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THE SITUATION ROOM

Cruise Ship With U.S. Evacuees to Arrive in Cyprus Tonight; Former Defense Secretary Weighs in on Mideast Crisis; American Jews Move to Middle East Despite Violence; Israel Military Claims Bombing of Hezbollah Bunker; Future of Warfare Could Involve Lasers

Aired July 19, 2006 - 17:00   ET

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


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

Happening now, eight days of warfare with no clear end in sight.

In the Middle East, the fierce fighting continues, with neither side blinking or backing down. Hezbollah rockets are raining death on northern Israel, and Israel steps up its aerial assaults and ground combat inside Lebanon.

Caught in the crossfire, Americans in Lebanon. Thousands are fleeing for safety, yet thousands of others that are packed and ready to go must also pack along some patience.

And undaunted by the death and the devastation. With parts of Israel under fire, some American Jews decide to keep their long-made plans. Right now they're moving to Israel, some intent on going directly where the rockets are falling.

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

Today, the Lebanese prime minister said Lebanon will survive the conflict and that Lebanese -- the Lebanese people "refuse to die." Yet the death toll grows in Lebanon.

Today, Israel's military continued pounding Lebanon with aerial assaults and entered a new ground battle against Hezbollah.

The Lebanese prime minister, Fouad Siniora, says over 300 Lebanese have died since the conflict began. Lebanon's official count so far, 216 civilians dead, 524 hurt.

Meanwhile, Israeli police say two children were killed when a Hezbollah rocket hit the northern town of Nazareth earlier today. That's in the Galilee. At least 29 Israelis have been killed in a week of warfare.

Second of State Condoleezza Rice plans to meet tomorrow night in New York with the U.N. secretary-general, Kofi Annan. Friday, she'll get a first-hand report from a United Nations diplomatic team just back from the region.

Israel, Cyprus, Beirut, and beyond, CNN reporters are posted throughout the Middle East watching all of these unfolding developments.

Our Ben Wedeman is standing by in the Lebanese capital of Beirut.

Chris Burns is in Cyprus for us.

But let's begin our coverage this hour with our chief international correspondent, Christiane Amanpour. She's reporting from northern Israel, not for from the Lebanese border -- Christiane.

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, despite this Israeli push that's now been in its eighth day, these Hezbollah rockets keep coming. So they haven't been silenced yet. They still have their military capability.

We were up in Avivim, which is a town almost right on the border there, and that's where they've had the fiercest clashes to date. Pretty much facing off Israelis and Hezbollah on the Lebanese side of the border, as the IDF, the Israeli ministry, tells us Israelis were trying to go over and take out some of the Hezbollah positions and it turned into a long, protracted clash between the two sides. We witnessed on the Israeli side tanks firing over and over again, that being -- bringing on a barrage of mortar and rocket fire from the Hezbollah side.

Now, we're told that two Israeli soldiers were killed and about nine were injured. And we certainly saw the injured being loaded onto ambulances and being taken away.

And we also saw quite a big area up there being peppered with rocket fire and rocket impacts. There was huge amounts of smoke billowing from various hillside towns and villages on the Israeli side. There were flames.

And we know that in the town of Nazareth there was a rocket attack which we're told kill two children. And also, in Haifa, there were more attacks, but no casualties there.

Here, this little town of Matula (ph), where we are right now, again, almost right on the border with Lebanon, there was a few hours ago a fierce firefight involving Israeli tank and heavy artillery forces trying to push back what they said was a potential incursion by Hezbollah militants. We don't know whether they did actually infiltrate, but there was a fear at one point from the Israelis that they did. And there were certainly a lot of troops deployed to the area, also helicopters overhead to the fence area to try to deal with that.

But certainly a huge amount of outgoing artillery fire from here for several hours -- Wolf.

BLITZER: In the last hour, Christiane, we heard from the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, Dan Gillerman, saying that this Israeli military operation is going to -- is going to take as necessary to effectively, he said, destroy Hezbollah's military capability, to disarm and to disband this militia, he says.

If that's the Israeli military goal, it's going to take a lot longer than a week or two.

AMANPOUR: Well, that is the goal, basically. Who knows, frankly, how long it will take?

The IDF today basically saying that about 50 percent of the capability has already been taken out. But it's hard for us. We have no idea. We don't know how to determine that.

We certainly saw a great deal of capability from the Hezbollah side today. There was a huge amount of incoming, big barrage, one of the biggest in these last eight days. But, you know, they also want to create a buffer zone.

We talked to the leader of the Israeli battle front up here, the general who is in charge of the battle operations on the northern front. And they are trying to push back. They say there will be a buffer zone one way or another. And they're trying to go in, as we've been talking about. Small units have gone in and out for the last several days with tanks, with bulldozers, trying to take out Hezbollah outposts and bunkers, and trying to eliminate their capability to be in place right on the border and to be able to continue these attacks.

BLITZER: Christiane, thank you very much. We're going to check back throughout the evening here on CNN.

Let's go to Beirut and find out what's going on in Lebanon. Ben Wedeman is on the scene for us.

Ben, we heard an emotional address from the Lebanese prime minister, Fouad Siniora. He says the Israeli may have some military objectives, but in the process, he says, they're destroying Lebanon.

What's the latest from Beirut?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, well, this has been probably the bloodiest day of Israel's eight-day offensive in Lebanon. We've seen intense airstrikes focusing mainly on the southern part of the country.

Also, though, those airstrikes reaching as far a Beirut this afternoon. There was a huge explosion when a warehouse near the airport was hit. And then later in the evening, there was a series of massive explosions shaking the Lebanese capital.

Those rockets, presumed rockets or bombs, hit the southern suburbs where Hezbollah is headquartered. That area is, by and large, completely abandoned by its ordinary residents. There are very few people there. Some people going in and out just to get their belongings.

But I was there this evening, driving around with a taxi driver and a camera. And we were stopped by some Hezbollah gunmen who told us to turn off the cars' lights, leave the area immediately.

Another group stopped us, took away my driver's cell phone, asked us lots of questions. They're very suspicious, very nervous in that area that these Israeli airstrikes are going to intensify as soon as this operation to evacuate foreign nationals comes to an end -- Wolf.

BLITZER: You're fluent in Arabic. And I know you've been speaking with a lot of Lebanese. Lebanon is a very divided country. There are Lebanese Maronite Christians, there are the Muslims, the Shia Muslims, the Sunni Muslims, there are the Druze.

Give us a little flavor of the reaction. Are there different reactions to what the Israelis are doing based on the ethnicity of the various groups within Lebanon?

WEDEMAN: Well, really, it depends, of course, who you talk to here. But certainly all of the Shiites I've spoken to are intensely angry about what's going on, enraged by the level of civilian casualties that has been inflicted upon Lebanon. That's how they see it.

But if you go north of here, the vision, the view of things is completely different. People see Lebanon being destroyed slowly, the infrastructure, the bridges, the port, the airport being hit. And they're bitter about that, but they're also bitter about the fact that Hezbollah went and captured these two Israeli soldiers, ignited this crisis which has really taken a country that really seemed to be coming back, standing on its feet, prospering, becoming a tourist center in the Middle East, to what it is now, where there are no tourists, everybody is leaving, and everybody is worried about the future of this country -- Wolf.

BLITZER: A heartbreaking story for the people of Lebanon.

Thanks very much, Ben Wedeman, for that. We're going to come back to you as developments unfold as well.

Right now, thousands of Americans are leaving Lebanon, trying to get out as quickly as they possibly can. Others are being told they are going to have to wait a little bit longer.

Chris Burns is in Larnaca, Cyprus, where the ships are arriving, ships carrying a lot of evacuees.

What's the latest from Larnaca, Chris?

CHRIS BURNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we're expecting a rather spectacular evening here. Over my shoulder, the first of what's believed to be eight ships arriving overnight with some 7,000 or move evacuees of all different kinds of countries.

Over my shoulder is a French destroyer that's arrived just over the past hour with some 500 people. They're being boarded on buses over there, brought over here to a processing center, put through Customs, and hopefully directly on planes to send them back to France and the other respective countries. This is going to go throughout the night.

We're also expecting the first major U.S. sea lift from Beirut. It is a U.S.-commissioned passenger ship that is carrying some 800 people, escorted by the U.S. destroyer USS Gonzalez, out of security reasons. And that is what the Pentagon is saying has taken so long to put this on the -- put -- to get this thing going, to get this evacuation going.

A lot of Americans in Beirut are angry that it's taken so long. They're saying it takes security, extra security to make sure that these evacuations go on without any hitch.

Now, there are other countries involved tonight, along with France and the United States. There are the Swedes, the Danes, the Canadians. In fact, the Canadian prime minister is here in town to see hundreds of his countrymen being taken back.

So, what we're seeing is an increasingly large flow of expatriates. As we see the escalation going on in Lebanon, a lot of people losing hope, we talked to some American University students in Beirut who just got out this morning on a Norwegian ship. They said it was hard to sleep with the explosions going on. They couldn't sleep in their dormitories.

And they were given 10 minutes to pack their bags. So they couldn't take everything with them. So a very frantic scene for a lot of people over there -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Chris Burns is going to be on the scene for us throughout the night in Larnaca, talking with Americans as they get off these ships.

Chris, stand by for that.

We're going to continue to watch the story in THE SITUATION ROOM.

And we're learning of another phase, potentially, a very dangerous phase in this rescue operation. Let's go to our senior Pentagon correspondent, Jamie McIntyre.

Jamie, explain to our viewers what you've learned.

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SR. PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, now that the evacuation of Americans from the capital of Lebanon, Beirut, is well under way, U.S. military planners are focusing on the plight of Americans stranded in more remote regions of the country, and that could potentially mean a dangerous mission for U.S. Marines who are on ships heading to the coast now.

U.S. -- a senior defense official tells CNN that the U.S. is considering sending those Marines on helicopters to extract Americans from remote areas, if they have no other way to get to safety. A senior defense official also said that there have been no decisions made on this mission at the moment. It's just one of the options under consideration. But in an interview earlier today on CNN, Rear Admiral Patrick Walsh, the commander of the evacuation operation, told CNN's Kyra Phillips that one of the reasons he moved the Marines and the ships to that location was to have ability to extract Americans no matter what their location. And he promised that "everything would be done to get Americans to safety" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Very quickly, Jamie, I take it there's been good coordination in rescue operations with the Israelis. The U.S. and the Israeli military working closely together. But there's no cooperation with Hezbollah. That raises the stakes for these kinds of rescue operations deep in the southern part of Lebanon.

MCINTYRE: Well, and there has been cooperation and consultation with the Lebanese government as well. But you point out that this would mean that U.S. military helicopters would have to fly over an area of Lebanon that is controlled by Hezbollah , which is identified by the U.S. government as a terrorist group.

BLITZER: All right. We're going to bring you back, Jamie. Stand by. We're going to get some more on this story.

Jamie McIntyre reporting that very, very potentially dangerous development.

Let's check in with Jack once again. He's in New York -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: That's good stuff.

Another voice from the region weighing in on the Middle East conflict. This one from Iraq.

Iraq's prime minister is denouncing Israeli airstrikes in Lebanon, calling them "operations of mass destruction of the infrastructure and in no way justified." That's a quote.

Nouri al-Maliki says Iraq is asking the international community to take a quick stance and stop the aggression against Lebanon and the killing of innocent people. The United States support for Israel is not likely to please our friends in Iraq.

Meanwhile, things are not looking any better there either. Iraq, that is.

The foreign minister says the Iraqi government has only months now to curb the sectarian violence that's threatening a full-blown civil war. Some people say that's already started.

The U.N. reported yesterday 14,000 civilians have been killed in Iraq during the first six months of this year. Nearly 6,000 of them in just the last two months.

So here's the question. How will this latest conflict in the Middle East affect U.S. operations in Iraq?

Your thoughts, caffertyfile@cnn.com, or go to cnn.com/caffertyfile.

BLITZER: Good question, Jack. Thanks very much. No simple answers, but a good question.

Up ahead, our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, on board the USS Nashville. That's a ship heading toward the Lebanese coast right now. Barbara is going to update us on military evacuation efforts.

Also, should a multinational peace-keeping force be sent to the region? I'll ask our world affairs analyst, the former defense secretary, William Cohen.

And U.S. law enforcement warning about Hezbollah activity right here in the United States. We're going to show you why the FBI is so concerned right now.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're following all of the newest developments in the Middle East crisis. Among them, new clashes between Israeli forces and Hezbollah militants in southern Lebanon unfolding right now.

The Israeli foreign minister says the country's offensive is paving the way for what she calls diplomacy. The Lebanese prime minister estimates a half a million people in his country are now displaced by the Israeli campaign.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is to meet tomorrow in New York with United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the European Union foreign affairs chief to discuss the crisis.

Meanwhile, Lebanon is reporting 216 people killed in the fighting so far, with 524 wounded, although the country's prime minister earlier today put the number of dead Lebanese at more than 300. Israel is reporting 29 people killed, more than 300 wounded.

In our "Security Watch," U.S. law enforcement agencies are right now being warned to keep an eye on people in this country with ties to Hezbollah.

Our justice correspondent, Kelli Arena, is picking up this part of the story -- Kelli.

KELLI ARENA, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, you know, before September 11th, Hezbollah was responsible for more American deaths than any other terrorist group. The last significant attack that Hezbollah played a role in was the 1996 bombing of the Khobar towers in Saudi Arabia in which 19 Americans were killed.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ARENA (voice over): Hezbollah has never attacked on U.S. soil, but U.S. officials say if the situation in the Middle East escalates further, that could change. ROBERT MUELLER, FBI DIRECTOR: We're taking precautions here in the United States. And to the extent that we have identified individuals associated with Hezbollah, we are taking additional precautions to ensure that we do not face a threat from these individuals.

ARENA: Counterterrorism officials stress there is no new intelligence suggesting that Hezbollah is planning an attack against the U.S. or U.S. interests, but in an advisory sent to law enforcement partners late last week, the FBI and Department of Homeland Security warned that, "... it is possible individuals residing in the U.S. who sympathize with Hezbollah could act."

Bob Grenier is a former CIA counterterrorism official.

BOB GRENIER, KROLL: I think it is almost an actuarial certainty that if we were to get into a direct confrontation with Hezbollah, that there would be those who would be fighting on behalf of Hezbollah in the United States.

ARENA: Law enforcement sources say there are active cells in the U.S. allegedly involved in everything from gathering intelligence, to raising funds, to smuggling arms and military equipment to Hezbollah fighters. Currently, there are investigations under way in at least two dozen U.S. cities, including Detroit and Los Angeles. Those investigations are mostly focused on people allegedly providing financial support to the organization.

GRENIER: There certainly has been a pattern of individuals in the past who have had function and other links with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

ARENA: Officials say much of Hezbollah's activity in the U.S. involves traditional criminal enterprises.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ARENA: Most experts do not believe that the current situation has escalated enough to prompt Hezbollah to directly act against the United States, but the problem is, it's not clear what the trigger will be -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Kelli Arena, thanks very much.

Strong reporting by Kelli.

Stay tuned to CNN day and night for the most reliable news about your security.

Coming up, the USS Nashville heading to Lebanon right now. Our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, is on board with details of how the ship will help evacuate potentially thousands of Americans.

Plus, military officials are very concerned about possible attacks of ships in the region. We're going to show you some of the tools they're using to protect U.S. warships. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: One American military vessel, the USS Nashville, is due to dock in Beirut in the hours ahead. Its mission, get more Americans out.

Our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, is on board the ship with more -- Barbara.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the Marines on board this ship are awaiting their final orders to sail to Beirut. There are about 400 Marines on board the USS Nashville, along with the Navy crew. This will be an extraordinary emotional mission for both the Navy and the Marine Corps, because there are some fairly remarkable historic coincidences emerging here.

Twenty-four years ago, the USS Nashville was in Beirut helping evacuate Americans from the civil war that raged there at the time. And it was 23 years ago, of course, 241 Marines lost their lives at Beirut International Airport in that bombing attack. But some of the Marines on board the Nashville now, they are from the same unit as those Marines that lost their lives so many years ago.

So, the final security measures now are being worked out. When they get the order to sail, we are told there will be very significant security measures in place. We are being asked not to discuss them at this point. But the Navy and the Marine Corps want to make sure when they get to Beirut and they pick up possibly hundreds of Americans, it will be a very safe, secure mission.

Here, on Cyprus, the emerging story, however is, as hundreds, if not thousands, of Americans and other Westerners arrive on Cyprus, will they be able to make their way quickly back to their homes? It's not clear at this point, because as the evacuation goes on, so many people are arriving here. It's not clear they can be quickly moved to civilian air flights to their final destinations.

We are told that arrangements are being made for people to have space in schools, in auditoriums, in fairgrounds. So, if they have to spend time here on Cyprus, they will have somewhere to be, because the hotels are becoming very full, as you can understand.

Both the State Department and the military say they do not want to get into the business of having to run any tent cities here on Cyprus, so they are going to keep working, trying to get people moving on to those civilian air flights and back to their homes as quickly as possible -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Barbara Starr reporting from the USS Nashville on board that ship in the Mediterranean on its way to Beirut to help evacuate Americans.

As the evacuation efforts pick up, there's growing concern about the safety of U.S. military ships in the region. Let's bring back our senior Pentagon correspondent, Jamie McIntyre -- Jamie.

MCINTYRE: Well, Wolf, when that U.S. warship the Nashville goes into Beirut with our Barbara Starr on board, she tells us that U.S. commanders say they're not taking any chances.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MCINTYRE (voice over): The amphibious transport ship USS Nashville will be the first American warship to pick up U.S. civilians from Beirut. While it's on a mission of mercy, that doesn't mean it couldn't also become a terrorist target.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm concerned about attacks on ships. You bet.

MCINTYRE: For now, the sea lanes between Lebanon and Cyprus are considered a "permissive environment" both for commercial vessels and military ships ferrying foreign nationals to safety.

Still, commanders on board the USS Nashville tell CNN they're operating under tight security.

COL. JOEL BERRY, U.S. MARINE CORPS: We'll make sure it's adequate for any mission we may be assigned, and appropriate for the type of mission, which is to safeguard Americans.

MCINTYRE: The stakes were raised when an Iranian-made C802 anti- ship missile hit an Israeli warship Friday, revealing a capability few suspected Hezbollah possessed, the means to strike a ship as far as 10 miles from war. U.S. warships, including the Nashville, are equipped with the Navy's falank (ph) system. The defense against anti-ship missiles features a sensitive tracking radar that looks like R2D2 on steroids, coupled with six .20-millimeter gatling guns that fire more than 4,000 rounds a minute, knocking down incoming missiles with a wall of metal.

It's good against high-tech missiles, but the threat is from low- tech rockets as well.

JOHN PIKE, GLOBALSECURITY.ORG: American military planners are going to have to think very carefully about making sure that Hezbollah or Iran doesn't fire anti-shipping cruise missiles or artillery rockets at some of the evacuation ships, at the evacuation ships, or some of our warships.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MCINTYRE: As an extra precaution, Pentagon sources indicate that the Nashville will likely remain several miles off shore and use its landing craft and helicopters to ferry Americans from Beirut to the ship -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jamie McIntyre at the Pentagon.

Thanks, Jamie.

And we're just getting this in from Jerusalem. The Israeli military now confirming to CNN that Israeli airstrikes right now have targeted and actually hit what they describe as a bunker which they suspect include some high-ranking members of Hezbollah.

The story just come anything to CNN. Clearly going after the Hezbollah leadership. The Israeli military confirming to CNN that high-ranking officials of Hezbollah have been targeted in a bunker in an Israeli airstrike that's unfolding right now.

We're going to get some more information, go to Jerusalem, be precise on this story.

In the meantime, let's bring in our world affairs analyst, the former defense secretary, William Cohen. He's a key member of CNN's Security Council and now the head of The Cohen Group here in Washington.

They're not mincing any words, the Israelis. They're saying they're going to try to kill or decapitate the leadership of Hezbollah.

WILLIAM COHEN, FORMER DEFENSE SECRETARY: Well, I think they can be successful in degrading the capability of Hezbollah, but the membership is much larger than perhaps even they suspect at this point. It's a situation which Hezbollah has this kind of heads I win, tails, you lose. Every time you launch another missile or attack you kill innocent Lebanese children, men and women.

We get more radicals, Palestinians and others and Arabs who become radicalized. So it's one of those games that is a very dangerous game. Ultimately, this is going to be resolved through diplomacy, and by that, I mean when Secretary Rice goes to the U.N., she has to insist upon two or three things in my mind.

No. 1, go to the source. The source is Syria and Iran. Much more so than Lebanon. You go to the U.N., say to the Syrians, you will have to abide by Resolution 1559 or else there will be sanctions imposed upon you.

We go to the same with respect to Iran and say to the Iranians, you thought you were going to disrupt the proceedings as far as consideration of your nuclear program. We are now going to reconvene, and we are going to insist that you either comply with it or we are going to impose sanctions upon Iran.

And the third component would have to be namely to insist upon a cessation of the expansion settlements in the West Bank.

Going back to the root cause, as President Bush talked about the root cause. It's Hamas, Hezbollah. Also a root cause has to do with settlements continuing to expand in the West Bank. That has to be addressed. True -- once again going back to the president's own road map. You can't get to the road map until you deal with Syria and Iran directly. BLITZER: One of the elements of any agreement presumably will be some sort of international stabilization force in the southern part of Lebanon. Over the past 24 hours, I've heard some influential voices here in Washington throw out this idea of sending NATO troops in.

If NATO can go into Afghanistan, why can't they go into Lebanon and get the job done more robustly, more effectively than this U.N. peace keeping force that's been there since 1978?

COHEN: Well, the situation in Afghanistan is quite a bit different than what's taking place today in Lebanon between Lebanon and the Israelis. We have a coalition force. Our component, 137,000 American troops plus others nations who are currently in Iraq. We have not suppressed the insurgency there.

The notion that you would put a force in place that you, No. 1, have to determine what are the ground rules, what are the rules of engagement? Are they heavily armed? How do they respond? How far can they go, et cetera.

But more importantly, until you have an agreement by the Syrians and the Iranians about what they are prepared to do, to put a force in there at this point, without very serious consideration, awareness of the consequences of that, I think would be a mistake.

First go to the U.N., insist that they insist upon compliance with their own resolutions. The failure to do that will see a continuation of the kind of conflict we've seen with greater and greater bloodshed.

BLITZER: Very quickly, how worried about are you about the safety of U.S. Marines if they go into South Lebanon right now to try to rescue Americans stranded there?

COHEN: Well, obviously, after the Israeli ship was attacked with the variation of the Chinese silkworm missile, they have to be concerned about anything coming close to them.

But I think it would be a big mistake for Hezbollah and Syria to support this Iran. It would be met with a very strong response, the military response, which I don't think they want to see at this particular point. So they have to be careful. They've got the equipment. They've got to be on guard, learning from the Israeli experience and our understanding that they had possession of these types of weapons. But I think that they will be reasonably secure in their defensive capabilities.

BLITZER: The former secretary of defense, William Cohen, thanks very much for coming in.

Coming up, death and devastation are not necessarily deterrents. Some American Jews right now getting ready to move to Israel permanently, despite the conflict. Some even plan to move to the very places where rockets right now are falling.

And the unfolding crisis, through the eyes of those affected. We're going to show you some of the moving images and personal stories posted online.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're following the breaking news coming out of Jerusalem, Israeli military confirming that Israeli warplanes have dropped what they say are 23 tons of bombs on a South Beirut bunker. They say it's been used by top officials of Hezbollah. This coming in from the Israeli military, no immediate word on casualties from the strike.

We're watching the story. We're going to bring much more on this development, as soon as we get it.

In the meantime, let's get other news. Important news, Fredricka Whitfield joining us once again from the CNN Center.

Hi, Fred.

FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Hello to you.

Well, good news to consumers. Oil prices have dropped for the third day in a row. U.S. light crude slid to just over $72 a barrel today after Energy Department officials reports that supplies were up. They say supplies of gasoline are up by one and a half millions barrels, while supplies of the materials used to make diesel fuel and heating oil have also increased.

President Bush says no to expanded use of human embryos for stem cell research. The president issued his first veto since taking office to block a bill passed yesterday by the Senate. The measure, which passed last year in the House, would allow couples who had embryos frozen for fertility treatments to donate them to researchers, rather than let them be destroyed.

Republican congressional leaders say it's unlikely that Congress will be able to override the veto.

West Virginia officials say a series of structural and human failures contributed to the deaths of 12 West Virginia coal miners last January. Twenty-seven-year-old Randal McCloy was the only survivor of the accident. He was severely injured by the deadly gases that spread through the mine. McCloy also says that some of the miners' air packs did not work.

And it's a familiar drill for coastal residents. They're preparing for the arrival of the second named storm of the hurricane season. Tropical Storm Beryl formed last -- yesterday afternoon off the North Carolina coast. That region may be off the hook, however, but the National Hurricane Center has issued a storm watch for Southeastern Massachusetts heading north -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Fred. Thank you very much.

Let's check in with Lou Dobbs. He's getting ready for his program that begins right at the top of the hour.

Lou, tell our viewers what you're working on.

LOU DOBBS, HOST, "LOU DOBBS TONIGHT": Wolf, thank you.

Coming up at the top of the hour here on CNN, we'll have the very latest on the escalating conflict between Israel and Hezbollah. Israeli soldiers tonight are inside Lebanon fighting one of the biggest ground battles of the war so far. We'll have a live report for you from the Israel-Lebanon border. We'll also be live with the reporters in Beirut.

The United States has begun the first large scale evacuation of American citizens from Beirut. U.S. Marines could be flying deep into Lebanon to rescue Americans trapped there. We'll be going live to Larnarca, Cyprus and the Pentagon.

We'll also be reporting on a major new threat to our national security. Has Congress learned nothing over the debacle over the Dubai ports deal? We'll also have that special report on a new deal that would give foreign governments and companies the right to own and operate our ports.

We'll also have the latest for you on a new front in the fight against illegal immigration.

We hope you'll join us at the top of the hour. Wolf, back to you.

BLITZER: Thanks very much for that, Lou. We'll be watching.

Still to come, the latest developments from the Middle East, including immigration under way right now to Israel. In ordinary times, hundreds of American Jews moving to Israel not necessarily unheard of. But these are by no means ordinary times. Mary Snow is on the story for us.

And Jack Cafferty is wondering about this phrase: operations of mass destruction. It may sound like something in Iraq, but it's actually what Iraq's leader says Israel is mounting in Lebanon.

How might the Mideast conflict affect American operations in Iraq? Jack has your e-mail. That's coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're going go to Beirut momentarily. Nic Robertson is on the scene. The Israeli military confirming that it's dropped what they say 23 tons of bombs on a South Beirut bunker that they say includes senior Hezbollah leaders. We'll go to Beirut, get the latest on that.

The Middle East is on alert as Israeli and Hezbollah fighters engage in open warfare. At this time, while thousands are trying to flee the region, some people are actually moving there right now.

CNN's Mary Snow joining us from New York's John F. Kennedy Airport with the story. What's going on, Mary?

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, within the past couple of hours, dozens of American families left to move for Israel. This was a move that had been planned for quite some time. About 20 people in the group did postpone the trip. But most said they would not let the fighting deter their plans.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW (voice-over): There were last minute phone calls, tears and embraces as more than 200 Americans say good-bye to their home in the United States, heading for a new life in Israel. But the move was not without worries. Hezbollah rockets struck Nazareth and thousands continued fleeing the Middle East.

For Jehuda Saar, a father of three, the fighting only strengthened his resolve to pick up his family and leave New Jersey.

JEHUDA SAAR, MOVING TO ISRAEL: Without shooting one bullet, without holding a gun, we're Israel's best weapon against anyone, any detractor, anyone who wants to destroy Israel.

SNOW: Saar says his family is proof that Israel shouldn't back down. Many share that determination, but it comes with a price.

JONATHAN KLEIN, MOVING TO ISRAEL: Our boys are coming to the age that they would be -- have to go into the army soon in the next few years, mandatory army service, and that's always a concern.

SNOW: The Kleins and their four sons are moving to a settlement in the north near the Lebanese border. They say they won't be in harm's way.

But 22-year-old Steve Rubin one day could be. He plans to join the Israeli army.

STEVEN RUBIN, AMERICAN JOINING ISRAELI ARMY: It only makes me want to go there more. It validates everything I've been thinking, you know, for the existence of the state of Israel to see how important everything is at this point.

SNOW: A family's pride turn to tears when it's time to say good- bye.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I just love you so much.

SNOW: While families had a hard time letting go, Israel is eager to welcome its new citizens.

ARYE MEKEL, ISRAEL CONSUL GENERAL, NEW YORK: For us, for Israel, it's a huge boost to our morale, feeling that fellow Jews around the world are not deterred.

(END VIDEOTAPE) SNOW: As it stands now, the group will arrive in Israel on Thursday morning, and Israel's prime minister is scheduled to greet them when they get to the airport -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Mary. Thanks very much. Mary reporting from JFK.

Let's check in once again with our Internet reporter, Jacki Schechner. She has the latest on the Middle East crisis online. What are we seeing online now by way of Internet images and video?

JACKI SCHECHNER, CNN INTERNET CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it's as simple as a 17-year-old with a video camera. This is an Arab family living in Israel. He tells us via e-mail now that the sounds of planes overhead and sirens are pretty much all of the time, running around posting this video online.

This is the kind of thing we're seeing more and more as people decide that the best way to pass the time is document their experience and put it on the Internet for people to see.

Also, we have Bashir in Beirut says that the images that he's seeing now constantly are so devastating, even Southern Beirut, that he decided to travel around and take some more beautiful photos of the Beirut that he loves to show the world that it is still very much a beautiful place and to have these memories for himself and to see others.

Go to CNN.com/SituationReport. There's a lot of great links for you there, things that we found online we'd like to share with you.

Also, Wolf, I just want to reiterate again that it's tough to authenticate the video that people put online and that if you're going to look at a personal viewpoint it is going to be very personal. It will often have a political slant to it -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jacki, thanks very much.

I want to go right to Beirut. Nic Robertson is standing by. The Israeli military, Nic, confirming that they dropped, what they say, 23 tons of bombs on a South Beirut bunker that they say has been used by senior members of Hezbollah.

What are you picking up there?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, 23 tons of explosives is a lot. And we've been listening over the past few nights to bombs going off that have been a lot smaller volume than that. Bombs that are perhaps in the region of half a ton maximum.

And we've been able to hear them pretty clearly from where we are in the center of Beirut. We haven't heard any continual loud explosions that would -- that would indicate that a large amount of ordinance bunker-busting type bombs is being dropped anywhere, at least within the audible range that we hear. And we can hear bombs and we have been able to hear bombs sort of reasonably well out to the southern suburbs. What might change that tonight is the wind blowing in the wrong direction so it wouldn't hear the sound. Well, that doesn't seem to be the case. It's not a strong wind right now.

So it's sort of surprising that we haven't heard these explosives going off.

We have, however, tried to contact our usual Hezbollah contacts. They are not answering their phones. We cannot get through to them by phone. This does not indicate anything more, perhaps, than they have their phones switched off, which maybe they do in the evenings at night for security reasons or whatever. We don't know.

But what we do know, standing here right now, Wolf, is that we haven't heard any huge explosions that would seem to correlate with 23 tons of explosives on the southern outskirts, southern suburbs of Beirut.

However, the bombs might have dropped further away. There may be other reasons why we haven't heard these explosives hitting the ground, Wolf. But we are continuing to try to get through to those Hezbollah representatives to find out from them what they can tell us -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And Hezbollah television, has that been business as usual, the past few hours? Because if the Israelis managed to knock out some of the leaders of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, for example, the overall leader of Hezbollah, presumably Al Minar Television, which is Hezbollah television, would not be in regular programming?

ROBERTSON: Nothing has changed on that front as far as we can see, Wolf. The programming that they've been putting out today is the normal information that -- that they feed out. And that has been typically a lot of rousing military-type videos, music, nationalist type songs.

Also banners along the bottom. Earlier on today, for example, they were saying that they'd fired missiles 50 kilometers, about 35 miles, 30 miles into Israel, hitting a military escort (ph). This did not prove to be the case.

So from what we've seen of Al Minar, the television station, the reports for Hezbollah, we have not seen them particularly change their stance and go to some indication that perhaps something had happened to the leadership.

But again, Wolf, information may travel slowly at this time of night. Typically, it is tough to verify things in the middle of the night here. And we will be following this, and will be bringing you all of the details. But at the moment there's very little that we can say standing here in Beirut at the moment, Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you very much. Nic Robertson on the scene for us in Beirut. And this just coming into CNN. We've now learned that the Orient Queen, that huge ship bringing as many as a thousand Americans to Larnaca in Cyprus, has arrived. Those people are about to start getting off that ship. We're going to go to Larnaca live in a moment just to make sure that we bring that to you.

Once again, the Orient Queen bringing perhaps a thousand Americans or so to Cyprus from Lebanon, that ship has now arrived.

The Arab-Israeli conflict may date back generations, but the current fighting may be giving us a glimpse of the future of warfare in the region.

CNN's Brian Todd is joining us now with our "Welcome to the Future" report -- Brian.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, that war of the future playing out right now, a mostly airborne, long range conflict with air strikes, rocket attacks, even unmanned aircraft hits. But experts say this kind of technological warfare may not be tipping the balance as much toward Israel as you might expect.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): Hezbollah's answer to Israel's overwhelming advantage in fire power, the Katyusha rocket, crude, inaccurate, but sometimes effective. Older models with ranges of about a dozen miles can hit just across the border, but experts say Hezbollah's also fired rockets able to travel several dozen miles to the city of Haifa and beyond.

And they say Hezbollah may have rockets that can fly up to 100 miles. A potential target: Tel Aviv.

Other advantages: The shorter range Katyushas aren't in the air for more than a few seconds. They fly low to the ground, and...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You can position it, you know, to be ready to be launched very easily. It's a challenge for us to intercept it.

TODD: To hit Katyushas, Israel cannot use its sophisticated Aero-2 (ph) or Patriot defense systems, made to blast long-range missiles out of the sky. The counter for Katyushas, experts say, is in the future.

JOHN PIKE, GLOBALSECURITY.ORG: I think that the hope is that eventually the United States and Israel are going to be able to develop battlefield laser systems that are going to be able to shoot these artillery rockets down.

TODD: Lasers that in recent tests have proven very effective in hitting Katyushas and other short range rockets, even shoulder fired missiles, in just seconds.

Israel and the U.S. Army explored a laser program a few years ago, but the Army backed out because the units were expensive and immobile. Now, lighter, mobile, more efficient systems are being developed. Their only drawback...

PIKE: The big challenge for these lasers is that the lower atmosphere is dirty. It's cloudy, foggy, dusty. The Laser beam winds up heating up the dust rather than destroying the missile.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: Still experts say lasers are coming to the battlefield. Other technologies we'll see may look familiar, like a ground version of the Gatling gun, those multi-barrel rotating guns found on ships that can fire thousands of rounds per second. Very effective, experts say, at hitting short range rockets and mortar shells -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian Todd, with our "Welcome to the Future" report. Good reporting. Thanks very much.

And we're going to go to Larnaca, Cyprus, after a short break. The Orient Queen, a huge ship carrying as many as a thousand Americans, has now arrived in Cyprus. We'll go there for a live report right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The Orient Queen, an eight-deck cruise liner, has just arrived in Larnaca, Cyprus, carrying perhaps a thousand Americans. Chris Burns is on the scene for us.

Only moments ago, it finally got there from Beirut, Chris.

CHRIS BURNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. This is the first major movement of American citizens out of Beirut in the eight days since that conflict began. They're now -- let's push in on that ship right now. Let's give a closer look at it.

It has made that five- or six-hour trip by boat across the Mediterranean from Lebanon over here. This is going to be a major processing center for this flotilla of ships arriving here.

There was also a French destroyer that arrived the last couple of hours. And just minutes after the Orient Queen arrived, there was also a Danish commissioned ferry that arrived, as well, with some 900 other people, mostly Danish and European Union nationals.

Over the night, it's going to be a very busy night. There could be as many as 7,000 evacuees arriving on eight ships tonight. And we'll be keeping you updated throughout the night, Wolf.

BLITZER: And we'll be joining you during our 7 p.m. Eastern hour, an hour from now. Perhaps we'll speak to some of those Americans getting off the Orient Queen. Chris Burns on the scene for us.

Up next, Jack Cafferty asks how will the latest conflict in the Middle East affect U.S. operations in Iraq? We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: Only moments ago, the Orient Queen, a huge ocean liner, arrived in Larnaca, Cyprus, carrying a thousand Americans. Full coverage coming up.

In the meanwhile, let's go to Jack Cafferty in New York -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: All right. We've heard from the Iraq's prime minister today. He's denouncing the Israeli air strikes in Southern Lebanon, calling them, quote, "operations of the destruction of the infrastructure."

The question is, how will the conflict in the Middle East affect U.S. operations in Iraq? That war is ongoing, although you wouldn't know it by watching the mainstream media. It's not getting much attention these days because of the outbreak of violence in Lebanon and Gaza.

Tom writes this: "This conflict is taking the spotlight off of Iraq as it falls into chaos. Fourteen thousand dead civilians so far this year, we are in trouble. This is going to blow up into a regional war with the United States right in the middle. Get ready for the draft."

Roy in Toronto writes, "If the conflict gets worse and Israel does not achieve its goals (disarming Hezbollah), I am afraid it will be seen as a victory for terrorism and will encourage more attacks on the United States and the free world."

Khalil writes from Atlanta, "Lebanon's Shiite brethren in Iraq will eventually sympathize with Hezbollah, earning us the enmity of the people upon whom we will rely to stabilize and bring calm to Iraq. Unless the Arab-Israeli conflict is solved, spreading democracy in the Middle East will only result in the rise of democratically elected leaders who are hell-bent on destroying the Jewish state."

Glen in Haymarket, Virginia: "The Mideast conflict won't affect operations in Iraq at all. What it will affect is the amount of coverage that it gets due to the attention span, or lack thereof, of the media. The events in Iraq can't compete with American civilians trying to get out of Lebanon."

And Johnny in Florida writes, "This Israeli/Hezbollah war is going to blow open Iraq's civil war even more. It will have the same effect as the Santa Ana winds helping a brush fire in the San Bernardino Valley area in Southern California."

If you didn't see your e-mail here, you can go to CNN.com/CaffertyFile, where you can read more of these online -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack, thank you very much. See you back here in an hour in THE SITUATION ROOM. We're in THE SITUATION ROOM weekday afternoons from 4 to 6 p.m. Eastern. Back in one hour at 7 p.m. Eastern. Extensive coverage of the crisis in the Middle East.

Until then, thanks very much for joining us. "LOU DOBBS TONIGHT" starts right now -- Lou. TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.fdch.com

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