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THE SITUATION ROOM

Shiite Militants Get Help From Hezbollah; Interview With Jimmy Carter

Aired November 28, 2006 - 19:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks very much, Lou. And to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM where new pictures and information are arriving all the time. Standing by CNN reporters across the United States and around the world to bring you tonight's top stories.
Happening now, U.S. troops may face an ominous new threat as Iraq Shiite militants get help now from Lebanon Shiite militants in the battle hardened Hezbollah group. One of President Bush's more vocal critics is former President Jimmy Carter. He calls the Iraq invasion one of the biggest blunders by any president -- that and much more in my one-on-one interview with the former president.

And is the Christian Coalition starting to split apart? As some evangelicals want to move beyond the traditional moral issues the movement may be getting caught up in a cultural war.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

As the sectarian slaughter rages, is an Iraqi Shiite militia now getting help from Hezbollah? That's the Lebanese Shiite group who just fought a bloody war with Israel. Is that raising the threat level for American troops right now in Iraq?

Let's begin our coverage with CNN's Brian Todd. Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, both these militias have shown solidarity with each other and a mutual hatred of the U.S. and its allies. Now that they're forming a tiger military alliance, there is new concern tonight about the safety of coalition troops in Iraq.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(SOUNDS)

TODD (voice-over): The enemies of U.S. and Iraqi forces may now have another dangerous ally, aside from al Qaeda. A senior U.S. intelligence official tells CNN members of the Mehdi Army, a lethal Shia militia led by anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, have been trained by Hezbollah forces in Lebanon.

Hezbollah deemed a terrorist group by the U.S., with a long history of attacks against Americans and their allies. U.S. officials say they don't have indications this training involves large numbers of Mehdi fighters, but they say this reinforces their belief that Shia militants, like the Mehdi Army, like Hezbollah have powerful supporters.

MAJ. GEN. BILL CALDWELL, MULTI-NATIONAL FORCE-IRAQ: There are extremist elements that we know are being trained by different elements within Iran, and there are reports that they could possibly being trained also over in the Syria area.

TODD: The U.S. intelligence official says al-Sadr's militants training with Hezbollah went through Syria to get to Lebanon. Contacted by CNN, an official with the Syrian embassy said they have no information on these reports. Iran denies supporting Shia militias in Iraq. And the head of al-Sadr's faction in the Iraqi parliament says the charge that his followers are training with Hezbollah is quote, "a big lie created by U.S. intelligence." What would a military alliance between al-Sadr and Hezbollah mean?

MAJ. JEFFREY BEATTY, FORMER CIA, FBI COUNTERTERROR OFC.: Both groups have made good use of explosives, improvised explosive devices vehicle-born, as well as roadside bombs. There are things that they can learn from each other on what is the most effective way to use those weapons.

TODD: Al-Sadr has already made a political threat through his followers in parliament.

SALIH AL-AKEILI, IRAQI PARLIAMENT MEMBER (through translator): If the prime minister goes ahead and meets with the criminal Bush in Amman, we will suspend our membership in the Iraqi government.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: Some U.S. officials and Iraqi observers say al-Sadr may not carry out that threat and likely won't leave the government entirely. But with his control of 30 seats in parliament and six government ministries, even a disruption could be devastating. Wolf?

BLITZER: All right, Brian, thank you -- Brian Todd reporting.

President Bush heads to the region tomorrow. He'll meet with the Iraqi prime minister in Jordan. It's part of what appears to be a new diplomatic drive to not only quell the chaos in Iraq but to try to ease regional tensions, as well. Our State Department correspondent Zain Verjee joining us now with more -- Zain.

ZAIN VERJEE, CNN STATE DEPARTMENT CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the U.S. is looking to its friends in the Arab world to help with Iraq. But Arab allies want something in return.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(SOUNDS)

VERJEE (voice-over): Each day it gets bloodier in Iraq. As President Bush prepares to meet its prime minister, Arab leaders say the key to prevent Iraq from plunging into deeper chaos is simple.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I keep saying Palestine is the core. It is linked to the extent to what is going on in Iraq.

VERJEE: Accused of not being actively engaged in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, Washington appears to be making a new push for peace.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're trying to help get a democracy started in the Palestinian territory.

VERJEE: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice heads to the West Bank on Thursday. She'll meet with the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, to offer support as he battles Islamic militants and tries to jump start talks with Israel. The U.S. is also under pressure to help Lebanon's fragile government, which is on the verge of collapse after this summer's war between Israel and Hezbollah, and last week's assassination of a popular cabinet minister.

KING ABDULLAH II, JORDAN: Imagine, going into 2007 and having three civil wars on our hands. And therefore it is time that we really take a strong step forward as part of the international community.

VERJEE: Which is why the U.S. is engaging in a strong diplomatic drive.

SANDRA MACKEY, AUTHOR, "THE IRANIANS": The administration is beginning to look at the situation in Iraq as a regional problem, that you simply cannot isolate Iraq.

VERJEE: Vice President Cheney's just returned from a trip to Saudi Arabia, and Secretary Rice will meet with a group of moderate Arab leaders in Jordan this week. All of this outreach aimed at getting Arab support in Iraq and to counter the growing influence of Syria and Iran.

SEAN MCCORMACK, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: What are you looking at with this grouping of countries is a group of moderate governments who are interested in trying to resolve any differences that might exist in the region.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

VERJEE: And Arab diplomats say that addressing their concerns in the region is basically going to put them in a better position to help the United States. The Iraq study group led by James Baker, as you know, Wolf, is likely to recommend a similar regional approach soon -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Zain at the State Department, Zain, thank you.

And that Iraq study group that Zain just referred to is an independent bipartisan panel. It has now wrapped up an additional intensive two-day huddle right here in Washington, trying to agree on some recommendations for President Bush and how to change course in Iraq. It may be one of the most important foreign policy recommendations for the United States in decades if the advisers themselves can reach a consensus. Let's get some more now from CNN's Mary Snow. Mary?

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, collectively they have vast experience in government, and their suggestions will carry significant weight.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW (voice-over): They are known by some as the wise men to the White House, although not all are men. The collective brain trust on what to do about Iraq known as the Iraq study group is unprecedented.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is in effect the first example we've had of outsourcing foreign policy making from the White House.

SNOW: That outsourcing, if you will, is in the hands of 10 members, five Democrats, five Republicans, and is co-chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker, a Republican, and former Congressman Lee Hamilton, a Democrat.

PRESIDENT BUSH: We've had people who have served in the administration, administrations past, our court system in the legislative branch.

SNOW: But critics say the bipartisan panel has admitted some key members.

DAN GOURE, LEXINGTON INSTITUTE: Some striking things about this group is the absolute lack of real experience with the Middle East and the relative lack of military experience.

SNOW: The panel does include former Defense Secretary William Perry, but it also includes retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and former Clinton adviser Vernon Jordan, neither of whom are known for military or foreign policy experience.

DAVID GERGEN, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL ADVISER: What they do bring is an overriding sense of patriotism, a desire to help the country get out of the ditch in Iraq, and to do it in a way that is more bipartisan.

SNOW: David Gergen, a former adviser to four presidents says presidents in the past, such as President Kennedy when he dealt with the Cuban missile crisis, met with their wise men privately. He says the fact that the Iraq study group's recommendations are public puts the president in an awkward position.

GERGEN: If he accepts, he looks like he's kowtowing to an outside group, but if he rejects, it looks like he's you know in denial.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW: And David Gergen also says the big unanswered question is whether it is already too late for the U.S. to make a significant difference in Iraq. Wolf?

BLITZER: All right, Mary, thanks very much.

Let's check in with Jack Cafferty. He's in New York with "The Cafferty File". Jack?

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Well I think it might be safe to say we've made a big difference in Iraq in the last three or four years.

Will the last one out please turn out the lights? A British official is now saying thousands of British soldiers are going to withdraw from Iraq over the next year. About 7,000 British military personnel currently are on duty in the region. Italy, Poland also announced that their troops are coming home. That's a total of about 1,000 soldiers.

The United States has about 144,000 troops in Iraq. Speaking in Riga, Latvia today, President Bush said the U.S. will not remove its troops from Iraq until stability is brought to the region. Hope they have a lot of supplies. His comments come as a civil war rages out of control now in Iraq, with no one, including the U.S. military able to stop it. And the White House refuses to acknowledge that Iraq has in fact descended into civil war.

Here's the question. What does it mean for U.S. troops when the rest of the coalition such as it is begins to leave Iraq? E-mail us at CaffertyFile@CNN.com or go to CNN.com/CaffertyFile -- Wolf?

BLITZER: Jack, thank you.

And coming up, former President Jimmy Carter right here in THE SITUATION ROOM -- he goes after the current commander-in-chief, saying President Bush has made one of the greatest presidential blunders of all-time. And an American F-16 crashes in Iraq. Why did the insurgents get to the crash site before the U.S. military?

And there's a new casualty in the culture wars. The president of the Christian Coalition quits in a very public departure -- the reason? It may surprise you.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: U.S. military has a mystery on its hands, a pilot missing since an Air Force combat jet went down near Baghdad. Authorities say insurgents evidently got to the crash site yesterday long before U.S. troops did. An investigation is currently under way. Our senior Pentagon correspondent Jamie McIntyre has the story. Jamie?

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SR. PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, when a U.S. plane crashes over hostile territory, the challenge is usually to find it before the enemy does. In the case of yesterday's crash of an F-16 over Iraq, the U.S. knew exactly where it went down, but in the end, it made little difference.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) MCINTYRE (voice-over): By the time the U.S. military got to the scene, a farm field 20 miles northwest of Baghdad, all they found was the wreckage of the single seat F-16 smoldering in the late afternoon sun. The markings for the plane's home base, Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico, could be seen on the tail fin. Nearby was the intact canopy and a tangled parachute harness. But there was no sign of the pilot who the military thinks was unable to eject and probably died in the crash.

CALDWELL: It does not appear to have been shot down, but rather crashed into the ground. But there was no report of a parachute; the assumption is at this point that he probably crashed with his aircraft at that site.

MCINTYRE: The pilot's wingman flying another F-16 reported the plane went down in enemy territory in the insurgent stronghold of al- Anbar Province. After conducting a low-level strafing run to protect U.S. troops engaged in fierce ground combat. Overhead, U.S. planes could see insurgents swarming the crash site.

BRIG. GEN. STEPHEN HOOG, MULTI-NATIONAL FORCE-IRAQ: Immediately after the crash, we had both additional fighters overhead as well as intelligence and surveillance assets. Those assets did observe insurgents in the vicinity of the crash site.

CALDWELL: There are several major fights going on up there, all in close proximity to each other, and the situation was very volatile.

MCINTYRE: It was several hours before the U.S. military could secure the area. Video aired by the Al-Jazeera network appeared to show a body before it was taken away. The U.S. military was able to collect DNA samples and launched a search for the pilot who is officially listed as missing. Had the pilot ejected, it would have automatically activated an emergency beacon, even if the pilot was incapacitated.

MAJ. GEN. LARRY ARNOLD, U.S. AIR FORCE (RET.): In today's world with our GPS locations, we know exactly where you are within just meters.

MCINTYRE: But in this case, no beacon ever went off. Another sign the pilot may have been unable to eject.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MCINTYRE: When a pilot is down the U.S. military says it pulls out all the stops to get there first. But in this case, all the U.S. technology was trumped by a simple fact. The insurgents were already there when the plane crashed. Wolf?

BLITZER: Jamie McIntyre, thank you for that report.

In the search for a solution in Iraq, Baghdad officials are reaching out in earnest to Iran's leaders, who in turn are pointing fingers directly at the United States. Today, the Iraqi president and Iran's supreme leader met in Tehran. Let's get more on this important story from CNN's Carol Costello -- Carol.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: A lot of finger pointing, Wolf. The president of Iran reached out to Iraq and Syria for a summit to find a way to stop the violence in Iraq. But there is a more cynical view on this that the invitation was really designed to upstage President Bush's summit in Jordan, where he is expected to include Iran and Syria in a regional effort to do the very same thing.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COSTELLO (voice-over): As the violence rages on in Iraq, its president is on the move to stop it -- one possible solution -- engage Iran. Iraqi officials met with Iran's president, the same man who says President Bush is inspired by Satan. He welcomed Iraq's president, Jalal Talabani listening as Iran's supreme leader placed blame for the bloodshed in Iraq on the United States.

The Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blamed U.S. policy for sectarian violence; he said it's America who must withdraw its foreign forces to stop the violence, not Iran. And he claimed Iran would spare no effort to promote stability and security in Iraq if Iraqi officials call for such help.

(on camera): Some Americans might look at this meeting between the Iraqis and Iranians and get really worried. And say, what's up with that? Should Americans be worried?

ROBERT MALLEY, INTERNATIONAL CRISIS GROUP: We have to get used to the fact that over time geography is what determines so much of a country's foreign policy. And geography dictates that Iraqis and Iranians are going to have to find some relationship in order to move forward.

COSTELLO (voice-over): But Malley says no movement is likely until the one party missing in this room comes to the table, the United States. And don't expect that to happen any time soon. President Bush spent this day in Latvia, talking of extremists in Syria, Lebanon and Iran.

PRESIDENT BUSH: Armed with nuclear weapons they could blackmail the free world, spread their ideologies of hate, and raise a mortal threat to Europe, America and the entire civilized world.

COSTELLO: Those words make it difficult for the Iraqi president and his U.S.-backed government to move forward with Iran. Malley says the U.S. must stop the rhetoric.

MALLEY: Our main priority in the region now is to get Iraq right. If we are doing this with one hand tied behind our back because we're not talking to the neighbor of Iraq that has the greatest influence in that country, Iran, then we cannot succeed, so, we're going to have to change our own policies if we want to get somewhere to a better place in Iraq.

COSTELLO: Until the U.S. and Iran can work something out civilly Iran is not likely to help Iraq much. Experts say the more unrest in Iraq, the more power Iran wields over the United States.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COSTELLO: So, will anything come of this? Well, Iran is said to be deeply involved in training, funding and arming two major Shiite militias in Iraq. It is hope diplomacy might stop that, but Iran is not likely to do that unless it gets something in return, and, Wolf, it wants something in return from the United States.

BLITZER: And it's looking, Carol, to a lot of officials here in Washington as if Iran is emerging as so far at least as a major winner as a result of this war in Iraq. Carol, thanks very much for that.

Still to come tonight right here in THE SITUATION ROOM my interview with the former president of the United States, Jimmy Carter. Does he think Iraq is now in an all-out civil war? I'll ask him.

Plus, a controversial Democratic congressman passed over for a key committee post. You might be surprised at who Alcee Hastings is now blaming.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: A controversial congressman is getting passed over for a committee chairmanship in the new Democratic controlled House of Representatives. Florida's Alcee Hastings suggests haters, haters are to blame for his defeat. But Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi apparently took ethics questions into considerations. Let's turn to our congressional correspondent Andrea Koppel -- Andrea.

ANDREA KOPPEL, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the controversy has been swirling for weeks once it became clear that the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Jane Harman of California, was not at the top of Nancy Pelosi's list to head the committee, then all eyes turned to the second ranking Democrat on the committee, Alcee Hastings.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KOPPEL (voice-over): Even as he left the Capitol moments after learning he would not be the next chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Congressman Alcee Hastings was still making his case, highlighting his seniority on this powerful and prestigious committee as proof he was the most qualified candidate.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Try seven years.

KOPPEL: But despite his seven-year service, Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi told Hastings during their hour-long meeting he would not get the job. Hastings supporters accuse critics of undermining his candidacy by highlighting a decades-old allegation that he tried to extort a $150,000-bribe when he was a federal judge even though a jury acquitted him. Still, despite that acquittal, the House of Representatives voted to impeach Hastings in 1988, and the Senate removed him from the bench. Hastings and his friends lobbied hard for him to win the post. On Tuesday, his former lawyer made another pitch in an opinion column in "The Washington Post".

Not one to mince words, Hastings said he was obviously disappointed by Pelosi's decision, but that our nation's national security is far more important than my professional security. And in a parting shot at his critics, Hastings ended his statement with a defiant zinger. Sorry, haters, he wrote. God is not finished with me yet.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KOPPEL: Now perhaps surprisingly, the congressional Black Caucus of which Hastings is a member, which has been among his biggest supporters and wrote a letter to Pelosi on his behalf did not criticize Pelosi's decision. Instead, its chairman said that basically Hastings would have made an outstanding intelligence chairman and we still hope he will at some point in the future.

Now, as to who will be the next chairman of the Intel Committee, Wolf, Pelosi isn't saying. A Democratic aide says she hasn't made a decision yet but will do so soon -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We'll see if that decision includes Jane Harman or not. Thanks very much for that -- Andrea Koppel on the Hill.

Just ahead, a stinging assessment about Iraq -- Jimmy Carter calls the war one of the greatest presidential blunders of all time. We're going to tell you what else the former president had to say about Iraq and President Bush, my one-on-one interview with the former president. That's coming up.

And one leader of a top Christian group says he wants to focus on issues that Jesus would want us to care about. But he says his coalition is more focused on opposing abortion and gay marriage. We're going to have details. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM where new pictures and information are arriving all the time. Happening now, Jimmy Carter calls the Iraq war one of the greatest presidential blunders ever. You'll hear what else the former president has to say in my one-on-one interview. That's coming up.

In Cuba, they are celebrating Fidel Castro's 80th birthday, but the Cuban president didn't show up for the main events. It's still unclear if Castro will attend a handful of other events honoring him this week. He's still recovering after emergency surgery in July for an undisclosed illness.

And helping people keep track of their money. A federal judge now says the current paper money is unfair to the blind. Because bills of different denomination come in the same size and feel, the judge says the Treasury Department has denied the blind meaningful access to money, and he's ordering the government to find ways to tell bills apart.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Former President Jimmy Carter has been a vocal critic of some Bush administration policies including the war in Iraq. The Nobel Peace Prize winner has a unique perspective on international conflicts, fueled by his religion and long histories of hatred. Jimmy Carter has a new book entitled "Palestine: Peace, Not Apartheid."

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Mr. President, thanks for coming in.

JIMMY CARTER, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's a pleasure, Wolf.

BLITZER: A very provocative title.

We'll get to the book shortly.

Let's get through some of the major issues of the day.

The president spoke forcefully today about Iraq at the NATO summit, not backing down at all, seemingly repeating the lines he was saying before the Democratic victory in Congress.

Listen to this little clip.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: We'll continue to be flexible and we'll make the changes necessary to succeed. But there's one thing I'm not going to do -- I'm not going to pull our troops off the battlefield before the mission is complete.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Smart strategy on his part to enunciate that policy the way he is?

CARTER: Well, I think that he and the American people, the members of Congress, everyone in the United States, and maybe around the world, are waiting to see what Lee Hamilton and Jim Baker recommend.

BLITZER: But is that outsourcing foreign policy, sort of kicking, punting the ball down the road to these outside 10 Democrats and Republicans giving him advice? Is that smart?

CARTER: Well, I don't think he did it. I think this was an initiation by the Congress. He has his own recommendations, to be derived from people in his administration.

BLITZER: Is this a civil war that the U.S. is involved in in Iraq right now?

CARTER: Well, I know that NBC has ordained that it be called a civil war.

BLITZER: But what do you...

CARTER: But we're...

BLITZER: What about Jimmy Carter?

CARTER: I think civil war is a serious -- a more serious circumstance than exists in Iraq. And I say that based on some of the civil wars in which we've been involved in the last few years.

For instance, we've worked 19 years to try to get a civil war ended in southern Sudan, where 2 million people died. And we just helped to hold an election in the Republic of Congo, where 4 million people have died in the last eight years.

BLITZER: So you're saying this is not a civil war?

CARTER: Well, I think you can -- if you want to call it a civil war, some of the news media, like NBC, or if you want to call it not a civil war, by the White House, it's a matter of judgment. I think semantics or what you name it doesn't have any real effect.

BLITZER: The U.S., this commission you're talking about, this bipartisan Lee Hamilton-James Baker Iraq Study Group, one of their proposals that there's a lot of speculation about, that they're going to recommend the U.S. starts talking directly with Syria and Iran.

Listen to what the president said today about Iran.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: We see the struggle in Iran, where a reactionary regime subjugates its proud people, arrests free trade union leaders and uses Iran's resources to fund the spread of terror and pursue nuclear weapons.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: This doesn't sound like someone who really wants to let Iran play a significant role in Iraq right now.

CARTER: Well, you know, there's a difference between letting Iran play a role in the future of Israel, on the other hand, which would be completely out of the question, and including Iran and Syria in a conference of all of the surrounding nations, including those that are close to us, moderate Arabs like Egypt and Jordan and Saudi Arabia and some of the other Gulf states.

But I think if they are included in a conference, that would reassure the Iraqi people that some day in the near future they're going to have complete control over their military and political and economic destiny, and Israeli and American occupation forces are going to be withdrawn, I think that would be something that the president should accept.

BLITZER: You know a lot about Iran. You spent the last 444 days of your presidency focusing in on the American hostages.

CARTER: I remember that.

BLITZER: I know. I remember it very well. I think everyone who was alive remembers it, as well.

This is a regime -- basically, the same people who were in charge then, who took over for the shah, are still in charge right now, led by a supreme ayatollah, who has been meeting today with Talabani, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad met yesterday with Jalal Talabani, the president of Iraq.

CARTER: Yes.

BLITZER: This is the same Iranian president who said last October, a year ago: "Israel must be wiped off the map of the world, and god willing, with the forces of god behind it, we shall soon experience a world without the United States and Zionists."

CARTER: This is one of the most ridiculous and obnoxious statements that I've ever heard a public official -- certainly in a leadership capacity -- to make. It's ridiculous and ought to be completely discounted.

However, you know, the Iranian people and the government, I think collectively, would like to see a stable Iraq, and there may be a role for them to play in the conference that I hope will be forthcoming that I described earlier. And I think this is going to be one of the key recommendations of the study commission that we've already discussed.

And so, I think this is one that I would certainly approve, is a broad-based conference, maybe even including France and Russia and others who might help to reassure the Iraqi people that their nation is going to be, I would say, reconstructed and given the proper element of freedom and independence.

BLITZER: I assume you believe that the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the removal of Saddam Hussein, was a huge -- with hindsight, was a huge blunder.

CARTER: Well, when you throw in the removal of Saddam Hussein, I don't include that. But I think that the original invasion of Iraq, and all of its consequences, yes, were a blunder, including what happened with the leadership.

BLITZER: In the scheme of things, how big of a blunder was it in terms of foreign policy blunders that American presidents have made?

CARTER: One of the -- it's going to prove, I believe, to be one of the greatest blunders that American presidents have ever made.

BLITZER: Bigger than Vietnam? CARTER: I think it's going to be a close call, but perhaps much more vividly known by the rest of the world than Vietnam was. And, of course, my answer is predicated on not knowing what's going to happen in the future.

BLITZER: Let's talk about your new book, "Palestine: Peace, Not Apartheid." The book jacket, the book cover, has a picture of you. It also has a picture of the wall that Israel has constructed...

CARTER: Yes.

BLITZER: ... along the West Bank to protect itself, presumably, from terrorists coming into major Israeli cities and towns.

CARTER: Not along the West Bank, but inside the West Bank.

BLITZER: Inside the West Bank...

CARTER: OK.

BLITZER: ... to separate, if you will, the Palestinian territories from Israel, pre-'67 Israel...

CARTER: Well, as a matter of fact...

BLITZER: ... or close to those lines.

CARTER: As a matter of fact, that's not correct, Wolf.

What the wall does is separate Palestinians from other Palestinians. This wall is not built between Israel and Palestine. It's built between the Palestinians and other Palestinians.

BLITZER: In terms of going a little bit further than the pre-'67 lines...

CARTER: I wouldn't say a little bit.

BLITZER: You're right, it's all built on Palestinian-occupied territory.

CARTER: And in some places, it goes much further than a little bit.

BLITZER: You know you're going to be -- you're already being criticized for using the word apartheid.

CARTER: Well, let me explain the title...

BLITZER: OK.

CARTER: ... because the title was very carefully...

BLITZER: Because that's such a provocative -- the impression that somebody gets -- and you can't judge a book by its cover -- but the impression you get looking at this cover, you see "Palestine: Peace, Not Apartheid," you see a wall and you say, is Israel creating an apartheid regime in the Palestinian territories?

CARTER: Let me answer the question.

First of all, the entire title should be considered. First of all, it's Palestine and not Israel. I have never insinuated and do not think at all that Israel would perpetrate apartheid within their own nation, because the Arabs that live in Israel -- and there's a lot of them -- have the full civil rights that other Israelis have, Jews or not.

What I say is Palestine -- and then peace is what I'm for, and not apartheid.

However, in the West Bank, in the occupied territories, a horrible example of apartheid is being perpetrated against the Palestinians who live there. Israel has penetrated and occupied, confiscated and colonized major portions of the territory belonging to the Palestinians.

BLITZER: But the government, the current government of Prime Minister Olmert...

CARTER: Yes.

BLITZER: ... the previous government of even Sharon and before that...

CARTER: Netanyahu.

BLITZER: But -- Netanyahu, but Barak, Ehud Barak, they offered, under the last days of the Bill Clinton administration, a deal which would give up most of the West Bank, including parts of Jerusalem itself. And Clinton said Arafat missed a major opportunity to resolve this crisis right then.

CARTER: That is not quite an accurate description of it, which the...

BLITZER: Well, let me read to you what

CARTER: ... the accurate description...

BLITZER: Let me read to you what Jim -- what Bill Clinton wrote in his book, "My Life." He was the president who was negotiating at Camp David...

CARTER: OK.

BLITZER: ... and then at Taba, trying to resolve this. And Barak, the prime minister...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: ... who made some major...

CARTER: OK. Go ahead. BLITZER: ... major concessions. He said: "Right before I left office, Yasser Arafat thanked me for all my efforts and told me what a great man I was. 'Mr. Chairman,' I replied, 'I am not a great man, I am a failure and you have made me one.' Arafat's rejection of my proposal after Ehud Barak accepted it was an error of historic proportions."

CARTER: OK, well...

BLITZER: That's what the former president wrote in his book.

CARTER: All right. Well, in my book, which I think is accurate -- I hate to dispute Bill Clinton on your program because he did a great and heroic effort there. He never made a proposal that was accepted by Barak or Arafat.

BLITZER: Why would he write that in his book if...

CARTER: I don't know.

BLITZER: ... if he said Barak accepted it?

CARTER: I don't know...

BLITZER: And Arafat rejected it.

CARTER: You could check with all the records. Barak never did accept it. And at Taba, for instance, which you've mentioned, not only were Americans excluded, but Barak subsequently said I never authorized any Israeli to negotiate at Taba with any Palestinians. And they never did have any negotiations there.

BLITZER: The book is entitled "Palestine Peace, Not Apartheid." Jimmy Carter is the author.

Thanks very much, Mr. President, for coming in.

CARTER: And I hope it will provoke a discussion and a debate in this country, which is always missing, as you know.

BLITZER: Well, you'd better believe it's provoking a lot of debate right now.

CARTER: Well, I hope so.

BLITZER: And I know you're ready for that debate.

CARTER: I am.

BLITZER: Thanks very much.

CARTER: Thank you, Wolf. Glad to be with you.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And still ahead tonight right here on THE SITUATION ROOM, a leader of a top Christian group is resigning, and the reason why may surprise you.

And if coalition troops start to leave Iraq, when might U.S. troops follow? Jack Cafferty asking what it means for American troops when other countries start to withdraw from Iraq, as is happening right now. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: In the culture wars the president-elect of the Christian Coalition decides not to take the job. He says the organization refused to let him expand its agenda beyond opposing gay marriage and abortion.

Our senior political correspondent Candy Crowley has more on this surprising twist, I should say -- Candy.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: It is. Both sides in this, in the Christian Coalition, say that this was amicable split, but a split it was.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(voice-over): There is a struggle afoot inside the Christian Conservative movement.

REV. JOEL HUNTER, NORTHLAND CHURCH: There is a -- kind of an emergence of Conservative Christians that want to take a broader look at the issues and not just be focused and limited by those traditional moral issues.

CROWLEY: The Reverend Joel Hunter will not become president of the Christian Coalition after all, because he is one of those emerging to say the movement needs to go beyond abortion and single sex marriage.

HUNTER: I wanted to go from simply the moral issues that we've traditionally had, and those we stand solid on those, to expand them into the more compassion issues of Christ, poverty, environment, address the needs of people, because unless you are as much for the vulnerable outside the womb as inside the womb, you don't really have the full picture of Jesus.

CROWLEY: Even before Hunter made his case for a broader agenda, some state chapters opted out of the Christian Coalition, worried the organization was going beyond its original intent and abandoning moral issues. It shook up coalition officials enough to tread very cautiously, if at all, on new terrain.

ROBERTA COMBS, CHRISTIAN COALITION: We want to stay with our core issues, but we also want to broaden the organization, and broaden the issues. But we wanted to make sure that these issues were with what our supporters felt like were important issues to the family.

CROWLEY: The struggle goes beyond the Christian Coalition. The Reverend Jerry Falwell recently wrote of the, quote, "developing cultural divide in the evangelical community over global warming." Falwell and others object to evangelicals teaming up with liberal groups who do not share the movement's conservative moral values. The union, Falwell suggested, might give anti-Christian ideologies unmerited moral cover.

For Reverend Hunter, Falwell proves the point. Hunter says some Christian Conservatives are, quote, "scared to death to take on environmental and poverty issues for fear of being tagged as liberals".

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CROWLEY (on camera): In some ways, Wolf, Christian Conservatives are in the same dilemma that many political parties have, which is they're trying to figure out how to expand their organization without alienating the people that brung them to the dance.

BLITZER: All right.

Candy, thanks very much.

Candy Crowley reporting.

Meanwhile, Pope Benedict XVI is on the most controversial journey of his papacy so far. Right now, he's in Turkey, facing Muslim anger over his quoting earlier this year of an ancient text that called Islam evil.

CNN's Anderson Cooper is doing some extensive reporting from the pope's trip. He's joining us now live from Istanbul.

How did this first day of the visit in turkey go, Anderson?

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: I think it went very well from the Vatican's perspective. Perhaps the biggest olive branch that the pope offered today was in a meeting with the Turkish prime minister, essentially saying that he had reversed himself as Cardinal Ratzinger, he had spoken out against Turkish membership in the European Union. This is something closely followed here in Turkey. It is something the majority of people here in polls have indicated that they want, that the prime minister wants very badly.

The pope today, according to the prime minister, and the Vatican later confirming it, indicating that they would look favorably upon Turkish entry into the European Union. That is a major shift for this pope, the first time he's really indicated the way he felt about it as pontiff, as opposed to when he was Cardinal Ratzinger.

He also talked a lot about brotherhood, about reconciliation, trying to smooth some of the waters that were upset after the pope's comments some two months ago about the role of violence in faith, in particular, in Islam. So this pope really trying to reconcile, I think, some of the anger that was out there. And I think he went a long way to do that today, Wolf.

BLITZER: So what happens now? What's next on his schedule, in trying to alleviate some of these concerns in the Muslim world? COOPER: Well, you know, the real objective of his trip is to reach out to the Orthodox Christian community. That's originally who he was invited by here. He's going to be meeting in Istanbul later this week with the patriarch of Orthodox Christian Church, some 220 Orthodox Christians throughout the world. That meeting's going to be in Istanbul.

Tomorrow, he's going to Ephesus, which is where the Virgin Mary is thought to have lived later on in her life. The he'll head up here to Istanbul, and very importantly, will go to the Blue Mosque, which is -- he will be only the second pontiff to ever visit the mosque. The first, of course, being Pope John Paul II. That, another major move in order to try to reach out to Muslims, not only here in Turkey, but throughout the Islamic world.

BLITZER: Anderson, thanks very much.

Anderson Cooper reporting from Istanbul.

And to our viewers, you can see a lot more of Anderson's coverage of the pope's controversial visit to Turkey. That's coming up later tonight, on "AC 360", 10:00 p.m. Eastern, 7:00 Pacific, only here on CNN.

Up ahead, Jack Cafferty wants to know, what does it mean for U.S. troops when so many of the other coalition partners start to leave Iraq? Jack, standing by with the "Cafferty File".

Plus, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. She's a possible contender for a rare distinction. We'll explain.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's check back with Jack Cafferty for the "Cafferty File" -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: The question this hour, Wolf, is as follows: what does it mean for the United States military when the rest of the coalition starts to leave Iraq?

The British announced they're going to draw their forces down significantly by the end of next year. They've got about 7,000 troops plus there now. The Italians and the Poles, as well, saying they're going to pull out of Iraq. So, we'll be, I guess, the last ones there.

Bruce writes: "It means nothing to Bush; he discerns no meaning from normal environmental stimuli, such as any normal person would. For the soldiers, it means more depleted uranium illness and dismemberment. For the U.S., it means higher debt, more isolationism, greater hatred of this country and higher gas prices."

Charles in Brooklyn, New York: "I one way, being the last man standing is a true testament to the enduring strength of out troops and our country. Whatever the determination becomes of the war's wisdom, the world will always know we stand strong when all others cannot or will not."

Rita from New York writes: "It means that there is a greater chance that my godson from Texas who is in Iraq will be among those targeted by the terrorists."

Armando, Miami, Florida: "What does it mean if the other members of the coalition withdraw from Iraq? Not much considering that they are guarding areas that are relatively peaceful and can be defended by the Iraqi army."

David in New York writes: "It means that we have a president who refuses to face reality or admit to his egregious mistakes, including embroiling this country in the greatest foreign policy blunder in its history. He and Cheney should both do the right thing and resign."

And Jim writes: "Coalition. Another great Beltway buzzword that never quite lived up to its Webster's definition. Enough already."

If you didn't see your e-mail here, you can go to CNN.com/caffertyfile. We posted some more of these online. You can you read them there -- Wolf.

BLITZER: you know, it's unusual for an ex-president to severely criticize the current president, the sitting president. Jimmy Carter minced no words at all when he said that Bush's decision to go into Iraq, one of the greatest blunders ever committed by an American president. Did you hear him say that in the interview?

CAFFERTY: Well, yes. President Carter's a nice man. And I interviewed him back when he was in the White House. But you know, let he who is without sin cast the first stone. I mean, it was on President Carter's watch that those nice lads in Tehran, and Ahmadinejad, by the way, is rumored to have been among that group, that held our citizens for 444 days while President Carter was in office. And he made one attempt to get them out and that failed and resulted in the deaths of several U.S. Marines and the loss of some helicopters in the desert.

So everybody makes mistakes. And yes, you can argue this war in Iraq was a hell of a blunder, and I think it probably was. But Jimmy Carter's got some grass stains on his jeans, as well.

BLITZER: See you tomorrow here in the SITUATION ROOM, Jack.

Thanks very much.

Let's find out what's coming up right at the top of the hour. Paula is standing by for that.

Hi, Paula.

PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, Wolf. Thanks.

Pope Benedict's visit to Turkey is tonight's top story in religion. We're going focusing on what happens when faiths collide here in America. I'm going to be joined by Muslim clerics who were kicked off a jet just last week over fears that they were terrorists. They flew back here today for this exclusive interview.

Also, the challenge facing Muslims who live and work in Sin City, Las Vegas. It's an eye-opener of a report.

Wolf, I hope to see you at the top of the hour.

BLITZER: What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas, supposedly, Paula, but we shall see.

Thanks very much for that.

Still ahead, the contender. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a contender for another high honor, one so coveted it's only handed out once a year. We're going to tell what you she's being considered for tonight. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Might Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice win a distinction given only once a year?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, crisscrossing the globe as the diplomatic sands shift in Iraq.

And in Washington, D.C., the top U.S. diplomat lands a nomination as "Time Magazine's" Person of the Year.

ROMESH RATNESAR, WORLD EDITOR, "TIME": Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, I think, has emerged as the pivotal figure in the Bush administration's national security team. As secretary of state, she's come into her own, and she's developed a level of influence within the administration that I think only the vice president possibly can match.

Her main accomplishment is sort of shifting the rhetoric of the administration's foreign policy away from this kind of unilateralist, "with us or against us" approach that we saw in the first term. And we could see next year or the year after, Condoleezza Rice really being thrust to the forefront as the U.S. tries to deal both with managing some kind of withdrawal from Iraq and also dealing with the threats from Iran and North Korea.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: That's it for us.

Let's go to Paula in new York -- Paula.

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