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CNN LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER

Interview with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki; Interview with Carl Levin; Gulf Coast Bracing For Possible Hurricane

Aired August 27, 2006 - 11:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: This is "Late Edition," the last word in Sunday talk.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NOURI AL-MALIKI, IRAQI PRIME MINISTER: The violence is in decrease. And our security ability is increasing. And I want to assure he who loves Iraq that Iraq will never be in a civil war.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Iraq. On the brink of civil war? We'll talk exclusively with the man leading Iraq into its next chapter, the prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki.

How long will U.S. troops be on the ground to help? It's been more than three years. When can the homecoming begin?

Reaction from two key U.S. senators, Republican Richard Lugar and Democrat Carl Levin.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RAY NAGIN (D), MAYOR OF NEW ORLEANS: The only thing I really lose sleep about these days is whether we could have called for a mandatory evacuation earlier.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: One year after Hurricane Katrina, and another storm on the way. What are the lessons learned? Is the U.S. better prepared this year?

The man in charge of Gulf Coast reconstruction, Donald Powell, and Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco are my guests.

"Late Edition"'s lineup begins right now.

ANNOUNCER: Live from CNN in Washington, this is "Late Edition" with Wolf Blitzer.

BLITZER: Welcome back. It's 11 a.m. here in Washington, 8 a.m. in Los Angeles, 4 p.m. in London, 7 p.m. in Baghdad. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks very much for joining us for "Late Edition." We're going to bring you all the latest on the major stories unfolding this hour. There's been a deadly plane crash in Kentucky. Now Hurricane Ernesto is churning across the Caribbean, heading toward the U.S. Gulf Coast. And the release of two journalists kidnapped in Gaza. Plus, our exclusive interview with the prime minister of Iraq, Nouri al- Maliki. All that coming up.

First, though, let's check in with CNN's Fredricka Whitfield. She's got a quick check of what's in the news right now.

Hi, Fred.

(NEWSBREAK)

BLITZER: Thanks, Fred.

Let's get some more details now on this morning's deadly plane crash in Kentucky. A Delta Comair commuter plane bound for Atlanta went down shortly after takeoff. Forty-nine people were killed. One person is described as being in critical condition.

Joining us now on the phone with the very latest is Michelle Rauch. She's with our CNN affiliate, WTVQ in Lexington, Kentucky.

First of all, Michelle, tell our viewers where you are and what we know.

RAUCH: Yes, I am directly across the street from the edge of the airport property. And to give you a lay of the land of how we're set up out here, our airport is on the west side of town, and it is surrounded by thoroughbred horse farms. And then across the street from the airport is the Keeneland Racetrack.

So we are across the street. This is a farmland area. And we're told that the crash happened on takeoff, on the edge of the airport property bordering that horse farm.

Now, it happened about seven, eight minutes after 6:00. And when it first happened, there was, as you can imagine, a flood of emergency response. Ambulances were coming to the scene.

We were out here about 25 minimums after the crash, and those ambulances stopped coming out here shortly after that. And that's when we saw the coroner's van pull up. We knew this was something serious early on.

As you said, 49 people have died, one survivor, a man. His name has not been released. He is at the University of Kentucky Medical Center in critical condition. We are told that he is in surgery right now.

There has been a tremendous response, both local, state and federal. Governor Ernie Fletcher is in Germany right now, but he is well aware of what's happening here. He has sent his general counsel, his emergency management staff. There is a Black Hawk helicopter that's here right now circling the scene as well. As far as families, they have now, instead of sending them to the airport, they have established sort of a command post for families, friends, loved ones to go to a local hotel here. It is called the Campbell House, and that is where they are sending all loved ones.

And as you can hear right now, that is the Black Hawk helicopter that has responded to the scene. It is doing an aerial look of this.

And getting back to the families, they are being directed to the local hotel now, where they're prepared to deal with all family, friends and loved ones who are here in town.

BLITZER: Michelle, what was the weather like? Because obviously we don't know what caused this plane to go down, but there's immediate suspicion on weather.

What was it like shortly after takeoff?

RAUCH: This morning, there was some rain showers, nothing too severe. Our meteorologist looked at the models, and there was not a severe storm or anything, but it was raining. And the roads were very slick this morning.

And it was just last weekend that the Bluegrass Airport did close for the weekend from a Friday evening to a Sunday evening, and so they just repaved our runway out here. So it's a new, repaved runway. And it was slick this morning. Of course, very early to speculate that that had anything to do with this.

The witnesses that I talked to described hearing an explosion kind of noise. One gentleman who lives across the street on the racetrack property was in a deep sleep. And he said it was such a loud noise that it woke him from his sleep and that his house was shaking.

Another gentleman was outside and said he saw a flash of light and then some smoke. And then another man who was driving by said he could smell the jet fuel.

BLITZER: Michelle, we are going to check back with you. Michelle Rauch from our affiliate, WTVQ in Lexington, Kentucky. Forty-nine people killed in a plane crash. There is one survivor right now in critical condition. There have been reports that there were 47 passengers on the plane, three crew members. We'll continue to watch this story, check in and get updates as we get them.

Another developing story we're following here in the United States: the very first hurricane of the Atlantic season, now called Hurricane Ernesto, moving across the Caribbean. It could reach the United States by midweek. This hurricane is coming almost exactly -- almost exactly -- one year after Hurricane Katrina.

Our meteorologist Bonnie Schneider is tracking the storm from the CNN hurricane headquarters in Atlanta.

What's the latest forecast, Bonnie? Because I understand that there's just been some new information released from the National Hurricane Center. SCHNEIDER: That's right, Wolf. And it's a changing situation. Really hour by hour we've been getting new information. This is still a Category 1 hurricane, with maximum winds at 75 miles per hour. You can see it here, pretty expansive. You can see that outflow very, very -- going out pretty far, all the way into Haiti and the Dominican Republic, as far as tropical storm-force winds.

The hurricane-force winds extend only outward about 10 to 15 miles. So it's a tight storm so far, but it could expand and intensify.

Let's talk about the track. That's the biggest change that we've seen with the latest advisory that just came in. And the intensity.

I'll take you as we go through day by day. Starting with tomorrow morning, already the storm could become a Category 2, intensifying a bit as it makes landfall over Cuba.

Now, the track has changed, and this is key. Notice this line right here, right through central Cuba. Originally, the storm was going to come directly past Cuba going north to south. But with this trek further to the west, it gives the storm more time over land. And as the hurricane interacts with land, it weakens and dissipates and loses intensity.

The next stop right here coming into the Gulf of Mexico, and right now the Hurricane Center says this is not going to reach major hurricane status, at least not likely. This could change again, and we could see this intensify to a Category 2 or a Category 3 before landfall once again along the Gulf Coast.

But right now the latest track takes it down a notch. This could change again and again.

One other thing to notice, that cone of uncertainty is pretty wide, but not as far west as it was yesterday. That curvature to the east continues, stretching across the entire state of Florida. We may have a hurricane watch posted later today or tomorrow for the Florida Keys.

The latest watches and warnings continue to affect Cuba right now. This is a hurricane warning covering much of eastern sections of Cuba right now. There's a tropical storm warning in effect for areas to the south, and we also have hurricane watches posted for the Cayman Islands and Jamaica.

So we're seeing an area here in Haiti as well, where they're getting hard hit with rain right now, under the gun for hurricane- force winds, torrential downpours of rain.

And, Wolf, another thing to mention is as these storms come onshore, especially over Cuba, we can't rule out the possibility of tornadoes. That's often a byproduct of when a hurricane comes onshore. BLITZER: All right, Bonnie. Thank you very much. We'll stay on top of this story as well. By midweek there could be a hurricane hitting the state of Florida, but there is that cone of uncertainty that Bonnie just discussed. We'll track it every step of the way.

The third developing story we're following today, Fox News journalists Steve Centanni and Olaf Wiig were freed earlier this morning in Gaza after being held captive for 13 days.

BLITZER: Our Chris Lawrence filed this report from the border between Israel and Gaza.

LAWRENCE: Wolf, I'm here at the Erez crossing, the border between Israel and Gaza. Fox News correspondent Steve Centanni and cameraman Olaf Wiig passed directly through here on their way heading back to Jerusalem.

It's the end of a 13-day ordeal for the two journalists who were kidnapped back on August 14. On Sunday, they were finally released and made their way to a hotel, the Beach Hotel in Gaza.

And there, we began to hear more about what their captivity was like -- correspondent Steve Centanni describing to everyone how they were blindfolded and had their hands tied behind their back, forced to answer questions about what stories they were covering, both in Gaza and had covered throughout the Middle East.

Later, we saw a videotape released in which they appeared to be wearing Islamic robes, Steve Centanni explaining that they were forced to convert to Islam at gunpoint.

Once taken to the hotel, they met with Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Hanieh. He said that Palestinian security forces were instrumental in securing their release.

He also confirmed that the Al Qaida terrorist group was not a part of this kidnapping.

As the two journalists make their way home safely, the two questions that remain now are: Who was responsible for the kidnapping and why?

I'm Chris Lawrence, reporting from the Erez border crossing.

Wolf?

BLITZER: And shortly after their release, Steve Centanni and Olaf Wiig spoke with reporters.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

STEVE CENTANNI, FREED JOURNALIST: I just hope this never scares a single journalist away from coming to Gaza to cover this story, because the Palestinian people are very beautiful, kindhearted, loving people who the world needs to know more about. And so, do not be discouraged. Come and tell the story. It's a wonderful story.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) OLAF WIIG, FREED JOURNALIST: My biggest concern, really, is that, as a result of what happened to us, foreign journalists will be discouraged from coming here to tell this story.

And that would be a great tragedy for the people of Palestine and especially for the people of Gaza.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: We'll continue to watch the fallout from this story as well. Just happy these two journalists are now free.

Just ahead, deadly days in Iraq. In an exclusive interview, I'll speak with the prime minister of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki, about his plans for stopping the sectarian violence racking the country. This is a rare opportunity to hear what he has to say.

And later, President Bush still resisting calls for setting a formal timetable for troop withdrawal from Iraq. Senators Richard Lugar and Carl Levin -- they're standing by to weigh in on that and more.

Plus, we'll bring you the latest on Comair Flight 1591, the deadly plane crash that happened only a few hours ago in Lexington, Kentucky -- 49 people killed, one person in critical condition.

Much more of "Late Edition" right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back. The grim numbers tell the story. According to the Iraqi government, July was the deadliest month for the country's civilians since the war began back in March of 2003; 3,438 Iraqi civilians were killed.

As August draws to a close, the deadly sectarian violence remains the number one concern.

Just a short while ago, I spoke with Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, in an exclusive interview. He joined us from Baghdad.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Prime Minister, thanks very much for joining us on "Late Edition." Let's get right to an issue of deep concern to the American people.

How much longer do you anticipate U.S. troops will be need in Iraq?

MALIKI (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): This period is limited. It has to do with the success, as far as the troops. And this has been agreed upon with the joint commission.

And the more our security agencies has developed, the less the period will be for the forces to remain. And I think this period will not be long because we have begun to have the security responsibility in the provinces.

MALIKI (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): This is an indication of the strength of our security forces.

BLITZER: When you say this process will not be long, could you be more precise? Are you talking months? Are you talking years? Are you talking many years?

Because "not long" has various definitions.

MALIKI (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): No. In truth, it is not defined by time. But by the end of this year, we will have the rest of the provinces to take control of.

And in the first three months of next year, and when we take over, we will take over, and we'll assess our needs, whether they need these forces or not and whether the Iraqi security forces were as able to take over the security responsibility.

BLITZER: A few days ago, Mr. Prime Minister, you were quoted as saying this. I'll read to you what you said.

You said, "Iraqi forces are now capable of taking charge of security tasks in most of Iraq's provinces and would be able to fill the vacuum if multinational forces withdrew."

If the forces withdrew, let's say, within the next year, would Iraqi security forces be OK in dealing with the security and stability of your country?

MALIKI (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): I think, yes, the forces will be able because the friendly multinational force is working hard to finish the building of Iraq.

And as you know, our force was able to have success and was able to extend its control in the provinces and in many difficult situations. And I think our joint efforts will give us an opportunity to cut the time to have an Iraqi security force that was able to restore stability in Iraq.

BLITZER: One United States congressman, a Republican from Connecticut, Chris Shays, who's visited Iraq 14 times, just came back with this assessment. And I'll read it to you, what he said on Friday.

He said, "It may be that the only way we are able to encourage some political will on the part of Iraqis is to have a timeline for troop withdrawal, a timeline of when the bulk of heavy lifting is in the hands of Iraqis."

Is it a good idea, Mr. Prime Minister, for there to be a specific timeline, a deadline if you will, when U.S. and other international forces should leave your country?

MALIKI (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Perhaps I don't find it suitable to have certain historic periods. But we are committed, with the events that our forces to continue with the rebuilding efforts, because we don't want to lose what we have achieved in Iraq and the democratic system and economic and political -- wonderful things we have accomplished.

But we want to make sure that our efforts will have the maximum stability and security so when the troops withdrawal, our mission will continue on.

BLITZER: I asked the question about the U.S. and the international forces in Iraq because, as you know, there are some in Iraq who say this is part of the problem, that the perception among many Iraqis is that the American troops are occupiers and that you would be better off seeing these American troops leave.

Is there a sense that you have that that is a prevalent, that that's a strong view in your country?

MALIKI (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): These forces are here with international cover by the U.N. Resolution 1546. And it gives the elected Iraqi government and the constitutional one -- gives it the right to ask the Security Council to ask those troops when they feel that they are no longer needed.

And this international cover cannot be taken as some of those people who think of it as such who want, essentially -- they want to harm the democratic process in Iraq.

BLITZER: Let me rephrase the question, Mr. Prime Minister. Is it better or worse, for Iraq, for a prolonged U.S. military stay? In other words, does the presence of American forces help your government or hurt your government with the Iraqi people?

MALIKI (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): No, it helps. But as I said to you, that we are, the level of strength that we could -- that if the multinational forces want to lessen its presence, it could do that because we could cooperate with the rest of the operation and have stability and security to protect the democratic process.

BLITZER: So you think you, maybe, need the bulk of these troops for another year, a half a year, two years?

Can you give us a little guideline of how much longer you think it's necessary to have this foreign presence in Iraq?

MALIKI (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): In reality, there was an agreement between us and with the leadership of the multinational forces. The agreement was about a certain period and certain time. We agreed to work and to decrease the time so we could evaluate our troops so we could be able to control the situation and so it would enable the multinational forces to leave.

BLITZER: In short, Mr. Prime Minister, you don't want to give a timeline, is that right?

MALIKI (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): In truth, as I said to you, I don't want to commit with a certain time or a certain period. But I want to have my best efforts to decrease this time. It could be a year or less, or a few months.

This has to do with our success of the political process in Iraq and to have the security agencies to protect this process.

So given the changes that we have, so therefore, we agreed to work together to have the force to protect Iraq, to protect the security operation; therefore the multinational forces could leave Iraq.

BLITZER: And you say they could leave within a year or less. Is that what you're saying?

MALIKI (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): This has to do with our ability to succeed with finishing building the forces and our troops.

BLITZER: There is an assessment that many analysts have pointed to in recent weeks, suggesting the situation in Iraq is getting worse -- the sectarian violence -- and is approaching a civil war, if there hasn't been a civil war yet.

Do you see a civil war emerging in Iraq?

MALIKI (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): No. The violence is not increasing. But no, we're not in a civil war. In Iraq, we'll never be in civil war.

What you see is an atmosphere of reconciliation and the leadership of the tribes, of the parties -- the political parties. And all their efforts are coming up to end these activities and the violence.

The violence is in decrease. And our security ability is increasing. And I want to assure he who loves Iraq that Iraq will never be in a civil war.

BLITZER: Let me point to some statistics that have recently come out from the Iraqi Health Ministry.

In January, about 1,600 Iraqi civilians were killed; in May, 2,600; in June, 3,100; and in July, last month, 3,438 Iraqi civilians were killed.

It looks, based on those numbers, like the situation, the sectarian violence is getting worse.

MALIKI (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): No. Quite to the contrary. The official statistics -- and when we see the diagrams, the violence operations, as you see, has decreased to 72 percent in unsolved killing and 60 percent as far as the displacement that some agencies, some organizations have done.

And the world sees this decrease and improvement in the security situation in Iraq through the joint control of the multinational forces over the operations that the terrorist organizations do.

And we are sure we will continue to attack terrorism and the terrorists and not to have the terrorists to have the control over us.

BLITZER: Also, the New York Times reported recently that, in January of this year, there were 1,454 explosives found in Iraq. And in July, that one number went up, almost doubling to 2,625.

Are there more explosives that are routinely being used against Iraqi civilians and multinational forces in Iraq?

MALIKI (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): These statistics were there in the past, especially after the blown-up -- the Samarra shrine. But we were able to cut down on these numbers to 30 percent.

MALIKI (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): And this is the huge decrease, not because we enforced security by force, but because of the feelings of Iraqis to agree to confront the terrorist operations and the militias, in which it will present dangers on the national unity and the Iraqi people.

Therefore, the agreement of the Iraqis is like a ship that all Iraqis should all be in to face terrorism and explosions that you mentioned with these numbers.

BLITZER: There's also concern about the economic conditions in Iraq. Let me read to you from the August 18th issue of the Economist magazine. "The poor economic conditions of many Iraqis -- unemployment as high as 40 percent, inflation in double figures, a fifth of the population said to be in 'abject' poverty, risk undermining support for Iraq's fragile new democratic institutions."

Is that an assessment you agree with?

MALIKI (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Perhaps I could agree with these estimations, but this is a new Iraq and inherited from the previous regime, who left unemployment and destruction.

But if we measure what has been accomplished in the new Iraq, that the limited period for this government, that we were able to achieve a lot and to bypass a lot of the legacy of the previous Iraqi regime.

And we have employed a lot of people. And we accomplished a lot of projects. And we have the money allocated to do a lot of projects. And the services now are increasing. But we still have a lot of legacies from the previous regime.

And the next budget and the next year, we will have major and big accomplishments in the economy and through the general economic policy, and through the liberal economy and through the investment law, who will give Iraq and the Iraqis -- and the foreign capital and the national one -- to work and contribute to produce many services as far as the economic situation.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And just ahead, more of our exclusive interview with the Iraqi prime minister. We'll speak about his neighbor, Iran, and whether Iran is providing arms and funding to Shiite death squads in Iraq. But up next, a quick check of what's in the news. And there's lots going on right now, including the latest on that deadly plane crash in Kentucky; 49 people dead.

And, where is Hurricane Ernesto heading right now? Stay with us. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWSBREAK)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to "Late Edition." Just a short while ago, I spoke with Iraq's prime minister, Nouri Al-Maliki. Here's part two of that interview.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: I interviewed, a couple weeks ago, the United States ambassador in Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad. And he told me that Iran, your neighbor, is playing a very negative role in encouraging the violence inside Iraq.

I'll read to you what he said: Quote, "Iran is playing a role in the sectarian violence that is taking place here. It is providing arms, training and money and other support to groups involved in sectarian violence, including militias that have death squads associated with them."

Do you agree with Ambassador Khalilzad that Iran is undermining the entire security situation in Iraq?

MALIKI (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): There are talks, but the policy we follow in the new government, that we will do our efforts, that we'll commit the neighbors not to intervene in Iraqi affairs. And we had talks with this regard.

MALIKI (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): And we have reached many results, but not final, in which that it will impose a respect or not to interfere in Iraqi internal affairs.

There are attempts in the region to fix the cards in the country. But the policy by our government, it will not allow any neighbors in the region to interfere in Iraqi affairs. And he who cooperates and receive aid from these countries will be subject to the law and anti- terrorism laws.

BLITZER: Is Iran, your neighbor, providing money and arms to death squads inside Iraq, specifically Shiite death squads?

MALIKI (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Some reports are saying this. And we are investigating. And to confirm the credibility of these information, some of these reports say, but we have communication and exchange with the Iranians to know the truth and to have the efforts and to prevent this interference and the people who come into Iraq to prevent these attempts.

BLITZER: What is the relationship between Iran and the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr, whom many U.S. officials see as a terrorist leader inside Iraq?

MALIKI (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): I don't know the nature of this relation. But you can ask him about the nature of this relation, whether this relation is with Iran.

BLITZER: What do you consider Muqtada al Sadr to be? Because as you know, earlier, U.S. military personnel have said he has tried to kill American troops, that he has blood on his hands, yet he remains a free man inside Iraq today.

MALIKI (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Truly, I feel with this issue with the regard -- as per the legal situation, with the political process, and he has said many things and this group will be committed with the political process and against violence.

But the problem, that I want to move toward find solutions, that we want everybody to participate in the political process.

As I said, it's commitment. And this commitment means committed to the constitution and law and not to violate the security situation.

There's a development in the situation. And I hope that the Iraqis will be positive about this and to work with the new government.

BLITZER: So Muqtada al Sadr, from your perspective, is a legitimate political figure inside Iraq?

MALIKI (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): As far as are committed with the security and (inaudible) the law, yes, it will be. But any violation of law and security, it will remove him from this description.

BLITZER: The U.S. killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Al Qaida leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in recent months, that was supposed to be a major turning point in stopping the terrorism. But it seems to be continuing.

Was that overblown, the assessment that the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi would turn things around?

MALIKI (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): It happened -- the killing of the Zarqawi has weakened Al Qaida a lot, especially that many leaders of Al Qaida that were hunted down and were arrested.

We have achieved a lot, and Al Qaida is now suffering a huge weakness in Iraq. And we'll continue to hunt them down and defeat them.

BLITZER: What is a bigger threat to Iraq, the insurgency led by Al Qaida and other groups in Iraq, or the sectarian violence, the death squads, the killing between Sunni and Shia? MALIKI (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): All these are challenges for us. They are goals that we are against, and we should come to conclude that we shouldn't have any death squads or militias or threats from others.

But there are other threats other than these. The remnants of the previous regime and the foreign interference are threats. And all these, we put them in the category of national threats on Iraq. And we deal with it -- all of it -- because all of it is bad, and all of it danger, and all hurt and harm the interest of Iraq.

BLITZER: A few months ago, you said some words that caused some concern here in Washington here in the United States. On June 1st, after an incident involving alleged U.S. military atrocities in Iraq, you said this -- and I'll quote. You said, "They crush them with their vehicles and kill them just on suspicion. This is completely unacceptable."

I wonder if you'd like to clarify by what you meant, because those words were seen as very harsh on the U.S. military at a time when the United States military has done so much to try to bring democracy and freedom to Iraq.

MALIKI (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): I hope this is clear: There's a difference between the forces that are there to protect Iraqi experience and help Iraqis, and difference between have violations -- which is natural. When the violations occur, they should be condemned, because some individuals have done so. But we don't want to generalize what's happening with some groups or with an armed group, as though all this is happening to destroy Iraq.

BLITZER: Mr. Prime Minister, we're almost out of time, but a couple of quick questions if you don't mind.

The recent war between Israel and Hezbollah, many of your supporters here in Washington were dismayed, were even angered, by your statements that seemed to suggest you were siding with Hezbollah while the United States President Bush was clearly siding with Israel.

What was your position? Are you supporting Hezbollah in this war with Israel?

MALIKI (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): George Bush support us as well. All this has to do with the will of the people. One of these things that has to do with the people as far as their traditions and, in our days, we feel the freedom of expression and the freedom of designation of these things.

BLITZER: Because as you know, there was great anticipation when Saddam Hussein's regime fell and a new Iraq emerged, especially among those advocates of this policy known as the neoconservatives here in the United States, who were hoping that shortly after your new democracy emerged, your new government emerged, Iraq would join Egypt and Jordan in establishing diplomatic relations with Israel.

Is that in the cards? Is that on your agenda, to open up a relationship with Israel?

MALIKI (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): What's in Iraq in terms of the problems and challenges and needs and efforts to rebuilding and to work to bypass the ordeal and the problems in the country are not with these causes at this point.

BLITZER: So, at this point, that's not an issue on your agenda, to consider establishing relations with Israel?

MALIKI (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): This issue is not on the table at this point. If it was put on the table, it has to be with the parliament, who expresses the will of the people. It's not our concern at this point.

BLITZER: Do you personally believe, Mr. Prime Minister, that Israel has a right to exist?

MALIKI (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): To be committed to international law, as with the Security Council, it has to do with the positions; and not to be committed to these laws, it opens the doors to different things.

If we want to reach solutions, we should go back to the Security Council and its resolutions.

BLITZER: So what does that mean? Does Israel have a right to exist or not?

MALIKI (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): That means that the international resolution gives it the right, but the international resolutions and the rights and the interest of these and not having solutions, it will give this issue some sort of confusion.

Therefore, we should go back again to what comes out of this international agency as far as Iraq.

BLITZER: No, I'm talking about Israel. What about Israel? Should it exist, or should it not exist?

In other words, to you support a two-state solution, Israel living alongside Palestine? Or a one-state solution, no Israel, just Palestine?

MALIKI (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): As I said to you, and again, this issue has to do and should be dealt with as per the international laws.

And not to implement the international laws doesn't give anybody a right to do these things. And it would not help us to reach our conclusion. That what's we want.

BLITZER: All right. I'll leave that.

One final question, Mr. Prime Minister, because you've been generous with your time. Five years from now, 10 years from now, where do you see Iraq standing in terms of its democratic values, specifically in terms of whether Iraq should become an Islamic state ruled by the Sharia, or there should be a separation, if you will, of the mosque from the state?

MALIKI (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Iraq, in five or 10 years, it will remain Iraq and the democratic process that we have begun today in its multiplicity and the constitution, it will be continue to be the ruler of Iraq.

And all these milestones that we feel -- what we have today, it will continue in a multi-Iraq, a united Iraq in the future.

BLITZER: Well, we wish you only the best. We hope there will be a peaceful Iraq, Mr. Prime Minister.

Thank you so much for joining us here on CNN and "Late Edition."

MALIKI (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Thank you very much.

BLITZER: Then, coming up next, we're standing by for a news conference from Lexington, Kentucky. A plane went down a few hours ago --49 people dead, one survivor, now described in critical condition. We'll assess what's going on.

BLITZER: We'll also speak with airline analyst Bob Francis. Stay with us.

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BLITZER: This is "Late Edition," the last word in Sunday talk.

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GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The question facing this country is: Do we, one, understand the threat to America? Do we understand that failed states in the Middle East are a direct threat to our country's security?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: From the war in Iraq to the nuclear standoff with Iran and the war on terror, is the United States on the right course? We'll talk with the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Richard Lugar, and the Senate Armed Services Committee's top Democrat, Carl Levin.

One year after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, where do recovery efforts stand? And is the U.S. adequately prepared for the next hurricane? Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco weighs in. We'll get to all of that shortly, but there's a news conference under way in Lexington, Kentucky. A horrible plane crash earlier this morning, a Comair commuter plane going down, 49 people killed. One survivor. Let's listen in.

(UNKNOWN): ... extricated the first officer from the nose of the airplane.

QUESTION: Did they have to go through -- I guess there was some danger to them, wasn't there? Somebody said one of the guys was even hurt.

(UNKNOWN): Yes, sir. You know, firefighting, police work is a dangerous job. They put that aside and did what they had to do.

The officer saw movement. They did not have to enter the aircraft to get the person off, but they did; extricated him from the nose of the airplane.

QUESTION: Were any of them hurt?

(UNKNOWN): My two officers were not. I'll defer to the Chief (inaudible) on his officer.

QUESTION: Do you know the nature of the passengers on the plane?

(UNKNOWN): I'm sorry, I can't hear you.

QUESTION: Was there a windshear alarm near the airport? What was the weather like this morning?

(UNKNOWN): That's something NTSB will look at. I arrived about 6:15. And it's typical August weather in Kentucky. All the weather will be looked at by the NTSB.

As far as your question to windshear, we have all the appropriate warning devices that are required by federal law for those type of events.

QUESTION: Can you describe the scene when you first got there? Can you kind of like set the stage and lead us through, when you got there, what did it look like?

(UNKNOWN): Yes, sir. Again, as I said this morning, it's a rural setting. Typical Kentucky farmland. And it's quite a shock to see an aircraft sitting there.

When I arrived, most of the fire was knocked down. My guys were doing it and Lexington firefighters were doing spot fires. And when I initially arrived, they had started an initial search of the area for survivors.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: ... manifest is? Do you know if there was anybody from the U.K. on the plane or anything about the passenger list? (UNKNOWN): There has been a manifest generated. I would ask you to go to the airlines to get those names.

QUESTION: Is there any indication of trouble before the plane went down?

(UNKNOWN): That will be reviewed by the NTSB. We're not aware of anything right now, no.

QUESTION: Mr. Ginn, what is your office doing now?

GARY GINN, FAYETTE COUNTY CORONER: Well, I can confirm that rescue operations have ceased. We do have one survivor. Now our plan is to go in to do body retrieval. We've touched bases with our forensic anthropologist, Emily Craig (ph). She's at site.

We are setting up temporary morgue facilities at the medical examiner's program in Frankfort. It's going to take many, many hours for this to happen.

We estimate that this will be a three-day event, that we will here.

FBI, a number of different agencies are here to help us and to give us assistance.

One thing that I would like to do is to assure the families that we will definitely treat their individuals with dignity. At 10:20 this morning, we had a moment of silence at the scene. Everyone there was quiet. And then our chaplain from the police department had a prayer.

The chaplain from the fire department as well as the sheriff's department was helping the families back at the airport.

QUESTION: Sir, you were close to the scene and you've covered a lot of fatalities during your career. How does this compare to any of those?

GINN: Well, as the chief said, it's horrible to see an airplane sitting in a field, in an unnatural setting. It was a hot fire.

QUESTION: What does that mean?

GINN: A hot fire means that the craft had considerable damage to it. We believe right now that the majority of the individuals are going to be -- the cause of death will be due to fire-related deaths, rather than smoke inhalation.

QUESTION: More of that than the collision itself?

GINN: Well, there will be some collision, but the majority of them, we believe, will be fire-related.

QUESTION: Supposedly trapped inside the plane? Was anybody able to actually get outside the plane? GINN: The plane is relatively intact. So, most of our body retrieval will be from within the plane itself.

QUESTION: Does it appear that the plane -- that the pilot may have been trying to land the plane there or did it just go nosedive into the field?

GINN: I would not speculate on that whatsoever. I have no idea. I have no expertise.

QUESTION: Sir, from where we're standing, can you tell us exactly where the crash is? Is it another mile down the road from this location (inaudible)?

GINN: As the crow flies, I would say it's probably a mile. And if I pointed, I'd just point over to my backside to the left here.

QUESTION: Can you give us your first and last name, and spell the last name, please?

GINN: My name is Gary Ginn, G-I-N-N, and I'm the Fayette County coroner.

QUESTION: Why has the FBI been called in?

GINN: Any time you have an aviation crash like this, the FBI is always -- that's part of the team that we ask to come in.

QUESTION: Have all the families been briefed, been contacted?

GINN: We're in the process. We have a manifest of all the individuals that were on the plane. And we're in the process of contacting those folks.

One thing that I would ask -- we're getting a lot of calls into our office, and I know other agencies are as well. Any family member that has a question, if you would please call Delta Family Assistance, and the number is 800-801-0088. And I will be speaking with the families when time is permissible.

QUESTION: Do you feel confident you can identify all the people?

GINN: We're calling in some people with a lot of expertise as far as dental records. We're asking that the families or the dentists of these families, these individuals, help us by providing us with dental records. So that's one major thing that we would really need the families to help us with in identifying the individuals.

QUESTION: Mr. Gobb, was there an opportunity for the emergency exit to deploy properly? Have you been able to ascertain them?

MICHAEL GOBB, BLUE GRASS AIRPORT DIRECTOR: Actually, that's one of the advantages of having the National Transportation Safety Board coming in to investigate. They'll look at all of the aircraft structures, the exit doors, the slides, all of those details. These gentlemen behind us, wonderful cooperation from the city, from the state, pulling together a lot of interview information that then can all be turned over to the National Transportation Safety Board.

They are on the ground. They are in the process of doing an initial site visit.

(CROSSTALK)

GOBB: This is one of our first flights of the day. I believe our first flight goes out at about 5:30, 5:45.

QUESTION: (inaudible) to land?

GOBB: Not that early in the day that I'm aware of, but we are a 24-hour facility. So this being an air carrier flight, our earliest goes in the 5:30 time frame, with the bulk of the 14 aircraft pushing back and departing in that, about an hour and a half time frame. QUESTION: How many controllers were working at the time this plane went down?

GOBB: I'm not sure the number of controllers, but I do know the operation was fully operational.

QUESTION: What about the condition of that shorter runway? Did it have cracks and obstructions?

GOBB: No, the general aviation runway is a daytime-use runway only. It's 3,400 feet in length.

QUESTION: (inaudible)?

GOBB: 3,400 feet length, but it is appropriate for use of small general-aviation aircraft.

QUESTION: And there's a (inaudible) around and (inaudible) and cracks?

GOBB: No, no. No, that's not true.

QUESTION: Was there construction going on there?

GOBB: No. There was no construction going on on any of those runways at that time.

QUESTION: So it's not lit, though, is it?

GOBB: No, it's not. It's a daytime-use runway only.

QUESTION: Not for planes like this?

GOBB: Correct.

QUESTION: Mike, would you talk to us about the flight data a recorders, what condition they're in and what do you hope, information you'll get out of that?

GOBB: Actually, I understand the flight data recorders have been retrieved, and they'll be turned over to the National Transportation Safety Board.

QUESTION: Any need at this point to bring in homeland security? I mean, I'm jumping way ahead, of course, but is there any indication of any need for them to be involved?

GOBB: You know, actually, we're very fortunate here in Lexington. Lanny Miller is our federal security director. So our federal security director is a representative of homeland security, working very closely with the local police presence and the FBI.

(CROSSTALK) (inaudible) turning over stones, just to make sure?

GOBB: There's a lot of investigation going on. You'll probably see the investigation lasting on-site for about a week. QUESTION: Could you sort of piece together sort of the layout of the airport and the runways a little bit better for us? I mean...

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: ... the big one, and where is that in proximity to the crash site?

GOBB: Actually, I wish I had a map. A lot of you are using some very good graphics. The main air carrier runway is 7,000 feet in length, running in this direction. And then you have an intersecting general aviation runway, running parallel to Versailles Road.

QUESTION: Is there any indication that this was an air traffic control mistake?

GOBB: We have no idea of any of the information. But that's why it's important to gather as much data, as much information as we can to turn over to the people that investigate this type of an accident as a profession.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: Based on what you're saying, they would never use the short runway...

(CROSSTALK)

GOBB: I'm sorry.

QUESTION: But at the same time, you're saying, we can't tell you which runway was used.

But based on what you're saying, it sounds like it would have had to have been the longest-width runway to take off.

GOBB: The air carriers use -- pardon me? OK.

QUESTION: Can anybody definitively say which runway was used? And if not, why not? You should know by now.

(UNKNOWN): That's correct. Part of the investigation will establish what runway they were using. Based on the information that we received, when we were called for the incident, we don't know what runway they were using. All we know is the accident occurred at the end of Runway 8.

We responded to that location and took care of the incident we found there.

QUESTION: Which runway is that?

(UNKNOWN): For me to say that it took off on Runway 2-6 would be for me to presume. And I can't do that. I don't know. I was not here. I was not the controlling in the tower. I was not the pilot in the aircraft.

QUESTION: Runway 8 is the short runway?

(UNKNOWN): Runway 826 is the general aviation runway that Mr. Gobb...

QUESTION: 826?

QUESTION: Just so we're clear, a plane that size should not take off from the shorter runway. Is that what you're saying?

(UNKNOWN): I'm not saying that at all. I'm not a pilot. What I'm saying is we were not here. The only people who know what the aircraft took off was the pilot and the controller.

QUESTION: Does a plane that size typically take off from a runway that length?

GOBB: There are a number of different ways that that aircraft could have ended up where it did. It's critical that the investigation process complete. that we gather as much information as we can.

And NTSB, maybe, will provide a little more light on that question at 5:00 o'clock this evening.

QUESTION: That runway, was it the shorter one or the longer one, again -- the runway that it ended at, that it crashed at the end of?

GOBB: It would be the shorter.

QUESTION: The 3400.

QUESTION: What about this pilot's experience flying at this airport?

GOBB: We have no idea. We do know the president of Comair will be here shortly. He would like to conduct a press conference on this site.

So we'll give you an update as soon as we know that he's arrived.

QUESTION: How far off the runway was the plane found?

GOBB: The aircraft is about a mile from the airport, in an adjacent farm field.

QUESTION: Off the end of the runway, a mile from the end of the runway?

GOBB: About.

QUESTION: About a mile?

GOBB: About.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

GOBB: I'm sorry?

QUESTION: The extent of the damage...

GOBB: Certainly, the airport is entirely enclosed by a security fence.

QUESTION: And was that fence damaged?

GOBB: If you could hold on just a minute, we have a call from the governor.

(UNKNOWN): I have the governor on my speaker phone. I hope you all can hear this.

Governor, go ahead.

ERNIE FLETCHER (R), GOVERNOR OF KENTUCKY: Thank you very much. We've just arrived a few hours ago in Munich and heard this tragedy.

Obviously, our hearts and prayers are with all the families and friends that lost these loved ones. This is probably one of the largest tragedies we've seen in Kentucky, with the number of lives lost. We have been in contact -- I have spoken with the people at Comair, the vice president in charge of the operations there. We've been in contact with General Clay Bailey (ph), Norm (inaudible). We have KSP and my chief of staff and counsel there.

We've advised them to do absolutely everything they can do to make sure they meet the need of the families.

And clearly, NTSB is handling the investigation. And any way that we can cooperate with them, we certainly will do. But our thoughts and prayers are with the families. This is a terrible tragedy. And we will do anything we can.

We have counselors available through our emergency management system to assist families.

I will be glad to take any questions, if I can.

QUESTION: Governor, is there any word of people who may have been on their way to meet you in Germany on this flight?

FLETCHER: Not so far. We're not aware of any of that. This flight leaves a little earlier than what would be expected to make an Atlanta connection to get here, so we don't know for sure, but it's unlikely.

NTSB has the manifest. I believe they're verifying that before it will be released.

(UNKNOWN): Anyone else have a question for the governor? QUESTION: I've got a question. He can't hear me. (OFF-MIKE)

(UNKNOWN): The reporter wants to know, as a pilot, if you have any comments about the way this airport is laid out.

FLETCHER: No. You know, I really don't have any comments there. This airport -- we had an accident some time ago, but there's been improvements. The runway's been lengthened. And we have an excellent safety record there at the airport.

And we'll we have to wait and see what NTSB says, as far as their evaluation of the entire scene and of the cause of the accidents and some of the contributing factors.

And clearly, if there's anything that we need to do at that airport, Paul Steeley, my commissioner of aviation, will be very, very involved, working with FAA to make any corrections if, in fact, those are needed.

QUESTION: Governor, are you planning to come back? You just left.

And if not, who will be your point person?

FLETCHER: Janine (inaudible) right here is my point person for now. I tried, actually, to get on a flight this evening. And by the time -- we just got the word and everything -- we missed it.

The next flights leave in the morning. We're continuing to evaluate and see if arrangements can be made for me to get back in time to make sure we evaluate.

I want to get back and be there with the families as much as possible. So we're still making those arrangements. It is my desire to get back there.

Unfortunately, flights will not leave out of here until tomorrow --probably wouldn't let me get back until later on tomorrow afternoon.

(UNKNOWN): Any other questions for the governor?

QUESTION: Gary, can you tell us if most of the people are from here, going to Atlanta or are they from some place else? GINN: Of course, this is a Lexington airport, and it's hometown. So we do know that there was some Lexington people that is on the airplane, and probably some friends of ours. I learned right before I came here that there's probably some people that I actually know that's on the plane as well.

So, there are some home folks that's there.

QUESTION: Sir, I realize I've already asked this, but I just want to confirm again. Was it the first officer or the co-pilot that you said you believed was the survivor of the crew?

GINN: I don't know who the survivor is, ma'am, I'm sorry.

QUESTION: Someone has confirmed that earlier. Was it you, Michael? You said you believed it was the first pilot.

GOBB: We believe it was the first officer, yes.

Chief Beatty has some information on his conversations with the FBI on the homeland security question.

ANTHANY BEATTY, CHIEF, LEXINGTON POLICE: Chief Anthany Beatty with Lexington Police. We have a coordinated effort at the scene, involving local and state law enforcement, as well as the FBI and the FAA and NTSB folks have a joint operations center and operations at this time.

We have been in constant contact with all the federal officials on the scene. They have advised us -- the FBI specifically -- at this point, there's no nexus to terrorism, preliminarily.

So they want to make sure that everybody realizes that they have no indications that there's any connection to terrorism at this crash site.

The second thing I want to say is, for the local population, we will still have to inconvenience them a bit for the next several hours at the site and the area of the site with traffic.

So be cautious as you're using Versailles Road, as you enter and exit the area around the airport.

Earlier the question was asked about the officers that were involved with the rescue of the one survivor. Police and fire personnel, as well as airport personnel, did an excellent job in their initial response and coordinated their efforts very well.

And for that reason, the officers involved did save one life, at this point. So we appreciate the efforts that they have made.

I want to thank all the federal and state officials who are here supporting this effort. It's quite a task and we do appreciate their efforts.

QUESTION: Chief, was your officer hurt? BEATTY: Officer Jarett (ph) has a minor injury. He's been back to the scene. I think it was therapeutic for him to come back to the scene and spend some time there. We've gotten him home to get rested. He does have a minor injury, yes.

QUESTION: Will you be you counseling your officers that are on the scene?

BEATTY: Much counselling will go on. Later today, we'll have some counseling sessions. Yes, we will.

QUESTION: Because in their whole career, they could never encounter anything as horrendous as what they're going to see today.

BEATTY: Probably not, but it's part of what we do in law enforcement as well as all these public safety officials that handle this.

QUESTION: Can you spell his full name?

BLITZER: We're going to break away from this news conference and get back if there's more information coming up, but I want to bring in CNN producer Mike Ahlers.

He's on the phone with important potential information on this plane crash in Lexington, Kentucky. You're looking at these live pictures outside the airport.

This plane, a Comair commuter plane, with 50 people on board, crashed shortly after takeoff. Comair Flight 5191, going from Lexington, Kentucky, to Atlanta -- a relatively mid-sized jet, a Canadian-made jet.

Mike Ahlers, what are you picking up?

MIKE AHLERS, CNN PRODUCER: Wolf, you heard, during that news conference, a lot of discussion about which runway that this plane took off. Well, CNN has it from two sources that there is evidence that the plane did take off from the wrong runway.

The plane was cleared to take off from Runway 22, and there is evidence, we're being told, physical evidence that the plane took off from Runway 26.

AHLERS: The significance of that is that the Runway 22, the one that it was supposed to take off from, is 7,000 feet. Runway 26 is half that. It's 3,500 feet.

So, presumably, the pilot could have taken off on -- if it took off on the long runway, and the pilot had seen that the end of the runway was near, he could have taken off to avoid any obstacles and before there was as sufficient air speed to gain altitude, and he could have stalled and crashed.

That's all very speculative right now. It's possible to take off from the wrong runway and still fly. But there's some evidence -- now, we don't know if that airport has ground radar. It does have approach radar. And approach radar would certainly pick up any planes at the end of the runway, and so undoubtedly, the NTSB will be looking at that soon.

BLITZER: All right, Mike, I want you to stand by.

Bob Francis, the former vice chairman of the NTSB, the National Transportation Safety Board, he is here in our studios with us.

You hear that the pilot may have taken off from the wrong runway, half the length of the runway he was supposed to take off from, 3,500 feet as opposed to 7,000 feet.

This plane can carry 50 people, and there were 50 people onboard.

What does it say to you if, in fact, the plane went from the shorter runway?

FRANCIS: I would say that a 3,500-foot runway for an airplane like that is a pretty short runway.

BLITZER: And that potentially could be -- he didn't have enough speed to take off properly. That's why within a mile after takeoff, this plane potentially could have crashed?

FRANCIS: That could be the case. Now, I'm not an expert on CanadAir airplanes, so I don't know. But 3,500 feet sounds pretty short to me just off the top of my head.

BLITZER: Especially a plane that's full.

FRANCIS: Yes. BLITZER: And about as heavy as it's supposed to be, if you have all those seats occupied. Presumably there was a lot of luggage on that plane as well.

FRANCIS: Hot weather.

BLITZER: And very early. You know, we were talking about, this plane took off at 6:07 a.m. Central time, that was one of the earliest flights. There's a picture of what that plane looks like. It's a Delta commuter, Comair, which is affiliated with Delta. It's pretty early in the morning on a Sunday morning for a plane to take off. And I'm sure the NTSB, once the investigators get there, they're going to be looking at human error.

FRANCIS: Absolutely. And one of the things that they'll look at very quickly is the flight and duty time. In other words, if these pilots, if this was their first flight of the day, when was their last flight, how much sleep had they had, where had they been staying -- all of that is factored in when the board is looking.

BLITZER: Because it's a relatively small airport to begin with, and if a pilot got confused or somebody told him to go to a different runway, that potentially could be a significant, significant issue.

Mike Ahlers, you just heard Bob Francis with his initial reaction to the news that you're reporting, CNN now reporting. You have two sources -- Mike Ahlers, our producer -- that this plane apparently took off from the wrong runway. You want to add anything, any more information you have, Mike?

AHLERS: Well, as Mr. Francis will undoubtedly tell you, that this is the type of information that would probably come out from the NTSB fairly early in the investigation.

It will probably take them up to a year or two to come up with a probable cause. But specific, quantifiable data of this sort, we can expect fairly quickly.

The NTSB has this policy of openness, and my guess would be that this might be made public within the next day or two.

* BLITZER: This plane was a Bombardier CanadAir CRJ 100. It's a twin-engine aircraft that can carry, as I said, up to 50 people.

Mike, stand by. Bob Francis, stand by.

Randi Kaye is at Atlanta Jackson Hartsfield Airport. Randi, this is the destination of this plane. What are you picking up there?

RANDI KAYE, CNN PRODUCER: Wolf, we have been looking to see if there are some of the care workers here -- those are the workers that Delta and Comair bring in, in a case like this, to help the family members who have been involved in this, who have lost their loved ones, help them cope and sort of understand what has happened here and help them get through it. We haven't seen the care workers yet, although I did speak to a representative for Comair, and he does say they are here on the ground at the Atlanta airport.

We've also been told that some family members are here, those who were waiting for their loved ones to arrive. We haven't seen any of those family members. I did speak to an airport spokesman -- Sterling Payne is his name -- and he told us that it has had no impact on the airport activity here.

He also said that, with a plane like this, a commuter jet holding about 50 passengers, 50 seats, many of these passengers, he said very likely, were simply connecting or hoping to be connecting here in Atlanta and then going on to another destination; getting into a bigger jet, and then going on from there.

Wolf?

BLITZER: Randi, stand by, because I don't want to leave this story. It's obviously an important story.

First, Bob Francis, the first major crash of a significant plane since November 12th, 2001, according to the Associated Press. That's when an American Airlines Flight 587 went into a residential neighborhood in Queens -- a lot of our viewers will remember that -- in New York City, killing 265 people, including five on the ground.

There was an Air Midwest commuter plane that crashed on takeoff out of Charlotte Douglas International Airport in January 2003, killing 21 onboard. And last December, there was a small seaplane, a Chalk Oceans Airways, that crashed off of Miami shortly after takeoff, killing 18 passengers.

It's been, as you guys in the National Transportation Safety Board field know, a relatively safe period these last several years for aviation in the United States.

FRANCIS: Absolutely. And I think that it's important to emphasize that, given the thousands and thousands of takeoffs and landings that take place in this country every day, that the safety record is incredibly good.

And, you know, obviously, you have an accident like this and the board's going to be working on, you know, what went wrong here that we can try to remedy.

But for people that are getting on an airplane, you're doing one of the safest things you can do in terms of getting from A to B.

Although it's hard to appreciate that after a plane goes down. A lot of people are nervous fliers to begin with.

I want to play for our viewers, Bob, and Mike Ahlers, our CNN producer, Randi Kaye, who is still with us from the Atlanta Hartsfield Jackson Airport, a clip of what the president of Comair said a little while ago on these reports -- CNN has now confirmed -- that this plane apparently took off from the wrong runway, a much shorter runway, and may not have had the ability to get as much power as it needed for a proper takeoff.

Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DON BORNHORST, PRESIDENT, COMAIR: I think that is a rumor and speculation that would be not good for any of us to go down right now.

And again, we are working with the NTSB and working with the FAA, complying with all the investigation. As information is released, we certainly will let you know, as soon as we possibly can.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: The president of Comair.

Bob Francis, Comair is based in Kentucky. Is that right?

FRANCIS: Yes.

BLITZER: You're familiar with this airline?

FRANCIS: Absolutely. It's a big airline. I mean, I don't know how many aircraft right offhand, but it's a big airline.

BLITZER: It's based just outside of Cincinnati in the Kentucky -- the major...

FRANCIS: The Cincinnati airport.

BLITZER: The Cincinnati airport happens to be in Kentucky.

FRANCIS: Right.

BLITZER: That's where it's based.

Talk a little bit about this Bombardier -- what's it called?

FRANCIS: Bombardier.

BLITZER: Bombardier. That's the CanadAir CRJ-100 plane. And we're showing our viewers a picture of it. A lot of us have flown that plane. It's a pretty common plane in the United States, in North America.

FRANCIS: Absolutely. There are a lot of them all over the world. It's a very, very popular, safe airplane.

BLITZER: With a pretty good track record.

FRANCIS: Yes, Absolutely.

BLITZER: Let me bring back Mike Ahlers for a moment. He's our CNN producer, breaking the news for us that there's two -- and I want you to repeat the news that you have, Mike, so that we're very precise -- your two sources are telling you exactly what?

AHLERS: Well, that there is evidence that the plane took off from the wrong runway; that there's physical evidence of some sort that this plane departed from Runway 26, not 22. It was cleared to take off from Runway 22. And that that is significant because this runway did not afford it the speed that it would need to kind of take off and get altitude. And that it could be probable cause for the accident, although that's something that obviously still has to be determined.

BLITZER: Did your experts, Mike, tell you how long a runway a plane like this, fully loaded, with all the passengers, how long of a runway they really need for a proper takeoff?

AHLERS: I don't know what this particular plane needs. But one thing that they will be looking at is the radar. Some airports have ground radar that enable air-traffic controllers to see the location of planes and other objects on the ground. I'm not sure about this airport.

But this one undoubtedly had approach radar. Approach radar, as the name indicates, is to look at planes as they arrive, but it can also pick up planes as they depart.

And investigators will be looking at the approach radar to confirm exactly when and where this aircraft was in the sky.

BLITZER: Bob Francis, the former vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board wants to add something.

Go ahead, Bob.

FRANCIS: Well, I'm not sure that the approach radar would show them when they're that low.

But I don't think that the board is going to have any difficulty in determining, number one, which runway they were cleared to take off of, and number two, which runway they took off of.

BLITZER: So there's various possibilities and we're speculating, completely.

FRANCIS: Absolutely.

BLITZER: The pilot may have been told by the control tower, go to Runway 26, which has 3,500 feet, as opposed to the one he was supposed to go to, which is Runway 22, which has 7,000 feet, twice as long.

In a full plane, you obviously need that extra length to get the kind of power to take off properly.

FRANCIS: And I think that, when the cockpit voice recorder is read out here in Washington, that that will be very helpful to them in terms of determining what happened.

BLITZER: Every time, almost, that I hear about a new plane crash -- and I've covered a lot of them over the years, Bob Francis -- there always seems to be some new ingredient there that causes a plane to crash.

If, in fact, for whatever reason, the plane took off from the much shorter runway, how common is that? Because that seems -- I don't remember a time when there's been a plane crash and the cause is determined to be wrong runway, a much shorter runway.

Does anything come to your mind?

FRANCIS: Not right offhand, but I think that somebody taking off from the wrong runway is not an extraordinarily rare event. It does happen. It usually doesn't end up being an accident.

But these kinds of things -- I mean, things can happen. And they're such rare events, now, that lead to accidents that that's why we spend a lot of time looking at accidents and then figuring out whether it's training or equipment or whatever it is, so that accident will not happen again.

BLITZER: All right. Bob, stand by.

Randi Kaye, I want to bring her back. She's in Atlanta at Hartsfield Jackson airport. This was the destination.

I assume, Randi, there are a lot of people coming over to the Atlanta airport right now who are hoping to see their loved ones, their friends, their family members, getting off that plane. And they're being told the horrible, horrible news.

KAYE: Absolutely, Wolf. That plane was due to land here at 7:18 this morning, so more than five hours ago now. And we have been told that there were family members here waiting for their loved ones to arrive. We haven't seen those family members yet.

In a situation like this, they usually gather on the third floor here at the airport in the executive areas. There's also a chapel there. We did see a couple of people inside the chapel grieving. There's no way of knowing -- certainly, we're going to give them their space -- no way of knowing if that is in relation to this crash.

We are also told that there are care workers here, which are supplied by the airline to help these people through this terrible time. We have yet to see the care workers on the scene here as well.

But it seems to be business as usual, Wolf. Even though we haven't seen the care workers or the family members of those killed today, we have certainly seen plenty of other travelers.

And it's sort of a tough feeling here at the airport. Nobody really likes to travel on a day when they have heard about a plane crash. So everybody is very curious as they're checking their bags and getting onboard.

BLITZER: That's totally understandable. Randi, thanks very much. Randi Kaye -- we'll check back with her.

Bob Francis, the former vice chairman of the National Transportation Board -- we'll check back with him. And Mike Ahlers, our CNN producer, reporting that this plane may have taken off from the wrong runway, a much shorter runway. And that, potentially, could have been the cause of this crash -- Comair plane, 49 people confirmed dead, one survivor in critical condition.

We are going to pick up coverage of the other major story we're following right after a short break. That would be, now, Hurricane Ernesto. It's in the Caribbean. And it's heading toward the Gulf Coast.

We're going to see where the latest hurricane forecast is projecting the path of Ernesto. Much more of our coverage, right here on "Late Edition," right after this. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to "Late Edition." I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. There's another important developing story we're keeping our eye on right now, and that would be, now, Hurricane Ernesto, the first hurricane of this Atlantic season.

Our meteorologist, Bonnie Schneider is at the CNN Weather Center in Atlanta. She's tracking this storm.

Update our viewers, Bonnie, the latest forecast from the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

SCHNEIDER: Well, right now, Wolf, we are still tracking Ernesto. And it's interesting to note the storm is still maintaining its maximum winds at 75 miles per hour, still a Category 1 hurricane.

But we've had a lot of changes throughout the day. And that does include the forecast track. We have hurricane warnings in place for Cuba right now. We're expecting hurricane conditions to approach that island as early as tonight.

And we're getting very, very heavy downpours in Haiti at this hour. Here's Hurricane Ernesto, a Category 1 storm. And notice the track and notice the changes. After approaching Cuba, it's likely to intensify to a Category 2 hurricane, according to the National Hurricane Center.

But the key here is the interaction with Cuba itself. Right here in the eastern half of Cuba, a very rugged terrain -- and that's likely to break down and dissipate the storm to Category 1 status as it approaches the Florida straits.

However, if this curvature does occur and it moves over these warmer waters of the Gulf of Mexico, we could see further intensification to a Category 2 storm.

And the track, now, has been progressively shifting to the east. We see this on the latest advisory and forecast track here, that it crosses over Florida, possibly, and then comes back out over land.

Now, remember, the line you see here is not an indication of the direct path. It's a projection. And that does include what we call the cone of uncertainty. Here it stretches far and wide, in the days ahead. Especially as we get toward Thursday, you can see it covers almost all of Florida and stretches as far to the west as Alabama.

So we've seen a major change and shift in the forecast, not only in where it's going but how intense it gets.

And there's so many factors that could develop into how intense this hurricane gets and for how long: the interaction with Cuba, as well as how long the storm stays over the Gulf of Mexico.

If it comes right over across to the Keys and moves its way into the Everglades, it's likely to come in as a lesser category storm. When we talk about a major hurricane, we talk about a Category 3 or higher.

One of the influencing factors will be how long it stays over the open waters of the Gulf. And here's why. What you are looking at here are sea surface heights. And the areas in red indicate what we call the loop current, where we have very warm, very deep water, the water temperature of 80 degrees that can go as far deep as 300 feet.

If the storm were to curve further a little further to the west and spend a longer time over this warmer water, it could intensify and could, indeed, become a Category 3. We're going to have to watch and wait and see how this develops.

But right now, the track has shifted further to the east.

Wolf?

BLITZER: So the people of Cuba should be bracing for this as early as, what, tomorrow, whereas the people of the United States by Thursday.

BLITZER: Is that right?

SCHNEIDER: I think the people of Cuba should be bracing as early as tonight to start feeling some of the effects of the outer rain bands coming in. There is a hurricane warning in effect for a good portion of that island.

And even as early as tomorrow, we may see some of the rain bands and cloud coverage get closer to the Florida Keys. We'll be watching that very closely.

BLITZER: Bonnie, thank you very much. Bonnie Schneider, our meteorologist.

Almost a year after Hurricane Katrina, the first hurricane of this season is now happening. So, is the United States better prepared this time? Joining us now to discuss this issue, the Democratic governor of Louisiana, Kathleen Blanco. She's in our New Orleans bureau.

Governor, thanks very much. Is it your sense, based on what you're hearing from experts right now, Governor, that New Orleans is not going to necessarily be affected by Ernesto?

BLANCO: Well, we are looking at the tracking and expect that it should continue on the anticipated track into Florida, but we're on high alert because last year, Katrina was first projected to go into Florida on a Friday morning. By noon, it was moved to Alabama. By afternoon, it was Mississippi. And by evening, it was Louisiana. We know these things can change direction very quickly.

BLITZER: So what are you doing right now, Governor, to prepare the people of Louisiana if, in fact, there should be a change in the forecast?

BLANCO: We've got -- excuse me -- we've got our...

BLITZER: Take a drink of water, hold on a second. Somebody will give you some water. And catch your breath over there.

BLANCO: We have our crisis action team activated. All the lead agencies are well prepared...

BLITZER: Hold on, Governor. I want you to drink some more water, and so then you can clear your throat and then you'll make some sense and our viewers will be able to understand you. Have a little bit more water. We've got time.

If you need some more time, we can pause. Your call.

BLANCO: I think I'm OK. BLITZER: Are you sure?

BLANCO: Our crisis action team is fully activated. The lead agencies for our department of state are totally prepared to begin to activate an evacuation plan, if necessary.

We are urging personal responsibility for every single family in the area, in all of south Louisiana. We have no idea today where that storm will actually land. So we want our people to be on high alert, to be highly conscious of everything that happens.

BLITZER: Are you better prepared now, a year after Katrina, to deal with a major hurricane in Louisiana? Or if it were to come down the road, would it be the same as last year?

BLANCO: Well, we are as prepared as we've ever been -- better prepared than we've ever been. We've learned a lot of important lessons. We are totally coordinated with our local partners and with our federal partners.

Last year, we had the country's most enormous natural catastrophe ever to occur. And, you know, we do know that some things are sometimes unpredictable in disasters, but we know what happened, and our goal this time is to protect life. We'll worry about property in the secondary effect.

But we've got a lot going here. We're in the middle of a huge recovery. It's going to take us some time yet to go into full recovery, but there are tremendous signs of life coming back together.

We've opened the road home program for our people. We're channeling awards to them this coming week. And I think that as we go through these next few weeks and months, we'll see a very, very strong surge of recovery.

But for right now, we still have to be very well prepared and be cautious and stay on high alert. We are a coastal people. We live and work on the coast to power the nation and to feed the nation. We power the nation with our oil and gas supply; we feed the nation from our fisheries that are nurtured in our estuaries.

There's a tremendous amount of value to what Louisiana brings to the nation, and coastal people do this hard work. They're hardy. They're sturdy. They're hardworking people. I'm extremely proud of the intensity of the recovery that we are witnessing as we speak, based on the magnitude.

There's still a long road to go. We don't kid ourselves about the dimensions of the damage. But I'm feeling pretty good right now about our ability to handle the next hurricane. BLITZER: Your colleague, the Republican governor from Mississippi, Haley Barbour, took a swipe at Louisiana the other day. I want to read to you what he said.

He said: "We are ready to do business now. We are up and running. While it's not my business to critique how Louisiana has done, it is my business to make sure people don't confuse where we are with New Orleans."

Is there a sense out there that people in Mississippi have done a much better job recovering over the past year than people of Louisiana?

BLANCO: Wolf, we have the lowest unemployment in Louisiana's history right now. For July, we were at 2.9 percent. That means that every single person in Louisiana who wants to work can probably get a job right now. We have a labor shortage, and I think that the dimensions of our challenge are unspeakable.

This is a major metropolitan area, the largest city between Houston and Miami, and many of our small towns are in fuller recovery. While there's still a considerable amount of work to do even there, we see a tremendous amount of progress in our small towns.

We have seen tremendous progress in New Orleans, but we're not where we need to be. We suffered 70 to 75 percent of the damage.

You know, therefore, our challenges are greater. I'm very proud, though, of the determination of our people, the steadfastness, the hard work that's gone before us. Hundreds of millions of man- and women-hours have gone behind us to get us to where we are today. There's that much and more that needs to be done here.

We don't kid ourselves about the dimensions of what we have to do. When you're a major city, an internationally recognized city of the world, then you have a lot more at stake. A lot more is susceptible to the ravages of a hurricane.

If our levees had not broken, we would be in a far better posture. Everyone would have gone home.

Our biggest challenge is getting homes back up. That's why I am working so hard to get this road home program in play, and I'm very proud to say that we've got a number of people who are receiving their awards as we speak, and we'll be seeing thousands more as we go along.

BLITZER: Governor, good luck to all the people of Louisiana. Good luck to all the people of the Gulf Coast. Thanks very much for joining us. Let's hope Ernesto sort of peters out and doesn't cause much damage, but we'll be tracking it every step of the way.

The governor of Louisiana, Kathleen Blanco joining us.

BLANCO: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Coming up, we're continuing to follow important developments, a plane crash in Kentucky, killing 49 people; the latest on Ernesto.

Also, we'll pick up the latest developments in Iraq, the Middle East. We'll speak with the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Richard Lugar, and the top Democratic on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin.

Much more "Late Edition," right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to "Late Edition." We're following all the breaking news. We'll have more coming up here on CNN on the plane crash in Kentucky, a Comair commuter plane going down, 49 people confirmed killed. One person survived, the first officer on that plane. We're watching this story; get more information for you as it comes in.

We're also watching the latest on the now Hurricane Ernesto. It's moving along the Caribbean toward Cuba right now, and eventually will make its way into the Gulf of Mexico. There's a new forecast that's come out. We'll have much more on that coming up as well.

There's other news we're following, including important news around the world. President Bush this week said the United States was going to stay the course in Iraq as long as he's president. Joining us to discuss, though, the deteriorating situation and much more in Iraq, two guests.

With me here in Washington, the Republican Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana. He's the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. And in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Democratic Senator Carl Levin. He's the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Senators, thanks very much for joining us.

I interviewed the prime minister, Senator Lugar, of Iraq in the first hour of "Late Edition," Nouri al-Maliki. He insists there is no civil war, and there won't be a civil war in Iraq.

What do you think?

LUGAR: Well, we phrase right, but obviously, as General Abizaid has pointed out and our ambassador, Zal Khalilzad, we're heading toward that. Now having said that, the fact is that we must do all we can to work with the president of Iraq to prevent it, or to hold it down.

The idea, somehow, that civil war means that we leave is a non- starter, because Iraq's physical integrity is important. By that I mean, if Iraq deteriorates and Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds begin picking up partners in other countries, then we have a conflagration that dwarfs anything which is occurring presently in the deteriorating problems of Iraq.

BLITZER: There's a potential for a horrible situation to become even much worse.

LUGAR: Yes.

BLITZER: That's what you're saying.

Senator Levin, we also heard from the prime minister of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki, in our interview here on "Late Edition," suggest that while he didn't want to give a timeline, some sort of timetable for a U.S. and multinational troop withdrawal, he said that perhaps less than a year the Iraqi forces could take charge. He wasn't specific but he did use that phrase, "perhaps less than a year."

You've studied this issue very, very closely. What is realistic?

LEVIN: What's realistic is that the Iraqis have to solve this problem for themselves. They've got to solve it politically. We cannot save the Iraqis from themselves. They're the ones who have got to decide: Do they want a civil war or do they want a nation?

We have taken the pressure off them by the president saying we're there as long as they need us, by the president saying as long as he's president we're not going to remove troops, by the president refusing to put some pressure, to prod the Iraqis to take charge of their own country.

And I think it's a fundamental error. The greatest chance that we have and they have to succeed is if they reach the political compromises that are essential to avoiding an all-out civil war. They are on the verge of it, or they have a low-level civil war right now.

And the only chance they have of defeating the insurgency is if they come together politically. And when the president just simply says -- our president simply says -- well, we're not going to be leaving Iraq as long as he's president, or it's going to depend on conditions on the ground, leaving it very vague, the result is you get their president -- Iraq -- saying what he said on your program today, which is: Well, maybe months, maybe years.

That is not good enough.

BLITZER: Well, let's listen to what the president of the United States, George W. Bush, said earlier this week about a pullout from Iraq.

Let's listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There's a lot of people, good, decent people saying: Withdrawn now. They're absolutely wrong.

It would be a huge mistake for this country. If you think problems are tough now, imagine what it would be like if the United States leaves before this government has a chance to defend herself, govern herself, and listen to the -- and answer to the will of the people.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Senator Lugar, one of your Republican colleagues, Chris Shays, just came back from his 14th visit to Iraq, and he sounded very much like Senator Levin, saying unless you give a timeline and tell the Iraqi government, "You know what, you have a year to get to take charge and to resolve your security problems," the United States is going to be out of there.

What do you make of Congressman Shays's decision, because he's been a very strong supporter of the president's policies?

LUGAR: Well, I'll make two comments. One is that the politics of our congressional elections are leading some Democrats -- but only some -- to say we need a schedule or we need to leave.

BLITZER: But he's a Republican.

LUGAR: That's correct. But he's a pressure situation in Connecticut, and without going into all the details of that, that's a difficulty for many Republicans.

BLITZER: So you think he's just playing politics?

LUGAR: I think that he's probably gauging carefully what the rhetoric of the situation may call for. While at the same time, without coupling him with Senator Levin for a moment, just simply saying we don't want to cut and run.

Clearly, General Abizaid is saying we've got to have pressure every day. And that's the same with our ambassador.

What the president is saying or not is not as material as the fact that the Americans on the scene are putting great pressure, and not always successfully. The chief executive of Iraq sometimes is resisting this, saying we're not quite ready.

So, the tug of that kind of thing is going to continue on. Although the point I'm making is, to give absolute timelines and to say out and so forth, is not good policy at this at this point; it's not helpful, whatever, to General Abizaid or to anybody out there.

BLITZER: I don't know if you saw the interview I did, Senator Levin, with Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister of Iraq, but he was reluctant to be critical of Iran, even though the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad, said Iran right now is playing a very negative role in Iraq. It's supporting with funds as well as equipment some of the Shiite death squads which are causing a lot of the problems. There's Sunni death squads there as well.

What do you make of Iran's role in Iraq right now?

LEVIN: They're playing a negative role, and they're playing an important role, and they've gotten stronger as Iraq has gotten into the trouble that it has. The Iraq war has helped Iran to become a stronger country. And what is critically important here, if Iraq has a chance to succeed, is that Iraq take hold of their own nation.

They've had more than an opportunity to form their government. They have formed their government. They've had more than an opportunity to get their military standing up. As a matter of fact, our own statistics say that 80 to 90 percent of the training is now complete. The president of the United States represented to the American people that as the Iraqi army stands up, we will stand down. We haven't done that. We haven't done what the president promised the American people we would do. We haven't done what is essential for the Iraqis to hear, that they and they alone are going to make the decisions which will decide whether or not they're going to have a civil war or a nation.

They've got to hear that from the president of the United States, not just more commitments that are open-ended, that we're going to be there as long as he's president. That's a terrible message to the Iraqis.

The American people, I think, are not standing for it. And that's why in these congressional districts where there are races, you see even Republicans saying, "For heaven's sake, let's at least say that at the end of the year, by the end of this year, we're going to begin to withdraw troops."

That is not cutting and running. That's not setting a fixed timetable.

BLITZER: Senator Lugar, let me switch gears a little bit on Iran right now. As you know, there was a major intelligence failure going into the war against Saddam Hussein on weapons of mass destruction.

How confident are you right now that the U.S. intelligence community knows what's going on in Iran as far as its nuclear program is concerned?

LUGAR: I'm not very confident at all, and I don't think any American is. The fact is, our intelligence has to be a whole lot better. You can make arguments as to how that's going to come about.

One method may well be through negotiations with the Iranians. Notably, we pick up what their response has been to the United Nations and begin to work on that and begin to find some people in Iran who can tell us something.

But for the moment, I don't have high confidence in what we are hearing.

BLITZER: And we're almost out of time, Senator Levin, but you're on the Intelligence Committee. How good is U.S. intelligence on Iran?

LEVIN: It's very weak. It's very spotty. And that's even acknowledged by Negroponte, who's the new director of national intelligence.

We don't have enough people on the ground who are spying for us. And we just don't have reliable evidence so that we can say with certainty even how far away they are from having a nuclear weapon.

BLITZER: Senator Levin, Senator Lugar, thanks to both of you for joining us on this "Late Edition." Appreciate it very much.

And that's our "Late Edition" for this Sunday, August 27th. Please be sure to join us next Sunday and every Sunday at 11 a.m. Eastern for the last word in Sunday talk.

And if you missed any of the show today, you can always download a video podcast of the entire two hours. Just go to cnn.com/podcast. Click for the link for "Late Edition."

See you in "The Situation Room." I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. Right after a quick news alert, "This Week at War."

Thanks for joining us.

END

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