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Crisis In The Middle East; Baghdad Explosions

Aired July 27, 2006 - 07:00   ET


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: We'll talk to one of the soldiers behind me in just a moment.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: All right, Miles, thanks.

First, though, a new warning just in this morning from Osama bin Laden's top deputy. Al Jazeera is airing a tape just over an hour ago, in fact. Ayman al-Zawahiri with a not so veiled threat, promising action by al Qaeda in response to Israeli attacks in both Lebanon and in Gaza. Here's part of what he said.

"The al Qaeda organization will not stay silent regarding what the Muslims and Palestine and Lebanon are facing."

Let's bring in senior international correspondent Nic Robertson. He's live for us in Beirut this morning.

Good morning to you, Nic.


Well, this was to be expected from the al Qaeda leadership. That they would try and weigh into this war here. We've certainly seen them do this type of thing before. It's taken about 14 days now, 15 days for them to get this statement out.

It's not Osama bin Laden. It's his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. And what he's trying to do here is find common cause in this battle. And that common cause he's trying to find is that the Lebanese here, that Hezbollah are fighting a battle against Israel and ally, the United States. And he's saying that if the Lebanese stand by al Qaeda, al Qaeda will stand by them.

Now, I think there's several things to look at here, Soledad. And one of those is that Hezbollah has a lot of distance between it and al Qaeda. It sees itself as fighting a national resistance, not fighting for a global Islamic califate in the name of Allah, in the name of God. So while Ayman al-Zawahiri is trying to get support here in Lebanon, it's not a natural base for them.

I spoke to one radical Islamist just last week and he told me this is not our fight in Lebanon right now. But, clearly, what al Qaeda's leadership is trying to do is trying to up the ante, is essentially saying, we will send people to support you in Lebanon if you support us. But it has to be remembered, as it is viewed here in Lebanon, these are two very different issues, al Qaeda and what Hezbollah are doing in their fight with Israel.


S. O'BRIEN: And so, Nic, when an offer like that is made, you know, we'll send people to support you if you support us, how would a group like Hezbollah react to that kind of an offer, if you will?

ROBERTSON: Well, Hassan Nasrallah has been quite scathing about Osama bin Laden in the past. The leader of Hezbollah has not chosen to throw his lot in with al Qaeda. He is focused on what his message has been, which is resistance to Israel.

Now, clearly, he's also been throwing his lot in with the Palestinians, as well, to give, as he would see it, give them support. And we've seen Ayman al-Zawahiri in the past try and give political advice to the Palestinians, telling them that you can not be secular, not to negotiate, telling Hamas not to negotiate with the Israeli government. And, clearly, it's going to try and exploit the situation here for al Qaeda's interests.

In short-term, it wouldn't seem to have much effect. But this radical Islamist I talked to last weekend said if the conflict here went long, if Israel occupied large swathes of Lebanon, then potentially you could see al Qaeda supporters and fighters, as they've done in Iraq, come here to Lebanon. The fundamental difference between what's happening now from the civil war days, al Qaeda didn't exist 15, 16 years ago when the civil war was on in Lebanon. So there is a slightly different dynamic, but no huge danger it seems at the moment.


S. O'BRIEN: Nic Robertson for us this morning. Nic, thanks.

Other developments that we are following this morning in the crisis in the Middle East. Criticism the U.S. policy is following. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, from Rome to Malaysia this morning. She fought off yesterday's calls for an immediate cease- fire. The discussion, though, likely to pick up again at the annual Asian security meetings.

Israel's justice minister says failed talks in Rome give Israel a green light to continue its operation. Plans to widen the air and ground war were discussed at today's security cabinet meeting.

Israeli troops are heading back into the Hezbollah stronghold of Bint Jbeil today. Israel is taking its heaviest troop casualties there. Also claiming, though, to have killed dozens of guerrillas.

And Israel says the Lebanese army is not a target in its war with Hezbollah, but it claims to have bombed the Lebanese army radar station. The Lebanese Broadcasting Company says, no, that was a radio tower.

Israel targeted the Amam (ph) militia group today, hitting one of its buildings in the port city of buildings Tyre. That's after destroying a seven-story Hezbollah building in the city yesterday.

Bring you back to Metula in Israel. That's where we find Miles.

Hey, Miles. Good morning again.

M. O'BRIEN: Good morning, Soledad.

We're right at the northern most part of Israel, the tip of what they call the Galilee panhandle here. Metula, Israel. We've been in Haifa. Let's just give you a quick little sense of the lay of the land using our Google map technology. Haifa to Metula, as the crow flies, about 45 minutes. You don't go that way because you would otherwise be right in to the heart of Lebanon.

In any case, Metula takes you sort of to the tip of the -- the fingernail of that Galilee panhandle. Here you see, these are border guards taking a break. You think border guard duty is easy duty? Not here, of course. Remember, July 12th this all started when two border guards were kidnapped and the rest is recent history.

Take a look at the streets here in Metula. It's a town of 2,000. Should be jammed full of tourists. Nothing. People who run the hotels, quite frankly, the only business they're getting is us.

Dave, come on down this way. Let's take a look over these hills. Right down there, where that gate is, that's Lebanon. And those hills, the crest of that hill right there, that United Nations outpost that was targeted by Israeli fighter planes, just over that hill. And I want to keep going down here.

You know, the United Nations interim force really is a misnomer here. It's one of the oldest U.N. watchdog groups in the world. It goes back to 1978. Check out that post there. That's another U.N. post right there. You see the water tower. It has the paved road up there. They've been re-supplying it with water all today.

Interesting, as we are hammed in by Lebanon here, mountains on either side of us, only one way out through Israel in that direction to the south. And perhaps, as a result of that, this place has not been hit by Katyushas. You know, they're not very accurate. And the concern is that if you were to fire in this direction, you might just as easily land in Lebanon. Hezbollah houses right there could easily be targeted. So perhaps, just perhaps, that is why Metula has been spared.

Now as we talk about what's going on just over the hills there, increased fighting in Bint Jbeil and other locations, there is concern of a widening war here. As a matter of fact, in Jerusalem, the prime minister, Ehud Olmert, is meeting with his war cabinet and they are considering the possibility of widening the campaign. CNN's Fionnuala Sweeney watching that, as well as more Katyushas falling down in the north. She joins us now from Haifa.


FIONNUALA SWEENEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Indeed, Miles. That cabinet meeting has overrun by one hour already, and it was convened to discuss possible expansion of the grand offensive. That's what the Israeli ministry wants to see happen in southern Lebanon. But the cabinet, thought to favor more air strikes. But as I say, the cabinet meeting had been due to finish an hour ago and we're still waiting for it to finish up in Tel Aviv.

Yes, more Katyushas, Miles, falling around northern Israel today. At least 27. No injuries have been reported. But still showing that Hezbollah has a capability to strike.

Also, public support seeming to be behind Ehud Olmert for the moment, but Israel is used to short, sharp wars and this is now in its third week, this campaign. An opinion poll just taken before a number of heavy casualties were taken by the Israeli military yesterday shows unwavering support for the prime minister. Ninety-five percent of those polled believe that Israel is taking the right action in southern Lebanon and 77 percent still support the prime minister, Ehud Olmert.

But as I said yesterday, in that town you mentioned, a Hezbollah stronghold, Bint Jbeil, nine Israeli soldiers killed, dozens injured. This just 24 hours after the Israeli military said they had captured it.


M. O'BRIEN: Fionnuala Sweeney in Haifa, thank you very much.

Let's move north of the border, about 30 miles north of where Fionnuala is, also along the coast, the Lebanese port city of Tyre. This is a place that the Israelis have said repeatedly, and we've seen direct evidence of, is where Hezbollah is firing off those Katyusha rockets. Yesterday it became a target once again of the Israeli air force in a very significant way. CNN's Ben Wedeman is joining us now with more on the targeting of a 10-story building.



Well, actually, before I get to that building that was hit yesterday, about half an hour ago we heard a large explosion coming from the center of the city and we sent a crew there to investigate. They said it was a five-story building. Not really too badly damaged. The mayor's office tells us it's the old municipality building. But we do know from our crew that went there, that shortly, almost immediately after that building was hit, apparently a Jeep they identified as being with Hezbollah arrived at the scene to have a quick look and then left soon thereafter.

But what our crew did notice is that the mood in Tyre, which has been pretty laid back since we've gotten here, is beginning to sour since that building last night was hit. Many people at the scene of that building yesterday evening, and also today, increasingly angry at the international media because, of course, they're seen as representatives of the west, particularly the United States.

Now in the case of the building that was hit yesterday evening, completely destroyed by two missiles or bombs. We're not quite sure which. Ten casualties. But the mayor's office tells us they believe there may be bodies in the ruins themselves.

Now that's inside Tyre, which hasn't been as badly hit as the area around it. To the east and the south, we've heard steady bombardment from the air, Israeli warplanes flying overhead, and also earlier we saw some Israeli warships out off the coast bombarding some of the coastline just behind me. So it does seem that the Israeli armed forces have stepped up their activities in southern Lebanon significantly.


M. O'BRIEN: CNN's Ben Wedeman in Tyre, where the fighting continues and the Israeli air force apparently still targeting that city, known to be a source of many of these Hezbollah rockets which continue to rain down on northern Israel.

Back to you, Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Miles, thanks.

Another deadly day to tell you about in Iraq. At least 31 people killed, dozens more injured in a mortar barrage and car bomb attack in central Baghdad. That's where CNN's Arwa Damon is this morning.

Arwa, good morning. What's the latest there?


The latest death toll that we have from the Iraqi police is that at least 27 Iraqi civilians have been killed, over 100 wounded. This attack happened at 10:00 in the morning in a central Baghdad neighborhood of Karad (ph). It is a mixed area, but the attack, which was a car bomb followed by mortars followed by Katyusha rockets, quite a complex attack, appeared to be targeting a predominantly Shia area in that neighborhood.

We are told that it is home to some offices, as well as a residential area, that fall under Iraq's leading Shia party, the supreme council for Islamic revolution in Iraq. Images from the scene showed a residential building that had been completely destroyed. It showed devastating damage done to shops in that area.

And what we are hearing and images that were broadcast by Ali Raki (ph), the state-owned television here, were angry residents. Scenes from the ground, followed by angry residents saying, where is the security plan? Where is this Baghdad security plan that the Iraqi government has promised us?

Now that is right now security topping the agenda as Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki wraps up his visit to the United States. What the hope here is, is that he will come back with an actionable plan that can be put into place. We do know now that they will be sending two more U.S. brigades to the capital and also increasing the presence of the Iraqi army and other Iraqi security forces here. But until that actually happens, and if when it happens, whether or not it will yield positive results all remains to be seen. And until that happens, the death toll here will only continue to rise.


S. O'BRIEN: Arwa Damon for us this morning in Baghdad. Arwa, thanks.

In Afghanistan, a government helicopter crashed today. It killed all 16 people on board. At least two American civilians are among the dead. The chopper came down in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan. And so far there's been no determination on exactly what caused that crash. The Russian-made chopper was on its way to Khost.

Happening in America this morning.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is going to hold a hearing today on whether U.N. Ambassador John Bolton should keep his job. Bolton's temporary appointment expires in January. Democrats, though, could once again filibuster his nomination.

In just over two hours, President Bush is expected to sign an extension of the Voting Rights Act. The 1965 measure ended poll taxes, literacy tests, and other practices that were meant to prevent African-Americans from voting. President Bush has called the bill one of the most important pieces of legislation in U.S. history.

Is the Pentagon ready for war? Some on Capitol Hill don't think so. A group of Democratic lawmakers say unclassified documents show up to 2/3 of Army combat brigades don't have enough equipment or personnel. Even the Army's chief of staff says funding needs to be increased.

Andrea Yates will be committed to a mental facility in Texas later today. She could potentially spend the rest of her life there. A jury in Houston found her not guilty yesterday by reason of insanity in the drowning of her children back in 2001. An earlier conviction in the case was overturned.

And the scorching California heat wave easing up a little bit. The death toll, though, is continuing to climb. At least 83 deaths being blamed on the triple-digit temperatures that began almost two weeks ago. Temperatures are expected to drop a few degrees by the weekend.

That brings us right to the forecast. It's 14 minutes past the hour. Chad's got a look at what we can expect today.

Hey, Chad, good morning.


S. O'BRIEN: Coming up this morning, the tough road ahead in rebuilding Lebanon. We're going to take a look at what it's going to take to get that country back on its feet.

Plus, we'll meet one of the soldiers fighting for Israel. He's originally from the U.S. Find out what drew him to the Israeli military. All that and much more ahead on this special edition of AMERICAN MORNING.


M. O'BRIEN: Welcome back to a special edition of AMERICAN MORNING live from Metula, Israel. The very northern most portion of Israel. The tip of the Galilee panhandle is where we are right now.

This is a town of about 2,000 on a good day. Not nearly 2,000 people here now. Many people have fled to the south because they're right on the border, sitting right on the border with Lebanon. These are some of the border guards who are -- their job is to secure Metula, and environs, and they are just taking a break here right now.

I want to introduce you to one of the soldiers here. A reservist who is sort of minding his own business, running a commercial financing company and suddenly found himself in the army once again. Micah Avni joins us. Grew up, spent most of his time in Connecticut and is an Israeli and U.S. citizen.

Micah, good to have you with us.


M. O'BRIEN: Your business was good, you get the call. What went through your mind?

AVNI: What went through my mind? I don't want to leave my son at home. I think that's the first thing. The second thing that went through my mind is, I've got to go and protect my son. And I think that's what goes through everybody's mind here. The country's at war. We have to do what we have to do.

M. O'BRIEN: Now you've been down this road before, on a previous engagement, shall we say, in Lebanon. You know a lot about what's on the other side of that border.

AVNI: Indeed I have. I've been in Lebanon in the late '80s and during the '90s. Know the place pretty well. And, unfortunately, we're going to have to be there again. We were in Bint Jbeil in '78. We were there again in '82. And we'll be there again in 2006. It will take a few weeks, but I think we're going to take over all of southern Lebanon, move the Hezbollah out up to the north. Hopefully that will quiet things down.

M. O'BRIEN: Now Bint Jbeil is what you're talking about. That's a city of some 20,000. Very tight streets. And the Israeli defense forces there are met with very fierce fighting and it's been perhaps a little longer than people expected to clear Hezbollah out of there. How about you? Did you expect such a fierce fight?

AVNI: I'll tell you, it's really a question of approach. You know, Israel's an army that's made up of teachers, doctors, philosophers and so we're a little more humane than our enemy. I think if we would take a little more strong-handed approach, things would probably go smoother. I think that's probably going to be the conclusion of the government of what happened over the past few days. You'll see a more massive call-up of reserves and full-scale invasion of Lebanon, which is the only way to solve this problem, I think.

M. O'BRIEN: So you see it as nothing short of a full-scale invasion?

AVNI: I see nothing short of a full-scale invasion. In the longer term, I think this is just one battle in the clash between fundamentalists Islam and judeo (ph) Christian values. And I think that, you know, the ultimate enemy is in Iran and we're going to have to deal with that as this goes on. But in the short-term, there's no solution other than moving back up to Beirut.

M. O'BRIEN: Border patrol duty, obviously very dangerous. This all began July 12th when two border patrol guards were kidnapped. Do you think much about the dangers?

AVNI: I didn't used to. But since I had my first son born, I think about it a lot. Yes, it is pretty dangerous, but we do what we've got to do and I think everybody here has a good attitude about it and knows that there's no choice. And so we're out there and we're protecting the borders.

M. O'BRIEN: Yesterday was a very dark day for the Israeli defense forces. Nine soldiers in all killed, many others wounded. What do your commanders say to you after a day like that?

AVNI: You know, the real question is, what do you say to their parents? I mean, what do you say to their parents? And there is no answer for that. Those people's lives have been changed forever.

M. O'BRIEN: Do you think things are going well, though, or is it, as some would suggest in the media here, bogged down?

AVNI: I think that Ehud Olmert hasn't yet reached the decision that he needs to make, which is that we have to have a full-scale invasion. I think his inexperience in military matters has probably slowed us down over the past few weeks and cost a lot of lives. And I would hope that over the next few weeks he'll change that and do what he needs to do.

M. O'BRIEN: Final thought. You're bringing your wife and your son here. Why?

AVNI: To Israel. This is where we live. It's our country and I don't think that we can let the Hezbollah scare us. And I think that they're not going to be the only spouse and child of people in my unit will be up here during this time.

M. O'BRIEN: Micah Avni, who is normally a commercial financing CEO, now a private in the Israeli defense forces. Be safe.

AVNI: Thank you, Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: All right. Back to you, Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: All right, Miles, thanks.

Coming up this morning, we'll meet the family of another American who is fighting for Israel. They'll tell us why his service is part of a long family tradition.

Then later, what do Americans think of how President Bush is responding to the crisis? We'll break down the latest poll numbers, all ahead on this special edition of AMERICAN MORNING.


S. O'BRIEN: Oh, we can all do this math. High oil prices equal big profits if you're an oil company. Andy Serwer's "Minding Your Business." This is no big surprise.

ANDY SERWER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I always say you're good at this business, Soledad. You really are.

S. O'BRIEN: You know, there's so few things I know. This is one of them.

SERWER: No, you've got it going on. Exxon-Mobil's going to reporting its financial results later today. Analysts expect $111 billion in sales in the second quarter. That's three months. That's 91 days. And that works out to be $1.2 billion a day in revenues for the world's largest company. Earnings are expected to be up 37 percent.

Shell's already reported a 40 percent increase in earnings. BP, 30 percent up. ConocoPhillips up 65 percent. And, of course, Soledad is correct, it's all about higher oil prices.

Meanwhile, we're paying a lot at the pump and the government says $3 a gallon gasoline is here to stay this summer. Forget about it. It's not going to go down. The Energy Information Administration says until the beginning of September.

Now the real question is, what about after September? After all, that's when hurricane season kicks in and, of course, the record was last September, $3.07 a gallon in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Meanwhile, more oil and gas news. This time over in China. The Chinese government is set to impose a tax on gasoline, kerosene and other petroleum products. Now the reason here is two-fold. One is to actually cut soaring energy consumption, making it more expensive, people use a little bit less. And also, Soledad, to reduce pollution, which is a very, very bad problem in that nation.

S. O'BRIEN: All right. That's depressing.

SERWER: That's all the news about energy this morning.

S. O'BRIEN: It is. And that was mostly all bad.

SERWER: Well, we'll try harder next time, OK?

S. O'BRIEN: Thank you. I would appreciate that.

SERWER: You're welcome.

S. O'BRIEN: I'm paying $3.20 a gallon.

SERWER: You live in a bad state.

S. O'BRIEN: Yes. Yes, I do. Yes, we do.

SERWER: An expensive one at least, let's put it that way.

S. O'BRIEN: All right, Andy, thank you.


S. O'BRIEN: Ahead this morning, the very latest in the Middle East crisis. Officials say fighting is crippling Lebanon. So what's it going to take to rebuild? We'll take a closer look this morning.

Plus, an American who's fighting for Israel in the Mideast conflict. His parents tell us why it's part of a long family tradition. Those stories ahead on this special edition of AMERICAN MORNING. We're back in a moment.



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