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AMERICAN MORNING

Crisis in the Middle East; Refugees Flood to Cyprus; Nashrallah's Popularity Rising

Aired July 19, 2006 - 08:30   ET

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


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back. I'm Miles O'Brien in New York.
SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Soledad O'Brien reporting to you live from the Port of Larnaca in Cyprus.

Miles, you know, the port here, of course, makes lots of sense as a destination geographically for those refugees who are now fleeing out of Beirut. It's a straight shot across the Mediterranean, obviously, and in a ship it could take, you know, as long as 11 hour or so. That all depends on the Israeli blockade, of course.

Now, Cyprus historically has been refuge to people who were trying to escape. This morning, we take a closer look at Cyprus and how the world is now focused on the refugees who are headed here.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

S. O'BRIEN (voice-over): Cyprus is a place of astonishing contradictions.

JADE JURI, LEBANESE-AMERICAN EVACUEE: I feel a connection to this country and half of my family is still there.

S. O'BRIEN: A paradise of palm trees and beaches, it's now once again transformed into a haven for those who are running from the nightmare of war.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's getting worse and worse. The bombs are actually so close that we can see the smoke and the fire.

S. O'BRIEN: For years, the island of Cyprus has provided the perfect refuge for evacuees forced to flee Lebanon in times of fighting. It's located only about 150 miles from the port of Beirut, and once again, finds itself a weigh station for the desperate. It's playing a crucial role now in one of the largest evacuation operations in decades.

CAPT. R.G. COOLING, BRITISH ROYAL NAVY: We were at Gibraltar. We were just about to sail from Gibraltar and go home, and we've now been turned around to move to the eastern end of the Mediterranean at top speed.

S. O'BRIEN: Cruise ships have been replaced by naval destroyers; planes carrying tourists are giving way to choppers full of refugees.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm sad for the country -- to see my country again in a painful period.

S. O'BRIEN: Again, because 15 years ago, during Lebanon's bloody civil war, Cyprus became a home away from home for many. It was a safe place to begin recovering for freed American hostages during the 1980s.

The nation has had its own share of conflict. It's been a target for terrorist hijackers and a source of conflict between the Greeks and the Turks. For now, though, Cyprus is welcoming an invasion of a different kind, playing host to thousands who are on the run and afraid for their future.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If I say no, I am liar. Everybody's scared.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

S. O'BRIEN: And I think that's fair to say. Everybody is scared. Lots of people we've talked to are very, very grateful, very happy to be out. The port not only geographically, of course, a straight shot across, but also just sizewise, it can hold a lot of ships. And you can see here the Greek Destroyer that's come in last night, this Norwegian ship that we've been talking about all morning. And that French ship that was going in and out really has a lot of space to be -- and the layout to be very easily handling the numbers of refugees. And we're expecting those numbers to grow certainly in the next 24 hours or so.

Miles?

M. O'BRIEN: Soledad O'Brien, there in Larnaca, Cyprus. Thank you.

One man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist. And so it goes for Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah. While Israel and the U.S. would equate he and his group with Osama bin Laden an al Qaeda, in Syria, he is hailed as a hero.

CNN's Aneesh Raman, live from Yabbous, Syria, right now with even more evidence of the gulf between the warring parties there -- Aneesh.

ANEESH RAMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Miles, good morning.

We are literally on the border between Lebanon and Syria, people still streaming through. We've been here since the weekend. Hundreds of thousands of people have come, many of them with pictures of Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah. His popularity seems to only be growing.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RAMAN (voice-over): Just outside one of Syria's oldest mosques, amid the sea of people, the face of one man stands out, Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah. He's everywhere here.

Next to pictures of Barbie, there's Nasrallah. Aside soccer stars, Nasrallah again. His face and the flags of his group, Hezbollah, are flying prominently these days.

This shopkeeper is giving them away for free in support of what here is referred to as "the resistance."

And as for its leader...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Nasrallah's popularity is bigger than a mountain and higher than the sky. He's now getting support from god and from the people.

RAMAN: In Damascus, there are now posters that for the first time, we're told, feature the Syrian president alongside Hassan Nasrallah. And music stores are getting in on the act, too. This one just today started selling nationalist Lebanon music.

"I sell the CDs to feel that I did something to support the resistance," says owner Tariq (ph), "even if it's just 1 percent. Nasrallah is a hero. He is my leader."

(on camera): Hanging high here at the main market in Damascus is a banner that praises Hassan Nasrallah, a sign of the near uniform support that exists here for Hezbollah.

(voice-over): And that allegiance is only strengthening now with the Israeli airstrikes. Many here told me it is also spreading.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (INAUDIBLE), you'll like Nasrallah. (INAUDIBLE), like example, which time you see for one photo for (INAUDIBLE) and you can see for photo for Hassan Nasrallah. Malaysia, you can see photo for Hassan Nasrallah. (INAUDIBLE), because the president (INAUDIBLE). You see the photo everywhere.

Here you see the eyes if you like it for him. Because that president from Arab jealous for him. You see the photo everywhere.

RAMAN: He is a man labeled a terrorist by the U.S. and Israel, a man who some Muslims accused of dragging Lebanon into an unnecessary war. But here he is regarded as a freedom fighter and emerging even more so now as a unifying voice in the Muslim world. Where there is discontent about the West these days, there is also, it seems, pictures of Hassan Nasrallah; and increasingly, the flags of Hezbollah.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

RAMAN: And Miles, just to show you right here, we've got a car pulling up to the border, the flag of Hezbollah. Discontent with the West is clearly apparent here. The man driving, a T-shirt that has Nasrallah on the front. He is playing that same Lebanese music that we heard in the piece.

This is the scene outside this border. There is anger. There is frustration. There are thousands upon thousands of Lebanese, of Syrians, of ex-pat Arabs that are crossing in, telling shocking stories of the bombs that dropped simply too close for them to stay. And there is growing support for a movement that they say represents their point of view, and that is the only movement challenging the West -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Aneesh, first of all, do you get the sense that the number of people crossing that border -- is that number escalating?

RAMAN: Well, it really peaked over the weekend. We've known that about 109,000 or so Syrian officials say Lebanese have come through. Far more Syrians, more Syrians who are working over in Lebanon have come through. They didn't have enough money for cars. They carried what little they could on their head and walked hours to get through.

What I've noticed in the past few days is we're seeing less foot traffic, if you will, and more cars coming through. At the beginning, there was a lot of fear traveling on the road just beyond this border. That was the road that hit by an Israeli assault, so people were fearful to even travel on it.

Now the traffic has picked up. You see some tour buses behind me. Taxis and tour buses have been going into Lebanon to make their services available to mass transit people. We're going to spend the day with the Red Crescent here, who say there are already 50 Lebanese families that they have to relocate and find homes here. So the traffic has been steady. The overall numbers have been unclear, but the continual stream continues -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: And one more thought here. The United States has opted not to encourage -- as a matter of fact, discourage U.S. citizens from taking that overland route out of Lebanon through Syria. What have you been hearing about how dangerous that trip has been?

RAMAN: Well, those that we've spoken to, when they get to the place that has been hit by the Israeli assault -- it is the main highway -- they have to drive around it into areas that are as well potential targets for air assaults. Those that have left, though, are leaving situations where literally bombs have dropped meters from them.

One man, a bomb dropped, he helped four people go to the hospital and said, that's it, I'm leaving. So they feel that the danger on the road is a little less than the danger in staying, but a lot them are traveling with children. One woman told me her 8-year-old niece was vomiting for the entire drive between Beirut and this border, afraid of an air assault. They try to pick the times based upon when it is less likely that there will be air assaults, but they simply do not know. It is all a guessing game.

But again, it more dangerous in their mind to stay than it is to go, and they are dashing. A lot of these people have no experience in a war zone in this sort of setting before. So even the threat of that air assault that they know has happened before is enough to just riddle them with fear as they make their way to Syria -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Understandable. Aneesh Raman, right there on the border between Syria and Lebanon. Thank you very much.

We'll have more of our coverage of the Middle East crisis in just a moment.

(NEWSBREAK)

(WEATHER REPORT)

M. O'BRIEN: Still to come on the program, Israel takes on Hezbollah and puts Lebanon into a crisis, but we'll meet one woman of Lebanese descent who says, thank you, Israel. You'll hear why, coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

M. O'BRIEN: And now the story of a Lebanese woman way surprising take on the crisis. Brigitte Gabriel was born in Lebanon, now an American citizen. She's an author and activist who is harshly critical of Islamic fundamentalism. Gabriel the author of the soon to be published book "Because They Hate: A Survivor of Islamic Terror Warns America."

She joins us from Washington right now. Good to have you with us, Ms. Gabriel.

BRIGITTE GABRIEL, AMERICANCONGRESSFORTRUTH.ORG: Thanks you, Miles. I'm delighted to be with you.

M. O'BRIEN: You wrote -- it's posted on your Web site. It's americancongressfortruth.org. You wrote a message to Israel. I want to share some of this with people so you get an idea of what you're talking about here.

You say this, "Thank you, Israel. We urge you to hit them hard," of course referring to Hezbollah, "and destroy their terror infrastructure. It is not only Israel who is fed up with this situation, but the majority of silent Lebanese in Lebanon who are fed up with Hezbollah and are powerless to do anything out of fear of terror retaliation."

When you write that, you write that with some degree of risk to yourself personally, don't you?

GABRIEL: Absolutely. I receive death threats, but this is the time when people need to muster courage to stand up in the face of evil, and a hate ideology that now is not only affecting Lebanon and Israel, but this cancer of hatred has spread throughout the world.

Even "The New York Times" last month was talking about cells of Hezbollah in New York City, ready to unleash suicide bombings in America. This has to stop.

M. O'BRIEN: Now what kind of reaction do you hear, though? Do people call you traitor to your country?

GABRIEL: Well, the radical Islamists call me a traitor to my country, but my countrymen and women who are scattered all the way around the world do not call me a traitor. After all, we the Christians and the moderate Muslims in Lebanon have created Paris of the Middle East, the banking capital of the Middle East. It was only when radical Islamists starting growing up and spewing hate ideology, and fighting the Christians and wanting to declare war against Israel that now we are fighting the war that we are fighting.

And I'm speaking from experience, Miles. My home was bombed when I was 10 years old living in Lebanon. It was bombed by the radical Islamists, shelling Katyusha rockets at my home in South Lebanon, trying to create a base from which to fight Israel. I ended up wounded, ended up in the hospital for two-and-a-half months, and then lived in a bomb shelter for seven years of my life, between the ages of 10 and 17, with very little electricity, very little water, or actually no electricity and very little food. And it was because the radical Islamists were growing and trying to take over our area, the Christian area in South Lebanon, to declare war on Israel. We the Christians, we worked with the Israelis, we wanted to have peace with the Israelis. But the radicals insisted on killing the Christians and fighting Israel.

M. O'BRIEN: Well, let me ask you this, though -- there is a component to Hezbollah, the non-armed component of it, that is, the civilian political aspects of it, and they won fair and square in open elections, a couple dozen seats to parliament. Is there something about Hezbollah that can be salvaged in some way? They do, in fact, have a de facto government there in Southern Lebanon?

GABRIEL: Sadly, Miles, Hezbollah does not want peace with Israel, nor peace with America, nor peace with Western civilization. Hezbollah is a radical, hate-filled organization bent on destroying the West. We basically have terrorists who are elected to the cabinet in Lebanon by the majority terrorists they have bred themselves.

In 25 years when Hezbollah has not been stopped because of their radical practice, the extreme elements of Islam. They have multiple marriage. They a lot of children. And in a matter of 25 years, they have multiplied to produce enough people to vote themselves in to the government.

M. O'BRIEN: Well, let me ask you this, what can the fairly and freely elected government of Beirut do about this, and why isn't it doing more?

GABRIEL: At this point, the government of Beirut is really helpless. They cannot do anything. The president is a puppet of Syria. Syria and Iran are working together against Israel, against the West. It was Syria and Iran that stopped the Lebanese newly elected government in 1983 who wanted to negotiate a peace treaty with Israel. Under the president-elect, Bashir Gemayel. President Bashir Gemayel was assassinated. The peace negotiations with Israel was stopped.

And right now those two countries are completely manipulating Lebanon and controlling Lebanon, and the Lebanese government is completely helpless and useless. And unless the world powers get involved and help the Cedar Revolution, which started last year, or a year-and-a-half ago, and enforce resolution 1559, nothing is going get done.

M. O'BRIEN: And specifically, what should the U.S. be doing? Should the secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, be in the region? Should she be there sooner? Should she be traveling and dealing directly with Damascus to try to come up with a solution?

GABRIEL: We, as a government, need to put pressure on Syria. We need to put pressure on Iran, but especially Syria, because it is through Syria where all the missiles and all the weapons are being smuggled into Hezbollah. Syria is the protector of Hezbollah. We need to pressure Syria and give Syria and ultimatum. We also need to support Israel and not stop Israel in basically decapitating Hezbollah and Lebanon, cleaning house in Lebanon, so that the Lebanese democracy will have a chance into budding and becoming a peaceful nation again, and having peace with their neighbors.

M. O'BRIEN: Brigitte Gabriel, founder of americancongressfortruth.org, who says thank you, Israel. Thanks for being with us.

GABRIEL: Thank you.

M. O'BRIEN: Coming up, the race to evacuate Lebanon. Americans were told they'd have to pay their own way. Not anymore. Why the reversal in that policy? That's ahead on AMERICAN MORNING.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BUSINESS HEADLINES)

M. O'BRIEN: More news from the Middle East after a break. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

M. O'BRIEN: Israeli tanks and warplanes again targeting Lebanon. Many casualties to tell you about. Troops crossing the border to search out Hezbollah rockets in Lebanon. All that ahead on this AMERICAN MORNING.

Good morning. Wednesday, July 19th. Welcome to a special edition of AMERICAN MORNING. I'm Miles O'Brien in New York.

S. O'BRIEN: And I'm Soledad O'Brien, reporting to you live from the Port of Larnaca in Cyprus. Miles, you know, when you take a look at this port, it's actually -- outside of the fact that it's about 107 degrees in the sun -- it's quite beautiful. This is a working port, obviously, in spite of some of the ships full of refugees that have been coming through.

One of the big problems, it's the high season, and that means that some of these refugees have to figure out a way to get in to the hotels that are just filled with tourists. So folks who came off on these big ships here -- for example, that Norwegian Ship carrying cars and tractors and also about 1,000 people -- they've had to kind of make their way through, figure out exactly how they're going to stay and how long they're going to be able to stay. The embassy here offering to help out with that kind of situation.

We're expecting the Orient Queen, the cruise ship that's been chartered by the United States, to arrive. The time, though, they keep pushing back. We're now told it's going to arrive 6:00 a.m. local time here tomorrow. That's a big, big delay from what we first heard, and that's going to bring 800 Americans or more to try to figure out who they're going to -- where they're going to stay and how they're going to basically buy their time until they're able to get flights out of here.

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