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THE SITUATION ROOM
Costly Day For Israeli Army; Fallout After Killing of Four U.N. Observers in Southern Lebanon; Jan Egeland Interview; Disappointment After Emergency Summit in Rome; Nouri Al-Maliki Speaks Before Congress; Evacuation Effort From Cyprus Continues
Aired July 26, 2006 - 16:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks very much, Ali.
And to our viewers you're in THE SITUATION ROOM where new pictures and information are arriving all the time. Standing by, CNN reporters from across the United States and around the world to bring you today's top stories.
Happening now, Israel and Hezbollah take their fight to a deadlier level with no end in sight. It's 11:00 p.m. in southern Lebanon where we have new details about the killing of those four United Nations observers and the controversy surrounding it. We'll speak live with a key U.N. official about the attack and Israel's strong denial that it was deliberate.
Also this hour, Condoleezza Rice reportedly under siege by fellow diplomats. It's 10:00 p.m. in Rome where international talks failed to find a solution to the Middle East crisis. We'll have the latest on the secretary of state's mission and what she's been conveying without words. And Iraq's prime minister making an appeal to the United States Congress. It's 4:00 p.m. back in Washington where Nouri al-Maliki got flack for the problems in his homeland and for his criticism of Israel.
I'm Wolf Blitzer in Jerusalem and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Israel's offensive against Hezbollah is taking a heavy toll tonight even as a top Israeli commander says the war fare could continue, for, quote, several more weeks. Huge explosions rocked the Lebanese city of Tyre today and fierce ground fighting continued around the southern city of Bint Jbeil. Israel reports eight of its soldiers were killed in combat, bringing its death toll in this conflict so far to 49 soldiers and civilians. At least 398 Lebanese have been killed.
Meanwhile, new details are emerging about the Israeli air strike on a United Nations observer bunker in southern Lebanon yesterday. Lebanese security sources telling CNN at least three precision-guided Israeli bombs were dropped on the bunker, killing four U.N. observers. Israel strongly denies the attack was intentional. Israeli police say Hezbollah guerrillas launched more than 100 additional Katyusha rockets into Israel today, with 27 of them landing in cities in the northern part of the country.
And in Rome, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice bucked international pressure to call for an immediate cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah. Rice insists any cease-fire must be, quote, sustainable.
Our correspondents are standing by here in the Middle East and beyond. Richard Roth is at the United Nations, Nic Robertson is in Beirut. Let's go to northern Israel and the front lines of this conflict. Our senior national correspondent John Roberts is standing by with the latest developments -- John.
JOHN ROBERTS, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it's been a costly day for the Israeli army and they're responding to it. I'll set the scene for you here. This is a staging area where reinforcements are being brought in to help in the fight in Bint Jbeil. The Israeli army lost eight soldiers as you mentioned at the top, another 22 of them were injured today. So they brought more tanks, because of censorship rules we can't tell you how many they brought in, but there are a lot here.
You're looking at some Israeli soldiers as they prepare to go across the front lines as well. No telling at this point when they'll be called in. The scene here was a little more chaotic than you see it now, just a little while ago. They brought in a couple of these Marev tanks on those tank transporters. There was almost what you could call a huge military traffic jam here as they prepared to do more battle across the border.
The general, Udi Adam, who is the commander of the northern command here in Israel, kind of walked back a little bit from what the General Gal Hirsch told me yesterday in terms of the kind of control they had on the city of Bint Jbeil. Gal Hirsch told me they had control of the city.
Today General Udi Adam said we don't control the actual city. What we control is the territory. We could use our forces to go into the city and keep control of it, but we prefer for the time being to keep them on the outside. Here's what we know as far as what happened this morning. Israel was engaged in some clearing operations, some sweeping operations to try to clear out any pockets of resistance when Hezbollah launched a counterattack.
They were using now what are called Sagr missiles. Those are anti-tank missiles, mortars, machine guns, improvised explosive devices. It was described as close quarters contact, sometimes house- to-house, sometimes even, in fact, hand to hand, very, very difficult fighting. But even though the army is tied up in Bint Jbeil, they're expanding the campaign.
We saw bombing today on a ridge line just beyond that tank, which seems to be an indication that they're moving the campaign further to the west. They're trying to soften up those Hezbollah positions that they believe are dug in over there, so that the ground campaign can try to move a little bit further to the outside of Bint Jbeil, try to establish this security zone that Israel says that it wants to establish in preparation for an international security force coming in to create that buffer zone between Hezbollah fighters and Israel. As to how long this is going last, it was a General Udi Adam who said today that it looks like it's going to take another few weeks. When we first arrived here there was some optimism that perhaps the fighting might last two, perhaps three weeks at most. We're now a week into that, but with Adam saying today that this fighting is going to go on, Israel, it appears at this point at least, Wolf, is going to take all of the time it can to try to degrade Hezbollah's capabilities to the greatest extent possible.
BLITZER: John, this is week three of this war. You know, I've been traveling around Israel a little bit today and a lot of Israelis are asking what's the problem, especially in Bint Jbeil, where this bloody firefight is going on, apparently still going right now. This is Israel which has a very sophisticated, powerful army. What's taking so long? What are the commanders on the front lines telling you?
ROBERTS: It's the same military that defanged the forces of Egypt, Syria and Jordan in the Six-Day War. But when I talked to General Gal Hirsch yesterday, he told me that was then against forces that were unprepared for a surprise attack by Israel.
This is a completely different type of warfare. This is what the military calls asymmetrical warfare. The difference is that on the one side you have got traditional military with tanks, armor, weapons, people in uniform. You know where the military is in terms of being able to view it.
You know who you're fighting against. On the other side though, you have this guerrilla organization, this militia. It looks a lot like civilians. They integrate themselves into the community. They disappear into the community. They have the support of the community. They've had six years, while Israel has been out of Lebanon, to dig in those positions, to arm themselves with the generous support of Iran, to the tune of $100 million a year.
Israel doesn't know where all of the weapons are. They are very well camouflaged and when they go into these areas, rather than meeting division on division, they're meeting with a brigade of troops, the Golani Brigade. Wolf, and you know how good, from your experience, they are in fighting battles, going up against these militias which really have an ability to cloak themselves and can pop up just when the Israeli Defense Forces are not anticipating it, as happened this morning and they can exact a terrible toll on these traditional militaries.
BLITZER: The Golani Brigade, one of Israel's elite units, clearly having some serious problems with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. John, stand by, we're going to be coming back to you. Let's go north to Beirut. Our senior international correspondent, Nic Robertson is joining us from the Lebanese capital with more on what's going on there -- Nic.
NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well Wolf, I can tell you right now flying overhead of Beirut we heard Israeli aircraft and I've been here for about two weeks now. This is the lowest that I've heard them passing over this city. We can hear them very low over the city. We can't see them. We're not hearing any bombs dropping.
We were being told a little earlier that there was a lot of aircraft activity over the south of Beirut, but right now intense activity above me. I think they're in that direction at the moment, but earlier in the port city of Tyre or south of Beirut, there was an air strike just before sunset. That strike right in the middle of the city.
That's the first strike in the middle of that city in over a week now. It's not clear what was hit or why. It is understood to have been a building about ten stories high in the middle of the city. Now what we have seen over the past few days in the port city of Tyre is Hezbollah firing their missiles out towards Israel from the outskirts of the port city of Tyre.
There have been air strikes against those outskirts of Tyre, but this strike, just before dusk, in the middle of the city, not clear exactly what was being targeted. People who came on the scene, residents of the town who came on the scene said that there were only civilians living in the building. At this stage it still isn't clear, Wolf, how many people were injured in this particular raid -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, Nic, thanks very much.
Another bloody day in Lebanon as well. Let's get to the fallout now after the killing of those four U.N. observers in Southern Lebanon. Officials here in Israel say Prime Minister Ehud Olmert personally called the U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to express his regret. Let's get some more from our senior U.N. correspondent, Richard Roth. He's watching this story in New York -- Richard.
RICHARD ROTH, SENIOR U.N. CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, a lot of outrage from countries as to what happened. The Security Council still divided on how to respond to it, but for U.N. peacekeeping, Wolf, it's a little bit like umpiring, little attention until something goes wrong.
ROTH (voice-over): It's often said the United Nations can not keep the peace when there is no peace to keep. Four U.N. observers in Southern Lebanon were the latest proof of that. One of the dead soldiers was from China, which only recently began offering peacekeepers to the U.N.
WANG GUANGYA, CHINESE AMB. TO U.N.: Any attack on the United Nations positions and United Nations personnel is inexcusable and unacceptable.
ROTH: Despite the flurry of rockets and air attacks between Israel and Hezbollah, the U.N. operation there remains. Why?
JEFF LAURENTI, SR. FELLOW, CENTURY FOUNDATION: Because most of the time when they aren't shooting at each other they -- peacekeepers present there are that very thin layer of an assurance of keeping the tempers under control.
ROTH: The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, or UNIFIL, was cheered in Lebanon when troops arrived in 1978, sent to keep an eye on the region after an earlier Israeli pullout from Southern Lebanon. UNIFIL has one of the highest casualty rates in U.N. peacekeeping history, more than 250 killed. Now the outlying, unarmed patrol post may be consolidated, says the U.N., but some wonder, why not remove the whole force?
JEAN MARC DE LA SABLIERE, FRENCH AMB. TO U.N.: Putting out, you know, a force is not -- is politically, I think, giving a very wrong signal. Very wrong signal.
ROTH: The Israeli prime minister has expressed his deep regret. The United Nations says it's preparing a formal request for a joint investigation with Israel as to what happened at the base in Southern Lebanon -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Richard, thank you.
And coming up, I'll speak live here in Jerusalem with the U.N. humanitarian relief coordinator, Jan Egeland. He's here. We'll talk about his mission. We'll also talk about the killing of those U.N. observers in Southern Lebanon. That's coming up.
Let's go to New York once again, though. Jack Cafferty is standing by with "The Cafferty File." Hi, Jack.
JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, Wolf.
No deal today when it came to those international talks in Rome that were aimed at putting an end to the fighting in the Middle East. Turns out the sticking point was the cease-fire proposal. Almost all of the countries wanted an immediate end to the fighting. Almost all of the countries except the United States.
One U.S. official described Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as being, quote, "under siege" during that meeting, but Rice held firm that Hezbollah must be disarmed. The U.S. said stopping the violence now is not enough because Hezbollah would still have weapons and things won't be much different than they were before the latest round of fighting began.
So here's the question this hour: Was the United States right to balk at a cease-fire in the Middle East? E-mail your thoughts to CaffertyFile@CNN.com or go to CNN.com/CaffertyFile. We'll read some of your responses in about 40 minutes on so -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Jack, thank you.
Coming up, the U.N. humanitarian relief coordinator, Jan Egeland, we'll talk to him about the dangers to U.N. teams in Lebanon after that airstrike that killed four U.N. observers. Also, what exactly did Condoleezza Rice say to her fellow diplomats in Rome today about this Middle East conflict, and what did she tell them in other ways as well? We're going to take a closer look at the secretary of state's very difficult day in Rome. Our John King is on the scene.
And later, inside the Israeli military machine. My conversation and tour with an Israeli Air Force general. That's coming up in our next hour. We're live here in Jerusalem, and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: Two major challenges today for the United Nations in this crisis here in the Middle East. Teams are stepping up efforts to try to get desperately needed aid into Lebanon, and U.N. officials are also grappling with the killing of those four U.N. observers in Southern Lebanon.
We are joined here in Jerusalem by the U.N. humanitarian relief coordinator, Jan Egeland. Mr. Egeland, thanks very much for coming in. Based on everything you know, were your U.N. colleagues deliberately targeted by the Israelis or was this an accident of war?
JAN EGELAND, U.N. HUMANITARIAN RELIEF COORD.: Well, the facts are that these four unarmed observers were sitting in a marked U.N. observation post, which has been there virtually since 1948. The shelling was there for days.
We warned the Israelis time after time that it was coming very near our colleagues, and it ended tragically last night with a precision-guided missile which went straight to their bunker, where they were shielding themselves. They will be an investigation and that will show what went wrong and what happened.
BLITZER: Was there enemy fire from Hezbollah going out towards northern Israel from anywhere near that U.N. location?
EGELAND: Hezbollah is in violation of international law, shielding themselves close to U.N. posts and close to the civilian population, but we know of no rockets going out from that position.
BLITZER: So from what I hear you say, it sounds as if you suspect the Israelis may have done this deliberately, but what possibly could have been their motive in wanting to kill these U.N. observers if, in fact, that was a deliberate targeting?
EGELAND: It's impossible to know, really, but it is so important now that we have these guarantees from the Israelis that our aid convoys can get through and that they look at their chain of command, that it does work, because nobody wants to be in the crossfire if they may be killed. We're unarmed observers. We're unarmed humanitarian workers.
BLITZER: Because you're sending in assistance to Lebanon, all over Lebanon, and you're asking for these corridors, free passage in effect, and you're coordinating with the Israelis, but are you raising this question whether you can trust Israel after this incident yesterday?
EGELAND: I had a good meeting today with the minister of defense of Israel. We discussed the details of a notification scheme. It was tested today for the first time and we got through the first large convoy from Beirut down to Tyre, 10 trucks, a hundred tons of relief which can give some 20,000 people what they need in the next few weeks.
We will have two more convoys on Friday and others on Sunday and Monday. This system can save a lot of lives, but what we want is a cessation of hostilities. It seems to have gotten totally out of control now. I've seen too many dead and wounded children in this war. It has to stop on all sides, and the rain of missiles into Israel has to stop as well, indiscriminately hitting civilian targets.
BLITZER: It sounds as if you're frustrated not only with the Israelis, because in the past you've suggested that their response has been excessive, but it sounds like you're frustrated with the United States government as well.
EGELAND: Well, no, the U.N. -- the U.S. has helped us in the U.N. in all of this.
BLITZER: But they're saying -- Condoleezza Rice that there should not necessarily be an immediate cease-fire, and you're saying that there should be an immediate cease-fire.
EGELAND: Well, what we'll say is that there has to be a cease- fire that lasts, that works. What we, in addition, say is that we need a cessation of hostilities. We need to stop with the firing of guns and missiles and rockets so that the civilians can evacuate, so that we can get through relief so we can control the situation because every day since I've been here now for the last five days, it's gotten worse every single day in Lebanon, in northern Israel and in Gaza south of us.
BLITZER: Give us very briefly the scope of the enormity of this humanitarian problem, this crisis that has developed here over these past two and a half weeks.
EGELAND: Every day now we have tens of thousands of new people fleeing in Lebanon, tens of thousands. They are in all schools basically in Lebanon. I was in one school with 950 women and children and six toilets. This is the kind of situation which we have to react to now.
The world community has to give us the resources we need in the U.N., in the Red Cross, in the NGOs so that we can keep alive these people until there is a cease-fire and until the diplomats can make peace again and until we can get stabilization force so that Israel and the Lebanese can get the security they deserve. BLITZER: Jan Egeland, I know you're doing very important work here in the region. Good luck to you and your entire team. Thank you very much for coming in.
Israel has ordered a full investigation into the strike that killed those four U.N. observers in Lebanon. Meantime, a raw account said to be from a U.N. peacekeeper located in the very same area and questioned has surfaced now online. Let's bring in our Internet reporter Jacki Schechner -- Jacki?
JACKI SCHECHNER, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, just last week Canadian major Praeta Hess-von Kruedener wrote an e-mail to Canadian broadcast company CTV talking about what it was like to be a U.N. military observer in southern Lebanon, specifically, in this area that, this port that was targeted or rather the post that was targeted at Khiyam right there in Lebanon.
Now the e-mail has shown up on the Web site at CTV. You can read it for yourself, it is actually incredibly raw, a chilling account of what it's like to be there. He talks about how Hezbollah and the IDF are very close to where he is and it is not safe to venture out.
He also talks about how he doesn't think that the aerial attacks in the area or the artillery fire is deliberate. He thinks in fact, it is due to technical necessity or tactical necessity. He also talks about the nationalities of the other officers who are on that base with him, talking about how some are Chinese, some are Finnish and some are Austrian.
Now the United Nations has confirmed that those are in fact the nationalities of three of the U.N. observes who were killed in that air strike. The fourth, the U.N. has reported, is Canadian. Now CTV is not saying if this is in fact the same man who wrote this e-mail. They are not reporting that. They can't confirm it and neither are we, Wolf. We want to let you know, though, that we are going most a link to this online at CNN.com/situationreport so you can read it for yourself.
BLITZER: Jacki, we will. Thank you very much.
And there are new casualties reported from Gaza today. That's the other front in this current Israeli war. A Palestinian medical source is saying at least 11 people were killed, 50 wounded in Israeli attacks on Gaza City.
Some wire services put the casualty figures much higher than that. The sources say seven of those killed were Hamas or Islamic jihad militants. The Israeli military says it air force was targeting militant cells, some armed with what they say were anti-tank missiles. Still ahead, the discussion and disagreement when international officials gather for a day-long meeting in Rome. We're going to bring you the results in a live report from the Italian capital. That's coming up in a few minutes.
Meanwhile, in Washington, plenty of abuse and lots of applause now. There's a protest for the embattled prime minister of Iraq when he speaks to Congress. We're going to tell you how he was received and what the controversy was all about. We're live in Jerusalem once again. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: Welcome back. Both sides doing battle in the Middle East and they've been keeping a watchful eye. Some say a hopeful eye on what's happening in Rome and the international talks on the conflict. They're paying particularly close attention to the words and the actions of the Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Our senior political analyst Bill Schneider has been studying Secretary Rice's body language. But first let's go to Rome. Our chief national correspondent John King is on the scene for us. A dramatic day unfolding in the Italian capital, John.
JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Exactly right, Wolf. And if anyone watching was hopeful that there would be a cease- fire plan out of the emergency summit here in Rome, well then they are disappointed tonight. That was certainly was the goal as Condoleezza Rice came to these meetings along with representatives of 18 other countries of major international organizations.
The most urgent challenge trying to find some mechanism, some agreement to bring about a cessation of the hostilities now in their 15th and approaching their 16th day, and a fundamental disagreement between the United States and others at the table prevented an agreement.
Most of those here in Rome wanted to simply issue a call for an immediate cease-fire and then negotiate all of the difficult issues, including whether Hezbollah should be fully disarmed. But Secretary Rice held out against that despite stiff international pressure saying such a cease-fire would be meaningless if Hezbollah got to keep its rockets. She said it would make no sense for starters. She also said Israel was unlikely to accept such a plan.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CONDOLEEZZA RICE, SECRETARY OF STATE: We are all agreed that we want most urgently to end the violence on a basis that this time will be sustainable because, unfortunately, this is a region that has had too many broken cease-fires, too many spasms of violence followed then by other spasms of violence.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KING: Diplomats insisting this should not be called a failure. They made they some progress, that they will continue the talks aimed at getting a cease-fire, that they did make some progress on creating an international force that would step in if there is such a deal. Italy and France among the countries that volunteered today to have troops in such a force. The U.N. Security Council will get to work immediately on the force.
New humanitarian assistance, reconstruction assistance and also promised here in Rome today. But Wolf, a fundamental divide remains on all the mechanisms necessary to bring about a cease-fire. Secretary Rice left here for a previously-scheduled trip to Asia, but we're told be aides she is likely to be back in the Middle East as early as this weekend trying to solve some of the disagreements and the differences that prevented an agreement -- an agreement many thought was very much needed here in Rome, Wolf?
BLITZER: All right, John, thanks very much -- John King reporting from Rome.
Let's look a little bit beyond what was said at those talks in Rome today. Our senior political analyst Bill Schneider has been watching the latest diplomatic moves from a different perspective, Bill?
WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: It's been an awkward week, Wolf for American diplomacy, visibly so.
SCHNEIDER (voice-over): You could see the awkwardness in the body language, Secretary of State Rice calling for humanitarian aid for Lebanon, but resisting demands from allies for an immediate cease- fire between Israel and Hezbollah.
CONDOLEEZZA RICE, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: ... because, unfortunately, this is a region that has had too many broken cease- fires, too many spasms of violence.
SCHNEIDER: President Bush resisting similar pressure from Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki in Washington.
NOURI AL-MALIKI, IRAQI PRIME MINISTER (through translator): And I also emphasize the importance of immediate cease-fire.
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We want a sustainable cease-fire.
SCHNEIDER: Iraq meets Israel, creating an awkward moment for the Bush administration.
BUSH: The prime minister and I spent time talking about Lebanon, and we had a frank exchange on -- of views on this situation.
SCHNEIDER: Frank? That's the diplomatic word for awkward. President Bush equated Hezbollah and Hamas with the terrorists fighting the government of Iraq. It's all the same war on terror.
BUSH: What you have witnessed in Israel, in my judgment, is the act of a terrorist organization trying to stop the advance of democracy in the region.
SCHNEIDER: Only one problem: The government of Iraq has criticized what it calls Israeli aggression and refuses to condemn Hezbollah and Hamas, as Democrats were quick to point out. REP. BILL DELAHUNT (D), MASSACHUSETTS: The anti-Semitic remarks of the speaker of the Iraqi parliament are not only unacceptable, but they're offensive in the extreme.
SCHNEIDER: President Bush wants to put Iraq and Israel on the same side, but they're not.
REP. JAN SCHAKOWSKY (D), ILLINOIS: The new government in Iraq, which came to power with the blessings of the Bush administration, does not share the same foreign policy goals of the United States when it comes to the Middle East.
SCHNEIDER: An Iraqi government that's unfriendly to Israel and friendly to Iran, that puts the Bush administration in a very awkward position -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Bill Schneider, thanks very much.
Let's bring in a Democratic member of the U.S. Congress who is here in Jerusalem tonight.
Robert Wexler is a Democrat from Florida. He's a leading supporter of Israel in the U.S. Congress. He has been meeting with top Israeli officials, a member of the International Relations Committee as well.
Jan Egeland, the U.N. humanitarian relief coordinator, was just here, suggesting, as Kofi Annan did yesterday, Israel may have deliberately targeted that post where those four U.N. observers were killed.
I know you're meeting with Israelis. Is that possible, based on what you're hearing?
REP. ROBERT WEXLER (D), FLORIDA: Those accusations are highly irresponsible. Kofi Annan should never have even suggested it.
The facts are, as we know it from the U.N. post itself, is that Hezbollah was acting in proximity to that U.N. post, which is consistent with Hezbollah's tactics. They put their Katyusha rockets inside mosques.
BLITZER: Egeland just denied that there was any Hezbollah firing coming from anywhere near that specific post, which had been marked and had been well known to the Israelis.
WEXLER: The idea that Hezbollah was acting innocently within this context is just a highly unreasonable assertion.
Hezbollah's tactics are is, they put their rocket launchers in homes, in mosques, and, yes, near U.N. posts. The real question that Kofi Annan should be asking the world is, why hasn't the U.N. implemented the U.N. Resolution 1559, which required the disarmament of Hezbollah? Stop blaming Israel for the world's failure to protect the sovereignty of Lebanon.
BLITZER: You agree that Syria and Iran are playing a huge role behind the scenes. And a lot of people are saying, if that is true -- which I suspect you believe that to be the case -- why not engage them directly at a high level, start talking to them, and maybe that will quiet things down?
What do you say about that notion of a direct dialogue with Damascus and Tehran?
WEXLER: Well, clearly, Iran is using Hezbollah as its proxy. It's not a coincidence that, on the very week that the United Nations -- the United States was moving to utilize more punitive action against Iran's nuclear program, that Hezbollah struck.
The United States has diplomatic relations with Syria. Bashar Assad knows what he needs to do to become a responsible actor.
BLITZER: So, you support the president, when it comes to the way he's handling this crisis in the Middle East?
WEXLER: I do, but he needs to do more. With respect to Syria, the president should...
BLITZER: What does he need to do?
WEXLER: The president should fully implement the Syrian Accountability Act, which he has not yet done, which...
BLITZER: What -- specifically, what else should he do?
WEXLER: Well, the Syrian Accountability Act provides for a whole set of punitive standards that America...
BLITZER: Like what?
WEXLER: ... could apply.
BLITZER: Like what?
WEXLER: We should not permit visas. We should go after them economically. Our financial institutions should penalize any financial transactions with Syria. That would create the kind of economic dynamic that Syria would have to respond to. We should apply more pressure.
BLITZER: So, in other words, what you're saying, Congressman, is that this administration should be even tougher on Syria and Iran than it is right now?
WEXLER: Absolutely. Bashar Assad in Syria does not respond to kindness. He only responds to force, and the credible use of force, whether it be economic force or otherwise.
BLITZER: Because you have been quite critical of the way this administration has handled the Iraq policy. But, when it comes to Israel, you're very supportive?
WEXLER: The president's instincts on Israel are excellent. And I applaud that.
But the bigger issue here is America's war on terror. And Israel cannot be forced here to be alone. The United States must implement the Syrian Accountability Act. We must pursue Iran's nuclear program and prevent it. But, so far, the tragic result of the Iraq war is that Iran's power has been enhanced in this region.
And the administration needs to figure out a way how to stabilize Iraq, but, at the same time, implement a policy that prevents Syria and Iran from increasing their terrorist activity.
BLITZER: We have got to leave it right there, but I suspect you are happy not to be in Washington. You didn't have to go listen to the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, today. I suspect you're not happy with him.
WEXLER: An Iraqi prime minister who has a policy diametrically opposed to President Bush and the Congress on terror should not be given the privilege of speaking to a joint session of Congress.
BLITZER: Robert Wexler, Democrat of Florida, thanks for joining us.
WEXLER: Thank you.
BLITZER: We have an update now on the condition of the former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
He was transferred today to the intensive care unit of a Tel Aviv hospital, after bacteria was detected in his blood. The 78-year-old Sharon has been in a coma since suffering a massive stroke back in early January. A hospital representative says there has been no further deterioration to Sharon's brain. We're watching his condition very closely here in Jerusalem.
Still ahead: unanswered questions about the warfare here in the Middle East.
Our senior analyst, Jeff Greenfield, takes some of those questions on.
And rare insight into the Israeli military -- I spent part of this day with a top Israeli Air Force general.
We're live from Jerusalem, and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: I'm Wolf Blitzer in Jerusalem. We will have much more on the crisis here in the Middle East. That's coming up.
First, though, let's check some other important news. Zain Verjee is joining us from the -- from Washington with a quick look at some other news making headlines -- Zain.
ZAIN VERJEE, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, the country's oldest living president has been released from a Colorado hospital. Former President Gerald Ford was released from the Vail Valley Medical Center at noon today. He was admitted on Monday, after he became short of breath.
Last January, the 93-year-old former president spent 12 days in a California hospital for the treatment of pneumonia.
Not guilty by reason of insanity, that was the verdict handed down by a jury in Houston, Texas, in the murder trial of Andrea Yates. Yates is accused of drowning her five children at her Houston home back in 2001. In 2002, Yates was convicted of murder in three of the deaths, and sentenced to life in prison.
That conviction was overturned because of the erroneous testimony by an expert witness. Yates will now be committed to a state mental institution.
No same-sex marriages in the state of Washington -- by a 5-4 vote, the state Supreme Court in Seattle has upheld a law banning same-sex marriages. It's the latest in a series of setbacks for gay- rights advocates. Earlier this month, they lost battles over same-sex marriage in New York and in Georgia.
The 17-year-old accused at taking potshots of vehicles on an Indiana highway has pleaded not guilty. Zachariah Blanton is charged with murder, attempted murder, and recklessness. Prosecutors say, the teenager began shooting at vehicles from a highway overpass after arguing with relatives. The boy lived with his grandmother. Officials have charged the 58-year-old woman with obstruction of justice -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Zain, thanks for that.
Coming up: Iraq's prime minister making his first-ever speech before the U.S. Congress. Some lawmakers didn't even want to listen to him. We are going to tell you why. That's coming up.
Also, the sometimes harrowing journey to get out of a country under attack -- we will tell you what some evacuees had to go through to escape the fighting in Lebanon.
Live from Jerusalem, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: The crisis here in the Middle East followed the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, to Capitol Hill.
Earlier today, he addressed a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress, and he faced skepticism and a boycott.
Let's bring in our congressional correspondent Dana Bash -- Dana.
DANA BASH, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the Iraqi prime minister had a tough task to begin with here, trying to convince members of Congress that his country is on a path to security and democracy.
But that task was made even harder because of comments he made before he came to Washington, condemning Israel, but not Hezbollah. And, after his speech today, he left some Democrats and even some Republicans unsatisfied, because he condemned terrorism, but not Hezbollah specifically.
BASH (voice-over): The Iraqi prime minister came before an increasingly skeptical Congress, casting the costly U.S. mission and the broader struggle on his soil as a war for the heart of Islam.
AL-MALIKI (through translator): History will prove that the sacrifices of Iraqis for freedom will not be in vain. Iraq -- Iraqis are your allies in the war on terror.
BASH: Though that was intended to show he stands against all terror groups, Nouri al-Maliki did not specifically condemn Hezbollah, which some lawmakers were waiting to hear.
Senator Chuck Schumer was among a handful of Democrats who boycotted the speech, furious that al-Maliki, last week, denounced Israeli aggression, but not Hezbollah's.
SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER (D), NEW YORK: That's not the kind of person you consider an ally.
BASH: But other senior Democrats demanding al-Maliki publicly clarify his stance on Hezbollah backed off, saying Iraqi leaders reassured them in private.
REP. TOM LANTOS (D), CALIFORNIA: The prime minister is with the program, understanding that terrorism in the region, whether within Iraq or by Hezbollah in Lebanon, is unacceptable.
BASH: Al-Maliki used his 30-minute address to implore Americans to stick with Iraq, even appealing to the U.S. Congress, that has spent some $300 billion in his country for more money.
AL-MALIKI (through translator): Much of the budget you had allocated for Iraq's reconstruction ended up paying for security firms and foreign companies.
BASH: Just as the prime minister was hailing democratic transformation in Iraq...
UNIDENTIFIED ANTI-WAR PROTESTER: Bring troops home now ...
BASH: ... an anti-war protester interrupted his speech, and was rushed out.
Some called the prime minister overly optimistic in his assessment of Iraq's progress, and said he failed to address the key question on Americans' minds.
SEN. RICHARD DURBIN (D), ILLINOIS: We want to know when the time will come, and how soon it will come, that American troops can come home. That is the real test of our success in Iraq.
BASH: Meanwhile, back on the controversy over Hezbollah, just to give you a sense of how complicated this issue is for the Iraqi prime minister, Senate Armed Services Chairman John Warner just told reporters that his understanding is that the prime minister was under intense pressure not to even come to Washington at all. Why? Because of the Bush administration's strong support for Israel -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Dana, thank you.
In Iraq today, a defiant Saddam Hussein made his final appearance before a tribunal rendered -- before the tribunal renders its -- its verdict on his reign of terror. The former Iraqi leader told the court he would rather die by firing squad, like a soldier, than be hanged, like a common criminal. The prosecution has asked for the death penalty against Saddam Hussein.
Coming up, we are going to show you what's different about the current crisis in the Middle East, why it's raising disturbing new questions. Our senior analyst, Jeff Greenfield, will take a look.
And coming up in our next hour: my interview with a top Israeli general -- he will give us some unique insight into the conflict.
Live from Jerusalem, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: The commander of the U.S. evacuation effort in Lebanon says there's now only a trickle of Americans left in Beirut.
Our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr is following the evacuation effort from Cyprus. Barbara is joining us now live.
What's the latest, Barbara?
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, here in Larnaca, behind me, in the next few hours, a Canadian ship called the Princess Marissa is going dock. And it is going to be an amazing story here in Larnaca, Wolf. This ship is carrying a number of Americans, Canadians, and other citizens from Western countries out of southern Lebanon, where the fighting has been the toughest, where there has been a lot of Israeli bombing, and where a story of great heroism is emerging on how many Lebanese-Americans made it to the Princess Marissa.
What we have learned today from our sources in Beirut is that a -- Lebanese-Americans from Los Angeles, some of them -- some of them from other places, have worked a private arrangement across Tyre, across the hills of southern Lebanon, hiring drivers, making convoys of 20 and 30 vehicles, up into the mountains, going village by village, looking for these Americans and others who want to get out.
They have been using text-messaging, cell phones, calling back to the embassy in Beirut which is sending these convoys through the hills today, street by street, village by village, using a map and using phones to get these people to safety.
The reports of the conditions in southern Lebanon are very difficult. There has been so much violence there, so much bombing -- many people risking their lives now in these private efforts to get on these convoys, come out of the mountains, get to the port of Tyre, and make their way here to Larnaca later tonight on board the Princess Marissa.
What we have been told, Wolf, one of the most amazing things, one Lebanese-American family spending $8,000 of their own money to hire drivers, get cars, get food and water, and make these convoy trips through the mountains -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Well, good luck to all those people. Thanks, Barbara, for doing your excellent reporting for us -- Barbara Starr reporting from Cyprus.
And still to come, right here in THE SITUATION ROOM: Is the United States taking the right approach to the violence in the Middle East? Jack Cafferty is standing by with your e-mail.
And screams of anguish in Tyre -- that's in southern Lebanon -- where an Israeli missile strikes the city center.
Live from Jerusalem, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: Here's a closer look at some of the "Hot Shots" coming in from our friends over at the Associated Press, pictures involving the Middle East crisis, pictures likely to be in your hometown newspapers tomorrow. Check these out.
In Tyre, in south Lebanon, a Red Cross volunteer screams for help, after an Israeli missile destroyed a building in the center of the city.
Over at Beirut international airport, relief supplies are unloaded from a Jordanian military plane. In Tajikistan, the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, calls for a cease-fire in the Middle East, accusing the United States and Israel of trying to -- quote -- "re-carve the map of the region."
In northern Israel, soldiers load missiles on to a vehicle, while Orthodox Jews blow horns in support -- show of support for the Israeli troops -- some of today's "Hot Shots," pictures often worth 1,000 words.
Jack Cafferty once again joining us from New York -- Jack.
CAFFERTY: They had that meeting in Rome today, Wolf. And the question we're asking is, was the United States right to balk at immediate cease-fire in the Middle East, the U.S. being one of the few countries to stand against the idea of ceasing hostilities?
Richard in Los Angeles writes: "To agree to a cease-fire now would be superfluous. The fox is still in the henhouse. Why should the Israelis subject themselves to another 20 years of rocket fire from the north? A cease-fire would have to include disarming Hezbollah, return of the kidnapped Israeli soldiers, and the return of sovereignty by the government of Lebanon over 100 percent of the country."
Andrew in Paramus writes: "The only reason the U.S. is blocking an immediate cease-fire is that U.S. and Israeli foreign policy have converged. Fundamentally, the Bush administration, egged on by an obsequious Congress, has surrendered U.S. foreign policy to Israel. The secretary of state is a non-player. The U.S. is a non-player. When Israel is through with its slaughter and destruction, then, on orders from Jerusalem, Rice will call for a cease-fire."
Mike in Florida writes: "Where I don't care very much for what the Bush administration has done to date, I would have to agree with them on the issue of no cease-fire until something concrete can be established between Israel and the warring factions in Lebanon."
T. writes: "It appears the U.S. could learn some lessons from Israel's army. They understand the true meaning of shock and awe: Hit back, and hit back hard. The world should leave Israel alone, let them handle this the way they want. Then there will be a true cease- fire."
Lamar in Dallas writes: "We were dead wrong. By failing to support an immediate cease-fire, we have given Israel a green light to do whatever it wants for as long as it wants. No wonder so many Arabs hate us."
And J. writes: "She balked at a cosmetic cease-fire, which would have kept you slow learners happy" -- I wonder if he includes me in that -- "but would be laughed at by brainless barbarians. I hope she prevails until disarmament really happens."
Slow learners -- Wolf.
(LAUGHTER) BLITZER: Jack, thank you.
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