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CNN NEWSROOM

Lebanese Cabinet Minister Killed; Iranian Influence

Aired November 21, 2006 - 10:00   ET

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


BRENT SADLER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: If there was one more resignation or another -- a loss of life, that effectively would put an end to this Siniora government. Doubtless of the fact that it's been withstanding the opposition pressure.
Now the United States has been fervently supporting this government here. The Cedar Revolution that helped pressure Syrian troops to leave Lebanon, seen by Washington as an important sign of progress in the Middle East, given that democracy and the government of transparency it was hoped in Washington would come about as a result of the Cedar Revolution. Now, Saad Hariri, in lashing out at Syria, says the Cedar Revolution is now under a full fledged attack as a result of this assassination of industry minister Pierre Gemayel.

Heidi.

HEIDI COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: And, Brent, stay on the line with us if you would. We've just had some new video in to us here as you were speaking. I believe what we were looking at was the vehicle that the -- Pierre Gemayel was riding in. Apparently the news is that gunmen opened fire as his convoy drove through a neighborhood in the city. Apparently, as you say, you were learning that he was shot twice. As we get more information coming in to us here at CNN.

Brent, what does all of this mean? Just today there were some discussions about possibly Syria joining in, no confirmation. And, in fact, word from Syrian government, this is not actually going to happen. But curious as to know the thought process now if they were to sit down with Iran and Iraq and talk diplomacy, talk about the issues of Iraq. How does this change that landscape?

SADLER: Well, clearly, as far as the parliamentary majority here is concerned, they say that going -- given what's going on in Syria and the Iraqi capital Baghdad and the violence that we've seen in Iraq, that the issue of attacks on the political system here in Lebanon is all part and parcel of the same problem. That is, say the opposition here, the parliamentary leader, rather, Saad Hariri, that Syria and Iran are involved in efforts to destabilize Iraq, as well as Lebanon. So they lump those two issues together.

And quite clearly, on the Lebanese scene, this puts this country into a potentially even more hazardous and potentially dangerous situation because you have the Hezbollah-led opposition supported not only by Shia Muslims, but also by some within the Christian community here and others who really wanted to see this government make way, step down for a government that embraced all parties in a more even, they said, distribution of power. Let's not forget it was only a few months back, in fact 100 days or so, that the war between Hezbollah and Israel ended that vicious 34-day conflict that saw rockets rain down onto Israel and massive destruction in Lebanon. Well, that split the country. Since this political meltdown went into place, those divisions grew. On top of that, you now have another top level political assassination. It's very serious, indeed.

Heidi.

COLLINS: And striking, too. Just moments ago when you were able to put Saad Hariri, the son of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, on the phone with us, he said some startling things. "We believe the hand of Syria is all over the place. They want to kill every free person."

SADLER: Yes. That was part of what he's been saying, albeit perhaps more diplomatically in the past. Saad Hariri clearly, when he was given news of the assassination of Gemayel, simply went quiet in the news conference, walked out, was given confirmation of the assassination of a political, close political ally from a very important Lebanese family here. The Gemayels are a very influential Lebanese/Christian/Catholic/Maronite (ph) organization, religious group here.

And, historically, Lebanese don't need any reminding that it was in the early 1980s that another Gemayel, president elect, was assassinated in a bomb attack. So two Gemayels in the past 20 years or so assassinated. No one ever got to the bottom of who killed the previous Gemayel. And given all the attacks that have taken place, some 14 attacks against journalists and politicians over the past couple of years, still no one has actually been tried in a court of law and prosecuted for those crimes.

So this really does give you some idea of the complexities and the violence that's involved -- been involved in ruing this country historically. And now amid a very dangerous and potentially serious political battle for control of this country, there is another assassination. And that news that has, for the last couple hours, been sent through the country on radio and television. And we'll have to see what kind of political reaction and other reaction there might be as a result of that assassination.

Heidi.

TONY HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: And, Brent, Tony Harris with Heidi Collins in Atlanta. Just a couple -- just one quick question. If we attempt to take a wider view of this, and the fighting that is going on within the government now in Lebanon, Hezbollah trying to gain more influence in that government, supported by Iran, supported by Syria, is Shiite. We know now that this was a Christian leader who was gunned down today. Is there the potential for this to explode along religious lines in that country? And we know the history.

SADLER: It's not quite as simple as that. In both these rival political camps, Tony, you have both Muslim and Christian representation, pro-Syrian Muslims, predominantly among the Shia, but also prominent Sunni Muslims also support the Hezbollah-led opposition, as do pro-Syrian Christian. In the reverse, the anti- Syrians, they have also similar makeup in terms of religious components of those two camps.

The question is, who has the stronger hand? Up until now, since Syria left, it's been the parliamentary majority who claim and have been claiming all along that it's Syria primarily, aided and abetted by Iran, that wants to destabilize, topple this government to protect Syrian interests. Not only Syrian interests, but also Iranian interests inside Lebanon because Iran supports, it's said by the United States and many other countries, supports Hezbollah directly, militarily and in terms of weapons, as does Syria it has also claimed. Both those regimes consistently deny those alleges. But it is against that backdrop that you have such a mix of the religious components of Lebanon coming to a head in this way.

Tony.

HARRIS: All right. Let me ask another simple question that sort of piggy backs off that response and then you paint it in its broader context for us if you would, Brent. Is Syria trying to collect on, say, a debt that I may feel that it is owed for its support of Lebanon in the war with Israel?

SADLER: Look, I think that the alliances, essentially a tri- lateral alliance between Iran, Syria and Hezbollah, has endured for decades. Hezbollah claimed a victory against Israel in the 34-day summer conflict here. Hezbollah has been on the front foot, attacking politically the government of Fouad Siniora. At the same time as the White House recently made it absolutely clear that the White House felt the administration of George Bush felt that Syria and Iran were plotting to overthrow this government.

Now added to that the Saad Hariri parliamentary majority goes a step further, saying it's an attempt to block the tribunal into the Hariri assassination. But in the broader context, Saad Hariri's parliamentary majority is now taking a step even further by saying that Syria not only is undermining stability, has been undermining stability in Iraq, but is also doing the same thing here and that the international community, particularly the United States, should take stock of that amid the anger and grief that's sweeping through this country right now in the wake of this political assassination.

HARRIS: CNN's Brent Sadler for us in Beirut.

Brent, as always, appreciate it. Thank you for the context.

COLLINS: More perspective now on the killing of a Lebanese Christian leader. We are joined by "Washington Post" diplomatic correspondent Robin Wright.

And, Robin, we had originally planned on talking a little bit more about the Iran-Iraq meeting that's coming up this weekend. There was talk of Syria possibly joining in on that. We even heard the word summit. We are hearing from Brent Sadler that that likely not to happen now, certainly in wake of this assassination. Your thoughts.

ROBIN WRIGHT, WASHINGTON POST: Well, I think this is a very vulnerable moment for Lebanon. It's a vulnerable moment for the Middle East. In many cases in the past, we've seen the tensions within the region play out inside Lebanon. And there's a great fear that we've reach one of those turning points where the clash between the pro-western and the pro-militant factions within this country are at a real precipice.

COLLINS: I know that you lived in Beirut, in fact, Robin, when another Gemayel was assassinated. This was the uncle, Bashir Gemayel. You were also there during the summer, during the war. What does this do to the people there? I mean, we heard someone saying just moments ago, I believe it was our Brent Sadler, saying that the Sinioran government is finished.

WRIGHT: Well, there are a lot of issues that are on the table at the moment. In terms of the specifics of government, it takes two more -- they have two cabinet ministers left to create the margin of the quorum they need to be a legitimate government. If two more should resign, if two more should be injured or eliminated in some form, then you would not have a government in Lebanon. And that would be a real crisis.

COLLINS: But are any of them, Robin, as impactful (ph) or powerful as Pierre Gemayel?

WRIGHT: Well, Pierre Gemayel was not in a powerful ministry. He was a powerful symbol of the Christian community because his father was president of Lebanon, his uncle was president elect of Lebanon before his assassination. He is a symbol of the powerful Christian minority in this country and also of the anti-Syrian coalition. Just a year ago after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, there was an enormous outpouring of support and we saw for the first time a real powerful but peaceful movement to stand up for Lebanese sovereignty. And he was a symbol of that. and that's why he's an important figure at this moment.

COLLINS: And if you don't have that any longer, what happens?

WRIGHT: Oh, there's still very powerful people who are in that anti-Syrian coalition, in the pro-western faction. The trick in Lebanon is always finding a balance between the 17 recognized religious sects, the very powerful communities, the Christians, the Drus (ph) , the Sunnis, the Shiites, and finding a way to make sure that they are all included. There's a contest right now, a power play by Hezbollah, to try to redistribute power among the cabinet. And that plays out in context of this assassination.

It all plays into the same kind of, how do you distribute power in Lebanon. That's what the civil war was about for 15 years. And even in the peace time since the end of that war in 1990, we've seen this continue to be an issue.

COLLINS: How should it be distributed? WRIGHT: Well, it's, you know, Lebanon has always been the most democratic country in the Arab world. Deeply flawed because there's a quota system that distributes power based on those 17 religious sects. It does not represent the strength of the various population groups and that's always been the issue. Do you redistribute power so it's one man, one vote or do you protect minorities? And that's one of the problems we see throughout the Middle East.

COLLINS: What type of changes could come from anything that has happened today? Is there anything good that could come of this?

WRIGHT: Well, it's hard to see any good coming out of it short term. It clearly forces people to take a stand. And it comes at a critical juncture. As Brent pointed out, as -- this is a country at a precipice and we've seen it begin to disintegrate with the resignation of six Shiite cabinet ministers, the call for massive public protests by Hezbollah to challenge the current government, charges that the government is too pro-western, too pro-American. That it's American stooge. And the efforts by the pro-western factions to stand up and say, we were democratically elected. Now how this gets resolved, you know, will tell us a lot about Lebanon's future.

COLLINS: Yes, interesting, too, hearing Nicholas Burns talking about the international community and what more could be done by way of putting pressure on them to liberate themselves from Lebanon.

WRIGHT: I'm sorry, I don't understand your question.

COLLINS: Excuse me. I'm sorry. To liberate themselves from Syria, the Lebanon people. The international community, what can be their responsibility in all of this?

WRIGHT: Well, the international community has deployed troops along the southern border between Israel and Lebanon. It's playing a major role as a peacekeeping force at the moment. So it has more of a hand in Lebanon today than it has at any time since the early 1980s.

What role can it play? You know, one of the questions is, what happens with the trial that the international community is trying to set up? For those who were responsible for the Hariri assassination. Some fingers have pointed at Damascus and there is a sense that this could be a test for the regime of President Bashar Assad. This plays into some of the accusations already flying in Beirut about who could have been responsible for Pierre Gemayel's murder. And one of the members of the pro-western faction has already charged that Syria had to have played some kind of role.

COLLINS: Of course, we will continue to look at this and exactly who may be claiming responsibility, if anyone, as we go further. Robin Wright from the "Washington Post," appreciate your time here. Thank you.

WRIGHT: Thank you.

HARRIS: What a busy morning in the NEWSROOM. Three good reasons to stay in the NEWSROOM. COLLINS: Don't be a crash test dummy. Find out which cars top the insurance industry's safety list. And, P.S., if you drive American, you might be out of luck.

A mystery man in the shadows. A holy warrior claims to be a spy for the west. Inside Jihad with our Nic Robertson.

HARRIS: And there's this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MICHAEL RICHARDS, COMEDIAN: I'm not a racist. That's what's so insane about this.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HARRIS: "Seinfeld" actor Michael Richards says he's sorry. He calls his on stage racial rant "three minutes of crap," his words, in the NEWSROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COLLINS: Checking the big board for you here. The New York Stock Exchange. The Dow Jones Industrial average up about two points there, resting at 12,319. Also hearing the Nasdaq up about two points or so. So it's just 45 minutes into the day at the market, if you will. So we may see more action as it continues.

HARRIS: Let's take you to New York City right now and the memorial service underway for "60 Minutes" correspondent Ed Bradley at New York's Riverside Church. Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Bradley's long time friend and former CNN Johannesburg bureau chief is calling this memorial a celebration of Ed Bradley's life with those who knew him best. Scheduled to perform today, Jimmy Buffet, Wynton Marsalis and Aaron Neville.

COLLINS: Iraq and Syria, they share a common border but little common ground. That is until today. The two countries restored ties that were severed 24 years ago. They are hoping together they can help curb the violence in Iraq. Syria has long been accused of ignoring the flow of insurgent fighters into Iraq. Earlier, Iraq's foreign minister spoke about his country's demands of Syria.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HOSHYAR ZEBARI, IRAQI FOREIGN MINISTER: The message was unanimous. The message was unified. We expect you to do more to cooperate in terms of security to prevent infiltrators from crossing the border, to establish mechanisms, working mechanisms in order to prevent those infiltrators from using your borders and, in fact, they responded.

But this was the first visit. And we don't expect that in one visit we'll be able to resolve all our problems. This is a process. I think the visit opened the door for further technical discussions on the security issues. (END VIDEO CLIP)

COLLINS: The U.S. military says a raid in a Baghdad slum may have netted new leads in the disappearance of an American soldier. The military says Iraqi security forces in Sadr City nabbed suspected members of an insurgent cell and its leader. According to the military, that leader is believed to have first-hand knowledge of last month's abduction of an American soldier. Meanwhile, Iraqi officials say a mother and her eight-month-old baby were among the five people killed in today's raid. At least 18 people are reported wounded in the Shiite plot.

HARRIS: Iran pushing ahead on its next door neighbor Iraq. But the Iranian people may have another agenda. CNN's Aneesh Raman is in Tehran.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ANEESH RAMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT, (voice over): It's an alliance many in the west would like to break. But Iran and Syria seem closer than ever. Both support Lebanon's Hezbollah and both claimed proxy victories after the Israel/Hezbollah War. And now both are quite publicly turning their focus to Iraq.

First came the historic trip to Baghdad by Syria's foreign minister, there to restore full diplomatic ties with Iraq. And now word Iraq's president, Jalal Talabani, will be heading to Tehran this weekend to meet with Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Bush administration is skeptical the talks will lead to change on the ground. But if nothing else, it shows Iran and Syria pushing ahead with Iraq policies of their own without the U.S.

But what about the people? How big an issue is Iraq? They're all following events next door closely, of course. But for many of them, concern is trumped by domestic issues like high inflation and unemployment.

When it comes to Iraq, the answers, like those from Ali (ph), seemed all the same and all seemed to go back to the U.S.

ALI, (through translator): The Iraqis that come here, that come to my store, they say the U.S. is the problem, is the reason there is unrest, otherwise there would be no Shia/Sunni divide.

RAMAN: But there is and Iraq is consumed with sectarian violence, fueled, in part, the White House says, by Iranian influence. Iranians says it's because of the U.S., but don't see the U.S. leaving Iraq as the exclusive solution.

"The Americans should leave," Aheed (ph) told me, "as soon as possible. But when it comes to solving this, the U.S. and Iran should talk directly because that way there will be no misunderstanding."

Iran is a country President Bush has called unambiguously evil. And while the leadership here don't yet seem eager to sit down with the U.S. just because they're asked, the people are hoping it might just happen. Not just to bring stability to Iraq, but perhaps to bring American investment to a faltering Iranian economy.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

HARRIS: Aneesh Raman joins us from Tehran.

Aneesh, let's take a moment and talk a little bit more about the Iranian people. What are they saying to you about this meeting?

RAMAN: Well there was to be, as you mentioned, that summit. That doesn't seem to be happening. We understand from the Iranian government, two parallel invitations were sent out, one to the Syrian president to talk about the Lebanon crisis before today's event, the other to the Iraqi president. Those seem to amuse (ph). So we don't think there will be a summit this weekend.

But Iranian, whenever you ask them about foreign affairs, really they just stop listening to their government because they're aware of what the positions are. They regurgitate them often to you. And they're beyond their control. They're more observers than participants in the democracy. It is domestic affairs that, for them, is of paramount concern. Joblessness, inflation, that is what they want their government to do. That is why they elected Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to be president. And that is why he won't win again unless he fixes the economy.

Tony

HARRIS: And, Aneesh, just a quick follow. The assassination today in Lebanon, any idea, too early to tell, to get a picture as to what this might do, mean for Iranian-Syrian relations?

RAMAN: Well, here's what we know. Iran and Syrian are not logical allies. Syria is a majority Sunni secular state. Iran is a Shia theocracy. They haven't been friends all the time. They've been friends recently because both of them have been growing isolated from the world. What's happened in Lebanon now perhaps will lead to further isolation of Syria, just as countries were looking to draw them in. And just as countries were looking to divide the Syrian- Iranian alliance. So this could, if nothing else, amid global pressure on Syria, force this alliance even closer.

HARRIS: Very interesting. Aneesh Raman for us in Tehran.

Aneesh, thank you.

COLLINS: Back to the news that we have been following for you this morning. We are going to continue to follow it as we continue here on CNN NEWSROOM. An assassination in Lebanon. The industry minister, Pierre Gemayel, was shot and killed by assassins in Beirut. He was a member of the Christian party there and, of course, a supporter of anti-Syrian parliamentary majority. We continue to follow that story. Stay with us. You're watching CNN, the most trusted name in news.

HARRIS: And school bus tragedy. A 30-foot drop kills three students. Police take a closer look today. That story coming up in the NEWSROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

HARRIS: More reaction coming in now to the breaking news out of Lebanon this morning. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, now reacting to the news that a leading Lebanese parliament member, Pierre Gemayel, has been assassinated.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN BOLTON, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO U.N.: We strongly support the Siniora government and all the democratic forces in Lebanon. We call on all states in the region to support the democratic government and to urge everyone's cooperation in finding the assassins of Pierre Gemayel as soon as possible.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ambassador, given Mr. Gemayel's position concerning the tribunal, concerning Syrian involvement in Lebanon, are you concerned that Syria was behind this?

BOLTON: I think the facts need to be developed. But if you look at the reports of malice and bramerts (ph) over the months, the evidence that links the Hariri assassination to the other political assassinations, I think people can draw their own conclusions.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Ambassador, there will be those voices on the Security Council who say now is not the time to push ahead with the tribunal, given the instability in Lebanon.

BOLTON: How incredibly wrong that would be. How incredibly wrong that would be. Instability? They're killing people in Lebanon. They're assassinating political leaders. Not the time to seek justice? There may be those on the Security Council who say it. Let them step forward and say it.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

HARRIS: OK. U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, there reacting to the news out of Lebanon this morning. Another U.S. reaction we heard a short time ago from Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns calling the assassination of Pierre Gemayel "an act of terrorism."

COLLINS: Deadly detour for a school bus in Alabama. Three children dead following a 30-foot fall. Many more still hospitalized this morning. CNN's Rusty Dornin is joining us now live from Huntsville with the details. Good morning to you, Rusty.

RUSTY DORNIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Heidi, so far we've only seen Huntsville police photographers who are documenting what is still a very chilling scene here under the underpass. You can see the bus basically where it landed, they did push it upright, but that is what happened yesterday morning after plunging 30 feet off the overpass.

NTSB investigators are meeting behind closed doors now. They are trying to piece together all the information from the different agencies and from the interviews they have done, and, of course, at the center of all of it is the car they believe that caused the accident, this orange Celica, which is seen on the overpass. The NTSB did tell us the two front tires were flat, and did tell us that they spoke to the drivers.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DEBBIE HERSMAN, NTSB SPOKESWOMAN: We have heard a number of reports that there was an issue involving the Celica. The Celica driver and passenger were interviewed. We know that they have said that there was something wrong with the vehicle that caused them to drift into that left lane where the school bus was. We're trying to determine what exactly caused that.

We have transported the Celica to a secure location. We're examining it. There were several flat tires. There is some damage to the vehicle. A number of impact marks. The mirror on the driver's side is missing. There's some damage that appears to have come from the barrier, the concrete barrier as well as from the bus.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

DORNIN: Now you can see the damage to the concrete barrier on that overpass. They believe that perhaps is where the first impact happened and then it skidded along the side of the barrier before going over and plummeting 30 feet to the street below. The amazing thing is the bus driver, apparently, was on the overpass. He was found on the overpass before the bus went over. Unclear as to whether he was ejected from the bus or was able to climb out as the bus was careening along the side of that barrier.

NTSB plans to talk to him today. He's also seriously injured in the hospital, apparently was in and out of consciousness all day yesterday, but they will be talking to him to try to get a clearer picture of exactly what happened. And, of course, in the meantime the community here is grieving. Trying to get their arms around this whole thing, this freak accident -- Tony.

COLLINS: Boy, it is -- it's incredibly upsetting. 117 feet, I'm reading here, Rusty, that that bus skidded along those rails?

DORNIN: That's what they believe. They think the accident started another 300 feet before that, with the orange Celica, but the bus apparently, when it hit that ramp, was careening along the side of that barrier, and basically toppled over the side.

COLLINS: Well, the NTSB certainly has their work cut out for them. We will wait to hear more on their findings of the investigation. Rusty Dornin live for us today. Thanks Rusty.

HARRIS: And Heidi, let's take everyone back to New York City right now. New York's Riverside Church, the memorial service for Ed Bradley underway right now. You are listening to part of a processional dirge being played by the Rebirth Brass Band from New Orleans, a city much beloved by Ed Bradley. The longtime "60 Minutes" correspondent died Thursday, November 9th after battling leukemia. 15 years on that program, "60 Minutes," 25 years in total with the network. Scheduled to perform later today, Jimmy Buffett, Wynton Marsalis and Aaron Neville. We will stop by, dip in from time to time on the memorial service for Ed Bradley going on right now in New York City.

COLLINS: Meanwhile, dummies drive home a message about safe cars. The latest crash test results, see where your car stacks up. We will crunch the numbers for you, coming up in the NEWSROOM.

HARRIS: And "Seinfeld" comedian Michael Richards now offering an apology for a racist rant. Is it enough? We will hear from him in the NEWSROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

HARRIS: Surviving a car crash, the insurance industry out with its list of the safest and sturdiest. The cars and SUVs that will best protect you in an accident. None of them, not one made in the USA. CNN's Susan Candiotti joins us from Charlottesville, Virginia, with more. Susan, good morning.

SUSAN CANDIOTTI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Tony. And we are at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. It has been conducting these tests for years. And you're right, none of the cars that made its latest list are from U.S. car makers. The institute says that U.S. car makers have not yet made the grade and they are disappointed about that, but nine non-domestic car makers did, and these are some of the cars that made the list.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CANDIOTTI (voice over): As bad as this head-on collision looks and this frightening bang up from the side, in real-life crashes, safety experts insist drivers in these cars would have walked away with nothing worse than bumps and bruises.

13 vehicles were named top safety picks by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. And for the first time, more than half are SUVs, thanks, in part, to ESC, electronics stability control. Engineer Dave Zuby says ESC was a requirement.

(On camera): What's so important about it?

DAVE ZUBY, CAR SAFETY ENGINEERS: Cars with ESC are 40 percent less likely to be involved in fatal crashes than those without.

CANDIOTTI: It's easy to see why. Here's a car with ESC, and without. Top to bottom, the comparison is impressive.

RICK KRANZ, AUTOMOTIVE NEWS: It adjusts engine speed, it adjusts the anti-lock braking system to keep you in the path the driver intended. I mean, it truly is a big, big step in terms of safety.

CANDIOTTI: Another requirement to make the list, top-performing head restraints and rear end crashes, by far, the most common. We watched a rear collision test.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That didn't look like an especially good seat.

CANDIOTTI: The restraint did not protect the neck well enough from snapping back.

Is your car on the list? Here are the 13 top safety picks. Only one large car, the Audi A6, mid-size, Audi A4, Saab 9-3 and Subaru Legacy with optional ESC. Two mini vans won awards, the Hyundai Entourage and KIA Sedona. Luxury SUVs, the Mercedes M Class, Volvo XC90. Small SUVs, the Honda CR-V and Subaru Forester; and mid-sized SUVs, the Acura RDX, Honda Pilot and Subaru B9 Tribeca.

Safety experts say it all in the design. Look at the aftermath.

ZUBY: It's really even with the outside of the seat. In the worst-performing cars, we see this pillar is driven in halfway or more across where the seat would be.

CANDIOTTI: But with this design, experts say the driver would easily survive even this.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CANDIOTTI: So, again, this is one of those pillars that you just saw before, it didn't retreat very far much. This is one of the crash vehicles and this is an example of that side air bag curtain that is so important. And Tony, no small cars were picked this time either

HARRIS: Susan, I've got to tell you, I care about this list, my family certainly cares about this list. I want one of those vehicles on this list, but here's my question. Do car makers really pay attention to this list?

CANDIOTTI: Oh, the institute says yes they do, because they know that list can be their bread and butter. They know, too, that consumers are going to look to that list. So car makers make their money on it. And they know that when consumers, it's time for them to buy a new car, they are going to look to that list for guidance.

HARRIS: You got that right. I'm going to need some butter some different bread here. All right, Susan. You are back in an hour. Tell us what you have coming up next hour.

CANDIOTTI: Right. We are going to show you live for the very first time here at the institute, a live crash test. It's going to be a side impact collision with a small car, not one of these vehicles. But it is the kind of tests they do all the time

HARRIS: Oh, great. Okay. Susan Candiotti for us. Susan, thank you.

And still to come, Michael Richards, well now he's sorry. Can a late night apology smooth over a racially charged rant by the "Seinfeld" actor? We will take a closer look in the NEWSROOM. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COLLINS: An apology now from Michael Richards, the actor explaining his comedy club meltdown and repeated use of the 'N' word. The racial rant was directed at a few African-American audience members. He took his apology to late night television after some prodding from an old friend.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JERRY SEINFELD, COMEDIAN: He is extremely upset about it and I asked him if he would come on the show tonight so that he could explain what happened because it was just one of those awful, awful things. And I think he's a little mystified about what happened, but I think most importantly, he wanted to ...

DAVID LETTERMAN, LATE NIGHT HOST: We have him live via satellite from Los Angeles, so this should be Michael Richards. Are you there?

MICHAEL RICHARDS, COMEDIAN: Yes, I'm right here.

LETTERMAN: Hi Michael, welcome to the show.

RICHARDS: Hello. Hi.

LETTERMAN: How you doing?

RICHARDS: I'm not doing too good.

LETTERMAN: Why don't you explain exactly what happened for the folks who may not know?

RICHARDS: I, I lost my temper on stage. I was at a comedy club trying to do my act, and I got heckled, and I, I took it badly and went into a rage. And -- said some pretty nasty things to some Afro- Americans about a trash talk, and --

SEINFELD: Stop laughing. It's not funny.

RICHARDS: I'm really busted up over this and I'm very, very sorry to those people in the audience, the blacks, the Hispanics, whites, everyone that was there that took the brunt of that anger and, and hate and rage and how it came through. And I'm concerned about more hate and more rage and more anger coming through.

I went out there, I tried, I went out there and I did talk to some people. I even went back to the club that night to get back on the stage, and to work, to get back on the horse, as they say. And I, I -- I did. I apologized to quite a few people. But I, I didn't -- I didn't talk to all of -- everyone. They left. And I don't know how to get in touch with those people.

And then, of course, they've gone to press, as I think they should. The fact that there's that kind of solidarity and confronting that kind of -- those kinds of remarks, I think, it's important for the Afro-American community to make sure this kind of crap doesn't -- doesn't come about. I'm, I'm sorry that it happened.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COLLINS: Many in the African-American community are speaking out about Richards' racial tirade. Among them, fellow comedian Sinbad. He was in the comedy club during Richards' act. Here's what he had to say on last night's "AC 360" with John Roberts.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SINBAD, COMEDIAN: I had just walked in the comedy club, I had been there maybe five, ten, fifteen minutes and Michael was doing his thing. I don't understand when he says he was angry and he's not a racist, you know, there's not that much anger at a heckler -- it was a heckler, man, and he wasn't even heckling hard. And he just went crazy man. I mean, he went like -- it wasn't an accidental slip, man, because he kept going and going and going.

JOHN ROBERTS, CNN ANCHOR: Well he admits that he flew into a rage but he says it's so surprising that that happened because I'm not a racist, but if there is isn't some racial tint, how does that come out of a person's mouth?

SINBAD: That's like me pulling a gun out and I shoot you a bunch of times and say I'm not a killer, man. I can't believe I shot you.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

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COLLINS: The ink is still wet on the latest hopes for peace in Iraq. We're explain, coming up, right here in the NEWSROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

HARRIS: You already know to catch us weekday mornings from 9:00 a.m. until noon earn right here in the NEWSROOM, but did you know you can take us with you on your iPod? Heidi, it's scary. The CNN NEWSROOM podcast is available 24/7. Just go to CNN.com/podcast. You'll find us on iTunes.

COLLINS: Also want to get you back to the situation that we have been telling you about all morning here on CNN, the assassination of Lebanon's industry minister, Pierre Gemayel. He was apparently assassinated today in a convoy, shot two times. You see some of the video there from the vehicle that he was driving in. He was a member of the Christian Phalange Party, a supporter of the anti-Syrian parliamentary majority. What that means is Lebanese government currently locked in a power struggle with pro-Syrian factions led by Hezbollah. The loss of this man could have serious implications on that power struggle in that country. We'll continue to follow it and the fallout from it here on CNN NEWSROOM.

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