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THE SITUATION ROOM
Israel Resuming Airstrikes on Hezbollah Targets; Senior Aide Says Castro's 'Last Moment is Very Far Away'; Debate In Congress Is Whether or Not Tough U.S. Stance on Cuba Helps or Hurts Push for Democracy There; Controversial Congresswoman's Embattled Reelection Campaign Could Be Influenced By Events in Middle East
Aired August 1, 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 Susan to our viewers you are in THE SITUATION ROOM, where new pictures and information are arriving all the time. Standing by, CNN reporters across the United States and around the world to bring you today's top stories.
Happening now, thousands of Israeli troops pushing deeper into Lebanon right now. It's 11:00 p.m. in Aita Al-Shaab, a major battlefield in Israel's expanded ground war. And a 48-hour lull in air raids is about to end and then this conflict could explode even more. We're live near the front lines.
Also this hour, U.N. workers caught in the crossfire in Lebanon on a desperate scramble to deliver aid. We'll get a firsthand look at the dangers and the growing demands for a cease-fire.
And an unprecedented power shift in communist Cuba. It's 4:00 p.m. in Havana, where we are getting new information on Fidel Castro's medical condition after he transferred power to his brother. And in Miami right now, as Castro's fate is in doubt, Cuban exiles are already celebrating. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You are in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Right now, thousands of Israeli troops are on the ground in southern Lebanon. They are engaged in intense combat and carrying out a major new expansion of the fight against Hezbollah guerrillas. Senior Israeli officials say they have already made some inroads, pushing all the way to the Litani River, 18 miles into Lebanon from the Israeli border.
The Israeli army is dropping leaflets near that river, ominously warning civilians to get out and to get out as quickly as possible. And Israel is resuming airstrikes on Hezbollah targets at the same time. A 48-hour easing up of the air campaign is due to end in three hours, at 7:00 p.m. Eastern. And that's likely to ratchet up the warfare even more. CNN's Ben Wedeman is standing by in Tyre, in southern Lebanon. But let's go to northern Israel, first, that's where Matthew Chance is monitoring all of these dramatic developments. Matthew?
MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, thank you very much. There has been a fierce artillery barrage opened up over the course of the past several hours. On those positions in southern Lebanon being softened up in preparation possibly for some kind of broad ground invasion of the area.
Certainly throughout the course of this day there have been fierce clashes between Israeli forces and Hezbollah fighters around Aita Al-Shaab, which is a village just across into Lebanon from Israeli territory across the border.
There, Israeli artillery guns pounding the houses in the village. Very close quarters fighting as well, according to the Israeli officials we have spoken to. You can hear those artillery shells again, flying off into Lebanon, pounding those positions as ground troops, as well, battle Hezbollah fighters.
Latest casualty figures coming to us, Wolf, from the Israeli Defense Forces, saying that at least three Israeli soldiers have been killed in this fighting and another 25 injured. That gives you an idea of just how close combat and how fierce this fighting is, Wolf.
BLITZER: The -- what is that, an artillery piece or a tank behind you? We just saw that shot that was fired, it seems, very close to you. Matthew, how close are you to that equipment?
CHANCE: Well, it's an artillery piece. It's a mobile howitzer, 155 millimeter if you're interested in the technical specifications. But yes, we are hearing a battery, an artillery battery, just across from the Lebanese border, a short distance away.
They have obviously been firing into Lebanon in support of the grand troops. At the moment we haven't had any incoming return fire from the Hezbollah militia, although that has been happening here over the course of the past several weeks, we're told. One of the incoming rounds actually at some point hit a store of ammunition here causing a huge explosion. So we are hoping very much that we don't see any of that this evening. But obviously the real danger in all of this comes if you're on the other end of that artillery fire, which is being now pounded at targets across southern Lebanon, Wolf.
BLITZER: And is that a constant drum beat, that artillery fire that we just we saw behind you, is that sort of a never-ending situation where you are?
CHANCE: Absolutely. It's been going on like this for weeks now here. But as we approach what could be a major expansion of the ground operations in southern Lebanon, I get the sense that there's a mood here amongst the soldiers that they are preparing for several days now of intensive battle.
Indeed that's what the Israeli government has promised, saying there will be no cease-fire, certainly not for the next several days. They seemed to have launched this strategy to achieve this tactical objective, secure a buffer zone in southern Lebanon ahead of any multinational force taking over there, Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, stand by Matthew, thank you very much.
Ben Wedeman not very far away. He's in southern Lebanon in Tyre, ready to update us on what's going on there. It looks like the Israelis getting ready for a major new ground offensive in three hours. All bets are off as far as the air war is concerned, Ben. Give us a sense of what I are seeing from your vantage point.
BEN WEDEMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we are seeing two things. I was down in a place called Aitaroun, which is not far from Bint Jbeil and we encountered people who had basically been staying in their bomb shelters for almost three weeks now when the press showed up.
They were the first people they saw in all that time, they mobbed us, begging us to take them out. Because these people realize that time is running out, that Israel may well be about to launch this major offensive.
At the same time what we have seen, Wolf, is very obvious and open activity by Hezbollah in preparation for this potential Israeli offensive. Today driving around, we saw truck-mounted anti-aircraft guns. Some of my colleagues in another area saw Katyusha rockets. In another area, we saw in garages, we saw stacks of ammunition, crates of ammunition. So they are getting ready. They are well aware on this side, civilians as well as Hezbollah that something big may be about to happen. Wolf?
BLITZER: And by all indications, they are probably right. Thank you very much, Ben Wedeman, reporting from south Lebanon.
Much more on the Middle East crisis coming up, but there's another major international story we are following right now. New comments about Cuba, about President Fidel Castro's uncertain health and new questions about the future of his 47-year-long communist regime.
Today Castro underwent surgery to stop bleeding in his intestines and he temporarily handed power to his brother Raul. Just a few moments ago, the Cuban National Assembly president said the 79-year- old leader's last moment, quote, "is very far away." The Bush administration says it believes Castro is still very much alive.
But Cuban exiles in Miami are celebrating, hoping this is the beginning of the end of Castro's grip on their homeland. This is the first time the Cuban leader has ever ceded control of the government despite previous health problems. CNN producer Shasta Darlington is joining us now from Havana. Shasta, give us a little flavor. This is so extraordinary, the details they are providing on Fidel Castro's health. It must be stunning, shocking to so many Cubans.
SHASTA DARLINGTON, CNN PRODUCER: Wolf, it certainly is stunning to have all of these details revealed. However, there is also a lack of information. The statement about the surgery was read last night on television and that same statement has been read over and over all day today.
So Cubans are obviously left wondering what state is he in, for the first time ever to hand over power. So this news from Al Arcon (ph), the head of the assembly will probably please a lot of the people we've been talking to, who are worried that the man who has ruled over them for almost half a century is going to last quite a bit longer, Wolf.
BLITZER: Shasta, but they are suggesting that he has handed over power to his brother Raul at least for several weeks, not just for a few hours or days. This is a situation that could go on for sometime.
DARLINGTON: Absolutely and I think that's something that Cubans are coming to terms with. Today they really tried to put a brave face on things, head out to work or to the beach for the students on vacation.
They really want to pretend that this is just one day like any other. But obviously questions are arising. This is a man who is going to turn 80 on the 13th of this month. There have already been talked with an eventual transition to his younger brother, and this is obviously a wake-up call that it could come sooner than a lot of people thank, Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, Shasta Darlington, our producer on the scene in Havana, thank you very much. We're going to continue to check in with Shasta and all of our people in Havana, CNN one of the few American news organizations, any news organization for that matter that has a full-time bureau in Havana. Stay with CNN for all the latest on Fidel Castro's condition.
And just who is his brother Raul Castro? He's been at his brother's side now for more than 40 years. He's been known to break with communist orthodoxy one in while, even once talking about moving Cuba toward a more democratic society. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba was nearly bankrupt. It was Raul Castro who insisted on allowing some free enterprise farmers' markets to develop.
And his personal life differs from his brother as well. President Castro is divorced and has fathered several children with different women. Raul Castro has been married to one woman for almost 50 years. They have four children. Much more on this story coming up right here in THE SITUATION ROOM as well.
Let's bring in Jack Cafferty. He's watching all of the news as he always does. You know, two huge stories we are monitoring at the same time. Never dull in this business, Jack.
JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: That's why we have got THE SITUATION ROOM to handle all these situations that develop simultaneously.
Here's another one. The White House is going to get a new high- tech pressroom and you and I are going to buy it for them. The "Wall Street Journal" reports the renovation will include a video wall that could display everything from flags waving in the breeze to charts and graphs, not unlike the video wall we have here in THE SITUATION ROOM on CNN.
For those people who watch on TV the video wall could be the only thing they see or it could share the screen with a speaker. Officials say they are deciding how much and how often to use the technology, Press Secretary Tony Snow calling it a, quote, "necessary response to the news environment," unquote. Some see it, though, as part of a larger effort by the administration to deliver its message directly to the public, you know, bypass those inconvenient questions from the reporters that they would rather not deal with. Media experts say it could be a way to try to minimize criticism of the administration and to shape the story more.
So here's the question: Does the White House need a new high- tech briefing room to deliver its message to the public? E-mail your thoughts to CaffertyFile@CNN.com or go to CNN.com/CaffertyFile. Eliminate that middle man, the reporter, Wolf, you know, shades of Pravda.
BLITZER: You know, Jack, as we know, as we have learned almost a year now here in THE SITUATION ROOM, that video wall that we have and some other news organization are now trying to copy, it's not cheap. It's going to cost the taxpayers quite a nice, little penny to put that kind of video wall behind Tony Snow in the briefing room.
CAFFERTY: Hey, no price is too high to provide only the very best for our president and his press corps.
BLITZER: We will be watching that video screen. It's going to take them nine months to redo the White House briefing room, so it's not going to happen overnight.
CAFFERTY: All right.
BLITZER: Thanks, Jack. And if you want a sneak preview of Jack's questions, plus an early read of the day's political news and what's ahead in THE SITUATION ROOM, here's what you do. You sign up for our daily e-mail alert. Just go to CNN.com/SituationRoom.
Coming up, Israel prepares to renew its all-out air campaign against Hezbollah. We're going to go live to Jerusalem for the countdown less than three hours away
And where will the Middle East conflict go from here?
Plus, now that Fidel Castro's health is in question, should the United States take new steps to promote democracy in Cuba? We're going to get reaction from Congress.
And I'll talk to the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joe Biden of Delaware, about the future of Cuba and Castro, and about the crisis in the Middle East. Stay with us. You are in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: A potentially very significant story developing right now. The Reuters news agency quoting Lebanese security sources as saying Israeli helicopters with troops have now landed in the Lebanese town of Baalbeck. That's in the northeastern part of Lebanon, not far from the Syrian border, widely described as an Hezbollah stronghold. If, in fact, this is true, a significant development that Israeli forces are moving further and further north in Lebanon right now. We are watching this story, getting more information. No official comment yet from Israeli sources but Lebanese security sources telling Reuters that Israeli military helicopters now in the area around Baalbeck, northeastern part of Lebanon, not far from Syria. The aim of this operation not clear, but as I said, this is a Hezbollah stronghold.
Let's go to Jerusalem right now. CNN's Paula Hancocks is watching all of these developments. Paula, we're less than three hours away from the end of this 48 cessation period of airstrikes.
By all accounts, thousands of Israeli troops now moving in on the ground in Lebanon, the air war about to resume, presumably, full speed ahead, and now this Reuters report that helicopters carrying Israeli soldiers are in Baalbeck or near Baalbeck. Give us the latest from Jerusalem.
PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we are making calls on that right now to see if the Israeli military is going to confirm that, indeed. But what we have been seeing this Tuesday is incredibly fierce fighting in Southern Lebanon. We have seen, in one particular village, Aita al-Shaab, which is very close to where these two Israeli soldiers were kidnapped from back on July the 12th, which actually sparked this crisis.
Now, we understand from the Israeli military, three Israeli soldiers were killed in heavy fighting this Tuesday in that area and 25 more were wounded. Also, another five wounded on the Israeli side of the border, hit by a mortar shell that was launched by Hezbollah.
So the ground offensive really is taking hold now. We see more aggressive ground offensive from Israel, but we are also seeing very aggressive resistance from Hezbollah itself.
Now, this comes just hours after the Security Cabinet meeting approved an expanded operation, and that's certainly what we are seeing. But we are looking to three hours time -- less than three hours, when this 48-hour suspension of Israeli airstrikes runs out. What will happen then? Will we see an increase in the airstrikes?
Which actually, by the way, did not stop completely. Israel said it reserved the right to carry out airstrikes if it thought that its ground troops were in trouble, and on a number of occasions, it did carry out airstrikes. So we are seeing an increase in activity.
Also, we are hearing from some sources, that they could go as far as the Litani River. Now, this is about 18 miles north of the border. If they go that far, they have already asked two times for the residents to leave -- Wolf.
BLITZER: And as you were speaking, the IDF spokesman telling CNN that they will have no comment -- at least not now -- on this Reuters report quoting Lebanese security sources that Israeli helicopters are now bringing troops into the Baalbeck in the northeastern part of Lebanon, not far from the Syrian border -- a very, very sensitive area, clearly given the fact, Paula, that only yesterday the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, said he was raising the readiness level of the Syrian military.
I know when I was there with you there last week in Israel, Israeli sources were saying to me they were very worried that there could be a miscalculation that could drag, in effect, Syria into this war. What are you hearing in Jerusalem about the fears from Israel that this war could widen to include not only Israel and Hezbollah, but Syria as well?
HANCOCKS: Israeli politicians are terrified of that. This is not what they want. And we've heard many Israeli politicians on the record, on camera saying we have no intention of fighting a war with Syria. So they've tried to make sure. This was just after they actually called up, up to 15,000 reservists. They said in the same breath as that that they wanted to make sure Syria knew that was not because they were planning any military maneuvers against Syria itself.
But we have seen some attacks very close to that border. We have seen the main crossing between Syria and Lebanon being attacked by Israeli air strikes. The road just about 400 meters away has been hit by an Israeli air strike, so it has come very close and Israel has to be careful not to infringe on Syrian territory at all. That's what the Israeli politicians are saying as well -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Paula Hancocks, thank you very much. Paula's monitoring the situation for us in Jerusalem.
And we're going to be on the air at 7:00 p.m. Eastern -- a little bit more than two and a half hours from now -- when that 48-hour period ends. We're going to watch this story very closely.
In the meantime, let's check in with Zain Verjee for a closer look at some other important stories making news -- Zain.
ZAIN VERJEE, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, for months in Iraq, warring Shias and Sunnis have launched a spasm of killings and kidnappings against each other. Now fears of fresh sectarian tension -- 43 Iraqis from a mostly Shia province have been kidnapped in the mostly Sunni Anbar province in the past two days. The Najaf governor's office says the people abducted were traveling on a highway that leads to Syria and Jordan.
Back here in the U.S., overstressed power grids and millions of people stressed out. The heat is on from the Midwest out to the East Coast. Heat, humidity and personal misery levels are all soaring. Those place like Chicago, St. Louis, Washington and New York experienced temperatures at or above 100 degrees. Experts say heat sufferers should drink water, wear a lot of loose clothing and limit their sun exposure, warning that it could save lives.
Nature is also having its way out in the Atlantic Ocean -- Tropical Storm Chris formed today near the Caribbean Islands. It's the third named storm in the Atlantic hurricane season. Forecasters say Chris could grow stronger and appears to be on a path toward Puerto Rico and an island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic. It could reach the Bahamas by Sunday, and possibly the southeast Florida coast -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Zain, thank you very much. Zain Verjee reporting.
Still ahead, we are going to return live to the front lines of the Middle East crisis as Israel intensifies its ground assault on Hezbollah. Is the fighting about to get even more fierce? We're only a little bit more than two-and-a-half hours away from the Israeli self-imposed deadline for stopping an air campaign, but that's about to go away.
And will Fidel Castro's revolution keep going when he's gone? With Castro's health now in question, I will talk to a reporter who has been investigating what could be Castro's last battle.
Stay with us. You are in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: We're getting some more details now on these reports that Israeli military helicopters are in the area around Baalbeck in the northeastern part of Lebanon, not far from the Syrian border. Baalbeck a very sensitive position, seen as a hotbed of Hezbollah activity. Lebanese security sources now telling CNN that Israeli military helicopter activity over Baalbeck is very heavy. They cannot confirm -- at least not now -- that troops have landed in the Baalbeck area.
The Reuters news agency is saying Israeli forces are now on the ground in Baalbeck, the Associated Press saying that Israeli helicopters are in the area. We are watching this story, potentially very, very significant because that would be a deep thrust of Israeli forces inside Lebanon way up in the northern part of the country, not far from Syria. We're going to continue to watch this story for you.
Let's move on, though, to the other big story we are following right now, the medical condition of Fidel Castro. The Bush administration says the possible incapacitation or death of Fidel Castro would be a significant event for Cuba. But the White House says it has no plans to reach out to Castro's brother Raul, now holding the reins of power after the Cuban leader underwent surgery.
Are members of Congress on board with all of that? Let's check in with our congressional correspondent, Dana Bash -- Dana.
DANA BASH, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the Bush administration has been touting today fresh plans they have in place to bolster any post-Castro government, but that plan only kicks in if a new democratic government in Cuba asks for that aid. And the debate here in Congress today is whether or not the tough U.S. stance on Cuba helps or hurts the push for democracy there right now.
(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) BASH (voice-over): Forty-five years after he fled his homeland, Cuban-born Senator Mel Martinez happily imagines a world without Fidel Castro.
SEN. MEL MARTINEZ (R) FLORIDA: I think it's a possibility that he may be either very, very ill, or dead. I don't think that there would be an announcement such as this unless it was pretty clear that he was incapacitated beyond recovery.
BASH: But if there is change in Cuba's future, there will likely be little immediate change in U.S. policy. Decades of embargo and, most recently, the 10-year-old Helms-Burton law strictly limits diplomatic and economic ties and most travel, allowing little beyond food and medicine to go to Cuba.
The president could waive sanctions if the Cuban government is moving toward democracy, but under Helms-Burton, the president can do this only if the governments does not include Fidel or Raul Castro. Opponents of the current U.S. policy say it limits America's options in this potentially crucial period.
KIRBY JONES, U.S.-CUBA TRADE ASSOCIATION: We are keeping American companies outs, keeping out American visitors who can spread the word of the United States and the values that we hold.
BASH: Republican Congressman Jeff Flake complained, "The United States is in no position to help. We are more distant now than we ever have been from the Cubans who could pursue the kind of change that we would like to see."
But most lawmakers are reluctant to lift the embargo until real reform is underway.
MARTINEZ: I think it's a moment for us to just express our desire for change and our openness to those who would be voices of change. But I think beyond that is premature. I think we need to see how events unfold within Cuba.
BASH: Now Senator Martinez and other Republicans have been pushing some changes: for example, pushing to boost funding in TV Marti that broadcasts messages of democracy into Cuba. He says that is needed now more than ever. Also today, Wolf, Senator Bill Nelson, the Democrat from Florida -- he introduced a measure that would send financial aid from the United States directly to dissidents inside Cuba, Wolf.
BLITZER: Dana Bash, thanks very much. Dana Bash reporting from Capitol Hill.
Let's get some more now on Fidel Castro and the future of Cuba, once the long-time communist leader is gone. Jon Lee Anderson has done extensive reporting in Havana, writes about the situation in the "New Yorker" magazine in an article entitled "Castro's Last Battle." He's joining us now from Beirut, where he's now covering the conflict in the Middle East.
Jon, thanks very much. You spent a lot of time in Cuba recently. What's your sense right now about the condition of Fidel Castro?
JON LEE ANDERSON, "THE NEW YORKER": He hasn't seemed well for some time. I was quite shocked by his appearance when I was there this spring.
And, in my piece, I sort of forecast not his imminent death, but the prospect that he would die some time fairly soon, in other words, that he had reached, finally, the end of his life.
Just a few years ago, the jokes in Cuba were all about Fidel's immortality, or putative immortality. And now they were all about based on the premise that he would, in fact, die.
There was a kind of -- an air of expectancy in Cuba recently. Fidel has seem tired, sometimes rambles in his speeches, occasionally falls asleep in public. What I thought was particularly significant was, at the beginning of last month, on the occasion of Raul, his younger brother's, 75th birthday, "The Communist Party Daily" dedicated a huge spread to him, extolling his virtues, reminding the public that he was the designated successor to his brother.
And that had never been done before. And, just last week, Fidel was making jokes, sort of backhanded jokes, about the fact that he would not live until 100.
There is a sense that Fidel has been preparing the Cuban public for some time now for his demise some time in the near future. One didn't know whether that would be months or years. But there's no doubt that, in Cuba, many of the people I know, that's one of the things that they all talk about, that's on their mind. It's the great national subject.
BLITZER: It looks like he has got a succession plan in mind -- this extraordinary announcement last night giving Raul Castro the power, the leadership power, if you will, and letting the Cuban people know what is -- what's going on.
Walk us through what you sense will happen with Raul, at least temporarily, in power.
ANDERSON: Well, Raul is number two in the Communist Party. He's the defense chief. He has been the head of the Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces since 1959, since the triumph of the revolution.
So, he holds -- he's the first vice president, one of five Cuba has, Fidel being the president, of the Council of Ministers, which is the official organ that holds power in Cuba. Raul has long been the designated heir. It was made official some years ago.
First, Fidel sort of said it. It was voted upon. Everyone knows that that's what will happen. But most people, even close to Fidel, talk about, although that is the official plan, we know that Raul is, himself, not young. He's only five years younger than Fidel. And, therefore, we are really talking about a generational change.
And, for some time now, Fidel has been working with the young cadre, if you will, the sort of technocrats and the true believers around him, his personal team of people that would step in and actually be the hands-on managers of the transition -- I'm sorry -- the succession, which is...
ANDERSON: ... how it's referred to in Cuba.
BLITZER: ... let me read to you from the article "Castro's Last Battle" in "The New Yorker" magazine.
You write this, ominous words: "There are fears, both in Cuba and in the United States, that social instability after Castro's death could provoke a huge wave of emigration. According to some scenarios, this could be used to justify American military intervention."
Those are very disturbing words. Tell us what you mean.
ANDERSON: Cuba is a pressure cooker. You know, it has been for many years.
And, very often, small incidents can flare up into large-scale exoduses. I lived in Cuba in the -- in the early 90s, 'after the Soviet collapse and the fall -- and the end of subsidies there. And I was there in the summer of '94, when it became almost insurrectional in Havana.
And Fidel opened the safety valve by allowing people to emigrate freely under their own steam, that is, on rafts, on boats. And over 30,000, as many as 50,000 people, tried to flee or fled by sea in what became known as the rafters' crisis in the summer of 1994.
There have been other incidents since then. Until now, Fidel has also been, himself, physically present to intervene. When there was that revolt in Havana, just prior to the rafters' crisis, Fidel staunched it by personally walking into the tide of rioters.
And people on the scene said that people who were holding rocks and shouting epithets dropped their rocks and began applauding him, when they saw his physical presence.
This happened again. It was a smaller incident in 2002. The point is, is that it's very volatile there. There's a lot of contained angst and despair. There's many people, many young people, particularly, that feel they have no future, that want to emigrate.
And there's always this sense of the place being a pressure cooker at times of crises. The big question is, how will Raul handle such a crisis? It could be that the effect of Fidel's death, after three generations for Cuba, will have a profound impact, and will cause people to suddenly look at the powers that be differently, go out on the streets, begin to shout, riot, go crazy. What will the security forces do then? Perhaps go for boats and try to leave the country, as so many have before. It could be that they react a different way. Much depends on how Raul responds and in control of the security forces in such a situation.
BLITZER: Jon Lee Anderson has written a brilliant article in "The New Yorker," "Castro's Last Battle." He's now in Beirut, covering the war over there. We are going to talk on a separate occasion about what you are seeing there.
Jon Lee Anderson, thanks very much for coming in.
And up next: The battle grows by the minute. We are going to have more on the deepening conflict in the Middle East, as Israel expands its ground war, and, in less than two-and-a-half-hours, resumes the air war, full speed ahead.
And Democratic Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney of Georgia is in the battle for her political life. Could her views on what is happening right now in the Middle East cost her, her seat in Congress? Bill Schneider is standing by with details.
BLITZER: Welcome back.
The Lebanese army now telling CNN that Israeli helicopter forces are in the northeastern part of Lebanon, near the town of Baalbeck. That's very close to the Syrian border right now -- this as thousands of Israeli troops are moving into south Lebanon, and the air war resuming shortly, with full speed ahead, as far as Israel is concerned.
Joining us now is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joe Biden of Delaware.
Senator, thanks very much for coming in.
SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN (D), DELAWARE: Happy to be here.
BLITZER: It looks like the Israelis are trying to destroy as much of Hezbollah's military capability as possible, before some sort of United Nations Security Council cease-fire is imposed. What do you make of what's going on?
BIDEN: Well, I think they probably are doing that. And it's kind of hard to blame them.
You know, while the world is sitting around, twiddling its thumbs, there's a need for a stabilization force in there, with people who can -- that are sanctioned by the United Nations, but folks that can shoot straight, and are tough, not going to stand by and watch things happen to occupy the territory that Israel, I'm confident, does not want to occupy.
They just want to make sure that, when, in fact, they pull back on the other side of the border, Hezbollah is not back in the game again, shelling them and indiscriminately bombing their cities, and killing their people.
BLITZER: Your good friend Republican Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee and the Intelligence Committee, yesterday said, this is simply unacceptable.
Listen to what he said.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. CHUCK HAGEL (R), NEBRASKA: The sickening slaughter on both sides, Mr. President, must end, and it must end now. President Bush must call for an immediate cease-fire. This madness must stop.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: President Bush is not calling for an immediate cease- fire. Neither are the Israelis.
What do you think? Is Senator Hagel right or wrong?
BIDEN: Well, I think he's -- this madness should stop. And the way it stops is to get an international force agreeing to go in there and stop it.
But, look, if we stop it, if you just say, look, Israel, back off now, pull back on the other side of your border, this is just going to be repeated again in a day, or two, or a week, or three.
And, so, the answer here is for the international community to step up to the ball, led by the United States of America, to do what it promised to do over a year ago, when the Syrians left. We promised to bring in the Lebanese army along that border. And we promised to disarm Hezbollah.
In the meantime, nobody can convince me that Israel likes sending their troops into Lebanon. Everybody forgets, they voluntarily left Lebanon. They left Lebanon. They said, we don't want any part of it.
And look what has happened to them.
BLITZER: So, what do you want President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to be doing right now, anything differently than they're doing?
BIDEN: Well, yes.
I would suggest a couple things. First of all, I think, from the very beginning, they would have said -- they should have put the onus on Hezbollah, by saying, we want a cease-fire immediately, with the moving in of a stabilization force.
I doubt whether Hezbollah would have agreed to a stabilization force moving in. We would have put the onus where it belongs, on the bad guys, the very bad guys, Hezbollah. The second point I would make is, you have got to get Syria in this game or totally out of the game. I would be putting overwhelming pressure, through all the rest of the Arab Sunni states with money and oil that support Syria, to say, cease and desist, or get cut off. Either become part of the solution, or you are part of the problem.
And the third thing that I would be doing is, I would be putting as much of our effort as we possibly could to bring about a stabilization force go in. And I think they are trying that part.
BIDEN: But I...
BLITZER: ... U.S. troops be involved in that stabilization force?
BIDEN: No. No. No, I don't think they should, for two reasons.
Look at the situation that exists in Iraq now. It's near out of control in Baghdad. And you have no administration political plan how to deal with the two things that have to be dealt with in Iraq, one, get a political settlement by giving the Sunnis a piece of the oil revenue guaranteed to them if they stay part of this government.
And, two, disarm, get the Mahdi militia, Sadr's militia, out of the police force, so you have a legitimate force. That's what we should be doing there. But we're -- but, because we're not, we're just -- this -- they have squandered so many of our resources.
BLITZER: One quick question on Fidel Castro, Senator, before I let you go. What do you make of this extraordinary development, the decision to hand over power, at least for the time being, to his brother Raul?
BIDEN: The inevitable is on the horizon. It looks to me like it's a hell of a lot -- a heck of a lot more serious than they are making it out to be.
And Castro's brother Raul is 75 years old. We should be putting together a plan as to how we are going to play a positive role in moving that country, after the Castros are gone, to -- more toward democratization and liberalization in their society.
But I think this is just the beginning of the end, and it may be the end for the old man, the older brother. Raul is 75, and I am not sure how he can hold things together very much longer.
BLITZER: Senator Joe Biden, thanks very much for coming in.
BIDEN: Thank you. BLITZER: And still ahead here in THE SITUATION ROOM: What does a congresswoman's reelection bid have to do with the crisis in the Middle East? Bill Schneider will have the answer.
And does the White House need a high-tech briefing room? Jack Cafferty has your opinions. And he will join us.
That's coming up, right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: We're watching the crisis in the Middle East unfold. There are dramatic developments happening right now -- much more on what the Israeli military is doing on the ground and in the air.
In just over two hours, the Israeli air campaign will resume. We are watching the story closely.
Here in the United States, a controversial congresswoman and her embattled reelection campaign could be influenced by the events happening right now in the Middle East.
Our senior political analyst, Bill Schneider, is watching the Cynthia McKinney runoff race very closely -- Bill.
WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Wolf, question: What does a Democratic runoff for a congressional seat in Georgia have to do with the conflict in the Middle East?
SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Georgia Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney got a lot of notice this year when she was involved in an altercation with a Capitol Hill police officer.
REP. CYNTHIA MCKINNEY (D), GEORGIA: The fact of the matter is, I was never charged with anything.
SCHNEIDER: Hank Johnson, her opponent in next week's Democratic runoff, says:
HANK JOHNSON (D), GEORGIA CONGRESSIONAL CANDIDATE: It was an embarrassment to the people of the 4th District.
SCHNEIDER: Her opponent says her problems go beyond the incident with the police.
JOHNSON: She's been the candidate of polarization and divisiveness.
SCHNEIDER: Most notably on the Middle East.
ALAN ABRAMOWITZ, PROFESSOR OF POLITICAL SCIENCE, EMORY UNIVERSITY: At some point -- and I'm not sure exactly when this happened -- she decided to align herself with the -- the Muslim community. And that has been a very strong base of support for her. It's a small minority in the district, but it has been an important source of funding for her in her campaigns.
SCHNEIDER: Notably, in 2002, when she lost her seat to another Democrat, whose campaign received a lot of Jewish support.
What about the current Middle East conflict? Representative McKinney is harshly critical of Israel.
MCKINNEY: We are not going to countenance the use of U.S. weapons in the destruction of a country, in the targeting of civilians, in the murder of innocents.
SCHNEIDER: Mr. Johnson takes a different view of Israel's policy.
JOHNSON: This incursion into Lebanon was a defensive measure. And it was a response to the attacks that had been levied upon them by a terrorist group by the name of Hezbollah.
SCHNEIDER: Johnson says:
JOHNSON: Well, I have received a number of donations from local Jewish citizens.
SCHNEIDER: McKinney's response:
MCKINNEY: I can tell you that there's an awful lot of Republican money going into the coffers of my opponent.
SCHNEIDER: Among Democratic voters in Georgia's 4th Congressional District, being pro-Republican is an explosive charge. But people following the race outside the district see bigger issues at stake -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Bill Schneider, thank you very much, watching this story.
Bill is part of the best political team on television, CNN, America's campaign headquarters.
Does the White House need a new high-tech briefing room to deliver its message to the American public? Jack Cafferty standing by with your e-mail.
And just ahead also: Will Syria be drawn into the Middle East war? I will ask the Syrian ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha. He's standing by to join us live.
Stay with us. You are in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: Let's check back with Jack Cafferty in New York -- Jack. JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, The "Wall Street Journal" reports, the White House briefing room is getting a high-tech makeover. Renovation will likely include a video wall that will allow the White House to communicate directly with the public, bypassing the press corps, if they choose to do so.
The question we ask is, does the White House need a new high-tech briefing room to deliver its message to the public?
Unbelievable, some of these.
T. in Rochester, Indiana: "No matter how high-tech they make it, it won't change the garbage they will be trying to sugarcoat and spoon-feed to us."
Terry in Nebraska: "No, they don't need a special high-tech room. The press gaggle they have every day has turned into a joke -- Helen Thomas, the only journalist in the room most days."
Barbara before in Vero Beach, Florida: "No, they don't need a new room to deliver their message. They need a new message."
Maurice in Wisconsin: "Telling the truth would be a nice change -- no cost to the taxpayers."
Daniel in Boulder, Colorado: "I don't think they need the video wall. I thought they were doing a pretty good job avoiding questions and deceiving us without it."
Dennis in Memphis, Tennessee: "A new high-tech communications center for the White House is a great idea. It will be money well- spent if it includes a high-tech lie detector."
And Jeff in Columbus, Ohio: "You need a new high-tech briefing room if you want to deliver a better 'Snow job' to the public."
BLITZER: I am looking forward to that. I have spent a lot of time covering the president, the Clinton administration, spending a lot of time in that briefing room. And you know what? It needs a makeover.
CAFFERTY: Oh, that thing is a hovel. It's an absolute disgrace. You know, it's dirty, and it's old, and it's run-down. And the reporters and the press crew are all crammed into these little tiny cubbyholes. And it's probably something that is long overdue. But it's also a subject the viewers can have a lot of fun with.
BLITZER: And they should.
Thanks very much, Jack, for that.
Still to come, we are following breaking news in the Middle East conflict, a major Israeli operation now reported under way in eastern Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. We're monitoring all the new developments in the crisis in the Middle East -- Israel counting down right now to a resumption of all-out airstrikes that are about to begin -- resume in just more than two hours.
We will have a live report, coming up right at the top of the hour.
BLITZER: Do you have what you need to prepare for a possible terrorist attack or a natural disaster? Maybe not.
Today, the Federation of American Scientists released an online tool aimed at poking holes in the Department of Homeland Security's emergency readiness Web portal.
Our Internet reporter, Jacki Schechner, has the latest -- Jacki.
JACKI SCHECHNER, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, this is ready.gov, the Department of Homeland Security's preparedness Web site.
And this is reallyready.org, a Web site created by an intern at the Federation of American Scientists. They say the idea was to prove that ready.gov -- you can see, they look incredibly similar -- could be better, that it could more streamlined, that the information could be more accurate and less generic, as they say. They point specifically to certain sections -- for example, what to do in case of a nuclear threat.
Now, the FAS tells me today, the idea is not to replace ready.gov. It's just to prove that the government could do better.
We reached out to the Department of Homeland Security, and they told us today that the FAS is, in their words, woefully uninformed. They say a Web site like this is counterproductive. They question putting an intern on a project of this magnitude. They say that their Web site is created by federal experts in the field of emergency management and preparedness. And they say that they get 1.9 billion visitors since the site was launched. It is updated almost daily -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Thank you, Jacki.
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