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Defense Secretary Hearing; Iraqi Prime Minister Looking to Neighboring Nations to Help Stabilize Iraq; California Firefight

Aired December 5, 2006 - 14:00   ET


KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Kyra Phillips, live at the CNN world headquarters in Atlanta.

Ahead this hour in the CNN NEWSROOM, dogs, horses, even a heat-seeking chopper. They all join the search for James Kim. He's the San Francisco husband and father that's still missing a day after his wife and daughters were found alive.

PHILLIPS: Former Pentagon chief William Cohen joins us live to talk about Robert Gates, well, and the job he may get. What's it really like to sit in the Defense Department hot seat?

LEMON: And don't call the USS Intrepid an old stick in the mud anymore. The vintage battleship made a major move today ahead of a major overhaul.

Drop anchor. You're in the CNN NEWSROOM.

PHILLIPS: Q&A on Capitol Hill, bombs and blood in Baghdad. Defense secretary nominee Robert Gates faces what appears to be an easy path to the Pentagon but a much rougher road afterward. Gates is appearing today before the Senate Armed Services Committee for his confirmation hearing with explosive violence in Iraq as a backdrop. He's expected to quickly win confirmation, but can he win the war?

LEMON: And right now Gates says the U.S. is not winning. That was his response when the question was put to him by a Senate panel at the start of his testimony.

CNN Congressional Correspondent Andrea Koppel is there -- Andrea.

ANDREA KOPPEL, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Don, that's right. They are on a break right now. You may notice that the chairs behind me are empty. But shortly after they adjourned for this brief lunch break, Senator Carl Levin, Democrat from Michigan, who is the incoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, was positively gushing about Gates.

He said that he was a welcome breath of honest, candid realism about the situation in Iraq. We heard similar reaction from many other Democrats and Republicans to Gates' testimony thus far.

Gates' response -- I mean, the answer that they wanted to know is whether or not he was going to be independent. Gates said yes. That prompted this response from Senator Hillary Clinton, who's been a very vocal critic of the administration...


SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: Your candor to this committee, to the American people, and especially to our men and women in uniform is crucial to our success. We need a strong secretary of defense. But that doesn't mean strong-headed. And I appreciate your openness and willingness to engage with this committee today.


KOPPEL: Now, the committee also wanted to get an idea as to what Gates' vision is for resolving the current crisis in Iraq. They wanted him to lay out, perhaps, some of the steps that he thinks might be necessary, whether U.S. troops need to withdraw, whether there should be an increase in troops, as Senator Cornyn wanted to know, and Senator McCain.

Nevertheless, on that front, Gates was less forthcoming. He said he need to get over to Iraq as quickly as possible if he is confirmed to meet with the commanders on the ground before he gave that assessment. Nevertheless, Don, he also said that he believed that if the situation in Iraq were not stabilized in the next year or two, in his words, there could be a regional conflagration -- Don.

LEMON: Yes. And what was very interesting, too, is that Senator Levin said Gates' comments about the war in Iraq were even clearer, he thinks, than what's been leaked, at least, about the study group.

KOPPEL: That's right. And in fact, as you know, the -- Robert Gates was a member of this Iraq Study Group until November, when President Bush nominated him to go to the Pentagon. So he's really an insider as far as at least the information-gathering part. He said he wasn't a part of the -- of the final discussions as to what their conclusions would be.

LEMON: Andrea Koppel, thank you very much.

PHILLIPS: In Iraq, the prime minister is not waiting for changes at the Pentagon. He's moving ahead with changes of his own.

Let's get straight to Baghdad and CNN's Ben Wedeman.

Hi, Ben.


Yes, Prime Minister al-Maliki came out today and said that he wants to hold in the middle of this month a national reconciliation conference where he will bring together all the various sects and parties and groups here in Iraq to try to settle their differences to stop, in his words, the shedding of Iraqi blood. And after he holds that conference, he says he's going to reshuffle his cabinet.

But, of course, today was one of those days when they need to bring the situation here under control, it was made starkly clear. There were a variety of attacks in Baghdad itself. A total death toll in the capital of 45.

There were two major incidents, one in which a bus was attacked by first a car bomb and then ambushed by gunmen, killing at least 15 people on board. Those people on board working for a Shiite foundation that oversees religious sites.

In another part of Baghdad, in the south, three car bombs went off soon after one another outside a petrol station. In that case, more than a dozen people were killed.

And today, yet again, we saw the deadly harvest of death as the Iraqi police found 60 bodies throughout the city showing signs of torture, many of them blindfolded with their hands tied behind their backs. This, of course, the work of various death squads, Sunni, Shiites, operating in the Iraqi capital.

It brings to 166 the number of Iraqis killed in this way since Sunday. Regarding American casualties, three U.S. -- the deaths of three U.S. soldiers were announced by coalition spokesmen. All of those soldiers -- two of them were killed in combat, one in an accident in southern Iraq -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: Ben Wedeman, I'm wondering if troops are paying attention to these confirmation hearings going on. Bob Gates possibly the new sec def. He's already made it clear he wants to go in country and sit down with these commanding officers on the ground.

WEDEMAN: Well, certainly I can imagine that the troops here will welcome active engagement by the secretary of defense, if he comes over here to see what the situation is like. But obviously, many of the troops in the field, in combat areas, probably are not paying a lot of attention at the moment to the hearings in Washington, to the situation -- the political situation in the United States because, as we know, they've got their hands full here -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: Ben Wedeman, live from Baghdad.

LEMON: What would Robert Gates do differently if he's confirmed for the Pentagon's top job? Well, he says all options are on the table. Let's explore some of those options with Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr -- Barbara.


The secretary-to-be, perhaps, the nominee, Bob Gates, is holding his cards very close to his vest. He's not saying what he would do, again emphasizing that all options are on the table. But of course, the headline perhaps from today's hearing is that he thinks the U.S. is not winning in Iraq, and if you're not winning, then you're losing.

So he's going to get a lot of very quick attention to this problem. He says he's going to Iraq, that he's going to talk to top commanders. And he spoke about the level of urgency he feels about all of this.


ROBERT GATES, DEFENSE SECRETARY NOMINEE: This process is going to proceed with considerable urgency. I would tell you that if I'm confirmed, as soon as I am sworn, I intend to actually move very quickly in terms of the consultations with the commanders in the field and with the chiefs and with others in terms of formulating my recommendations. So I would say certainly from my standpoint, and I think also from the administration's, with considerable urgency.


STARR: The question, of course, Don, is there some silver bullet, military option, military solution out there that's really going to make a sudden difference? Most commanders will tell you no, that they have to just simply keep working away at the issue of trying to turn security over to the Iraqis, get the Iraqi security forces more training, get them able to deal with the situation on the streets.

I think what you will see is a lot of attention being paid to Mr. Gates' remarks that the U.S. is not winning in this war. That's candor that the troops are going to want to hear on the one hand, but it's also going to be very tough. A lot of very young kids out there on the front line, and they don't really want to hear that they're in a losing proposition. So he's going to have to have something to offer them -- Don.

LEMON: Barbara Star at the Pentagon.

Thank you very much.

And we want to remind our viewers, the Senate Armed Services Committee having a lunch break right now. Those confirmation hearings, we're going to get live to that just as soon as they return. If there's something you need to know, we'll bring it to you right here in the CNN NEWSROOM.

PHILLIPS: Firefighters in southern California hoping to catch a break today from the howling winds. Seventeen hundred crews on the front lines trying to corral the fire that's raced across Moorpark right now.

CNN's Chris Lawrence brings us stories of loss and one very close call.


CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): The hot, dry Santa Ana winds gusted up to 70 miles per hour, whipping the flames into an inferno that engulfed five homes.

DORANN LA PERCH, LOST HER HOME: We've lost our personal belongings, my mom's and dad's wedding pictures.

LAWRENCE: But for every house lost, firefighters probably saved a dozen more.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It looked like we were about to be surrounded by the fire, which was quite -- quite frightening.

LAWRENCE: These pictures show what Michael Liacko's family saw, a wall of fire running up the side of two mountains.

MICHAEL LIACKO, DEFENDED HIS HOME: We were all out with hoses watering down the hillside here, just hoping we could get enough water on it to keep it damp.

LAWRENCE: The smoke was choking them.

LIACKO: Our eyes were watering and our throats were sore.

LAWRENCE: Their bags were packed and they were this close to leaving.

(on camera): Did you ever feel like, dad, what are we doing here? I mean, should we -- should we really go?

ASHLEY LIACKO, MICHAEL'S DAUGHTER: Yes, because my friend had to evacuate her house, so she came here. And then when it kept getting closer, I'm, like, "I want to go." I was just scared. I was in tears I was so scared.

LAWRENCE (voice over): Finally, her dad dialed 911.

M. LIACKO: The fire department responded within two minutes. And it was like the cavalry coming over the hill with the helicopters.

LAWRENCE: Swooping in with water, battered by those winds.

M. LIACKO: They were literally going sideways. And I don't know how they fly in that.

LAWRENCE: Michael says he'll never forget those gusts.

M. LIACKO: You can feel the wind now, how heavy it is. It's literally moving us. And those flames were just shooting across the hillside yesterday.

LAWRENCE: The wildfire scorched thousands of acres, but firefighters helped save hundreds of homes like Michael's, who says the reward of living here far outweighs the risk.

Chris Lawrence, CNN, Moorpark, California.


PHILLIPS: Fire and ice. Jacqui Jeras charting all the highs and lows from the weather center.

Hey, Jacqui.



PHILLIPS: From the frying pan, into the fire, former defense secretary William Cohen weighs in on confirmation hearings for Bob Gates and what awaits the next person to sit in that Pentagon hot seat.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She's in great shape. The kids are in great shape. So we're happy. I mean, that's -- that's a good find for everyone who's involved.


LEMON: Stuck in snow for more than a week, finally rescued. But that's not the end of this story. More straight ahead in the CNN NEWSROOM.


PHILLIPS: Well, you think you've got a tough job? How would you like to take on a drawn-out war and the growing fallout that comes with it?

A lot of questions concerning that war happening live during the confirmation hearings there in Washington. On a break right now, but they will resume shortly.

That's in store for Robert Gates. If he is confirmed as defense secretary he'll take it all on. President Bush's nominee is going before this Senate panel, where he's giving blunt answers to very blunt questions.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: We are not winning the war in Iraq, is that correct?

GATES: That is my view, yes, sir.

MCCAIN: And therefore, the status quo is not acceptable?

GATES: That is correct, sir.


PHILLIPS: Well, let's talk to a man who's been in Gates' place, former defense secretary William Cohen.

Good to see you.


PHILLIPS: So where do you think Rumsfeld made his biggest mistake?

COHEN: Well, I don't wish to assess Secretary Rumsfeld's tenure mistakes, and I think it's pretty clear from all that's been written that we didn't have a plan post-invasion. In other words, to take Saddam Hussein down was one thing, but there was clearly inadequate and deficient planning in terms of what -- what comes next. And I think that's -- it's sort of like building a building. You lay the cornerstone. If you don't get the cornerstone correct, then that building will never be, you know, appropriate and well designed. So I think that's the situation we had, inadequate planning for the post- invasion.

PHILLIPS: And I'm going to backtrack just a little bit, because you've had firsthand experience, obviously, on this job and dealing with Saddam Hussein. I want to just go back to when you were sec def during Operation Desert Fox.

COHEN: Right.

PHILLIPS: And the purpose of that mission was to degrade Saddam's ability to make weapons of mass destruction.

I want to ask you, first of all, what kind of intel did you have at that time that he was wanting to build weapons of mass destruction or even was building them at the time?

COHEN: We had basically the same information that President Bush had and Secretary Rumsfeld had. And essentially it was based upon assumptions.

The question is, were they reasonable assumptions? And if you look back, you'd say, well, he had them, he had used them, he had refused to account for them, and therefore the assumption was he still had them in his possession. But our goal in Desert Fox was really to take down his missile production capability.

We specifically targeted those missile production facilities in order to degrade them, set them back anywhere from 18 months to two years. And the intelligence many years after would indicate that we did quite a bit of damage to that capacity.

PHILLIPS: So let me ask you, why didn't you -- or maybe you did talk about taking Saddam Hussein out. Was that -- was that an option? Was that discussed, to invade Baghdad and actually take him down?


PHILLIPS: Only to take out the facilities?

COHEN: No. We had no intention of invading Iraq.

We had a contingency plan that if we had to go into Iraq -- in other words, if he had moved against Kuwait, if he had moved against Saudi Arabia, if he had attacked Israel or done anything to his neighbors, we were prepared to go in under those circumstances. And if so, we would have a force roughly 450,000, 500,000 troops would have been called upon to go on in. That was the plan on a contingent basis. But we didn't have any plan to go in absent a provocation by him.

PHILLIPS: So why do -- why do you think that Bush and Rumsfeld, why didn't they make the same decision that you did and the administration at that time? Why do you think they decided to go in and take down Baghdad? Because it's possible that the U.S. wouldn't be in the position it's in right now if maybe they would have tried what you did.

COHEN: Well, of course our activity was prior to 9/11, and one could argue that following 9/11, the president was trying to look a number of years into the future. The question I had, and I think many have had, is whether or not Saddam posed an imminent threat.

To the extent that we had degraded his air defense capability -- and there was serious damage done to that, and that's one of the reasons we were able to be so successful in going in so quickly -- we were systematically taking down his air defense capability. And we felt that he was reasonably well contained in the north and the south. And so we felt that he did not pose an imminent threat.

President Bush came to the conclusion that might not be imminent, but it could be long term, and therefore, it was determined to go in and take him down. But, again, you could debate that point. The question really is, what was the preparation for the post-invasion? That is, the stabilizing, the securing of it until such time as those seeds of democracy were planted and took root.

PHILLIPS: When Rumsfeld was set to take the role in 2001 as sec def, I was reading that you actually called him and said you had made a list of 10 things you wanted to talk to him about. But actually that list grew to 48 things. And you said that you did sit down with him, and you went over those 48 things with him.


PHILLIPS: Was Saddam Hussein on that list? Was Iraq on that list? Was the threat of weapons of mass destruction on that list?

COHEN: Well, the threat of weapons of mass destruction certainly was on the list. And the threat posed by terrorism at the very top of that list, the potential for terror groups to have access to certain technology that could be used here domestically in this country, that was one of the many items that I listed. But it's very clear, again, from reading all of the materials that are out there now.

And personally, I recall receiving a phone call from the vice president before President Bush was sworn in. That would be early January of 2001 in which the request was to give the president-elect a briefing, and that briefing should consist primarily and substantially on Iraq. And so Iraq was very much on the mind of President Bush before 9/11 and even before he was sworn into office.

PHILLIPS: I know that you've been very concerned about Iran and how that's playing a part in Iraq right now. And that came up during the hearings today.

Let's take a listen.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC), ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: Do you believe the Iranians are trying to acquire nuclear weapons capability?

GATES: Yes, sir, I do.

GRAHAM: Do you believe the president of Iran is lying when he says he's not?

GATES: Yes, sir.

GRAHAM: Do you believe the Iranians would consider using that nuclear weapons capability against the nation of Israel?

GATES: I don't know that they would do that, Senator. I think that the risks for them, obviously, are enormously high.


PHILLIPS: Interesting. Straight out he thinks the president of Iran is lying.

COHEN: I don't think there's any question that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons program. It has been concealed for a number of years. I think that they are proceeding a pace.

It's one of the reasons why I have tried to be as insistent as possible to try to persuade the Security Council, the United Nations Security Council to vote consistent with the resolution they've just passed, or passed in the last year. And that is that they are fundamentally opposed to Iran getting a nuclear weapon. Well, the time has come for the Security Council to back up its vote by saying, in the event that Iran doesn't agree to the proposal that the U.N. has offered, that they will impose sanctions.

China and Russia are the two key countries. And if they were to line up with the other members of the Security Council and say we are going to impose sanctions, that would put the president of the United States in a position of going to Iran and then saying, let's talk about a major deal here that would include not only providing nuclear energy for your country and your people, but cutting off the funding that's going into Iraq now, cutting the funding going to Hamas and Hezbollah, because you are, in fact, destabilizing much of the region, and you're doing so covertly and almost flagrantly in terms of what's going on today.

So I would say there's an opportunity for us, but we need to have some leverage. That leverage can only come about if the Iranians understand that the Security Council will stand behind the resolutions it passes. If it feels it can simply divide the Security Council, that no action will be taken, then the United States is in a very difficult position.

And I think, frankly, it makes the likelihood, as undesirable as it is, it makes the likelihood of some kind of military conflict spreading throughout the region greater. And I think that's a bad idea, but I think if you eliminate the diplomatic opportunities, then you're going to be left with military options, and I think we ought to do everything in our power to avoid that. Russia and China can play a major role in producing that result.

PHILLIPS: Yes or no, is Bob Gates the man to take this role?

COHEN: I think he is, yes.

PHILLIPS: Former defense secretary William Cohen.

Thanks for your time.

COHEN: A pleasure.

LEMON: Three miracles down, a San Francisco family prays for just one more. A mother and her tiny daughters are rescued after nine days in the Oregon wilderness, but what has happened to the father and husband, James Kim?

Stay with CNN NEWSROOM for the latest.


PHILLIPS: More companies spreading holiday cheer in the form of bonuses and parties this year.

Susan Lisovicz at the New York Stock Exchange with the details of a new survey on holiday perks.



LEMON: A day after his wife and kids were found safe and sound, James Kim remains lost in the snowy Oregon wilderness. Rescue dogs, horse patrols and helicopters have been searching for him, missing since Saturday when he left to find help for his stranded family. Earlier police said there is a reasonable chance Kim is still alive, and they're searching with that idea in mind.


UNDERSHERIFF BRIAN ANDERSON, JOSEPHINE COUNTY OREGON: We're continuing to put more teams into that area to track. We've brought in a specialist for a man tracker that we could put in, see if we could find his footprints and continue to work that out.

So we're continuing to work it today. If we do not find him today, we'll continue to search tonight and we'll do it again tomorrow. It is very rugged, remote area. The teams are having some difficulty due to the terrain and the conditions up there. But we're continuing to work the area.


LEMON: And the stress of her ordeal written on her face. Kati Kim and her little girls are recovering in the hospital.

Miles O'Brien has more on their bittersweet rescue. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ANDERSON: She's in great shape. The kids are in great shape. So we're happy. I mean, that's -- that's a good find for everyone who was involved. And this is a good day for us.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR (voice over): It's a good news chapter, but not the end of the story for a San Francisco family lost in the snow in southwestern Oregon. A helicopter crew spotting Kati Kim and her two daughters nine days after their car got stuck in the snow on a mountain road. But Katie's husband James is still missing. He left his family two days earlier in a desperate search for help.

ANDERSON: It's my understanding he left the car at 7:45 Saturday morning, was going to walk out. And if he didn't find anything, return by 1:00. He did not return back to the car.

M. O'BRIEN: James Kim left wearing only tennis shoes, pants, a sweater and a jacket. The family went missing just after Thanksgiving, headed home to San Francisco after a holiday trip to the Pacific Northwest. They missed a turn, tried an alternate route, and ended up stuck on an impassable mountain road.

ANDERSON: They had minor provisions in the car. They ended up running -- they ran out of gas. They were running the car during the day and at night to keep warm. Then they started to burn their tires at night to stay warm. And so they did a good job.

M. O'BRIEN: Kati Kim nursed 4-year-old Penelope and 7-month-old Sabine (ph) to keep them nourished.

DR. PHIL FLEMING, KATI KIM'S FATHER (voice-over): I'm elated that the children have been found and that we have our babies back. But I have an intense worry about James at this point.

M. O'BRIEN: Searchers followed James Kim's footprints in the snow until darkness. His family says he has some outdoor experience.

ANDERSON: There's always a good scenario. Nine days, you know, stuck in the snow in a car is a good scenario. We're going to continue to look until we find James. We're operating on the assumption that he's still alive and we're going to try to find him.

Miles O'Brien, CNN, New York.


LEMON: Kati Kim's family talked with CNN this morning about their incredibly mixed emotions.


FLEMING: I was prepared to receive bad news. I was prepared to look at this issue realistically in the odds -- in the odds for a bad outcome. When I received this news, I had to confirm it over and over. It was just unbelievable joy to have my three girls back. That joy, however, is tempered over our concern about James, who's been heroic in this situation. I understand James didn't eat, let -- used the resources for the children. And everything -- and everything I've heard about his activity, this is very consistent with his character. And I am just obviously exceedingly concerned about the return of the baby's father.


LEMON: And Kati told her family her husband tried to pretend the whole ordeal was just a camping trip so she and the kids wouldn't be scared. We'll have a live report from Oregon at the top of the hour.

PHILLIPS: 23 men all strangled and suffocated. Authorities say one man now admits to dumping those bodies across Louisiana during an eight-year killing spree.

Ronald Dominique is in jail, charged with 11 of the deaths so far. And police -- or investigators say, rather, they want the death penalty. Dominique was arrested Friday at a homeless shelter and initially charged with the two killings. The sheriff called the suspect's confession terribly shocking. An investigator says that the victims killed between 1997 and 2005 were all homeless men.

An awful twist in the case of a missing 5-year-old in Alabama. The body of Geonte Glass was found overnight, less than 24 hours after he was reported taken from a service station by a carjacker. Police have now taken the boy's mother and her boyfriend into custody. Sholinda Glass has claimed that someone stole her car and her son slept in the back seat. But police say that was a hoax.


SHERIFF JAMES HAYES, ETOWAH COUNTY, ALABAMA: It was in the early morning hours of Tuesday, December the 5th, the body of the victim in this case, G. Glass, Geonte Glass, was found in the vehicle that was reported hijacked or stolen.

In custody at this time is Kevin Andre Tolls, a boyfriend of Sholinda Glass, the mother of the victim. We believe evidence is going to show that these two, in different acts and different roles in the tragedy, caused the death of this young fellow.


PHILLIPS: Police say at this point they don't know of any motive for killing the boy. Sholinda Glass also has a 7-year-old daughter.

LEMON: He's the president's man. Will the Senate agree? Stay in the CNN NEWSROOM for continuing coverage of the confirmation hearings for Robert Gates, tapped to become America's next secretary of defense. Don't go anywhere.


PHILLIPS: He's the president's choice to be the next secretary of defense. Right now going on live there, the Armed Services Committee talking with Bob Gates. Actually, asking him a number of questions about what he would do as the next defense secretary. If he is confirmed, of course, he'll take the position. Just recently, or just a few moments ago rather he clarified his position on how he thinks the military is doing in Iraq.

GATES: Certainly stand by my statement this morning that I agreed with General Pace that we are not winning, but we are not losing.

And -- but I want to make clear that that pertains to the situation in Iraq as a whole. Our military forces win the battles that they fight. Our soldiers have done an incredible job in Iraq, and I'm not aware of a single battle that they have lost.

And I didn't want my comments to be interpreted as suggesting that they weren't -- that they weren't being successful in their endeavors. And I think we all applaud and appreciate what they're doing. The situation in Iraq is clearly much more complex than just the military actions. It's the areas where we're having our challenges, frankly, are principally in the areas of stabilization and political developments and so on. I just wanted to make that clarification.

PHILLIPS: We're going to continue to monitor the hearing as it takes place live right now. Jamie McIntyre joining us at the top of the hour with more.

LEMON: A five-mile trip down the Hudson that was supposed to take about six hours, but it seems nothing has gone as expected with the USS Intrepid. After nearly a quarter century at dock and a month stuck in the mud, the USS Intrepid traveled to the Jersey shore in just about three hours. The warship turned museum is headed for a ship yard in Bayonne, New Jersey, and a stem-to-stern overhaul that will take two years and $60 million.

Our cameras weren't the only ones capturing this momentous move. Take a look at this photos sent to us from an I-Reporter, I-Reporter Steve Malecki (ph). An amazing view of the ship from Lower Manhattan. You too can say "I report for CNN." Just click on and send us your pictures or video of news in the making.

PHILLIPS: Straight ahead, entertainment news with Sibila Vargas of "SHOWBIZ TONIGHT." Hey, Sibila.

SIBILA VARGAS, CNN ENTERTAINMENT CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Kyra. What happened when this year's biggest names in music got together last night in Sin City? I'll have a full report on the 2006 Billboard Music Awards straight ahead in the NEWSROOM.


PHILLIPS: Ready to go. That's the word from the Kennedy Space Center. The countdown is under way for Thursday's planned nighttime launch of the space shuttle Discovery. If it goes off without any problems, it will be the first after-dark launch of the shuttle in more than four years.

During the 12 day mission, the crew plans to do some electrical work, rewiring the International Space Station, as well as delivering parts and replacement crew members.

NASA is also planning to head back to the moon, and this time it wants to stick around. Unlike the short-term visits of the Apollo era, well, the space agency not only wants to send men -- man, rather, or women back by the year 2020.

It now says it wants to establish a base there, a permanent station no one -- or, on one of the moon's poles. The lunar outpost would be built and permanently staffed by 2024.

LEMON: Well, somewhere Mary J. Blige is smiling. That's because she had a big night in Vegas. Not at the tables, but at the 2006 Billboard Music Awards. An American Idol also scored big.

Let's run through the hits with Sibila Vargas, live from L.A.

Hey, Sibila.

VARGAS: Hey, Don.

They say you're not number one until you're number one on the Billboard charts. And the number one name at the 2006 Billboard Music Awards was Miss Mary J. Blige.


VARGAS (voice-over): As the sun set on the Las Vegas strip, the stars came out for the 2006 Billboard Music Awards. The one and only Janet Jackson kick started the party inside the MGM Grand, giving the audience a taste of her classic "Pleasure Principle" followed by "So Excited" from her latest album.

The night was all about collaboration as Fergie got a little help from her Black Eyed Peas band mate Will I Am on her latest single, "Fergalicious".

While Ludacris hooked up with Pharrell for "Shake Your Money Maker".

RIHANNA, SINGER: I can't feel my legs. But this is just phenomenal.

VARGAS: In a major upset, Rihanna managed to score the coveted Female Artist of the Year Award, beating out heavyweights Beyonce and Mary J. Blige.

MARY J. BLIGE, SINGER (singing): So you can get the real me...

VARGAS: But Mary J., who tore the house down with her performance, bounced back to emerge the night's big winner, taking home a total of nine trophies, including R&B Hip-Hop Artist of the Year. BLIGE: I don't know what to do. I just feel so crazy right now. And just be happy and goofy, let all my goofiness and all my coolness go and just say nine awards man, wow!

VARGAS: Nelly Furtado's "Promiscuous" was chosen as the Pop Single of the Year, an honor that left the singer humbled.

NELLY FURTADO, SINGER: And this year's just been a blessing. So I'm just so humbled and happy to be here.

VARGAS: Carrie Underwood further cemented her status as American Idol and country music sweetheart by taking home a Billboard Music Award for Album of the Year.


VARGAS: But in the end it was newcomer Chris Brown who took top honors, winning the Billboard Music Awards for Artist, New Artist and Male Artist of the Year.

CHRIS BROWN, SINGER: This is crazy.

KID ROCK, SINGER (singing): I said Lord, take me downtown. I'm just looking for some tush.

VARGAS: The Sin City extravaganza closed with a blistering run- through of Z.Z. Top's "Tush" by the bands Billy Gibbons, Nickelback and Kid Rock on vocals.


(on camera): Well, other winners from last night's ceremony include country heartthrob Kenny Chesney, rock act The Fray and the cast from Disney's "High School Musical". In all, 36 awards were handed out to the year's chart-topping artists.

Well, shifting gears, coming up tonight on "Showbiz Tonight," Oscar outrage. The growing Oscar buzz over Mel Gibson's new movie has some outraged. Fierce debate over Mel's movie-making on "Showbiz Tonight" 11:00 p.m. Eastern on "HEADLINE PRIME".

With Oscars just around the corner, Don, there's going to be a lot to debate.

LEMON: And Sibila, I am so not cool because I was sitting here with folks in the control room going, who's that? Who's that? I've never heard of a lot of these folks. I've got to get with it.

VARGAS: You don't know Mary? You've got to know Mary.

LEMON: Oh, I know Mary J. Blige...

VARGAS: And Carrie Underwood.

LEMON: There were a few there I wasn't so sure about.

Sibila Vargas, we'll be watching tonight. Thank you.

VARGAS: All right.

LEMON: Well, here's another entry on the list of Hollywood mug shots. Character-actor Rip Torn was in a car crash in a New York suburb yesterday. You'll remember him as Chief Zed in "Men in Black". You also know him from "Dodge Ball" and "The Larry Sanders Show".

Police in North Salem say the 75 year-old Torn wouldn't take a sobriety test, but he would be charged with driving while intoxicated. Torn was acquitted of drunken driving in New York City two years ago.

PHILLIPS: Honest mistake or child abuse? A Colorado mother says she filled her baby's bottle with vodka by accident. The infant's out of the hospital, but her mother's got some explaining to do. Details straight ahead from the NEWSROOM.

Plus, survey results that have surprised even the pollsters. What Iraqis think about the U.S. presence in their country. The findings straight ahead.

VERONICA DE LA CRUZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Our iReporters out there have been hard at work, braving the snow and the rain to send us their pictures and video. Take a look at this one.

This is video from Joan Cotner (ph), in Bowie, Texas. Joan here trying to get through all that snow and drive in complete whiteout conditions.

This next one from Chad Garrett (ph) in Greenville, Illinois. Chad woke up in the morning, turned the lights on, and guess what? No power. And that's because this tree took out the power line in his neighborhood.

Matt Odegai (ph) took the time in the morning to shovel all the snow off his driveway and his car and says this is what it looked like 15 minutes later. After all that, he still couldn't get to work.

And this picture sent to us by Esther Archette (ph) of Fairview Heights, Illinois. This is Esther's backyard. She calls the picture "Ten Trees a-Bending". Archette told us she heard trees snapping in her front yard Thursday night.

Now, just in time for the holidays at, we'd like to know how are you dealing with the stress of the holiday season? And do you have any travel tips? You can log on to Send us your answers as well as your pictures.

I'm Veronica De La Cruz for the ".Com Desk".



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