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ANDERSON COOPER 360 DEGREES

Hidden Killers in Iraq; Iraq Nearing All-Out Civil War?; President Bush Issues Warning to North Korea; Soldiers Face Constant Threat in Triangle of Death

Aired October 18, 2006 - 22:00   ET

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


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening, everyone.
Tonight: the war as you have maybe never seen it before, American troops under fire, in the crosshairs of a sniper's rifle.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ANNOUNCER: Targeting the troops -- an exclusive look through the gun sights of an insurgent sniper team -- insurgents delivering a deadly message, aiming for a global audience.

New warnings that all-out civil war could erupt in a matter of weeks -- if it does, what do we do then?

Plus, admitting that Iraq may be at a turning point -- sending a tough new warning to North Korea. President Bush speaks plainly about the challenges he faces.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ANNOUNCER: Across the country and around the world, this is ANDERSON COOPER 360.

Reporting tonight from the CNN studios in New York, here's Anderson Cooper.

COOPER: Thanks for joining us. And welcome as well to our viewers watching on CNN International.

Two thousand, seven hundred and eighty-three American troops have been killed so far in Iraq. You can see the faces behind me. Eleven deaths, we learned about today alone.

They're numbers and names only to people whose business it is to deal in such terms. They're not number or names to their buddies or their C.O.s, not to their friends, their families, their loved ones.

We owe them a lot, including a clear and honest accounting of what they are up against, today, tomorrow, for the foreseeable future. To do any less, to sugarcoat the reality, we think, dishonors their sacrifice.

So, tonight, you will see how some Americans in Iraq are getting killed. The killings were videotaped by the insurgents, and made available to CNN. There is no doubt the footage is disturbing to watch. Our decision to run it has not been taken lightly.

This story, shocking as you may find it, is one that we believe needs to be told.

It is reported tonight by CNN's Michael Ware.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A sniper is watching these American soldiers. You're looking at the unobstructed view from the sniper team's vehicle.

And they are waiting for their moment, as the soldiers mingle with Iraqi civilians.

"People are around them," warns the sniper's spotter, who seems to be operating the video camera.

"Want me to find another place?"

"No, no," comes the reply. "Give me a moment."

And, then, the soldier falls forward. You hear the sniper's vehicle start, and they slip away.

American casualties this month are tracking at near record numbers. This video is a glimpse into an enduring feature of this war. Ground commanders say it is a growing and deadly tactic, insurgent sniper teams.

U.S. military intelligence tells CNN, it suspects some of these teams are trained abroad. They make an intimidating weapon.

BRIG. GEN. DAVID GRANGE (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Am I next? What about my buddy? You're looking constantly. Your head is on a swivel, they say, you know, in windows, doors, looking in cars, rooftops. It's a very effective weapon. And -- and that's why our own military uses them extensively. The best counter of a sniper is -- is another sniper team on your own side.

WARE: CNN obtained the graphic tape through intermediaries from the Islamic Army of Iraq, one of the most active insurgent organizations in the country.

It is titled "Latest Sniper Operations in Baghdad." Accents, license plates and street signs seem to indicate the sniper attacks in fact have occurred here in the capital. A careful review of the entire video by CNN technicians found no evidence the images had been electronically manipulated.

The tape documents 10 incidents, all of which appear recent. But there's no way to confirm precisely when or where the attacks took place, or which U.S. units were involved, or what happened to the targeted soldiers.

The tape comes as the Islamic Army calls to renew talks with the United States, and as Islamist Internet postings call for a P.R. campaign aimed at influencing the American public.

The images are markedly different from insurgent sniper videos on the Internet. On this one, we hear the voices of the snipers selecting American targets.

Here, the spotter warns the shooter he only sees Iraqis, until he's sure he's identified an American.

I will read you his name. We wanted to ask the U.S. military about the insurgent sniper tactics, but no one was made available to CNN in Washington or Baghdad. Officials refused to discuss the sniper operations and related casualties, citing the safety of U.S. troops, though they acknowledge, the menace is real.

MAJOR GENERAL WILLIAM CALDWELL, U.S. ARMY SPOKESMAN, COALITION FORCES IN IRAQ: That's something we always stay very vigilant about. We -- we take extreme precautions against that, and we watch it very closely. It's always a real threat. No matter where you go, any kind of combat operation you're going to be on, you're always looking for IEDs. You're looking for VBIDs. You're looking for snipers.

WARE: As to a recent increase of the threat:

CALDWELL: I would not talk about that, for operational reasons.

WARE: The insurgents' methods vary. The Islamic Army video follows a team firing from a vehicle, precisely the kind of team Lieutenant Richardson's men encountered in the city of Ramadi.

(on camera): So, the insurgents do have accurate sniper fire?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Roger. Yes. To what I have observed, two very good shots that were definitely more than 300 meters away and aimed to kill.

WARE: So, it's a trained sniper, probably working in a team with an observer?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, that -- one of the attacks, you know, local communities, also, they talk to us about what they see. And they said that they saw a car pull up, a guy get out the back seat -- get out the front seat, climb into the back seat, remove a panel from off his car, and aim from the car to our rooftop position, which, unfortunately, resulted in the -- the death of one -- one Marine who was on a rooftop.

GRANGE: Boy, you learn the tactics and techniques and procedures that the enemy snipers use. And, then, you come up with your own techniques to counter that, to negate their effect. And, then -- and then, how -- how you move in the field, dispersal, and, again, alertness, and numbers of people in different -- different patrols. There's ways that you work in this.

WARE (voice-over): And the implication in this insurgent video is that the deaths will continue. GRANGE: You only need a few guys to have a tremendous effect, just like the improvised explosive devices, same thing, or a suicide bomber. You can get a lot of payback for just deploying a few resources. So, it's very effective.

WARE: "Wait. Wait. He fell down. God is great," says one of the team, as they disappear, until it's time for the next strike in Iraq's sniper war.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Just a production note: We dipped to black at points in that report, so as not to show the moment of a bullet's impact.

Michael Ware joins us now from Iraq.

Michael, how often are -- are these -- these snipers firing? How often are -- are U.S. troops getting killed by snipers?

WARE: Well, Anderson, they're constantly out there. There is insurgent sniper teams operating across the country, you could say with some confidence, every single day of the week.

The question as to how effective they are and whether there's been an increase in these particular type of sniper attacks, most pointedly here in Baghdad, is a matter of great question at the moment. The U.S. military is not discussing it, citing the safety of their troops, saying: We don't want to let the enemy know whether their tactics are working or not.

So, just how many American troops are being hurt by this is a closely guarded secret -- Anderson.

COOPER: When you see it through -- through their video cameras, you see how vulnerable U.S. troops are. I mean, you have been out there embedded. You have been targeted by snipers. Are those tactics pretty common?

WARE: Very much so. It's been a feature of this war, Anderson, since the beginning.

I mean, there was an insurgent sniper in the northern city of Tal Afar at the end of last year who was extremely patient, who would sit for hours and hours and hours, waiting for an American soldier in a tank to shift just that little bit to find the narrow gap that he could shoot between the soldier's body armor, the plates in his body armor.

At that time, there was a Navy SEAL sniper team hunting him. And they believe that he had received his training in Syria. So, this is throughout the country, Anderson. And American troops face it every single day.

COOPER: Michael Ware reporting. We will talk to you shortly, Michael. Snipers, of course, kill from a distance, but, to the troops, incoming sniper fire could not be more personal. The act itself stirs a gut-level reaction, which, in a way, is the point. And so is this. There is no way to know everything about the sniper threat from a single propaganda tape. There are many ways of looking at it.

With that in mind, CNN's Gary Tuchman sat down with an expert for his take on the threat, and what can be done about it.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GARY TUCHMAN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Retired gunnery Sergeant Jack Coughlin was one of the U.S. Marines' top-ranked snipers in Iraq. He's written a book about his experiences.

SERGEANT JACK COUGHLIN, FORMER U.S. MARINE SNIPER: I have over 60 kills. We go out and seek out the enemy, and we eliminate them with the precision fire.

TUCHMAN: We showed Sergeant Coughlin this graphic tape of Americans in Iraq being targeted and killed by snipers. CNN obtained it through intermediaries from the Islamic Army of Iraq.

(on camera): He's whispering, "In the name of God, in the name of God."

That's painful to watch, isn't it?

COUGHLIN: Yes. It's disturbing.

TUCHMAN (voice-over): The first thing the sergeant notices is that, in his opinion, the sniper's gunshot is coming from a place and an angle that is different from the cameraman's location.

COUGHLIN: Just because of the angle where the shot comes from and from the camera view.

TUCHMAN: Coughlin says, this shows the sniper team is trying to maximize publicity opportunities.

COUGHLIN: It tells me that their shooter is farther away than the cameraman is. The cameraman gets up close, so he can actually get a good video of it, but you don't need to be that close to be able to shoot like that.

TUCHMAN: Sergeant Coughlin says the time lapse between the sound of the shot and the men getting hit indicates the gunfire is coming from up to 500 yards away.

He says some of the shots are coming from a higher angle, adding, he himself has used rooftops to get a better view of targets. But, most of the 10 shots seen on the tape, he believes, come from ground level, which makes a quick escape easier. It's not clear if the gunman is in a vehicle, but Sergeant Coughlin says, the cameraman is.

(on camera): They're saying these are Iraqis. They're obviously looking for Americans.

(voice-over): Coughlin says he doesn't know what kind of gun is being used, but he acknowledges that what is happening looks familiar to him.

COUGHLIN: We use the same tactics. This has -- it's been going on for hundreds of years.

TUCHMAN: Even an amateur like me can hit a bullseye more than a football field away using a rifle with a scope, which I discovered at a gun training school.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: First round hit. (INAUDIBLE)

TUCHMAN (on camera): It's scary how easy that is.

(voice-over): But Sergeant Coughlin says he's sure this team of at least three people has been trained well, because they're so calm.

COUGHLIN: They have their -- their stuff wired. They know what they're doing.

TUCHMAN: However, Coughlin points out that at least one of the shots is a miss, even though the tape appears designed to show how accurate and dangerous these snipers are.

COUGHLIN: It looks like it hit the -- the hatch.

TUCHMAN (on camera): Yes.

(CROSSTALK)

COUGHLIN: ... right behind him.

TUCHMAN (voice-over): The 20-year Marine veteran says the kind of body armor worn by these Marines, which can be seen on this CNN tape shot in Ramadi recently, can be effective against a sniper's bullet. And there are other ways such horrifying attacks can be defended against.

(on camera): How can you see a sniper 100, 300 yards away?

COUGHLIN: The worst enemy of a sniper is another sniper. That's U.S. snipers going out hunting these guys. And I guarantee you it's happening, as we speak.

TUCHMAN (voice-over): Sergeant Coughlin says, in many cases, the best defense is a good offense.

Gary Tuchman, CNN, Twentynine Palms, California.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: We heard a bit in Michael Ware's report from CNN military analyst and retired Brigadier General David Grange. He joins us now from just outside Chicago. General Grange, thanks for being with us.

What do you make of this tape?

GRANGE: Well, it's definitely like you said, Anderson. It's a propaganda tape.

I have a little bit of a different view on some of the -- the comments made by the Marine sniper, though he's much better trained than I am. But I think some of the shots are taken from vehicles. I do believe that they have made some mistakes. I think there's more than one miss. And I think that -- that it will be known to everybody who is watching this film they missed on several occasions.

And the other thing is, like the Marine sniper said, that the worst enemy of these snipers is U.S. snipers, which are probably the best trained in the world. And -- but the U.S. doesn't talk about the takedowns that they accomplish, hunting down enemy snipers.

COOPER: I want to show you a couple of these attacks again, where we see the snipers positioned at busy intersections. What is the significance of their location?

GRANGE: I think what the significance, Anderson, is that the civilians are not cognizant that this is going on. So, the neighborhood is not witting to these kills, which is actually a positive sign that they're not in cahoots with these terrorists. Otherwise, they wouldn't be hanging around the American positions or movement when the shots were taken.

COOPER: The fact that the insurgency is organized enough to videotape, whether it's from the same position as the sniper or a different location than the sniper, distribute these tapes -- I mean, these tapes are seen around the world. We're -- you know, we -- we just happen to be showing it several days after it has already been seen on Arab-language stations probably all -- all around the world.

What do you make of that? What does it tell you about the insurgency, that -- that they're so organized?

GRANGE: Well, it just tells me they use information as a weapon much better than other -- other forces, like the coalition forces.

The -- the problem is, they -- they use information to show some terrible things, just like beheadings, just like sniper shots. And that's the type of enemy that our forces are dealing with.

COOPER: At times, it appears that the insurgents are -- are closer than the actual sniper, that they're -- they're able to get away, it seems, undetected, drive away. What do you make of that?

GRANGE: That's because they're using the civilian urban area. They're using the vehicles.

That's why I think some of these are from vehicles, firing low to high, almost like the Maryland sniper situation that we had in the United States, using secret compartments in vehicles in that to use, for the video or for the weapon, to make the shots, and then a quick getaway, because you see the -- the camera jumping every time a shot is taken.

And, so, they're using the intersections, the -- the business of the streets, kind of as cover, as camouflage, to perform their -- their mission.

COOPER: What do you think about this insurgency? Is this an enemy which is learning? I mean, do they -- they are adapting -- it seems that they are adapting their tactics, that they watch. They see the response. And -- and it's -- it's a learning enemy, which is the most dangerous kind.

GRANGE: Well, that -- that's true.

And so is the U.S. Everybody learns. There's -- you know, people talk about asymmetric warfare, but, in fact, it's a counter to a counter to a counter to get some kind of an advantage. And when you come up with a new technique or tactic to use that works, you want to use it until it's effectively countered.

And it's the same on suicide bombers, IEDs, snipers, mortar fire, shoot-and-scoot. It's -- it's techniques that are proven against a superior military force, using civilians and an area to do the operations effectively. Violating the rules of land warfare, which the other side does, gives them a advantage, and they know that.

COOPER: General Grange, appreciate you joining us. Thanks.

GRANGE: My pleasure.

COOPER: All this is a facet, of course, of a larger story.

Back in May of 2005, Vice President Dick Cheney said the insurgency was in the last throes. Consider what's happened since. Here's the "Raw Data."

According to the Brookings Institution, in October 2003, there was an estimated 32 insurgent attacks every day. In October 2004, the number of daily attacks rose to 61. Last October, five months after Mr. Cheney made his remark, attacks reached 100 a day. And, last month, the most recent date, shows there were 105 insurgent attacks every single day. That is the "Raw Data."

Straight ahead on 360: Is it possible to divide these insurgents? More of Michael Ware's exclusive reporting: an interview with the enemy. Hear what one top insurgent leader says it will take to stop the violence.

Also, straight talk from the president on down about Iraq at a turning point -- what happens if the country keeps tearing itself apart? And should Americans stick around to find out?

Plus, the president puts Kim Jong Il on notice about what will happen if North Korean nukes end up in terrorists' hands. Around the world, you're watching 360.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: Well, the images you saw at the top of the program of Americans being gunned down in Iraq are, almost by definition, propaganda. They are designed to send a message, in the starkest possible terms, about what the insurgency can do.

But, as Michael Ware tells us now, they came to him accompanied by another message that speaks to what this particular insurgent group in Iraq wants.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

WARE (voice-over): The men who say they blew this American ammunition dump in Baghdad, shaking the capital, who claim a hand in the killings of four American security contractors in Fallujah in 2004, the men who provided this sniper video to CNN are from the Islamic Army of Iraq, a part of one of Iraq's most powerful insurgent factions.

Drawn from Sunnis and former members of Saddam Hussein's security apparatus, some of their leaders were American allies in the 1980s, and hint they may be willing to be so again, bringing with them a key element of the insurgency.

Using Islamic Army intermediaries, CNN passed written questions to the organization's leaders, and received back the sniper footage, and this, a professionally produced video featuring what is said to be the group's spokesman, Ibrahim al-Shimary, his face digitally masked by the insurgents, answering CNN's questions, and speaking to the Western media for the first time. It's a unique insight into what a large chunk of the insurgency wants, including a renewed willingness to talk with the U.S. military.

IBRAHIM AL-SHIMARY, SPOKESMAN, ISLAMIC ARMY OF IRAQ (through translator): We, in the Islamic Army, as we have announced many times, do not reject negotiations, but only if the Americans are serious.

WARE: This faction has engaged in unsuccessful discussions with the U.S. several times over the last 18 months, according to U.S. government sources and Iraqi politicians.

Their conditions to restart the talks? A timetable for troop withdrawal approved by Congress, formal recognition of the insurgents as interlocutors, and a third-country broker.

Even the White House is leaving the door open.

TONY SNOW, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: There have been a number of conversations with people who have said that they are willing to negotiate, and talk about a peaceful path. And we're willing to do that. But, again, the -- the lead player in all this is the government of Prime Minister Maliki. WARE: But the insurgents don't want that, believing the Iraqi government to be under the influence of Iran.

AL-SHIMARY (through translator): Iraq is suffering from double occupation, American and Iranian, because Bush's war, fought with taxpayers' money and the blood of Americans, has handed Iraq to Iran as an easy bite on a plate of gold.

WARE: Despite common interests in overthrowing the U.S. occupation, al-Shimary still draws a line between his group and al Qaeda.

AL-SHIMARY (through translator): We are different to them, because our agenda is local. Theirs is international.

WARE: As for the prospects of civil war, he says his group believes in religious freedom for Shia to practice their faith freely.

AL-SHIMARY (through translator): We don't attack Shiites who don't attack us. But we tire of what is happening to our sons. And you should not count on our patience.

WARE: In its attention to U.S. domestic politics and public mood, this is perhaps the Iraq insurgency's most finely tuned P.R. maneuver, a crafted and direct message to the American people, making an offer for talks, but, with the sniper video, also making a threat.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: And I should just restate, that sniper video and the interview with the insurgent that you just saw are exclusive to CNN. While some sniper videos have appeared on the Internet and elsewhere on Arab-language stations around the world, this video has not.

It was provided to CNN's Michael Ware, who joins me now in Iraq.

Michael, we -- we hear this -- this insurgent spokesman calling for talks with the U.S. Have there been talks in the past? And, if so, how -- how serious have those talks been?

WARE: Oh, Anderson, absolutely. This has been a long-running process.

I mean, we saw the first genesis of it, as a senior U.S. diplomat met with members of the insurgency over the issue of Fallujah in the middle of 2004. He did that during then Prime Minister Allawi's administration. Prime Minister Allawi and others continued to cultivate insurgent contacts, particularly among the Baathists.

We then saw, under Ambassador Negroponte, the talks continue apace. And this has also been furthered under Ambassador Khalilzad, now the ambassador to Baghdad.

So, these things have been ongoing. There has been great limitations. Zarqawi's people have assassinated and tried to disrupt anyone and anything to do with these talks. And, also, both sides are coming from very different positions.

However, the dialogue does continue. And this is the Islamic Army of Iraq, representing one of the major factions, saying: Despite the difficulties, we still want to talk -- Anderson.

COOPER: Sending the message.

Michael Ware, thank you.

The insurgents, of course, have the advantage of familiar terrain. Coming up, CNN's Arwa Damon is on patrol with U.S. troops in a place called the Triangle of Death, on a deadly mission to find insurgents and their weapons, before they strike first.

Also: a stunning shift in rhetoric from President Bush -- what he said today about the surge in violence in Iraq.

Plus: how hard it's going to be to hit back if North Korea sells nuclear weapons to Iran and al Qaeda, what the president had to say about what the U.S. would do -- all that ahead when 360 continues, live from New York.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: That's Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on her way from Tokyo to Seoul. That's what she is doing right now. She's in Asia to meet with leaders in Japan, South Korea and China about the nuclear threat from North Korea.

There is growing concern that Pyongyang is preparing to carry out more nuclear tests, and possibly even sell its nuclear materials to enemies of the West.

Today, ABC News asked President Bush what he will do if that happens. Here's what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "ABC WORLD NEWS TONIGHT")

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC NEWS: So, are you saying, then, if North Korea nukes to Iran or al Qaeda...

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: They would be held to account.

STEPHANOPOULOS: What does that mean?

BUSH: Well, at the time, they will find out, George.

One of the things that is important for these world leaders to -- to hear is -- is, you know, we will use means necessary to hold them to account.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So, if you got intelligence that they were about to have that kind of a transfer...

BUSH: Well, if they got -- if we get intelligence that they're about to transfer a nuclear weapon, we would stop the transfer. And we would deal with the ships that were taking the -- or the airplane that was dealing with taking the material to somebody.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And, if it happened, you would retaliate?

BUSH: You know, I'm -- just, it's a grave consequence.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And that's about as serious as it can get.

BUSH: Well, it -- my -- my point is, is that I want there to -- I want the -- the leader to understand, the leader of North Korea to understand that he will be -- he will be held to account.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: North Korea, of course, isn't the only crisis the president is facing. In Iraq, October is on track to be the deadliest month, with 68 U.S. troop deaths so far.

In his column today, "New York Times" columnist Tom Friedman wrote that we might be seeing the equivalent of a Tet Offensive in Iraq. It is that kind of comparison to Vietnam that has, until now, drawn fire from the White House, but not tonight.

CNN's Elaine Quijano reports on the surprising shift in the White House rhetoric.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ELAINE QUIJANO, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Until now, the Bush White House has forcefully resisted any comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam. Yet in an ABC interview broadcast tonight, President Bush allowed this...

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC NEWS: Tom Friedman wrote in "The New York Times" this morning that what we might be seeing now is the Iraqi equivalent of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam in 1968.

Tony Snow this morning said he may be right. Do you agree?

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He could be right. There's certainly a stepped up level of violence, and we're heading into an election.

QUIJANO: During the Tet Offensive, Vietcong and North Vietnamese forces launched a series of attacks on American troops. Even though it was a stunning military defeat for the guerrillas, Americans were shocked by the intense images of war.

And historians view Tet as the turning point, when public support for the conflict in Vietnam and President Johnson began to wane.

Nearly 40 years later, that history is not lost on President Bush.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But what's your gut tell you? BUSH: George, my gut tells me that they have all along being trying to inflict enough damage that we leave. And the leaders of al Qaeda have made that very clear.

QUIJANO: President Bush regularly acknowledges the effect of the war on the American psyche. This from a news conference last week.

BUSH: I fully understand the American people are seeing unspeakable violence on their TV screens. These are tough times in Iraq.

QUIJANO: In his recent comments, the president has argued that the violence there is being stoked by al Qaeda. Yet Mr. Bush rejected the notion that American troops are getting caught in a civil war. Civil acknowledging the bloodshed in sobering terms.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But whatever you call it, aren't American men and women now dying to prevent Sunnis and Shiites to kill one another?

BUSH: No, George, it's dangerous. You're right. No matter what you call it. The fundamental question is, are we on our way to achieving a goal, which is an Iraq that can defend itself, sustain itself and govern itself and be an ally in the war on terror in the heart of the Middle East?

QUIJANO (on camera): President Bush, of course, believes the answer to that is yes. Tonight, the president said he would be patient as Iraq's new government works to establish order. But without giving a time frame, he also made clear his patience has limits.

Elaine Quijano, CNN, the White House.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Earlier I spoke about the president's comments with former presidential adviser David Gergen.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: David, were you surprised the president said could be another Tet?

DAVID GERGEN, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL ADVISOR: Very surprised. As you know, Anderson, the administration for a long time now has been stoutly resisting every comparison of Iraq to Vietnam. And there's a good reason for them to reject that, because once people start accepting as the president did today, that what's going on in Iraq might be like what went on in Vietnam, it's not long.

It's only a nanosecond before critics said, "Yes, you're right. It's a quagmire in Iraq, just as it was in Vietnam."

COOPER: They will probably be making the argument tomorrow, though, that what the president was saying wasn't necessarily a comparison to Vietnam. But that it was similar to what happened in the Tet Offensive.

And a lot of historians say, look, the Tet Offensive was militarily a disaster for the Viet Cong, for the North Vietnamese. It was more a public relation disaster for the United States and therefore stay the course.

GERGEN: Well, that's sure. And I'm sure that what the president probably intended. But you know, by getting into the Vietnam analogy opened himself up to all sorts of vulnerabilities.

And it is also true that Vietnam became an unwinnable war. This Tet Offensive was a big turning point not only because of the propaganda victory that the other side secured, but it became more and more apparent to people that we were on a course to nowhere. We were on a course to defeat.

So it's very surprising for the president to say -- you know, Tom Friedman may be right. And his column today is saying not only is this the Tet Offensive, but things are going to hell there.

We just -- today, we had 53 deaths already this month in Iraq, 11 more today. That puts us at 64. We're heading to the third worst month since the war began for U.S. deaths in Iraq.

And Tom Friedman said in that column, Iraq is going to pieces. And he ended, of course, with that line from Bob Woodward's book where the president has said he'll stick in Iraq, even if it's down to Laura and Barney the dog.

COOPER: And yet, we heard from Donald Rumsfeld today, who said, "Look, five months is nothing." He says -- I mean, he talks about this government in Iraq has only been in power five months, less than a baseball season was the term he used.

You have Vice President Dick Cheney on the Rush Limbaugh radio program yesterday saying that, you know, things are, relatively speaking, going well.

GERGEN: Well, you know, I -- I don't think that people would be talking about a Baker commission and, you now, new recommendations and new ways to look at this after the elections if there weren't some serious things wrong there. And the president himself.

I mean, let's assume the best case for the president. He really did not mean to compare this to Vietnam at all. What he really meant to do is to say, "Hey, they've launched an offensive."

Even if you grant that, what the president is saying, contrary to his own secretary, contrary to his own vice president, is they have launched a major offensive right now. They're destroying gains. And he's worried about the impact on American public opinion.

COOPER: A "Wall Street Journal" poll, voter approval of Congress has fallen to 16 percent from 20 percent in early September. Sixteen percent is a stunningly low number. GERGEN: It is a stunningly low number. You know, Anderson, we've been talking here in the last weeks about when you -- just when you think things wouldn't get much worse for Republicans, somehow they do. We've had a streak of bad stories.

And I think what we're seeing in that congressional number is a reflection of the Foley story, you know, this coming together, the coming out story, the investigation of Curt Weldon, all these investigations coming on top of one another.

It's just crystal clear that these corruption stories are really having a corrosive effect upon trust in Congress, upon respect for Congress, and that simply can't be good news for the incumbent party.

Now, Karl Rove yesterday saying, "We're still going to win this. We're going to hold the House. We're going to hold the Senate." And he may be right. We'll have to wait and see.

COOPER: Appreciate it. Thank you, David.

GERGEN: Thank you, Anderson.

COOPER: Whatever President Bush meant to say, it is clear that, military, things on the ground in Iraq are getting worse.

Coming up, one of the best trained Iraqi units fails a critical test.

Also, CNN's Arwa Damon takes us inside a deadly mission to disarm insurgents in a corner of Iraq called the Triangle of Death. You'll see for yourself how easy it is to make IEDs when 360 continues.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: As you heard before the break, President Bush today told ABC News that "New York Times" columnist Tom Freeman, quote, "might be right" in comparing the surge of violence in Iraq to the Tet Offensive, which was a turning point in the Vietnam War.

Mr. Bush also told ABC that he defines success or failure in Iraq, in part, as whether or not Iraqis can defend themselves. This next report makes clear more than three years into the war, they cannot. Not yet, at least. Here's Jamie McIntyre.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): For five days, Shia militiamen conducted a reign of terror in Balad, a largely Shia city turned over to one of Iraq's premier brigades under the U.S. strategy of standing up Iraqi forces to replace American troops.

As U.S. forces remained in their fortified base nearby, Iraqi troops failed to stop the killing of up to 100 Sunnis. It was a failure of a critical test for Iraqi forces. A failure foretold by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld last week, almost as if he knew the plan to turn over large areas to the country to Iraqi control was tenuous at best.

DONALD RUMSFELD, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Some even might go and not work out and have to be taken back, fixed and then given back to the Iraqis at some point.

MCINTYRE: The other lynchpin of the current U.S. strategy, securing Baghdad first, has also taken a deadly turn. Ten American deaths in a single day has pushed the U.S. casualties to the highest monthly rate since the war began.

And along with improvised bombs, increasingly sniper attacks, as shown in this graphic video obtained from insurgents are exactly a real and psychological toll as a weapon of terror against U.S. troops.

In a speech to the Air War College, at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld acknowledged the war is not going well, but again urged patience.

RUMSFELD: This war, like other wars, has not been a steady, smooth upward path. To some, that's a surprise. To those who study history, it is not a surprise.

MCINTYRE: Speculation is swirling about what the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, led by former Secretary of State James Baker, might recommend next month. Experts say none of the options, from a phased withdrawal to staying the course, are very appealing.

AMB. JAMES DOBBINS, RAND INTERNATIONAL SECURITY AND DEFENSE POLICY CENTER: It's a dilemma. Our presence is an incitement to violence, but our absence might be an invitation to even greater violence. And it's possible that an incipient civil war, that's being conducted on an unconventional level at the moment, could turn into a widespread conventional civil war with much higher levels of casualties.

MCINTYRE (on camera): One more sign the war is not slowing down: Marine officials are drawing up contingency plans that would send Marine reserve units back to Iraq for a second tour of duty, just like many active duty Marine units have already done.

Jamie McIntyre, CNN, the Pentagon.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Coming up next, searching for insurgents and holding their breath. U.S. troops deep inside Iraq's Triangle of Death, looking for an enemy that could be all around them.

Plus, peace through partition. Should Iraq be divided into three zones? We'll talk to some experts if they think that's the only option yet. When 360 continues.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: Well, if there is a hell on earth, it may very be just south of Baghdad in an area known as the Triangle of Death. It's a reason overrun by insurgents, militias and execution squads. U.S. troops deployed there have to sweep out the enemy. That is the mission.

CNN's Arwa Damon went to the front lines deep inside the Triangle of Death. Here's her report.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ARWA DAMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This is the type of terrain that really makes you feel like each step could be your last. It has been for four American soldiers killed on this mission in the past two weeks.

The tall reeds make it easy for insurgents to hide. The thick mud is so slick, it's like walking on ice.

And somewhere beneath the tumbleweeds and brush along the canals, less than an hour outside of Iraq, in an area known as the Triangle of Death, lies what these men call a Wal-Mart of weapons.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We've seen a lot of these.

DAMON: These soldiers are about to discover they arrived just in time.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Not a good day when you get hit with one of those.

DAMON: To the untrained eye, it seems like there is nothing lurking here. But Captain Johnston and his company have quickly learned the little things to look for.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This berm, right before we get to the reed line, there's footprints in the mud. Insurgents have been walking in here to provide concealment when they get to the road to lay the IEDs in.

DAMON: The intent: to tighten the noose on an insurgency that has literally dug itself in.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What we'll notice a lot is there will be shrubbery like that on some of the larger berms, lots of green stuff. And then we'll find this stuff, you know, piled up like tumbleweeds. You kick it out of the way and dig in about six inches. That's where we're finding it the barrels (ph).

DAMON: Captain Finn says it's been on the job training.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hanging on the reed here, it's broke off. We saw one about 50 meters away. So these are the type of things we look for.

DAMON: Soon, as the men continue to move forward, the insurgents' methods reveal themselves. First, they find a spotter's position. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Like an observation post. One man is going to pull full security (ph). They'll over watch for security for guys putting an IED on the road.

DAMON: Farther down, they pull up wiring. Another short distance away, they dig up plastic explosives. Mortar rounds are buried under the tumbleweed. All the parts in place to assemble IEDs at any moment. Right in this field.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They got the explosives in. They got the wire in. And probably within the next 12 hours, under cover of darkness, they'd reseed the road with the IEDs.

DAMON (on camera): The final component hidden across the street. These are all IED roadside bomb trigger devices. They are quite primitive but highly effective.

This, for example, is the timer off of a washing machine. Once the timer has been set, the IED is ready to detonate.

(voice-over) Since this operation began two weeks ago, the U.S. has found enough material for at least 1,000 roadside bombs.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Can't wait to do it again and find some more stuff. It's like an Easter egg hunt.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I was thinking that.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Pretty fun (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You almost die (ph) every time you do it.

DAMON: Arwa Damon, CNN, near Yusufiya, Iraq.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Incredibly dangerous mission.

From the Triangle of Death to a proposal to divide Iraq into three areas. Is partitioning the country the only way for Iraqis and for America? We'll ask the experts.

And the next hour, CNN election special. Lou Dobbs says the middle class is under attack. He takes us to the front lines.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JAMES BAKER, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: There's no magic bullet for the situation in Iraq. It is very, very difficult. So anybody who thinks that somehow we're going to come up with something that is going totally solve the problem is -- is engaging in wishful thinking.

(END VIDEO CLIP) COOPER: That's former secretary of state, James Baker, today suggesting there's no easy way out of Iraq. He co-chairs a bipartisan panel preparing recommendations for the White House.

The president says stay the course, but others, including some top Republicans, now say it is time to consider other options.

Joining me from Palo Alto, California, is Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover institution and an advisor to James Baker's Iraq Study Group. With us again from Baghdad is CNN's Michael Ware.

Larry, let me start off with you. In terms of a time frame, how much time does the U.S. have to act?

LARRY DIAMOND, SENIOR FELLOW, HOOVER INSTITUTION: Well, Anderson, speaking strictly for myself, I think, you know, maybe a few months at most. The situation is rapidly deteriorating. I think you've had outstanding and disturbing reporting from Iraq tonight and throughout the previous weeks.

It's slipping fast. We're running out of time.

COOPER: What do you make of the idea of partitioning Iraq?

DIAMOND: I think it's a terrible idea. I think it would result in something similar to what happened at the partition of India at independence in 1948. There would be massive casualties.

The Iraqi people, for the most part, don't want it, and it would bring about what it is meant to preempt, and that is an all-out civil war, ethnic cleansing, massive bloodshed.

COOPER: Michael Ware, since you and I first met back in Baghdad, I think it was some two years ago, you've been talking about U.S. officials' desire to drive a wedge between insurgent groups. Are they any closer to being able to do that?

WARE: No, not really, Anderson. In fact, in many ways, they're further from that goal that they've been seeking since the beginning of this insurgency.

The plan has been to separate the home grown Iraqi insurgency, the nationalists, the former Ba'athists, former allies of America from the '80s, and the moderate Sunni Islamists from the extreme, as well.

We've seen with the rise in the sectarian violence, or the civil war, that these people have, in fact, been herded towards al Qaeda. So, no, that has not been accomplished and in many ways is further away -- Anderson.

COOPER: Larry, is the presence now of U.S. troops making matters worse or is the prospect of the U.S. troops leaving even worse to contemplate?

DIAMOND: Well, it's a paradox, Anderson, because both statements are true. And I think the way to get at it is through very intensive diplomacy that would involve the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and the regional partners, neighbors.

It has to begin with the Sunni-based insurgency. I think Michael Ware has it exactly right. We have not really made much progress with them, because we've had very little to lay on the table.

We should begin with a statement from President Bush that unambiguously declares that we're not going to seek permanent military bases in Iraq. In the context of negotiations, we can talk about some sort of time frame for withdrawal.

And we need to address the imbalance in the constitution that was adopted last year that threatens to leave the Sunni areas of Iraq with no oil and no revenue to draw upon, isolated and powerless. They can never accept this, and that constitution is just not viable.

COOPER: Michael, how would that all play out on the ground?

WARE: Well, obviously, everything would be very, very messy, Anderson. As Larry rightly points out, the U.S. is in a position where it's damned if it does and it's damned if it doesn't.

I mean, very much this war has ground to a point where America is facing a key moment. I mean, in the past we've heard military officials talk about turning points, that we're just about to turn the corner for the good. It's coming, it's coming. Now we hear talk about critical point.

I think after the U.S. midterm elections, everyone is expecting things to change here on the ground -- Anderson.

COOPER: Larry, what do you think will happen after the midterm elections? I mean, what is the first step, what is the second step? And is the U.S. prepared to make those steps?

DIAMOND: I don't know. It depends on one man, George W. Bush. I think the first step is we wait for the report of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group. The second step is I hope and honestly pray that President Bush will really seriously ponder and adopt most of its recommendations.

And frankly, I hope that he will then appoint James Baker to be our principal policy official, if not czar, for the entire Middle East region. Because unless we have a regional approach here, we're not going to succeed.

COOPER: Larry Diamond, Michael Ware, appreciate your expertise. Thank you, gentlemen.

Coming up in our next hour, a special report. With elections just around the corner, why so many hard-working Americans say the deck is simply stacked against them. They're playing by the rules, raising families, but for them the American dream, well, it seems always just out of reach. Why is that? "War on the Middle Class", hosted by CNN's Lou Dobbs. That's next on CNN.

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