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THE SITUATION ROOM

Deepest Hezbollah Rocket Strike Since Start of Conflict; Israeli Forces Step Up Offensive in Lebanon; Carla Jazzar Interview; Israel Likely Conducting Clearing Operation; Aid Workers on the Move in Lebanon

Aired August 2, 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, Susan. And to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM, where new pictures and information are arriving all the time. Standing by, CNN reporters across the United States and around the world to bring you today's top stories.
Happening now, Israel and Hezbollah take their warfare to new lengths. It's 11:00 p.m. in northern Israel, where Hezbollah rockets are landing farther and more frequently. At the same time, Israeli troops are pushing deeper and deeper into Lebanon. We have live reports on the escalating attacks in the region.

Also this hour, is Mideast diplomacy getting anywhere? There's word a U.N. resolution may be considered this week. I'll talk about the prospects for peace with U.S. Senator John McCain. And the Bush administration's approach toward Israel. It's 4:00 p.m. here in Washington where the current president is following a different path than his father. Is that helping or hurting him right now? I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Hezbollah firing back with a vengeance today. Israeli police are calling this the most intense day of rocket attacks since the fighting began. More than 200 -- more than 200 Hezbollah missiles were launched from Lebanon into northern Israel after a two-day lull. One landed farther than ever before in the conflict, actually, inside the Palestinian-controlled northern West Bank.

Across the border, Israeli forces pushed even deeper into Lebanon, part of their expanded assault on Hezbollah guerrillas. Israeli media reports around 6,000 Israeli soldiers now on the ground in southern Lebanon. The "Associated Press" put that number at 8,000.

The Israeli army today released video of its overnight raid on a hospital in Baalbeck, Lebanon. Israel says it was being used as a Hezbollah military base and says it captured five Hezbollah militants and killed 10 others. Hezbollah says the five captured are actually civilians. CNN's Brent Sadler is standing by in Beirut.

But let's go to northern Israel first, CNN's John Roberts standing by live with more -- John.

JOHN ROBERTS, CNN SR. NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It really was an intense today, Wolf, on both sides, in Lebanon where the fighting continues in places like Aita Al-Shaab and in around the Bint Jbeil area and now northward and a little bit westward of where we are here in the city of Taiba.

And over here in northern Israel, we drove around a lot today, not just around the border but deeper into Israel, as well, interviewing generals, going to some of the military facilities and literally every time we went through, Carmiel, Saata (ph), Tiberius, all over northern Israel, there was evidence of Katyusha rockets landing.

We saw a lot of them come in today up on the hills, very close to the border, deeper into northern Israel in some of those towns. It really was an incredible day, Wolf, of Hezbollah attacking northern Israel with those rockets.

The Israeli defense forces today also released nighttime night scope video of that daring raid into Baalbeck, into that hospital that they say was a Hezbollah strong hold. You can see as the Israeli helicopters are landing, what they say are Hezbollah fighters fleeing the scene, soldiers on the ground going into that hospital, where there was an intense firefight.

Israel claiming 10 Hezbollah fighters were killed. They arrested, kidnapped, took hostage, whatever you want to call it, five alleged Hezbollah fighters. They also say that they gained a lot of intelligence as well going through files that Hezbollah had in that hospital. Hezbollah of course though downplaying this whole thing, saying that the five people who were arrested and spirited back to Israel were not Hezbollah fighters, but they were civilians.

We also got some exclusive video today from the Israeli defense forces of the Israeli army operating in the area of Maroun al-Ras, in southern Lebanon. That's just across the border. We see pictures of them toppling over a Hezbollah outpost so that Hezbollah could not come back into the town and take advantage of that.

Also video of an Israeli armored personnel carrier, armored vehicle using what are called fuel bombs to try to clear out a Hezbollah outpost suspected of having booby traps in it. They dumped these bombs in there to try to clear out any mines or any improvised explosive devices that might be in there before the troops actually go in and clear the area.

I spoke with Major General Benny Gants today. He's very famous here in Israel as he was the last Israeli soldier to leave Lebanon after they withdrew in the year 2000. I asked him how much longer the fighting is going to go on. He said it could take a while, it could be over in a matter of days, it could take a matter of weeks.

The strategy right now seems to be, Wolf, that they are going to create a cordon that runs from Metula here in the northeast all the way around to Zarit, which is a little bit just to the west of the center of the border to try to cut Hezbollah off, keep it bottled up, hang onto that ground until an international force can be brought in to provide security -- Wolf.

BLITZER: John, some of us who covered the first Gulf War back in 1991 remember that the U.S.-led coalitions spent four weeks with the air campaign to liberate Kuwait and then there was a four week ground campaign to finish off the job, if you will. Is there a sense that that's what the Israeli strategy was to start off with three weeks of air strikes, air campaign, the shelling from the artillery and then, if necessary, which clearly it has proven to be, go in on the ground with thousands of troops to try to finish off that job?

ROBERTS: The Israeli defense forces say they were trying to strike a balance between air power and ground power. But in the last few days they've come under enormous criticism for not getting enough ground forces in there early enough. They knew that they couldn't do it with air power alone. They thought that the balance that they had struck was the right one.

But it's clear, Wolf, from the escalation of this ground campaign, that that strategy was wrong. I asked Major General Gants about that today, about the criticism. He said, "Look, there is the criticism out there, we know about it, but right now we're trying to fight, we're trying to win a war. At 6:00 in the evening, the day this war is over, we can sit down, we can have tea and we can talk about the criticisms."

But obviously Wolf, they are sensitive to this idea. It looks like the initial plan wasn't intense enough on the ground, that Hezbollah was holding out much more strongly than Israel thought it would. So now they've got all those thousands of troops going in to try to hold that ground.

BLITZER: John Roberts on the border of northern Israel. Thank you very much. And Hezbollah clearly has rockets left. They fired, as we've been reporting, more than 200 into northern Israel today alone. That's a record. The Israeli military says its raid on that hospital in Baalbeck, Lebanon, overnight shows its ability to reach everywhere that Hezbollah may be hiding. Lebanese security sources say at least 16 people were killed in air strikes supporting that raid.

CNN's Brent Sadler joining us now from Beirut with more on the latest situation. Brent, what are you seeing, what are you hearing?

BRENT SADLER, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, I was in Tyre earlier today, the southern port city, and heard about a dozen or more of those Katyusha launchings that we know about today, the record day of firings into Israel, very loud explosions.

Then pretty soon after that, reports of Israeli retaliation. So, clearly, no reluctance from Hezbollah to use that important southern city of Tyre as a launch pad for continuing operations.

Now, United Nations officials still talk about their observation posts all along the front line areas, still seeing a lot of that major fighting that John was just talking about. They say that the Israelis have not got 6,000 or 7,000 troops permanently inside Lebanon. It is a flowing movement of troops in and out, moving around this area as those Israeli troops try to carve out this cordon, as they try to seize important strategic high ground in south Lebanon. The Israelis know it very well, because they fought to secure a buffer zone, a security zone some 25 years ago. So they know precisely the key points that they want to take as they progress with this military campaign. Hezbollah's leadership in the form of its political membership, one M.P. said today, firing back at Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, who said that Hezbollah was being destroyed day by day, Hezbollah's M.P. here, Haj Hassan, saying that if we Hezbollah is being so badly damaged by the Israelis, how come then the weakened fire, a record number of Katyushas at Israel, not only a record number but deeper than ever before inside Israel? So Hezbollah continues to resist -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Well what's the explanation that you're hearing from Hezbollah or other sources knowledgeable in Beirut -- because on Monday they only launched about three rockets into Israel, on Tuesday maybe a dozen or so and today more than 200. Is there any logic, any explanation on what's going on?

SADLER: Well, the logic in terms of assessment from security analysts here is that the Hezbollah used that partial lull in the air strikes to really reposition themselves, to take stock of losses and where they think they might be able to gain in holding back a further military ground operations. Let's not forget Hezbollah is -- OK, it's an army, but essentially, it uses guerrilla tactics, hit-and-run.

They're used to firing Katyushas from positions, sometimes applying timing devices so that their guerrillas can actually set them, set the range, set the direction, put them on a timer and then flee the area expecting an immediate Israeli response.

So that the resumption of air strikes has seen a resumption of Hezbollah attacks, particularly after that daring raid in the Bekaa area -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right Brent, thank you very much, Brent Sadler in Beirut.

Let's head south to Southern Lebanon where people are dodging more strikes by Israeli forces. CNN's Ben Wedeman is in Tyre -- Ben.

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, there's been a definite intensification of military activity here in Southern Lebanon. From our vantage point just south of Tyre, we saw throughout the day steady pounding from Israeli aircraft, from artillery and from warships on this area to the south of this city. We also saw multiple volleys of Katyusha rockets being fired in the direction of Israel. Elsewhere in Lebanon, in the south, in two villages, Kafar Killa (ph) and Eiter Shah (ph), intense battles between Hezbollah militiamen and Israeli forces.

Meanwhile, here in Tyre, some supplies have arrived in the city. The Red Cross brought from Cyprus, on board a ship, 200 tons of food and other relief assistance. They also brought in 5,000 gallons of diesel fuel. Lebanon is now facing a serious fuel crisis here in Tyre. Some of the prices at the gas stations doubling, tripling, if there's any fuel at all. But there's a problem with that diesel fuel brought in by the Red Cross. Apparently, they didn't have the right paper work. It may be war, but it seems bureaucracy is still working. Back to you, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right Ben. Thanks very much, Ben Wedeman in Tyre.

Let's go up to New York. Jack Cafferty has got "The Cafferty File."

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Hi Wolf. There are indications we may not have been told the truth about what happened on September 11, 2001. The "Washington Post" claims reports that U.S. air defenses scrambled jets that day and were ready to shoot down United flight 93 are false.

The truth is the military never had any of the hijacked airliners in its sites. The troubling part of this story is officials with both NORAD and the FAA continue to give inaccurate information about the attacks for two years after 9/11. A member of the 9/11 Commission says his panel didn't trust testimony from Pentagon officials about the time line of events.

So they referred their concerns to the Pentagon inspector general and even considered taking it to the Justice Department for a possible criminal probe. The Pentagon admitted that it did make mistakes but insists they have since corrected them and they said they found nothing that indicates the testimony to the 9/11 Commission was knowingly false.

Here's the question, what is it mean if the 9/11 Commission thought the Pentagon was not telling the truth about the day of the attacks? E-mail your thoughts to CaffertyFile@CNN.com or go to CNN.com/CaffertyFile. We'll read some of the stuff in about a half hour.

BLITZER: Jack, thank you very much. Jack Cafferty in New York. And if you want a sneak preview of Jack's questions, plus an early read on 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. Simply go to CNN.com/SITUATIONROOM.

Coming up the Bush brand of Mideast diplomacy. The father and son have done things differently. We'll have the live reports on the push for peace.

And a leading Republican and presidential prospect weighing in on the Middle East crisis. Is senator John McCain on the same page as President Bush? I'll ask him. That's coming up right here in THE SITUATION ROOM in the next hour.

And is there a link between Fidel Castro's health problems in Cuba and the Mideast conflict? Jeff Greenfield will find the connection. That's coming up ahead as well. Stay with us, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ED HENRY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: This administration is letting Israel move forward with all these air strikes, not stopping it. Tony Snow insisted today, in his words, there's no green light from the White House to Israel. And he also said that Israel is operating independently and along those lines, last night when the Vice Premier Shimon Peres came out to the White House stakeout he said something that put him not necessarily on the same page as Secretary Rice.

He said this will continue for weeks, not days. That's just the opposite. Secretary Rice saying it will be days, not weeks. But on the other hand, when I pressed the Vice Premier on whether he is getting any pressure at all from the White House to stop the air strikes, he said he doesn't feel any. And that's leading critics, some Republicans like Chuck Hagel in the Senate, saying maybe Israel and the U.S. are isolating themselves in this conflict, Wolf.

BLITZER: A lot of us remember the first Bush administration when the father was president, his secretary of state was James Baker and very often they squeezed the Israeli government at the time to try to get some concessions in the peace process or on other issues, especially settlements in the West Bank. This president very reluctant to squeeze Israel at all, at least on the surface.

HENRY: That's right and in fact, that's why the Israel lobby, in part, here in Washington was not always happy with the first President Bush. This president much closer to particularly Israeli Prime Minister Olmert, his predecessor, Mr. Sharon, of course, as well.

I think that you're seeing this pressure now on the administration to act diplomatically. They say they're still hopeful they can get this U.N. resolution through this week, but that's really looking like a long shot at this point Wolf.

BLITZER: All right let's go up to the United Nations. Ed, thank you very much.

Richard Roth is standing by. What does it look like up there, Richard? Is there going to be a U.N. Security Council meeting? Is there going to be a resolution? Will there be an international force any time soon to go in to Lebanon?

RICHARD ROTH, CNN UNITED NATIONS CORRESPONDENT: And Remember father George Bush was here as a U.N. ambassador many decades ago. We're hearing from sources they're getting very close. There is convergence at least. The U.S. and France are now working off one single proposed resolution, so that's a definite sign of progress. Here at the United Nations, though, they postponed and canceled that troop contributors meeting that was originally scheduled for Monday.

France said, what was the point, because France wants to see an immediate cease-fire so far. The U.S. said it didn't object to that. They also agree that may take place next week and perhaps a ministers meeting with Secretary of State Rice. If they get an agreement on a resolution that would of course have to follow some type of cease-fire or truce.

BLITZER: Richard, I'm little confused on the French position. They're supposedly going to take the leadership role in this new international peace keeping force that will go in to Lebanon but right now they're reluctant to get this thing finalized and there are even reports the French are reluctant to have this force use military power to disarm Hezbollah.

ROTH: Well, the French have said they don't see the force as having to disarm Hezbollah. They see the troops as supporting Lebanese government soldiers in moving into an area. It's all contingent on some type of cease-fire, but many of the troop contributor nations say what's going to be the exact role, what's the mandate from the Council? That's why they're not ready to offer and that's why that meeting was postponed again.

BLITZER: All right, thanks very much, Richard Roth at the U.N.

And as the diplomats continue to debate this issue, clearly the Israelis are moving forward with their military offensive.

Let's check some other important news happening right now. Zain Verjee is joining us from the newsroom. Hi, Zain.

ZAIN VERJEE, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, Wolf.

In Baghdad, some young children just hoping for a day of fun instead saw their day of play battered by bombs. Twelve people are dead, including at least seven children, after two bombs came just out of nowhere and blew up in a soccer stadium. It happened as the children played soccer and their fans just watched. Elsewhere in Iraq, two U.S. troops died in the Anbar province amid enemy action.

It's this type of terror that Iraq's president says Iraqi troops will eventually eliminate. Jalal Talabani says Iraqi forces will take over security in all 18 Iraqi provinces by the end of the year. U.S. officials are not confirming or denying Talabani's assertion, only saying that any security transition would come after it's assured Iraqi troops are ready to fight.

There are new developments in the probe involving 24 Iraqi civilians who were massacred in Haditha, Iraq, in November, allegedly by U.S. Marines. The Associated Press is citing Pentagon officials as saying the investigation is nearly finished and that the evidence supports claims that the Marines deliberately shot the Iraqi civilians. The A.P. sources say military prosecutors are reviewing the evidence and trying to decide whether to recommend criminal charges.

Meanwhile, one of the Marines implicated in the Haditha massacre is suing a prominent anti-war Congressman for libel. Marine Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich's lawsuit says Democratic Congressman John Murtha went on TV numerous times and spread, quote, "false and malicious lies about him and the other Marines." Murtha says he doesn't blame Wuterich for speaking out, but he was only trying to bring attention to the pressure U.S. troops face in Iraq -- Wolf. BLITZER: Thank you very much, Zain Verjee reporting.

And still ahead here in THE SITUATION ROOM, Israel hit with the biggest barrage yet of Hezbollah rockets. Is the army's strategy for trying to wipe out the Hezbollah threat working? We'll have another live report from the combat zone. That's coming up.

And Lebanon clearly caught in the crossfire. Is there hope for a cease-fire and end to the bloodshed? I'll ask Lebanon's top diplomat here in the United States. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: With Israeli forces on the move deeper into Southern Lebanon, Lebanese officials now say 603 people have been killed in Lebanon in the three weeks of the Israeli strikes on Hezbollah fighters. Israel puts its death toll inside Israel at 55.

Let's go to CNN's Matthew Chance in northern Israel with more on today's fierce cross-border attacks -- Matthew.

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Thanks, Wolf.

In fierce fighting across Southern Lebanon with Israeli forces really pounding Hezbollah positions across that territory, as we speak, there is a big artillery barrage going on behind me. You can see they're really pounding those positions. Thousands of troops on the ground there, turning this whole border area into a combat zone.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CHANCE (voice-over): The brutal battlefields of Southern Lebanon -- across the hills, thousands of Israeli troops, backed by tanks and air power, are fighting in towns and villages, Hezbollah strongholds, Israel says. Their objective now to push Hezbollah back from the border, creating a buffer zone for Israel. Until a diplomatic solution is agreed, Israeli officials insist there will be no let-up.

LT. GEN. DAN HALUTZ, IDF CHIEF OF STAFF: Israel will stop fighting when the international force will be present in the south part of Lebanon. We can't stop before it because if there will not be presence of a very effective, robust military international force, Hezbollah will be there and we will have achieved nothing.

CHANCE: It may mean Israeli forces in and out of Lebanon for weeks to come, even if an international force is agreed soon. And they're operating well beyond Lebanon's southern border with Israel.

This, the grainy footage of an Israeli special forces raid in the ancient city of Baalbeck in the country's northeast. An Iranian-built hospital the target. The Israel military says part of it was being used as a Hezbollah logistics base and hiding place for the militia's leaders. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Our success in this operation was that we captured five Hezbollah terrorists and we killed more than 10 Hezbollah terrorists, some of them inside the hospital.

CHANCE: Hezbollah says the killed and captured were civilians. And the militia has delivered its ferocious response, more rockets pounding Israel than on any day in this conflict so far. One even struck the Palestinian West Bank, more than 40 miles from the Lebanese border, the furthest south a Hezbollah rocket has ever reached.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CHANCE: Well, the Israeli military officials say they're extracting a high price from Hezbollah, but the militia is still able to strike at Israel's towns and cities in its north. Ministry officials here say it could be some time before that changes. Back to you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Matthew, thank you very much. Matthew Chance on the frontlines for us tonight.

On the diplomatic front in this conflict, we're joined now by Lebanon's top diplomat here in Washington, the Lebanese charge d'affaires, the deputy chief of mission, Carla Jazzar. Thanks very much for coming in. I know you have your hands full right now.

What do you expect the Israelis to do with, for example, today, more than 200 rockets coming into the northern part of their country? What are they supposed to do, just let these rockets come in?

CARLA JAZZAR, LEBANESE CHARGE D'AFFAIRES: Yes, but have you forgotten that for the last three weeks they've been shelling, bombing the country, killing civilians? What do you expect us to do?

BLITZER: Well, I mean, I'm just trying to figure out is there a way to stop this? In other words, who's going to stop Hezbollah from firing rockets into Israel since the Lebanese army clearly, so far, has not been able to do so or willing to do so.

JAZZAR: Well, Wolf, we think that we have some indications that the negotiations in New York are going -- are moving ahead. And we hope that by the end of this week, we'd find a political framework to achieve a political settlement. So I think that we're in a good direction and I think that we could do something very soon.

BLITZER: So the hope is -- and you're speaking obviously for the Lebanese government. The hope is the United Nations Security Council will meet, they'll pass a resolution, they'll create or at least support a new international stabilization force, 15,000, 20,000 troops that will go in and work with the Lebanese army to make sure that there's no more rockets coming into Israel?

JAZZAR: Actually, Wolf, we already have a plan, a seven-point plan, proposed by the prime minister, which pledged, you know, the extension of the Lebanese authority over its soil, and the -- the extension of its sovereignty. And what we expect from the international forces, the U.N. -- UNIFIL-beefed forces, is to help the Lebanese authority to extend -- to help the Lebanese army to extend its authority, and in the same way it was supposed to do in Resolution 425.

BLITZER: Because the argument has always been, and for -- many Lebanese analysts have always made the claim that, if the Lebanese army, about 60,000 troops, were to try to disarm Hezbollah according to U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, that would recreate a civil war in Lebanon.

Would...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Is that a real fear?

JAZZAR: No, no, no, no, no, no, no.

These are false rumors and accusations. And the -- actually, I would like to tell you, and one of the major achievements in the immediate aftermath of the agreement, the Taif agreement, which is the new Lebanese constitution, is that the Lebanese army units have been restructured in a way that no unit is only Christian or only Shia, only Sunni.

All units are mixed. And, so far, until now, the Lebanese army has shown lots of discipline and lots of self-control.

BLITZER: The U.S. government, as you well know -- and you serve here in Washington -- you deal with the State Department on a daily basis -- regards Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, effectively, no different than al Qaeda. You don't see it like that. Tell our...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Tell our viewers why.

JAZZAR: Of course not. Of course not.

I would like to remind you one thing, is that Hezbollah is only born -- was only born in '83. And that was after three major Israeli attacks, in '69, in '78, and in '82. Hezbollah was the natural consequence of long years of frustration, long years of (INAUDIBLE) long years of occupations. So, this is why Hezbollah has gained lots of popularity among the Shia population and among the Lebanese population in Lebanon.

BLITZER: But -- let me interrupt for a second. In 2000, the Israelis did pull out to what the U.N. called the blue line...

JAZZAR: Yes.

BLITZER: ... completely withdrawing from Lebanese territory.

JAZZAR: Yes, but we still have major political issues pending since twenty -- since '70, '78, I would say.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: But that doesn't justify launching rockets against civilian targets...

JAZZAR: That's...

BLITZER: ... in Haifa or...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: ... northern Israel.

JAZZAR: It does not justify the Israeli attacks and this unproportionate, you know, and this collective punishment that we have had.

BLITZER: I understand you're angry at Israel. But are you angry at Hezbollah as well?

JAZZAR: Actually, the Lebanese government disavowed what Hezbollah did. And we want to move ahead and to reach an immediate cease-fire, an immediate cease-fire, today more than ever, because, if it lingers, and if it still go on in the way it is going on, we will see much more suffering, and maybe another Qana, and maybe more destruction. And this is something that no one can bear.

BLITZER: Carla Jazzar is the top Lebanese diplomat in Washington, the deputy chief of mission.

Good of you to come in. Good luck to everyone in Lebanon.

JAZZAR: Thank you. Thank you.

BLITZER: And still ahead: Should the Bush administration be doing more to try to end the bloodshed in the Middle East? I will ask Republican Senator and possible presidential prospect John McCain. He's standing by.

And next: Israel's military strategy against Hezbollah. Is there an end game? We will consider where the fighting goes from here.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Israel contends, its ground and air assault on Hezbollah has done significant damage to the militia group. But today's fierce new barrage of Hezbollah rockets into northern Israel seems to suggest otherwise.

Our Brian Todd is taking a closer look at Israel's military strategy -- Brian.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, military experts say, just look at the situation on the ground: Israeli forces fighting their way methodically around southern Lebanon. This, they say, is likely a clearing operation.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): Village by village, Israeli forces attack what they call Hezbollah strongholds, an offensive some military experts believe is a final push that goes beyond simply containing Hezbollah.

PATRICK LANG, FORMER ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: The Israeli army has to defeat Hezbollah decisively in southern Lebanon to achieve their political goal. And, in order to do that, they have to eliminate all resistance in these villages, because these are centers of support for Hezbollah, in terms of recruit -- recruits, maintenance of vehicles, observation of Israel, all these kinds of things.

TODD: But Hezbollah has proven a tough, resilient force. Eliminating it may be impossible.

But experts believe, Israeli leaders are committed to this dangerous grind, and it may be the only way to establish a security zone.

COLONEL ROBERT MAGINNIS (RET.), U.S. ARMY: I believe it's going to be absolutely essential that they go in there, house by house, to clear out Hezbollah, find their caches, find any fortifications, certainly any Katyusha rockets and the launchers, and just, all the way up to the Litani River, clear everything.

TODD: If that happens, analysts say, Israeli forces will likely have to occupy this entire region until an international stabilization force arrives. In the meantime, they will likely keep launching surgical strikes further north, like the one on Baalbeck near the Syrian border, incursions that carry high risk and reward.

LANG: One of the reasons they -- they did this is to demonstrate to Hezbollah the fact that they can operate anywhere in the country, and, so, the country is completely open to them. There's nowhere they can escape them.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: Another reason, our experts say, was to improve flagging morale among Israeli troops. But other strikes in that area, they warn, may not be as clean as that Baalbeck hit, and they risk drawing Syrian forces into the fight -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian, thank you -- more coming up on this story, the crisis in the Middle East.

Also: A man famous for upstaging others inadvertently does it again, the Cuban president, Fidel Castro. His illness partly managed to take the world's attention off the crisis in the Middle East and onto himself. Jeff Greenfield standing by -- he will tell us how the two stories, Middle East and Castro, are actually related. And the sizzling summer temperatures are not letting up -- the Big Apple baking, as other areas along the East Coast and the Midwest continue to feel the heat. We're standing by for the details.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Emergency aid workers are now on the move in Lebanon, despite Israel's stepped-up air and ground campaign.

CNN's Karl Penhaul has the latest on relief efforts in the combat zone -- Karl.

KARL PENHAUL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, today, an International Red Cross ship pulled into the port of Tyre. It had come from Cyprus, and it was bringing 200 tons of international aid, including food, basic supplies and cooking utensils.

But, even in these desperate times, there is red tape. The ship was also bringing 500,000 gallons of diesel fuel needed to power water pumps in the more far-flung villages. But, because of customs regulations, the International Red Cross was not immediately allowed to off-load that, until the paperwork was done.

Now, because of the resumption of Israeli airstrikes against Hezbollah firing positions, it is still too dangerous for many of the aid organizations to head out into the countryside to the outlying villages, where the aid is needed. And we saw today the Doctors Without Borders aid group -- they based themselves today here in Tyre -- were distributing aid to about 400 refugees, again, basic hygiene kits, together with diapers and powdered baby milk for some of the children.

But, for all these aid groups, whether it's the International Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, or the United Nations itself, all these groups have to seek permission, both from the Israeli Defense Forces and from Hezbollah itself, to ask for safe passage, before they can head off into the countryside. And, as the aid organizations themselves say, sometimes, they get a green light. But, more often than not, they get a red light. That means they have to stay here in Tyre -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Karl Penhaul, reporting for us, thank you.

The world's focus on the conflict in the Middle East was distracted, albeit a little bit, by the news that Cuba's ailing president, Fidel Castro, had temporarily handed power over to his brother.

Our senior analyst, Jeff Greenfield, has been thinking about both of those stories and their impact on American politics -- Jeff.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JEFF GREENFIELD, CNN SENIOR ANALYST: Wolf, Cuba is half-a-world away from the turmoil in the Middle East, but there's one way in which those distant regions are linked. Both are examples of what some have called third-rail issues in American politics, where any attempt to raise questions about long-established policies might be dangerous to a politician's health.

(voice-over): The longstanding ties between the United States and Israel have been shaped by everything from shared values to hard- nosed geopolitical calculation. But is it also shaped by the Jewish vote and by the political and financial clout of American Jews?

In sheer numerical terms, Jews are a small fraction of the U.S. electorate. Three percent of the voters in 2004 were Jewish, and they're mostly concentrated in noncompetitive blue states, like New York and California. Despite the "Seinfeld" Miami Beach jokes, only 5 percent of Florida voters are Jewish.

As for financial clout, while Jews do contribute disproportionately to political candidates, the amounts are dwarfed by sums from organized labor, energy companies and other interests.

But what is highly relevant is that, traditionally, Jews have formed one of the most reliable Democratic voting groups. The strong backing of Israel by President Bush helped change that some in 2004, when Bush got 25 percent of the Jewish vote, a big improvement over his 19 percent showing in 2000.

It's one reason why criticism of Israel has been absent or muted in American politics. And it's no coincidence that what criticism there is has often come from Michigan politicians. Michigan boasts the largest Arab-American population of any state.

And speaking of states, look to Florida, which is where Cuba comes in. The large Cuban-American population of that competitive big state, now some 800,000, has led most Florida politicians, even ardent liberals, to pursue a very hard line on Cuban trade and travel.

There is a similar pattern in Hudson County, New Jersey, where the Cuban-American population exceeds 100,000. You can see why by looking at recent presidential elections. In 1996, Bill Clinton, who had pursued a tough anti-Castro line, got 35 percent of the Cuban- American vote. And he became the first Democrat to carry that state in 20 years.

Four years later, in the wake of the Elian Gonzalez controversy, Al Gore got barely 20 percent of that vote, which almost certainly cost him the state of Florida and the White House.

None of this suggests that these voters are monolithic. There are American Jews critical of Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories and the way it uses force. There are Cuban-Americans, particularly younger ones, far more amenable than their elders to diplomatic relations and trade with Castro's Cuba.

(on camera): But it's just about inevitable that, in both cases, political clout is a factor that policy-makers have to take into account, assuming that they want to remain policy-makers -- Wolf.

(END VIDEOTAPE) BLITZER: All right, Jeff, thank you.

And, on our "Political Radar" this Wednesday, before heading home for a month-long recess, Senate Republicans today touted their accomplishments. They emphasized security measures, including the reauthorization of the USA Patriot Act. But top Democrats fired right back, accusing the Republican majority of presiding over a too-short session and of getting too little done.

Also today, Senate Democrats are attacking a Republican-sponsored bill that ties an increase in the minimum wage to a cut in the inheritance tax. Senator Ted Kennedy says, the GOP is holding the nation's lowest-paid workers hostage, in order to help wealthy Americans. The bill to hike the minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $7.25 an hour has been approved by the House. It could come up for a vote in the Senate on Friday.

And President Bush today marked the end of an era over at the White House. He joined the press corps in saying farewell to their crumbling briefing room in the West Wing. The current press secretary, Tony Snow, was joined by a half-dozen of his predecessors for the ceremony. The briefing room now is set to undergo a nine- month makeover.

Up next: The heat is on here on the East Coast. We will have the latest on the sweltering weather and whether there's any hope for relief.

And, in our next hour, Senator and possible presidential candidate John McCain, he will join us live. Does he agree with the way the president is dealing with the crisis in the Middle East?

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Here's a look at some of the "Hot Shots" coming in from our friends over at the Associated Press, pictures on the Middle East crisis, pictures likely to be in your hometown newspapers tomorrow.

In Tivon, Israel, a family mourns at the funeral of an Israeli soldier killed in southern Lebanon yesterday.

In Gaza City, a Palestinian places photographs of Condoleezza Rice and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert around the necks of goats. It's part of a protest today against the Israeli offensive.

In northern Israel, soldiers load llamas on to a truck, after returning from southern Lebanon. The animals carry equipment for Israeli ground forces.

In Ramallah on the West Bank, a Palestinian artist draws a portrait of the increasingly popular Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah -- some of today's "Hot Shots," pictures often worth 1,000 words.

Let's check back with Zain Verjee for a closer look at some other stories making news -- Zain.

VERJEE: Wolf, neither rain, nor relief will keep nature from its rounds. Again today, the Big Apple baked in triple-digit temperatures, as parts of New York hit 102 degrees.

In Boston, it's so hot that officials fear, the heat will compromise the steel rails on the city's trains. Officials in other sweltering cities like Detroit, Baltimore and Cleveland are warning residents to take precaution for themselves and for their loved ones.

It's like a tourist on vacation in the Caribbean that no island wants to host, Tropical Storm Chris. Today, the third named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season swirled in the Caribbean, headed for warmer waters. Forecasters say, the storm could become the first major hurricane of the year. Parts of the Bahamas are under a hurricane watch. And forecasters say parts of the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico could see up to eight inches of rain.

In financial news, U.S. stocks rose today, helped by strong earnings reports. Companies like Procter & Gamble beat earnings expectations. And software maker Adobe Systems confirmed its profit forecast. Much of today's rise renewed many people's optimism about the outlook for corporate growth -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Zain, thank you -- Zain Verjee reporting.

And still to come: The 9/11 Commission second-guesses the Pentagon on the timeline of events on that fateful day. What kind of impact might that have? Jack Cafferty will be back with your e-mail.

And we're following all the new developments in the fighting in the Middle East -- a record number of Hezbollah rockets landing in northern Israel today, more than 200. We will have fresh reports from the region right at the top of the hour. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's check back with Jack Cafferty in New York.

Hi, Jack.

CAFFERTY: Thanks, Wolf. Hi.

A member of the 9/11 Commission says that the commission didn't trust some of the testimony from Pentagon officials about the timeline of events on that fateful day, September 11.

The question we asked is: What does it mean if the 9/11 Commission thought the Pentagon wasn't telling the truth?

Barry writes from El Cajon, California: "Business as usual, the chain of command vs. accountability -- always a difficult balancing act for the military and the civilians supervising them. But that's no excuse for hiding the truth, as people tend not to trust what they cannot see." Gail in Front Royal, Virginia: "It means the Pentagon stole the true extent of the heroism shown on Flight 93 from those amazing people, just to cover their butts. If we knew our military never had of those airlines (sic) in their sights on 9/11, we might think the Pentagon's leadership is incompetent."

Mark in Massachusetts: "It means the Pentagon believed it could lie and get away with it, as long as the Republicans control all three branches of government. They were right. November can't come soon enough."

Marie in Bartlett, Illinois: "The 9/11 Commission failed. If they mulled criminal charges because they doubted the veracity of testimony from Pentagon personnel, why did they stop at that? And why say so now? If persons are suspected of lying, they must be brought up on charges, and found either guilty or innocent. The commission declared themselves to be judge and jury. And the kangaroo court verdict was not guilty."

Paul in Rockville, Maryland: "I think it means someone on the 9/11 Commission actually bothered to read the report. The fact that Henry Kissinger and George Mitchell both took the job, and then quit, should have been a tip-off to how big a can of worms they were opening."

And, finally, James in Newton, Missouri, writes: "It simply means that Congress and you, Jack, are all being paid by corporate America to fake indignation about things that nobody will do anything about" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you very much, Jack.

And, as commercial airliners approached Washington and New York on 9/11, what did the Pentagon know and when? Newly released audiotapes between civilian air traffic and the Pentagon division known as NORAD may be telling.

This is the first time we can all hear this. But we can only do so online.

Our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton, is standing by with more -- Abbi.

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, these are tapes at the "Vanity Fair" Web site that the magazine says shows the misinformation and confusion of that day.

Take a listen to this one. It's NORAD Tech Sergeant Shelley Watson receiving news from Boston air traffic control that a hijacked plane is headed for New York.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Is he inbound to JFK?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We -- we don't know. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You don't know where he is at all?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's being hijacked. The pilot is having a hard time talking to the -- I mean we don't know. We don't know where he's going. He's heading towards Kennedy. He's...

(END AUDIO CLIP)

TATTON: That was American Airlines Flight 11 -- less than 10 minutes later, slammed into the World Trade Center.

We're getting more and more information appearing online from 9/11. Just this week, over 1,000 exhibits from the Zacarias Moussaoui trial were put on the Internet by a federal court. Take a look at this one, taking you right inside that American Airlines Flight 11, showing you where all the different passengers were seated that day, also showing you the phone calls made from the plane that day -- all of this, Wolf, giving us a bigger picture of what happened on September 11 -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Abbi, thank you.

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