home, a distraught Dalal Haidar pleads for help to get her 11-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter, both American citizens, out of the small Lebanese village where they had gone to visit family for the summer.

DALAL HAIDAR, HAS CHILDREN IN LEBANON: We are desperately trying to reach anyone and everyone who can help us.

SNOW: Haidar is furious with the U.S. government. She's among critics saying the United States is moving too slowly in evacuating its citizens, and questioning why other countries got their people out sooner.

The State Department says unlike other countries, it's chosen not to use roadways, but rather offer sea lifts, because they're safer. But it's the price of those sea lifts that's causing an uproar. The State Department is charging people for the cost of their transportation, saying it's the law.

MAURA HARTY, ASST. SECRETARY OF STATE: As part of that process, yes. We will ask you to sign that promissory note. But the -- if there's one thing that I want to leave you with today is that no one, no American citizen will not be boarded because they left their checkbook or their credit card home.

SNOW: Those familiar with government evacuation say they doubt anyone will ever be billed.

Republican Senator John Sununu urged the Bush administration to waive the fees. Senator Debbie Stabenow introduced a bill to do the same, while fellow Democrat Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi blasted the policy, saying the federal government needs to send Americans a clear message.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), MINORITY LEADER: That they know that this is not just another manifestation of the Katrina mentality, that says we're the government, we're supposed to be there for you in these extraordinary circumstances, but we're going to find an exception so that you have to pay.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW: And Wolf, in a late development, CNN has learned that the State Department has contacted at least one Senate office to say that it will not charge these travel fees. We are monitoring the situation -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Mary, thank you very much. A firestorm of outrage on that point.

Up ahead, anxious American families wondering when their loved ones will be able to leave Lebanon. We are going to show you one family's story, and that story hits very close to home.

And Jack Cafferty is asking this question: What is the appropriate role for President Bush in the Middle East crisis? Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Bottom line on the markets right now. All three major indexes posted modest gains. Crude oil fell again to $73.54 a barrel.

Matthew Chance is in Gaza right now following the breaking news we've been reporting. Matthew tell our viewers what we know.

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, as much of the attention, of course, continues to focus in Lebanon, the other front in Israel's battle is continuing to pick up pace. At the moment, as I speak to you Wolf, there are fierce clashes under way between Israeli tanks and Israeli forces and Palestinian militants in the central Gaza Strip. Tanks have staged an incursion.

Israeli forces staged an incursion into Gaza within the last few hours. Around them al-Magazi refugee camp, again in that central Gaza Strip. There have been sustained artillery barrages and tank rounds fired as well as ground incursions in Gaza. Over the course of the past several weeks since the Israeli corporal Gilad Shalit was abducted by Palestinian militants last month. There's also been incessant rocket fire from areas of the northern Gaza Strip into southern Israel as well, those makeshift rockets. Israel said it will keep up this kind of military pressure until the rockets stop and their soldier is released, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right Matthews, thank you very much. We will continue to check back with you.

There are many families here in the United States with relatives trapped in Lebanon. And for them the growing crisis is nothing short of a nightmare. Among them some members of our own CNN family. Chris Lawrence is joining us now live from Los Angeles with the story, Chris.

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, one of our own reporters has her sister and two nephews there. They have been sleeping out in the hallway listening to the bombs go off all around them.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

LAWRENCE: CNN correspondent Thelma Gutierrez has interviewed hundreds of families in situations where they're worrying about loved one in harms way.

THELMA GUTIERREZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: But, it's incredibly difficult to sit on this side and worry and again, we're not alone.

LAWRENCE: Like other American families, Thelma's sister is trapped in Lebanon. Sandra and her two boys were visiting her husband's family when the bombs started following. Thelma finally got her sister on the phone today.

T. GUTIERREZ: If that's where the evacuations are going to be happening, how exactly will you get to Beirut?

SANDRA GUTIERREZ, SISTER: I don't know how we're going to get there. I know that the roads are all being bombed, you know, and we just all kind of wonder how the heck we're going to get out of here.

LAWRENCE: They're in a small village in Becca Valley, a two-hour drive from Beirut.

T. GUTIERREZ: Alright Sandra, well, love you.

S. GUTIERREZ: Love you too, Thelma. Talk to you later, OK.

T. GUTIERREZ: Bye.

LAWRENCE: Thelma says that right they know that Americans are being evacuated from Beirut but the roads are so dangerous they have been ordered not to travel. So they sit and they wait to hear if anybody is coming to get them, Wolf.

BLITZER: Our heart goes out to Thelma and to all of those with loved ones in this predicament. Thank you very much Chris for that. Still ahead, the crisis in the Middle East has Jack Cafferty wondering what's the appropriate role for President Bush. We'll be right back. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Jack's in New York with "The Cafferty File," Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: I was just told that we have confirmed now that they have decided not to charge those evacuation fees for the people in Lebanon. There's a good idea.

The question this hour is what's the appropriate role for President Bush in the Middle East crisis. Diane writes from Oakland California, "Bush should stay out of it. Israel can take care of itself. Bush is doing absolutely as he should. He's supporting Israel by not calling for a cease fire."

Jeff in Alabama, "President Bush should be involved with both sides of the conflict. All world leaders, even the inept United Nations should be involved. However, all you ever hear is it's up to Bush to stop the Israelis, no other government is publicly screaming for the terrorists to stop. Everyone wants us to handle the situation and then they hate our solutions."

Chris in California, "The U.S. has no role to play in bringing an end to this war. Bush's unqualified support for Israel means that America can not be seen as an honest broker in this conflict."

Mike in Massena, New York, "The proper role of President Bush is to invite President Assad and Prime Minister Olmert to Camp David. Bush should force Israel to return the Golan Heights to Syria and then tell Assad that now that Syria has its territory back, the U.S. itself will bomb the hell out of Damascus if Hezbollah attacks Israel again."

Alan in Los Angeles, "Jack, there's not much Bush can do now. He's fretted away six years of his presidency on a war of choice in Iraq. He should have been personally engaged in trying to find a road to peace in the Israel/Palestine conflict, but hey that's hard work. Unfortunately America has fewer options and fewer friends than ever."

And if you didn't see your email here, we invite you to go to CNN.com/CaffertyFile. You can read more of these online, Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack, thank you very much for that. See you tomorrow. Just to recap. Senate sources telling CNN the State Department, under protest, has now agreed to waive those evacuation fees for U.S. citizens leaving Lebanon. We'll see you tomorrow. Paula Zahn is in New York, Paula.

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