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PAULA ZAHN NOW

Condoleezza Rice Visits Middle East; Israeli Troops Move Deeper Into Lebanon

Aired July 24, 2006 - 20:00   ET

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


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: And thank you all for joining us. Good to have you with us.
It has been a very busy day in the Middle East crisis. That is our "Top Story" tonight.

And we are following lots of new developments for you.

As we speak, Israeli troops and Hezbollah fighters are locked in a fierce battle for southern Lebanon. Hezbollah admits, it's being pushed back. But even though Israeli troops have taken a guerrilla stronghold, they're complaining of difficult terrain and constant ambushes. Hezbollah rockets keep slamming into Israeli cities and towns, meanwhile -- at least 90 hit today. The pace of rocket attacks isn't slowing down, despite 13 days of Israeli airstrikes.

That bombing campaign has now killed at least 375 Lebanese. The Israeli death toll stands at 39 tonight. Some 800,000 Lebanese civilians are homeless and desperate, so, President Bush is ordering U.S. ships and helicopters to start bringing in the medicine, blankets and supplies. The first deliveries are due in, in a couple of hours.

In Beirut today, some big news -- the bombing stopped, as U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a dramatic and unexpected visit to the city.

Our in depth "Top Story" coverage starts with her unscheduled visit to Lebanon's capital. She's now moved on to Jerusalem.

And that's exactly where we find our John King tonight -- John.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: But, Paula, anyone who thinks that surprise visit to Beirut, or this more urgent Bush administration effort to put a focus on diplomacy, will bring an immediate breakthrough is going to be disappointed.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KING (voice-over): A high-profile mission with a dramatic beginning -- the secretary of state brushing aside security concerns to visit Beirut and offer support to Lebanon's fragile government.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: President Bush wanted this to be my first stop here in Lebanon to express our desire to urgently find conditions in which we can end the violence and make life better for the Lebanese people. KING: But, while Secretary Rice promised $30 million in U.S. humanitarian aid, she did not give Lebanon's prime minister what he wanted most, a White House commitment to push Israel for an immediate cease-fire.

Despite mounting international pressure, the White House says conditions are not ripe for a cease-fire, and U.S. officials expect Israeli military operations to continue for another week, maybe more.

NICHOLAS BURNS, U.S. UNDERSECRETARY OF STATE FOR POLITICAL AFFAIRS: If you stop the fighting right now, you would hand Hezbollah a major victory, because they would be positioned just north of Israel. They would be able to fire those rockets at any time.

KING: The Beirut stop included dinner with leaders of last year's so-called Cedar Revolution, pro-democracy forces who warn, their government could collapse if pushed to confront Hezbollah.

Secretary Rice also met with a key Shiite political figure, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, explaining the U.S. position to a Lebanese leader with close ties to Hezbollah. Suffice it to say, it didn't go well. A television station owned by the speaker said no progress was made, because of what it called unacceptable U.S. demands.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): In summary, we conclude that the conflict is not about the two soldiers kidnapped by Hezbollah, but, rather, a pre-planned American-Israeli scheme to attack Lebanon, its unity, and sovereignty.

KING: Anti-American demonstrations in Beirut were another reminder of the administration's credibility challenge in the Arab world. Secretary Rice's itinerary offered still more proof. By Monday night, she was in Israel, meeting with its foreign minister, in advance of Tuesday's sessions with the prime minister and defense minister.

RICE: Any peace is going to have to be based on enduring principles, and not on temporary solutions.

KING: But no stops in Jordan, Egypt, or Saudi Arabia -- U.S. and diplomatic sources say, all sent word it would be best for Secretary Rice not to visit unless the United States was ready to press Israel for an immediate cease-fire.

Well, she's not going to the Arab world, first of all, because they don't want her. We don't really have interlocutors in the Arab world that trust us.

KING: Instead, Secretary Rice will meet with moderate Arab allies later this week in Rome. United Nations and European officials will also join those talks. And officials hope, by then, to resolve differences over a plan that calls for a cease-fire and a new international force. It would be deployed to southern Lebanon.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: So, John, you just described this very icy response that Condoleezza Rice got. What was it that she expected to have happen when she landed?

KING: Well, they didn't expect much better.

U.S. officials are trying to put a more positive face on the talks with the Lebanese, but we know the Lebanese prime minister said that the bombing there has set his country back 50 years. We know the Shiite politicians do not like the U.S. plan. U.S. officials are trying to say they're making progress here.

But, Paula, they also realize, the secretary had to come here. It's 13 days into the violence. The administration had been criticized for not taking a high-profile diplomatic role. So, she was in Beirut today -- a surprise there -- in Israel tonight and tomorrow.

The bigger question is, can she get an agreement in Rome that will ultimately bring an end to the violence? U.S. officials are reasonably optimistic. But, again, they say, even if the diplomacy in Rome goes perfectly, they still think the fighting will go on for at least a week, maybe two -- Paula.

ZAHN: John King, thanks so much. Appreciate it.

Now, part of what makes this story so complicated is Lebanon's makeup itself. There are Christians, as well as Muslims. And, while Hezbollah has plenty of supporters, it also has many passionate opponents.

During today's break from the bombing, our own Nic Robertson had a chance to get the Lebanese take on the "Top Story." What he heard may surprise you.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice- over): Far from the fighting in the south of the country, Lebanon's biggest shot at a cease-fire came to Beirut -- Condoleezza Rice carrying the full weight of U.S. diplomacy and the influence most here think is required to solve the crisis.

RICE: We are talking about the humanitarian situation, and we're also talking about a durable way to end the violence.

ROBERTSON: Her first meeting with Lebanon's prime minister detailing a peace package to disarm Hezbollah in the south and put an international peacekeeping force next to Israel's border -- outside, a tiny handful of protesters showed up, blasting Rice and the U.S., accusing them of backing Israel.

Secretary of State Rice's visit was kept a closely guarded secret -- security on the streets stepped up, and the roads closed off to normal traffic. Rice's real problems began with Hezbollah's political ally, Nabih Berri. Their meeting went long -- an official close to Berri later criticizing Rice's proposal that calls for a cease-fire and other terms, like Hezbollah's disarmament, to happen all at once.

Hezbollah wants a cease-fire first, then negotiations. As Rice was talking politics, in a predominantly Christian neighborhood, the talk in the cafes was, disarm the Shiite guerrilla group, Hezbollah, but allow their political party to survive.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sure, we don't want them to -- to -- to be completely destroyed, because they represent the Shia. And Shia is a very important community in Lebanon.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Politically, we must press Iran and Damascus, in order -- because they are the one who are controlling Hezbollah.

ROBERTSON: It was views like those that Rice got when she heard from the anti-Syrian coalition of Christians, Sunni Muslims and Druze, all powerless to rein in Hezbollah, but agreeing, after listening to Rice's plans, that the fighting is still far from over.

DORI CHAMMOUN, LEBANESE NATIONAL LIBERAL PARTY: The fighting is going to continue, until such a moment that one of the two is defeated.

ROBERTSON: (on camera): Hezbollah or Israel.

CHAMMOUN: Either Hezbollah or Israel.

ROBERTSON (voice-over): Whether either side can really be defeated on the battlefield is not clear.

The pervading view, though, here is that the violence is still far from over.

"Once Rice leaves," Marcel (ph), the corner store keeper, told me, "the bombing will start again."

Beirut was relatively quiet. Marcel (ph) was doing good business. But, in the south, the barrages of Hezbollah missiles fired into Israel and the Israeli bombs dropped in Lebanon never stopped.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ROBERTSON: Well, if Condoleezza Rice's visit did do some good today, it seems to have been here in Beirut. There have been no bombs dropped, as far as we have seen throughout the day, or so far tonight -- Paula.

ZAHN: Well, that is good news for the folks who have lived under the never-ending blasts they have heard there.

Nic Robertson, thanks so much.

We wonder how long that will last, as you said.

Tonight, the Red Cross is very upset with Israel. Officials, during the night, say an Israeli missile hit two clearly marked Red Cross ambulances that were parked inside a southern Lebanese town helping evacuate civilians. The wounded included a 60-year-old woman and a 12-year-old boy, who's now in a coma.

Our "Top Story" coverage continues now along the front lines, as Israeli troops and tanks slowly shoot their way into Hezbollah strongholds in southern Lebanon.

Our John Roberts spent the day so close to the front lines, he could actually feel the concussion of the artillery going off behind him. He joins me now from Metulla, Israel, near the border with Lebanon.

And, John, we're going to have you stand by for just a -- a quick moment.

Actually, we're going to -- we're -- we're going to go to you first, and also get back to Wolf Blitzer.

John, tell us a little bit of what you have experienced there today.

JOHN ROBERTS, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hey, good evening to you, Paula.

We're in what's called the Galilee Panhandle. We're only a few hundred yards from the border with Lebanon. In fact, it's just down at the end of this road. And we have seen what may be the beginning of a new phase in this campaign.

There's a group of Shiite villages not too far on the other side of this border. And, earlier this evening, they came under increasing fire from Israeli Defense Forces, even though the town of Metulla has not yet been targeted by those Hezbollah Katyusha rockets. It's obvious that the Israelis feel that there's some kind of threat on the other side.

Even now, at 3:00 in the morning, you can hear that double crack of artillery, as it's outgoing, and, then, a few seconds later, the dull thud, as the shell hits on the other side.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ROBERTS (voice-over): Late into the night, this artillery battery close to the border opens up on the Lebanese battleground. It is a deafening roar that shakes the hills and valleys for miles around. And no one can even guess when it might stop.

(on camera): The guns along the Lebanese border never rest. Twenty-four hours a day, they keep raining (AUDIO GAP) deep into Lebanese territory. Nighttime brings no respite either. In fact, if anything, it only steps up the pace.

(voice-over): They are firing in support of Israeli forces on the other side of this ridgeline, past the hilltop town of Maroun al- Ras, into Bint Jbail, Hezbollah's southern stronghold, scene of the latest intense fighting.

It is a difficult battle, says Israeli army spokesman Doron Spielman, in a conflict that breaks the traditional mold of Middle East wars, not about territory, but ideology.

CAPTAIN DORON SPIELMAN, ISRAELI DEFENSE FORCES: Let's just pretend like we do nothing now. Six years down the road, seven years down the road, these missiles from Hezbollah will be hitting Europe, North America. This is part of the same conflict of the U.S. against bin Laden. This is the same war that we're up against today. This is the global war on terror. And we happen to be the democratic core in the Middle East. And, therefore, we're at the front of this war.

ROBERTS: Israelis are determined that this will be a turning point in history, so they send the bomb-laden F-16s back in Lebanon again and again, joined by Cobra gunships that shoot rockets on Hezbollah positions.

And they're taking casualties. The pilot and gunner of this Apache helicopter died when their gunship went down. The Israeli military says, it was mechanical problems. Hezbollah claims, it shot the helicopter down.

And what of the dead on the other side of the border, the hundreds of thousands displaced by the constant shelling? Nadab Vigall (ph), a reservist, commands one of the Israeli artillery units. He understands, people are suffering on the other side.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sometimes, we think that they're suffering more than us, you know? But, still, we are on this side, and we have to do the -- what we're told.

ROBERTS: For Vigall (ph), this war can't be over fast enough. But, like many other Israelis, he, too, wants change.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Peace, if we can. But, you know, I'm kind of skeptical.

ROBERTS (on camera): What is peace?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Peace is no fighting and no reason to fight, you know, no -- no problem, and everybody happy with everybody, and no more fighting and killing.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ROBERTS: But, for now, the fighting and the killing goes on. At 3:00 in the morning, we still hear Israeli fighter jets in the air. And those artillery units continue to pound the other side -- Paula.

ZAHN: John, now I'm going to ask you to stand by, if you would, as I bring Wolf Blitzer into our conversation. He's anchoring "THE SITUATION ROOM" from Jerusalem this week, a city he knows very well from the years he spent as a correspondent for Reuters and "The Jerusalem Post."

Welcome, Wolf.

We heard, a little bit earlier on, John King describe the very icy response Condoleezza Rice got when she made a surprise visit to Beirut. How is the visit playing in Israel tonight?

WOLF BLITZER, HOST, "THE SITUATION ROOM": She's very popular here in Israel. They love Condoleezza Rice. The -- the government does. The Israeli people do, in part because they -- they really appreciate what they see as an extraordinary level of support they're getting from President Bush, almost down the line defending Israel.

And, so, maybe President Bush and Condoleezza Rice aren't popular elsewhere in this part of the world, but, here in Israel, especially in Jerusalem, especially with this government, they're extremely popular -- Paula.

ZAHN: Well, couldn't cynics argue tonight, Wolf, that, of course, they're that supportive because she has made it very clear she's not going to push for an immediate cease-fire, a -- a truce which she said would lead to more fighting down the road?

BLITZER: I think in -- in part, it's because, since day one -- and this is day 13 now -- of this crisis in the Middle East, officials here have been thrilled by the level of support, the understanding they have received in official Washington.

And it's not just the Bush administration. They're also very happy with the -- the Democrats, liberals and conservatives, Republicans, in Congress, in both houses. They're -- they're very grateful to that kind of understanding they're getting in Washington, knowing full well that it certainly alienates so much of the Arab world, but, at least so far, they don't see any hesitation on the part of the U.S. government in -- in standing with Israel during these very difficult times.

ZAHN: All right. Moving from the diplomacy front back to the military front, where we find John Roberts once again on the front lines there -- John, I think a lot of people are surprised. We're almost two weeks into this crisis, and the Israelis continue to get some fierce fighting from the Hezbollah they have been trying to wipe out.

Does there be -- seem to be any sense of disappointment for folks in the military there about the pace of their achievement?

ROBERTS: I don't know if there's disappointment in the pace, Paula.

I think, from the get-go, they knew that this was going to take weeks. It was not going to take a matter of days. Remember, back in 1967, they -- they -- they neutralized the forces of a number of Arab countries in just a period of six days. But it's taking much longer just to neutralize the forces of Hezbollah, if they can even ever do that.

One military man I talked to said that Hezbollah has used the last six years well, the six years since Israel pulled out of southern Lebanon. He says that they have become very well entrenched in that area. They have dug tunnels. They have put together places where they can hide their missiles and their other armaments. And they have developed themselves into a fine fighting force -- not quite an organized army, like you would expect from a state. But, according to this person I talked to, far more than just your run-of- the-mill terrorist organization.

ZAHN: Which leads me to a final Thursday from Wolf Blitzer on the accusation, of course, that the Israelis intelligence is off, that -- that the kind of pinpoint attacks that they're conducting now have led to many unnecessary civilian deaths, as they know Hezbollah is holed up -- up in the civilian population there.

BLITZER: The Israelis insist they're doing the best that they can to try to avoid civilian casualties, although they fully understand there will what is euphemistically called collateral damage.

They say they're trying to pinpoint their attacks, as much as possible, against Hezbollah, Hezbollah targets, and the sources where Hezbollah could be rearmed, whether highways or -- or the airport, or whatever.

But they fully understand that there are civilians. And they're very sorry about that. But they're saying that they're doing the best they can.

The Israeli intelligence community, Paula -- and I have covered this -- this country for a long time -- it's good, but it's, by no means, perfect. And I think top intelligence officials clearly are ready to acknowledge right now that they underestimated Hezbollah's military strength and the cohesiveness of what John Roberts accurately points out is a -- a pretty well-disciplined military right now.

ZAHN: And that's a subject we're going to bring up with -- with our guests representing the Israeli government, coming up here just a little bit later on.

John Roberts, Wolf Blitzer, thanks so much. See you both a little bit later on at the back end of this show.

But coming up right now, much more on tonight's "Top Story," including a side of the war few have ever seen firsthand, the terrifying dash to avoid an unseen danger.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN (voice-over): As rockets rain down, bringing random death and destruction, families seek refuge deep underground. How do they survive the weeks of stress and the nightmare of a war with no end in sight?

Plus, with shockwaves of violence spreading through the Middle East, is the erupting warfare a prophecy of Armageddon? What ominous signs convince these people that the end of the world is upon us?

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: Another development tonight in our "Top Story" coverage -- former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's doctors are running tests to find out why his condition has taken a turn for the worse. He's been in a coma since a massive stroke in January. Now his kidneys are failing, and there are changes in his brain's membrane. Doctors say his life may be in danger. Sharon was defense minister during Israel's last invasion of Lebanon. That was back in 1982.

Ariel Sharon's hard line against Arab militants was very popular in Israel. And many Israelis support the current government's campaign against Hezbollah. But, along with that support, comes fear, as Israelis wait for sirens warning them of sudden rocket attacks.

More than 1,000 rockets have hit Israel in the last 13 days alone.

And, as our "Top Story" coverage continues, John Vause shows us what's it's like for families facing that daily barrage.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JOHN VAUSE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): You can hear the panic in her voice.

"There are more Katyushas," this woman yells, as she calls everyone inside the bomb shelter.

Safe below ground, they wait, wait for the explosions above, wait for the all-clear, which never seems to come, because the Hezbollah rockets never seem to stop.

Once inside, Daliyah (ph), a mother of three, tells me she's terrified. So, too, is everyone else. This is the debris from an earlier missile strike, she says, which landed just outside the bunker.

"We're stuck underground, and this is not healthy," she says. "We support the prime minister and the Israeli military, but we want to be evacuated. The Lebanese were evacuated. We want to be as well."

The days are long and tense. The nights are worse, they say. The electricity cuts in and out. This is the biggest bomb shelter in Nahariya, a northern Israeli town which has been hit by dozens of Katyusha rockets. Here, Israeli Jews and Arabs seek cover together. Tempers are frayed. Heated arguments follow.

The Israeli-Arab woman on the right accuses the Jewish woman of celebrating when Arabs are killed. The Jewish woman yells back, "How could you say that, when we give you shelter?"

Here, the Jews support the Israeli offensive. The Arabs want a cease-fire.

"We don't want Israel striking Lebanon, or Lebanon hitting Israel," says Fiakah Suwaad (ph), an Israeli Arab. "I'm scared," she tells me. "It's not easy in this bunker."

(on camera): This bunker is about 20 feet underground. It's incredibly hot. And the air is thick and stale. It seems difficult to breathe. And the people have been living like this for almost two weeks now.

(voice-over): It's hardest on the children. They're bored. Some are too young to understand.

HAIM SABAG, RESIDENT OF NAHARIYA, ISRAEL: I don't go to the schools. I don't go to play. Of course, the -- the children are not used to it. And, sometimes, they cry when they heard the bomb.

VAUSE: Here, they cook meals, watch television for the latest news, and wait -- wait for either a cease-fire or more rockets.

John Vause, CNN, Nahariya, Northern Israel.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: And our "Top Story" coverage moves on to alarming new allegations against the Israeli military.

At this hour, doctors in Lebanon say they are seeing a horrendous increase in severe burns, a type of wound seldom seen before. And that is raising suspicions about the weapons Israel is using.

Just a short time ago, I asked Mark Regev of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, about that.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: And Mark Regev joins us now.

Thank you so much for being with us tonight.

Can you explain to us why, almost two weeks into this conflict, Israel, with one of the most sophisticated and well-equipped armies in the world, is getting such a fierce fight from Hezbollah on the ground, Hezbollah continuing to fire rockets into Israel?

MARK REGEV, ISRAELI FOREIGN MINISTRY SPOKESPERSON: Well, Paula, the simple fact is that Hezbollah is not a -- a bunch of guerrillas with a few rifles and maybe a bazooka or two.

Hezbollah is, unfortunately, a very formidable military machine. I mean, they have had 10 years of getting some very up-to-date state- of-the-art weaponry from both Iran and Syria. They have been building this military machine. They have been building fortress after fortress, military position after military position. And what we're doing is actually very difficult. We have been taking a lot of losses.

ZAHN: Critics are saying, though, that Israeli intelligence is flawed, and that you should have a much higher success rate by tonight in taking out rockets and rocket launchers in Lebanon. REGEV: Well, intelligence is never perfect. You want it to be as good as it -- as it can be.

Part of the problem is, Hezbollah is dug in deep. And like you have these fortifications in south Lebanon, and -- and we would like to be able to just take them out from the air, but they're so well- protected, we have to send in ground forces in these surgical incursions.

And, unfortunately, every time we do that, we're losing some of our service people.

ZAHN: So, Israel does not expect to crush Hezbollah with all this firepower?

REGEV: I think we understand that there isn't a military solution, but what we're doing now, militarily, is to neutralize their ability to attack Israelis, neutralize their ability to rain these missiles into Israeli cities.

ZAHN: The Lebanese health minister today accused Israel of putting phosphorous in its bombs, which causes extreme burns upon impact. And we are going to show our audience now a picture of a severely burned child at a hospital in Tyre.

Is Israel using phosphorous in any of its weapons?

REGEV: Unfortunately, Paula, you have this sort of atrocity propaganda. It comes up especially in Arab media. We have had all sorts of stories of Israelis giving, deliberately, out bird flu, Israelis giving out AIDS deliberately to Palestinian children, Israelis...

ZAHN: But what about this particular...

REGEV: ... using depleted uranium.

ZAHN: ... charge? Are you using...

REGEV: Well...

ZAHN: ... phosphorous or not?

REGEV: ... I'm telling you, this particular charge -- this particular charge is simply not true. Israel, the sort of weaponry we use is the exact same sort of weaponry that other armies use. What we do, what we use is totally within the international standards.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: And, once again, that was Mark Regev of the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

Now, some of the most important players in the Middle East crisis are finally showing their cards. Coming up next in our "Top Story" coverage: Syria, will it pressure Hezbollah to stop fighting? Could it start fighting Israel directly?

And, a little bit later on: Is the crisis in the Middle East only the beginning? Why are some Bible readers wondering if our "Top Story" is really leading to the end of the world? This pain is ruining my night.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: Welcome back. More of our top story coverage now as Israel and Hezbollah continue to trade rocket and artillery barrages. Many accuse Syria along with Iran of providing arms and aid to Hezbollah. And new threats out of Damascus yesterday point to the possibility that Syria is ready to take up arms against Israel if Israel gets too close to its border.

So is Israel in the fight or out? And could direct talks with Lebanon's neighbor be the key to a diplomatic solution? Syria's ambassador to the U.S. Imad Moustapha joins me now from Washington. Thanks for being with us, sir.

So are you angry that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice did not make it to Syria on this mission?

IMAD MOUSTAPHA, SYRIAN AMBASSADOR TO U.S.: Not really angry. We always expected this. Actually, Secretary Rice didn't do anything in Beirut, she only repeated the Israeli dictates and demands and parallel to her, the United States is sending laser-directed bombs to Israel so that Israel can use these bombs in killing more and more of the Lebanese children and civilians.

ZAHN: All right. Let's come back to where you think though Syria should be involved. If there were direct talks, which a lot of people are calling for, what is it that Syria could do to help end this crisis? For starters like helping disarm Hezbollah?

MOUSTAPHA: Well, let me say this. If the United States thinks that it's time for true diplomacy to start, then Syria is more than willing to engage. Syria can play a very constructive role in the Middle East. We have very good relations with Hezbollah, we have very good relations with the democratically-elected government of Hamas. And we are a major player in the Middle East and time and again we have invited Israel to start peace negotiations, peace talks with all of us, and we believe that the moment the United States wants to address the root causes of the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, then it will inevitably have to engage with Syria.

ZAHN: All right. Now you say you have good relations with Hezbollah. President Bush says you are their state sponsor. Do you see a scenario where you could get Hezbollah to disarm when that's something the U.N. hasn't been able to do for the last couple of years through a very tough worded resolution.

MOUSTAPHA: No, the only scenario we see is for the United States and for Israel to realize that they need to address the whole Middle East conflict in a comprehensive way and find a peaceful resolution to this ongoing conflict.

Once this process starts, then all issues including Hezbollah, including Hamas, including all the unfair allegations and accusations against Syria, would disappear into thin air because this is what we want.

We want a peaceful resolution for this conflict in general, but right now promptly we need Israel to stop the atrocities it's committing against civilians in Lebanon.

ZAHN: There is a report out tonight that your government is offering the United States to help track down al Qaeda in Lebanon if in fact they agree to direct talks with Syria. Is that true what apparently a Syrian cabinet member is supposed to have said?

MOUSTAPHA: No, this is untrue. What we have repeatedly said is since September 11, the United States and Syria did cooperate together on al Qaeda and other extremist fundamentalist groups. However, this is not happening anymore. What we have said yesterday, very clearly, is that Syria is more than willing to engage constructively with the United States towards a comprehensive solution to the Middle East process.

ZAHN: Yes, but it looks like you're cut out tonight, sir?

MOUSTAPHA: Pardon?

ZAHN: It looks like you're cut out of the process tonight.

MOUSTAPHA: What we want to do is find a way to solve the core issue. The core issue is the ongoing Israeli occupation of our territories. We want a resolution to this. All problems will disappear once the core issue is addressed.

ZAHN: All right, we've got to leave it there this evening. Ambassador Imad Moustapha, thank you for your time.

MOUSTAPHA: You're welcome.

ZAHN: Now, is the crisis in the Middle East predicted by the Bible? Next in our top story coverage, what does the Book of Revelation tell us about what's happening right now in the Middle East? Are we really approaching the end of the world?

We will also go back to our correspondents on the front lines and in Jerusalem. Will guns or diplomacy cause the first breakthrough?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: And we're back. One of the most disturbing and mysterious books of the Bible is Revelation. For centuries, Christians have read its visions of wars, plagues, and the end of the world and asked themselves if they were living in the so-called end times. Well tonight a lot of Christians are convinced that the apocalypse may be coming soon. Take a look at the Rapture Index on the World Wide Web. It assigns numerical values to wars, earthquakes and disasters. And tonight, it's at 156, which is in the "fasten your seat belt" category. So are we really at the end of the world? We asked faith and values correspondent Delia Gallagher to do some checking.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

DELIA GALLAGHER, CNN FAITH AND VALUES CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): They say the end of the world is coming.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: As far as I can tell, we are at the very end and we need to prepare ourselves for that according to the world of God.

GALLAGHER: The Israeli Hezbollah conflict they say is a sign that the Bible's final chapter, the Book of Revelation is unfolding before our eyes.

One of the Bible's most widely debated books, Revelation is filled with vivid and frightening imagery: Satan, the four horsemen of the apocalypse, the mark of the beast. It all depicts a great world apocalyptic battle for Israel, Armageddon, that ushers in the return of Jesus Christ and the beginning of a thousand-year period of peace.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The sixth angel sounded and I heard a voice from the four...

GALLAGHER: At this pentecoastal church in Dallas, Pastor Craig Treadwell (ph) tells his congregation that their salvation is tied to events happening 6,000 miles away.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are we in World War III right now? It certainly looks like we are.

GALLAGHER: Events he says that were predicted 2,000 years ago.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The Bible prophetized that two billion people will die. There is a massive nuclear holocaust just ahead.

GALLAGHER: Scary stuff coming from a popular local posture, but he's not alone. Well known reverend Jerry Falwell updated his Fallwell Confidential column last week to say "it is apparent, in light of the rebirth of the state of Israel, that the present day events in the holy land may very well serve as a prelude of forerunner to the future battle of Armageddon and the glorious return of Jesus Christ."

In recent times some Christians have looked for signs that the apocalypse is near. Some have even tried to carry out its prophecies, and over 62 million have bought these fictional books, the "Left Behind" series, describing the inevitability of the end.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Today we will read straight from the bible. GALLAGHER: And pastor Treadwill's radio show that he co-hosts with Pastor Ervin Baxter, the talk is of end time.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You've got one-third of mankind killed.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You've got two billion dead, Israel will survive but will suffer a lot, and then finally relations between Israel and the international community will go south, the world community invades, Armageddon.

GALLAGHER: Treadwell and Baxter say we're in or near the final seven years leading up to Armageddon. They say just look to Revelation chapter 9 if you have doubts.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This war will emanate from the River Euphrates. Did you know most of the Euphrates river is in the nation of Iraq?

GALLAGHER: The pastor says there's a correlation between almost every image in the bible and current events.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The bible talks about tsunamis, it talks about the waves in the sea roaring. It talks about a dramatic increase in earthquakes.

THE REV. KEVIN BEAN, ST. BARTHOLOMEW'S CHURCH: There's a fiction being created here, like a Steven King horror movie.

GALLAGHER: Reverend Kevin Bean of St. Bartholomew's Church of New York City says Revelation is not meant to be read so literally and he says, it's irresponsible and dangerous to misinterpret the text.

BEAN: It's a part of our church, it's a part of our tradition, but we don't read it the way a lot of people do, which is to make that false correlation with present day events. That is a crock.

GALLAGHER: According to a Harris Interactive Poll of 1,000 people 59 percent say they believe the events described in Revelation will occur at some point in the future and 17 percent say that it will happen during their lifetime. So the question remains, how was Revelation meant to be read?

BEAN: Apocalyptic is about encouraging and consoling a people that are facing calamitous and catastrophic times. To say that, in spite of all of this, there is a God at work in this terrible world and a God that will vindicate.

GALLAGHER: And back at North City's Church in Dallas plans are being made.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Look to the book of Revelations as indicators for what's going to happen.

GALLAGHER: For what they believe may be the end of the world as we know it.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

GALLAGHER: And the question of what just is going to happen is hotly debated amongst Christians who have very different interpretations of this cryptic book of their scripture.

ZAHN: Delia, stand by. Because when we come back, we're going to bring in a panel of religious experts to debate just that, whether we covering the start of an even bigger story than we thought, is Armageddon really coming or is the literal interpretation a crock, as we just heard a priest in Delia's piece say? We're going to take a short break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: You've just seen how some Christians are convinced that the latest explosive events in the Middle East fulfill a clear biblical prophecy, that Armageddon, the end of the world is on the way. Let's go to our top story panel tonight. Faith and values correspondent Delia Gallagher, who's report you just saw, Jason Christy, editor of "The Church Report," a monthly magazine for Christian clergy, and Bruce Filer, a writer and photographer, whose books include "Walking The Bible." All right, I'm going to steal the words of the priest we just heard from in your piece. Is this little translation of Revelation a crock?

JASON CHRISTY, EDITOR, "THE CHURCH REPORT": It scares me. We did a poll last week because there was a lot of chatter both through the phones, on TV, and online and what we came up with in one day, 160,000 viewers, 88 percent of my viewers on my website said no, we're not buying into this. It looks --

ZAHN: They may not be, but an awful lot of people are.

GALLAGHER: Well, and the question is what are they not buying into? Because there are those who say these particular events in the Middle East are not the forerunner of Armageddon, we are not seeing Armageddon now, but that Christians hold that Armageddon will at some point in the future happen is the question. Because this is part of their scripture, and it's something which needs to be interpreted in some way and many of them go for the literal interpretation as they go for the literal interpretation of the gospels on other things.

BRUCE FEILER, AUTHOR, "WALKING THE BIBLE": I think the larger question here, Paula, is who gets to speak for God, and you have this battle going on in the world today between the extremists and those who view the world as a different creation, as being a more moderate open issue, and I think that what's problematic about this view is not that people believe it, it's that it is an interpretation that we are headed for some conflict, some sort of ultimate end of time.

ZAHN: All right so how do Jews view this?

FEILER: I think with Jews, I think as a contrast to that do believe there's going to be a Messianic Age, but I think that Judaism is far less focused on an end that ultimate kind of end game, where God swoops down and has this fight with the devil, as they're focused on what we can do on this earth, and I think that that is, for those of us who love the bible, are troubled by this. Is that what the bible is is God and humans trying to work together to create a more righteous world. And I think that anything that gets the focus off this world and toward the idea, a hastening, we want this somehow, World War III, there's this idea, you mix it with politics, it's very dangerous.

ZAHN: I don't understand, the evangelical support for Israel and what that is rooted in and why we need to pay attention to it.

GALLAGHER: Well, that's part of this. It's wrapped up in it. Obviously if you feel that the second coming is going to happen in Israel, then you want to see that Israel is going to be a secure and safe place for that to come, and there are a number of sort of different things which they believe have to be fulfilled in order for that to happen.

CHRISTY: It's very scary though. I think back to the late 80s, '89 in fact, there was a movement in the Christian evangelical movement that said this is it, 1989 is going to be the end, and a lot of new Christians were brought in to the church and there was this tremendous feeling of rapture and then nothing happened, and there was a feeling of oh, I just sold out to the chicken little theology. And people had a real bad taste about that in their mouth.

FEILER: There is no literal interpretation of something that is not literal.

ZAHN: Give us context here, Bruce, because you're the guy that studies this. This is written in the first century A.D. at a time when Christians were ...

FEILER: Were small and vulnerable and felt that they were being persecuted by Rome. And think that there has been this big question of who is the persecutor. At times it was the Catholic Church, at times it was the Soviet Union. Recently it has been Islam. That's why it's catching hold today because there is this fear, particularly in this country, that Christianity is being persecuted today and this kind of plays into that, but, again, I think the problem is you take the lesson of the prophets.

My new experience has been retracing the prophets, and the lesson of the prophets is God's not going to take care of it, you are responsible, you redeem yourself, you make the world a better place and it's keeping the focus on you and this is taking the focus of what we can do to make the world better and saying it's all part of God's plan.

ZAHN: So I assume you have plans above and beyond the next seven years, Bruce?

(CROSSTALK)

FEILER: I'm not going to predict who's going to win the U.S. Open, or, you know, when the next hurricane is going to come. ZAHN: Thank you, expert panel, always good to see you. Bruce Feiler, Jason Christy and Delia Gallagher. And you can see more of Delia's reporting on "AMERICAN MORNING" every weekday at 6:00 a.m.

"LARRY KING LIVE" is coming up in just a few minutes. Hi, Larry. We know what you'll be talking about: The Middle East. But who will you be talking to tonight?

LARRY KING, HOST, LARRY KING LIVE: Good thinking, Paula.

The question of the day is, of course, will Secretary of State Rice's trip stop the bloodshed? We'll ask representatives from all sides -- the Lebanese, the Israelis, the Syrians, and the TV channel linked to Hezbollah.

Plus, an American woman in Beirut who refuses to evacuate.

Plus, two United States senators, all coming up at the top of the hour, Paula.

ZAHN: Got a full show. We'll be watching. Thanks, Larry. See it you at 9:00.

KING: Thanks, dear.

ZAHN: A lot of people think the long-term future for the Middle East is Armageddon. You have heard some points of view here tonight. So what could bring peace to southern Lebanon? I'll bring back two of our most experienced Middle East correspondents for a look at what may be the most likely resolution to our top story tonight. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: We continue with our top story coverage right now. Is there any way out of this mess in the Middle East? Well, tonight a consensus is building. Once the shooting stops, many experts foresee a security zone in southern Lebanon, with some kind of international peacekeeping force, to keep Hezbollah and its weapons out of the picture.

Now, that force could be run by NATO or by the United Nations, whose peacekeepers wear blue helmets and have had some successes as well as failures on missions in Africa. And a military expert tells our Brian Todd that the most important key to success will be the hunt for Hezbollah's weapons.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

COL. PATRICK LANG (RET). MILITARY INTELLIGENCE ANALYST: This entire area that the destabilization force is going to have to clear has been converted by this guerrilla army into -- through lots of work over the last six years -- into an area that's filled with tunnels, fortified villages, fortified farm houses, firing positions, caches of rockets, and all kinds of other things that are going to have to be cleared one thing at a time if you're going to get the launchers back away from the Israeli border.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ZAHN: Can any peacekeeping force actually keep Hezbollah disarmed? Once again, I want to bring in our correspondents John Roberts, along the Israeli-Lebanese border, and in Jerusalem, "SITUATION ROOM" anchor Wolf Blitzer.

So, Wolf, we have seen a U.N. peacekeeping force in Lebanon before, but help us understand the challenges that any international peacekeeping force might find on the ground in Lebanon today?

BLITZER: The UNIFIL force, United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, which has been there since 1978 and whose mandate expires, Paula, at the end of this month, has really been useless over these past several years, because they really haven't had the authority to go out and do more than simply observe what's going on.

And while peacekeeping is important, right now I think what the Israelis are looking for and what the U.S. is looking for is more peacemaking, because they think any force that's going to come in has to be robust enough and tough enough to not only make sure that peace can be sustained, but to go out there and disarm Hezbollah or anyone else that poses a threat, whether to the Israelis or the Lebanese. And to get that kind of international force is by no means going to be easy.

ZAHN: And in addition to that challenge of finding a force that's tough enough, John, the terrain that we're talking about here is incredibly difficult as well. What will these forces be up against?

ROBERTS: It's wide open terrain, it's hilly terrain for the most part, and really, Paula, the makeup of an international force is going to be a big issue as well. I think the United States would like to see a lot of Arab countries involved, as Lebanon would as well, but there's a sense here in Israel that if it was strictly Arab nations, it wouldn't be tough enough in policing the border, and Hezbollah might be able to make some friends with those Arab multinational force members and be able to continue to operate.

So they would like to see here in Israel Europeans take the lead, and maybe have an Arab contingent as well, but they certainly, as Wolf said, want a strong force, one that's going to be able to police the area.

The area that they're talking about here in Israel would be 12 kilometers, about seven miles, and that's a whole lot of territory to police -- 50 miles wide, 12 miles (ph) deep. That's a lot of territory.

BLITZER: You know, Paula...

ZAHN: Real quickly, Wolf, we're running out of time here.

BLITZER: I think it's fair to point out that the president over the weekend made a specific phone call to the leadership in Turkey for two reasons. Turkey does have some influence with the Syrians, as a neighbor to Syria, but also, and maybe even more important, they would very much like to see Turkey, a Muslim country, a member of NATO, get involved in this kind of peacekeeping force.

ZAHN: Wolf Blitzer, John Roberts, thanks so much.

We're going to take a short break and we'll be right back. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: And that wraps it up for all of us here tonight. Thanks so much for joining us. Hope you will join us again tomorrow night. We'll be here, same time, same place. Until then, have a great night. Good night.

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