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THIS WEEK AT WAR
Week's War Activities Recounted
Aired December 16, 2006 - 19:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
JOHN ROBERTS, CNN ANCHOR, THIS WEEK AT WAR: President Bush spent most of this week looking at options. The problem is that when it comes to Iraq, there don't seem to be any good ones. And the Saudis are reading the United States the riot act. What's that all about? THIS WEEK AT WAR starts in just one minute.
CAROL LIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: But first, I'm Carol Lin. THIS WEEK AT WAR with John Roberts is next, but first a quick look at what's happening right now in the news. Palestinians are growing political divide at least there. The followers of the Hamas-led government reject Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' calls for early election. Thirteen people were injured in the ensuing demonstrations.
And Cuba's ailing leader, Fidel Castro has stepped aside from the daily grind of government but he's still dialed in with Latin America. Cuba's state-run media reports Castro has had phone conversations with Cuban officials as well as Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez.
And a change of plans for the astronauts on board the international space station. NASA has now approved a fourth scheduled space walk after today's successful rewiring job. Next on their list of things to do, fixing a problematic solar array. I'm Carol Lin. More headlines at the half hour. But right now, back to THIS WEEK AT WAR with John Roberts.
ROBERTS: This was a week when the administration was looking for a new direction in Iraq. But as President Bush crisscrossed Washington on a listening tour, it didn't appear to be a simple process pull out, staff up or something in between. We'll hash out all the possible scenarios over the next hour.
Later, one of our key allies is threatening to arm sectarian fighters in Iraq. What do the Saudis want? And that gift under the tree this holiday may have blood on it. We'll go to Africa where wars are fought over and funded by conflict diamonds. I'm John Roberts with THIS WEEK AT WAR.
Let take a look at what our correspondents reported day by day this week. Monday, President Bush began three days of listening to Iraq war options. It was clear there would nobody quick or easy solution.
Tuesday, another car bomb attack in Baghdad, this time, 71 day labors who were seeking a day's wages found death instead. On Wednesday, we learned that Saudi King Abdullah read Vice President Dick Cheney the riot act in a recent meeting, threatening to arm the Sunnis if U.S. troops are pulled out of Iraq. Thursday, General Peter Schoomacker, the Army chief of staff, warned that without more recruits and the use of more reserves, the war on terror will, quote, break the active army.
Friday, in a newspaper interview, Secretary of State Condoleezza rice in a flat rejection of a key recommendation of the Iraq Study Group, ruled out unconditional talks on Iraq with either Iran or Syria. Among our elite THIS WEEK AT WAR troops, Nic Robertson in Baghdad on military options in Iraq, Zain Verjee in Washington on relations with the Saudis and Jeff Koinage in Africa on blood diamonds. THIS WEEK AT WAR.
From the mean streets of Baghdad to the marble corridors of the U.S. Capitol to the briefing rooms of the Pentagon, they are asking what will President Bush do and when will he do it? Joining me now, senior international correspondent Nic Robertson. He's in Baghdad. Thomas Ricks, Pentagon correspondent from "The Washington Post" is joining us from their newsroom. Thomas also wrote the book "Fiasco, the American Military Adventure in Iraq. And in Phoenix, CNN military analyst Major General Don Shepperd, U.S. Air Force retired. General Shepperd was one of the few people who met privately with outgoing Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld and the joint chiefs Chairman Peter Pace before they briefed President Bush earlier this week. On Wednesday, President Bush spoke after that meeting with Pentagon officials about the way forward in Iraq.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're not going to give up. The stakes are too high and the consequences too grave to turn Iraq over to extremists who want to do the American people and the Iraqi people harm.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ROBERTS: Thomas Ricks, start us off here. President Bush at the White House said that it looked like they were going to have a new plan before Christmas and then they came back a couple of days later and said no, now it's not going to be until January. Real mixed signal there and ones that have some political analysts wondering if the White House and the Pentagon really have a firm grip on the wheel here.
TOM RICKS, THE WASHINGTON POST: Well, I think what the White House is finding is that there are many more views within the military than they thought. There clearly are divergent views. That's one reason over the last several days, we've seen reporting out of good newspapers, the "LA Times," the "Wall Street Journal," "The Washington Post," "The New York Times." All had very different takes on what the military's thinking. I think the answer is all those stories have been accurate. Somebody senior in the military is saying those things. But what we're seeing is kind of the blind man feeling the elephant, one guy has the trunk, one guy has the legs and so on.
ROBERTS: It's a different animal depending on which body part you've got a hold of. One idea that's being floated of course comes from Senator John McCain. He'd like to see a lot more troops into Iraq. He was in Baghdad this week. Here's what he had to say about that on Thursday.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R) ARIZONA: I'd like to say that I believe conditions have improved certainly in Baghdad. They have not. I believe that there is still a compelling reason to have an increase in troops here in Baghdad and in Anbar province in order to bring sectarian violence under control.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ROBERTS: Well, Don Shepperd, there was talk out there about bringing in a number of troops at least temporarily perhaps bumping it up by about 20,000 or so. That is one reason why some people say President Bush is delayed because he's trying to figure out how to sell that publicly. Is that a good idea? Could it work?
MAJ. GEN. DON SHEPPERD, U.S. AIR FORCE (RET): I think it's a bad idea John. We're trying to get out, not deeper in and putting more troops in there leads us deeper in and also has uncertain results. If it's not successful, it's another stake in the heart of this war in a president that's already clearly wounded. More important, the commanders on the ground John Abizaid and General Casey both have said that more troops in Baghdad might be OK, but they ought to be Iraqi troops with embedded advisers, not more American troops.
ROBERTS: There was another warning that was sounded on Thursday when General Pete Schoomaker is the chief of staff of the army said this about how thin U.S. forces are being stretched.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GEN. PETER SCHOOMAKER, ARMY CHIEF OF STAFF: Over the last five years, the sustained strategic demand for deployed combat brigades and other supporting units is placing a strain on the army's all-volunteer force. At this pace without recurrent access to reserve components through remobilization, we will break the active component.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ROBERTS: So Nic Robertson, one of the ideas being floated is to try to pull a lot of the brigades that are actively involving combat out of Baghdad, move them to the periphery and take some of the strain off of U.S. forces, hand over day-to-day combat operations to the Iraqi army. But is the Iraqi army up to that task? Will it be in the next few months?
NIC ROBERTSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, the prime minister of Iraq thinks that it is. In fact, his moving those plans up, he's effectively got a new security plan that's going to go into effect within the next few days that does call for exactly that, pulling the U.S. troops back from the battlefront and allowing Iraqi security forces to take control of the city. But when you look around the city, there are places where it can work, where it is working, in the west of Baghdad, 2000 Iraqi troops control a vital section of highway. There have been very few attacks on there. They only have 44 of these military -- U.S. military trainers with them, but other areas of Baghdad, sectarian tensions, tearing communities apart, forcing people out. In those areas, people tell you it's only Americans we trust. They don't trust the Iraqi security forces and a top Iraqi general told me some parts of the city they just cannot control right now.
ROBERTS: Right and certainly they don't control a lot - they don't trust a lot of elements of the national police either. Nic you were out imbedded with them earlier this week. What's your sense of it? Are they ready?
ROBERTSON: In some ways they're ready. Every time you go out with them, they are a little bit more ready than they were before. They got about one-fifth of the Humvees they need. They've found ways to get food out to their troops in the field. But they still can't Medevac their casualties. They still need to bring in helicopters, U.S. helicopter gun ships to when they get into big fire fights. It's very, very patchy. There are areas where they just don't have the control. The new master plan if you will, for Baghdad by the prime minister, envisages moving around checkpoints, taking many of them down, making bigger and stronger checkpoints in certain parts of the city. It really is a stretch at the moment to say the Iraqi army is really capable of doing this in any way, shape or form alone.
ROBERTS: Of course Thomas Ricks it's not just the military component, but the political component as well. Part of the new plan for Iraq going forward is to put more pressure on Nouri al Maliki to reach out to the Sunnis. Does Maliki have the strength to be able to do that?
RICKS: I think that's the big question is, nobody doubts that he certainly wants to do these things, but is he really -- does he really have the political power and the backing to do it? It really struck me in a recent analysis I was given by a senior U.S. intelligence officer, that the Mehdi Army that belongs to Muqtada al Sadr was deemed to be more militarily effective than the Iraqi army.
ROBERTS: Yeah, I wouldn't be surprised. They got 60,000 fighters. We heard complaints from the Iraqi Army that in many cases, they are better armed as well, much heavier weapons than the IA has at present There's also an issue here about timing, about how long this should be given. Here's what Ken Adelman - he's the former director of the arms control and disarmament agency, said about that Wednesday on CNN's "American Morning."
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KEN ADELMAN, FMR DIPLOMAT AND ARMS CONTROL EXPERT: I want a situation, a last chance, so that anybody looking at the situation six months from now says, the situation in Iraq is grave, but improving. And if we can't do that, we owe it to our troops, to these wonderful men and women who are out there serving us all, we owe it to our troops to just get out of there because we'll never win.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ROBERTS: What about that General Shepperd? Is this a last chance? If this doesn't work and work within the next six to seven months, should U.S. troops be pulled out?
SHEPPERD: John, I'm reluctant to put any number on it, whether it's three months, six months, a year. We've done that many times and seen these timetables fall by the way side. I don't know how you decide they're ready. OK, it's time for us leave. You basically continue to train these people. You imbed more advisers with them. You show them how to do it. You provide them logistics and Medevac. You make them better and then you slowly, slowly get out as you think they're ready. There's no other way to do it and there's no magic number of months that you can say, OK, if it doesn't work by this time, we got to haul or it's time to turn it over to them. It's a slow process.
ROBERTS: There's going to be a lot of talk over the next several weeks about what lies ahead, but we won't really know until the president comes out and says it. Nic Robertson in Baghdad, thanks very much. Tom Ricks stay with us because we want to come back to you a little bit later on. General Shepperd, we'll let you go. Thank you sir. Always good to be with you.
Coming up, sharp disagreements about what path to follow in Iraq in the aftermath of the president's quote listening tour. But first, a THIS WEEK AT WAR remembrance.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MAJ. MEGAN MCCLUNG, U.S. MARINE CORPS: I think this is a great opportunity to help Iraq really stand on their own feet as a nation.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ROBERTS: Major Megan McClung wanted to seize that opportunity, so much so that she rejoined the Marine Corps to serve in Iraq. A public affairs officer with the First Marine expeditionary force, she was escorting journalists in Ramadi. She was killed by a roadside bomb. One reporter called her his quote guardian angel. Megan was 34 years old.
Washington continues to feel the aftershocks of the Iraq Study Group and its grave and deteriorating stamp of disapproval on the war. The president spent his week on what was dubbed a listening tour of competing suggestions about the way forward in Iraq. Joining me now to talk about this, two veterans of government service in the Defense and State Departments. Frank Gaffney Jr. is president of the Center for Security Policy and Jon Alterman is director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He was also an adviser to the Iraq Study Group. Frank Gaffney, you said this of the Iraq Study Group, you called it quote, the Iraq surrender group, unelected, unaccountable and substantially unqualified organization, harsh words.
FRANK J. GAFFNEY, JR., CTR FOR SECURITY POLICY: Well, I think less so in light of what they produced. I think if you look at the documents, it's pretty transparently an approach that will conduce to surrender. It emboldens our enemies to believe we have lost the will to fight and that we are basically hoping they will find a way to extricate us from Iraq.
ROBERTS: Jonathan, are you buying that?
JON ALTERMAN, CTR FOR STRATEGIC & INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: I don't buy it at all. The point of the report is, what are we really trying to do? How much can we salvage now? How can we protect American national security? A lot of people who spent their careers working for the United States, working for the American national interests said, you know what, we've been sold a bill of goods. This thing is a mess and we have to save it for our nation.
ROBERTS: Let's take a look at the two main recommendations of the ISG report. First of all, withdrawing most combat forces by the first quarter of 2008, work able?
ALTERMAN: The two most important things are, A, things are bad and getting worse. All the trend lines are bad. And B, fighting the insurgency isn't an American military responsibility. That's an Iraqi political responsibility, differs completely from the president. Failure is not an option. Failure is a very real possibility.
ROBERTS: OK, well that may be, but can you still pull the troops out by 2008?
GAFFNEY: Sure. You can surrender tomorrow if you want to. Pulling them out under circumstances that make things worse and believe me, however bad you think it is now, it can get worse because what's happening there is a proxy war, not a civil war. The fact that the Baker group didn't understand that the regional complexion of this problem is created in no small measure by enemies of this country, namely Iran and Syria, who are not helping us and who will not help us in the future is one of its fatal flaws.
ROBERTS: So I take it that you don't agree, Frank, with this proposal from the Iraq Study Group to engage Iran and Syria, try to find a way out of Iraq?
GAFFNEY: No, I don't agree with it. I think it's one of the things that makes this unacceptable as a document. It emboldens our enemies, having legitimated them. It buys them more time to proceed with things like weapons of mass destruction, with which, to wipe Israel off the map and by the way to bring about a world without America which Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, says is his goal. It also makes you think you're doing something real about the problem of Iran when you're not.
ALTERMAN: The reality is, it doesn't say we can fix the problem with Iran or Syria. It's easier to manage Iran and Syria if you're talking to them than if you're turning your back on them, not to make it easier, but to make their lives more difficult.
ROBERTS: Let's take a look at something you wrote, Frank in the "Washington Times" on Tuesday. You said the imperious Mr. Baker and his taxpayer-underwritten PR operation have responded to the ridicule with the last refuge of scoundrels, a claim to bipartisanship. There are some people Jon Alterman who have said this study group was flawed from the beginning because it was designed to reach a consensus and in reaching a consensus, you can't come up with a viable plan.
ALTERMAN: We had a political process based on consensus for 230 years in this country. It's worked pretty well. What has happened because of this, because there is bipartisan consensus, is that congressional Republicans now have cover to say I'm a loyal Republican but this administration's policy is dragging us exactly down the wrong line. That changes the politics. The baseline for our political discussion in this country is now the Iraq Study Group report. It's not whatever the president has said his policy would be.
GAFFNEY: Look, I think Jonathan just made my case. This is about politics. This is about finding political cover to surrender in Iraq and what worries me is, none of the politicians who were involved in cooking up this lowest common denominator, let alone those who are now scurrying and looking for cover, understand adequately that this will be disastrous not just for America, but for the free world more generally if their policies are adhered to.
ALTERMAN: Politics exist in the country to work out precisely those issues. We have an open discussion. It seems to me the very important national debate which has been squelched for 3 1/2 years is about to start and I look forward to continuing to have it.
GAFFNEY: Politics is what we should be doing in the political process, not in a commission that is supposedly providing statesman- like advice.
ROBERTS: Gentlemen, we're going to have to leave it there, but it's obvious there's a spirited debate about this. Jon Alterman, Frank Gaffney, thanks very much.
Coming up a new movie and old questions about whether diamonds pay for some of the bloodiest wars in Africa. But first, some of the fallen in THIS WEEK AT WAR.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
WARNER BROS: Who do you think buys those guns that I bring out? Dreamy American girls who all want a storybook wedding and a big shiny rock.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ROBERTS: That's Leonardo DiCaprio in the new movie, "Blood Diamond", spelling out who is on the receiving end of the supply chain stretching from Africa to the west. Did you see those newspaper headlines proclaiming that some diamonds are a war's best friend? This has revved up outrage over the gems providing money and guns for some of the world's most vicious wars. Joining me now are Africa correspondent Jeff Koinage. He's in Johannesburg, South Africa. Jeff has been tracking the diamond story in central Congo and around the African continent. Jeff Koinange, first of all, tell us, for people who aren't really familiar with it, what are blood or conflict diamonds and what are the countries that are most involved in this?
JEFF KOINANGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, blood or conflict diamonds are diamonds which individuals gets or mostly poor villages or opportunists if you will, dig from the ground and they sell to middlemen, usually diamond dealers or war lords and then these diamonds are then exchanged for arms. It happened in Sierra Leone. It happened in Liberia. It happened in Angola and it happened in the Congo, something that was happening for many years and it thrived during the civil wars and it funded those civil wars and those countries were plunged in those for so many years until various institutions had to come up and say, we need to track these diamonds. But I can tell you, John, it still happens today, difficult to track.
ROBERTS: So these days, who are the beneficiaries of these -- the proceeds of these diamonds?
KOINANGE: The beneficiaries, John, warlords who then sell them to arms dealers. Because arms will always be sold, no matter too, as long as there's an arms dealer in the world and they're willing to exchange those arms for any kind of diamonds or money, then they are the beneficiaries. And it goes on in Congo, a country that's been at war for more than four decades, civil war after civil war. It happened in Liberia. It happened to Sierra Leone and I covered a lot of those countries. You could tell. There's no other way to get arms unless you exchange them for something and that something that those countries have are diamonds, easily available, easily exchangeable John.
ROBERTS: It's certainly not the miners who are making any money at this. Jeff, let's take a quick look at a little bit of a piece that you did about this on Tuesday.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KOINANGE: Jean Pierre, who's been digging for diamonds for more than two decades tells me he once dug up a one karat stone that he sold for $500. He thought he had struck it rich, but he had to pay a share to his crew and to the man who leases the land where he digs. Jeanne Pierre went home with less than $50.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ROBERTS: So Jeff Koinange, because of all this, some diamond distributors, dealerships in the United States are trying to make sure that people know that they are not trading in conflict or blood diamonds. But how can a consumer really be certain of that?
KOINANGE: They can't John. At the end of the day, it's so difficult. And although some countries, for example, Botswana and South Africa, where we are now, they actually grade every diamond and they certify every diamond that comes out of each of the countries, for other African countries, especially those with no government to speak of, countries that have been in conflict for so many decades, so difficult to track down, no matter how they say that their diamonds are certified, it is so difficult. It has to come from the very top. And you saw those pictures John. These villages are so poor, so desperate and they are in need of whatever money they can get and they will sell to literally whoever comes up with month money.
ROBERTS: It's a very compelling story and one that you've done a terrific job covering. Jeff Koinage in Johannesburg, thanks very much, appreciate it.
From diamonds in war to the war of numbers. Can the U.S. draw down its forces in Iraq and accelerate the training of Iraqi forces? General "Spider" Marks is back at the map straight ahead on THIS WEEK AT WAR. Stay with us.
LIN: I'm Carol Lin. More of THIS WEEK AT WAR in just a moment, but first a quick look at what's happening right now in the news. The FBI is warning the death of a jailed Islamic cleric could lead to terror attacks. Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman's health is said to be deteriorating rapidly. He has called for attacks against the U.S. should he die behind bars.
And seven Cuban refugees deported in January have made it back here, and will be allowed to stay. The group made news after landing at an abandoned bridge in the Florida Keys. Immigration officials declared the bridge was not U.S. territory because it was no longer connected to the land. Well, this time the Cubans landed on the new bridge nearby.
And word another Democrat is set to enter the race for the White House. Party officials say former V.P. hopeful John Edwards will announce his candidacy later this month. I'm Carol Lin in Atlanta. I'll see you later this evening for more of CNN NEWSROOM but right now back to THIS WEEK AT WAR.
ROBERTS: President Bush met with top Pentagon brass this week as he sifts through competing suggestions on how to move forward in Iraq and how many boots are needed on the ground, withdraw troop, embed more with Iraqi forces, can any of it work? CNN military analyst Brigadier General James "Spider" Marks, U.S. Army, Retired, is back with us and at the maps. Spider, what have you got for us today?
MARKS: Well, John, let's address what the president is dealing with right now. And first and foremost you have to ask the question what the forcing function for the president? Is it the departure of Secretary Rumsfeld? Is it the holidays? What is he dealing with? It's the soldiers on the ground and that's what he's dealing with.
Let me address a couple of issues. First of all, the Iraq Study Group made two significant recommendations that I think are in conflict. That is, to decrease the forces by '08, that's a year from now, significantly. And to increase, plus up, number of advisers and trainers that we have with Iraqi unit.
ROBERTS: From about 4,000 to as many as 20,000. MARKS: Probably more than that. Absolutely. Because when the army starts to evaluate that they're going to determine they a little bit need more because they're probably going to want to put advisers down to lower levels and to the company level possibly.
ROBERTS: And when talk about numbers, what numbers do you think are reasonable? Major General Don Shepperd, for example, thinks a platoon with every company?
MARKS: I think that's a little large but the mobile training and transition teams, that the United States Army is creating right now, is 11 folks and that's a mix of great skill sets. I think you probably need to double that. What that gives you is more guns on the ground to protect yourself and it gives you the ability to sustain that has you call in for reinforcements if you are put at risk.
And that's the issue. You reduce number of troops, you increase number of advisers, those advisers are really at risk. Go back to our Vietnam experience, the last time we had this type of a large advisory mission we had a lot of great Americans that were put at risk, many killed because leadership of some Vietnamese units melted away in extremis. In combat they disappeared.
ROBERTS: So these American commanders would find themselves in battle, they would look behind them and there would be nobody there?
MARKS: The expression alone, but unafraid.
ROBERTS: Now, can we trust the Iraqis to give American soldiers that backup?
MARKS: You never make a plan based on hope or trust. You have got to train them. And they have to demonstrate that they have absorbed those missions.
So you can't increase advisers as you decrease combat strength. The combat strength needs to be there. You need probably 10 combat brigades. That gives you two divisions and two separate brigades, maybe two marine regiments on the ground.
But let me tell you additionally why that's important. First of all, the neighbor to the east is Iran. Iran has got a military that's about 500 to 600,000. These kinds of conventional capabilities pretty significant for the U.S. military to have to deal with were this to be engaged. Additionally to the west, let's look at Syria, it's a little smaller than Iran, only about 250,000. But what these numbers don't account are the asymmetric, insurgent capabilities, the training that's taking place across the board and then the infiltration of those folks across the borders.
ROBERTS: Do you expect there's a threat from either one of these countries or you just want to make sure you can deal with it if it came to that eventuality?
MARKS: Threat is based on capabilities and intentions. If you can't determine the intentions, if you're not routinely engaging and talking to these folks you are going to guess at what intentions are and you hate to get it wrong with this type of capability. But the United States also has to have a presence here, so that they can make a strong message to Tehran and Damascus, don't screw with us, don't screw with our advisers because we've got enough mass in country we can threaten you guys.
ROBERTS: You know the plans being floated redeploy troops down here to Kuwait or along the border with Saudi Arabia, maybe some of them across the border into Jordan, good idea, bad idea?
MARKS: Not sufficient. Good idea but insufficient, John. With a force in Kuwait, we'll have forces in Kuwait forever. These are great allies and friends. But if there's somebody who is in extremis up in Ramadi or Fallujah, what will this brigade or quick reaction force be able do for that unit that is engaged as we have described? I don't think that's sufficient.
ROBERTS: Big things to consider going forward. Spider, as always, thanks very much. Appreciate you being with us here, general.
Straight ahead, confirmation this week that Saudi Arabia wants the United States to stay in Iraq. Was that a warning or a threat from Riyadh?
But first a home coming in THIS WEEK AT WAR. The 172nd Stryker Brigade which I embedded with frequently when I was in Iraq finally made it back to Alaska. The Arctic Wolves had been preparing to leave Iraq last summer when they were instead dispatched to spend four months patrolling the tough streets of Mosul and then Baghdad.
Over the past few weeks there have been scenes of joy as soldiers came home and families reunited and moments of sorrow as well for the 26 of their comrades who fell in battle.
ROBERTS: If Iraq erupts into all-out civil war, could neighboring countries be drawn into the fight. Take a look at the map.
Iraq is on fault line between Shiite dominated Iran and Saudi Arabia, predominantly a Sunni nation. A Shiite victory in an Iraqi civil war brings Iranian influence right to Saudi Arabia's front door.
Saudi King Abdullah recently told Vice President Cheney that if the United States pulled its troops out of Iraq, Saudi Arabia may be forced to jump in and support Iraq's Sunni military leaders. Helping us to sort through all of this is Hisham Melhem, he is the Washington bureau chief of "An Nahar" newspaper out of Lebanon and the host of a weekly program on al Arabiya television, Zain Verjee is our CNN State Department correspondent and John King, of course, CNN's chief national correspondent.
White House press secretary Tony Snow responded to Saudi concerns during his briefing on Wednesday.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TONY SNOW, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: They understand that were the United States to leave without an Iraqi democracy that can sustain, govern and defend itself that it would create a vacuum, a power vacuum that would have dangerous consequences.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ROBERTS: John King, pretty serious concerns here on the part of Saudi Arabia to summon the vice president to Riyadh and give him a very stern lecture about their concerns for Iraq and what they may be compelled to do.
JOHN KING, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It certainly is a significant concern. It reflects the concern not only in Saudi Arabia but across the region that because of the turmoil in U.S. politics that there could be a U.S. withdrawal or a significant reduction in troops. The vice president told King Abdullah, we are told, that is not going to happen no matter what the Democrats say, no matter what the Iraq Study Group might say but it reflects the Saudi concerns that the United States created the problem in Iraq, the Saudi government told Bush it would be a mistake to go to war but the Saudi concern is you created this problem, you cannot pull out abruptly.
And they did promise to support the Sunnis. Now, they would do that financially but if they are supporting the insurgency in Iraq and the civil war continues you have continued instability in the union. So a close ally of the United States saying you made a mess, you need to fix it.
ROBERTS: Hisham Melhem, any surprise to you that Saudi Arabia would back the Sunni insurgency if indeed civil war broke out and it looked like their existence was threatened?
HISHAM MELHEM, AL ARABIYA: Absolutely not. The Saudi main concern is stability in the region. Also another concern is to support the Sunni community in Saudi Arabia -- in Iraq. Saudi Arabia has the longest international border with Iraq. Saudi Arabia does not want to live in the Gulf in the shadow of a nuclear armed Iran in the future or an Iran that is essentially control of Iraq or Iraq would fall into the Iranian orbit.
The Saudis see what's happening in Iraq also as part of the regional war between the Americans and the Iranians and they're a part of it. And there is intense pressure from within Saudi Arabia against -- for the government to take an active real in support of the Sunni community.
ROBERTS: Even though they may not agree with the current insurgency?
MELHEM: No, no. The support is for the Sunni community but not for the insurgency. The threat here, the danger for the Saudis, potential danger is that they are not sure if they provide money and weapons that this money would go to the tribal leaders or go to al Qaeda and then later on they are afraid of the spillover in terms of civil war in Iraq that would lead to people leaving Iraq hardened fighters, like what happened in Afghanistan after we left and then they would go to Saudi Arabia and the Saudis have been fighting al Qaeda in the last three, four years.
ROBERTS: The first inkling that we got of this was back on the 29th of November, several days after Cheney's visit. When Nawaf Obaid, who was a security consultant for the Prince Turk al Faisal who is the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States wrote in an op-ed piece in the "Washington Post" he said, quote, "If the United States leaves Iraq uninvited one of the first consequences will be massive Saudi intervention to stop the Iranian backed Shiite militias from butchering Iraqi Sunnis. At first, Zain Verjee, the Saudis initially denied this. Now they are backing off, saying we are thinking about this but it's not yet official policy is the point that they seem to be making here.
ZAIN VERJEE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Saudi officials that we talked to said that is not our policy, there is no way we're going to back Sunni insurgents in Iraq. As Hesham pointed out, they say more that we have contacts with tribal leaders but the problem is, and a lot of U.S. officials also point the same thing out, that there's an overlap between the tribal leaders and the insurgency. A lot of Arab diplomats that we talked to said if Iraq does disintegrate it's inevitable that a lot of Sunni countries will back the Sunnis in Iraq and they wouldn't want them to be slaughtered.
One final point, and again, Hesham, you mentioned this, that a lot of Saudis also said to me that this is about us being in a cold war with Iran and they're really concerned more than anything more than one person said this, Sunni brethren about the growing influence of Iran.
ROBERTS: And there are claims already by some Iraqi politicians that wealthy Sunnis in Saudi Arabia and perhaps Kuwait as well are already funding some elements of the insurgency.
John King, another thing that came up last week was this idea of the 80 percent solution, that the U.S. is getting nowhere trying to bring Sunnis into the fold in terms of reconciliation. So there is one camp coming out of the office of the vice president, apparently, that is saying forget about Sunnis, let's concentrate on the other 80 percent of the population, Shiites and Kurds and try to work with them.
Why would the office of the vice president given his ties with Sunni leaders like Saudi Arabia be floating an idea like that?
KING: Well, part could be because of his memory last service in the previous Bush administration when after the first Gulf War the first Bush administration turned its back on the Shia who were then massacred and persecuted by Saddam Hussein after the first Gulf War. So there certainly is a loyalty there.
But even some at the State Department say we have simply failed to try to broker a compromise to get the Sunnis involved, the Sunnis are the main power behind that insurgency. Right now they say it's a possibility, we are going to have to make a lot of choices in the weeks and months ahead but you had the prominent Sunni vice president of Iraq in the United States meeting with President Bush just this past week. So they're not there yet.
But it is again a reflection, they understand, their policy has failed them and trying to find a new one and some of the options are quite controversial.
ROBERTS: Zain Verjee, is there a real split between the State Department and the office the vice president on this particular point?
VERJEE: Yes, there are differences within the administration on this. The State Department's position has basically been we're not abandoning the Sunnis here at all. We're still going to stick with them. This is about national reconciliation and to find a solution with the Sunnis and the Shias and also the Kurds.
However, there are people in the vice president's office, in the NSC that have said that our policy to support the Sunnis hasn't gotten us everything we want. We haven't reaped those benefits. And in that process we've isolated majority Shia that constitute 60 percent of the country.
So this idea of a Shia tilt is being discussed but the State Department saying that that's not fair.
ROBERTS: Hisham, very quickly because we don't have much time but ...
MELHEM: To what? To (inaudible) Hakim who was here last week in Washington? I mean you run the risk of playing with fire when you side with one side in the fighting in Iraq. And it degenerates into full-fled civil war we would be on the losing side each side we go with. Because in the end you are going (ph) to the Saudis and Egyptians and everyone else and you are not necessarily going to earn respect and the affection of the Shiite community given that Muqtada al Sadr's main aim is to drive the Americans out.
ROBERTS: All this being considered by President Bush as he tries to craft a way forward. Hisham Melhem, Zain Verjee, John King, thanks very much, good to be with you.
Coming up, a wartime change at the top of the Pentagon. Rumsfeld out, Gates in. What's at stake in THIS WEEK AT WAR.
ROBERTS: It's an annual holiday tradition at Arlington National Cemetery, to honor veterans who have made the ultimate sacrifice. Hundreds of volunteers placed wreaths at the graves of the fallen.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In life, they honored their country. In death, their country honors them. We're about to again here in just a few minutes. The 15th year of decorating graves here at Arlington National Cemetery.
WAYNE HANSON, MAINE STATE SOCIETY: That's 5,265 wreaths on the truck.
One wreath at a time.
Every stone here has a story behind it. And a lot of these are probably don't have relatives around the area anymore and to be able to please a wreath here at the holiday season, it just makes you feel good.
HAZEL THOMPSON, DAUGHTER OF WWII VETERAN: I wanted to get a wreath for my father's grave.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What should people know about your dad?
THOMPSON: That he served his country proud. He was -- he was a wonderful father and we miss him.
It's amazing that people who even didn't have anybody that was buried here, they all showed up. And it's beautiful. For each one of these graves one of those men and women sacrificed their lived for us. It's amazing. And we're here today because they were here. Because they were here and they stood up when they needed to.
ROBERTS: So in the weeks and months going forward what changes are we likely to see as Robert Gates takes over as secretary of defense next week. CNN senior Pentagon correspondent Jamie McIntyre is outside of the Pentagon for us and joining us again from "The Washington Post," military correspondent Tom Ricks.
Tom, how you think that Donald Rumsfeld is going to be remembered in the context of polling that we did, we found that 50 percent of Americans see Don Rumsfeld unfavorably compared with 35 percent who saw him favorably?
TOM RICKS, "WASHINGTON POST": I think Donald Rumsfeld will be remembered for one thing which is the war in Iraq.
And you just had the Baker-Hamilton commission, a 10 member bipartisan group that included people like James Baker and Edwin Meese saying that the Iraq War, the policy there was a failure.
So I think Rumsfeld is going to be associated in the public's mind with the failure in Iraq and with very little else.
ROBERTS: Here is how he describes his tenure. This is a little bit of an excerpt from a speech he gave during his final town hall on December 8th.
Let's take a listen to that.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) DONALD RUMSFELD, FORMER SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: I wish I could say everything we have done here has gone perfectly but that's not how life works.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ROBERTS: Jamie McIntyre, he says not everything has gone perfectly but this is not a man who is known for admitting mistakes along the way.
JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Rumsfeld's critics say that he's arrogant but his supporters just say he is supremely confident and Rumsfeld himself continues, as he exits the stage here at the Pentagon, to insist that he believes what he calls the great sweep of history will eventually vindicate his decisions.
But this is not the way he wanted to go out with the cloud of Iraq hanging over his head. He had hoped to leave on a high note.
ROBERTS: And perhaps because of that we got this leaked memo that was given to President Bush on November 6th, a day before the U.S. election, where Donald Rumsfeld wrote, quote, "It is time for a major adjustment. Clearly what U.S. forces are currently doing in Iraq is not working well enough or fast enough."
Thomas Ricks, what do you think that was all about? Was that Donald Rumsfeld trying to, as Jamie McIntyre said, go out on a high note trying to avoid being tagged wit the label of the fall guy?
RICKS: I don't know. I mean, it's always hazardous to speculate about the motivation for leaks but the document did look to me like somebody was saying I do, too, know what's going on, I do understand the reality on the ground in Iraq.
The odd thing was the list attached to it of possible options in Iraq was really just a laundry list, if you clipped every op-ed article in "The New York Times" and "Washington Post" in the last six months in Iraq it pretty much would have given you a similar list.
ROBERTS: And some people inside the Pentagon described it as one of these famous Rumsfeld snowflakes where he throws out all these ideas and hopes for a little bit of discussion coming back on them.
Looking ahead, Robert Gates is going to be sworn in on Monday. We are wondering, is he going to be independent? Is he going to have to tow the administration line? We got a little bit of an idea of that in his confirmation hearing. Here is what he had to say when asked whether or not the U.S. is winning the war in Iraq but on the occasion of having the opportunity to revise comments about that.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ROBERT GATES, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: 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.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ROBERTS: Jamie McIntyre, what are people at the Pentagon expecting from Robert Gates?
MCINTYRE: Well, Robert Gates has said first thing he's going to do when he is sworn is actually go to Iraq, meet with U.S. military commanders, talk to them face to face about what they think ought to be done in weeks and months ahead and in fact President Bush has put off a decision on any strategy change in order to give Gates that opportunity to sort of get that firsthand look.
So, he promises to be independent. He said he didn't take this job and give up a very lucrative position in order to just be a bump on the log. So presumably that is what he is going to do.
ROBERTS: And Thomas Ricks, do you expect that he is going to make some changes among the Pentagon brass?
RICKS: There has been some indication that he's at least thinking about that. Some people who President Bush called to meet with him at the White House earlier this week recommended that.
Remember that Gates come out of the Iraq Study Group, was a member of it until he was nominated. And that group was quite severe in its review of the Bush administration's operation in Iraq, its handling of it, calling it a grave and deteriorating situation, very different from the phrases we have heard about steady progress.
So I think he probably will bring a very cold and perhaps analytical eye to the people at the Pentagon. I also wonder whether he really wants to send up to testify on Capitol Hill people who are seen as part of the problem rather than part of the solution.
ROBERTS: Well, at the very least it is going to give you two gentlemen a lot to report on. Thomas Ricks at "The Washington Post," Jamie McIntyre, thanks very much.
Straight ahead, how next week at war turns the spotlight back to another front, North Korea. Stay with us.
ROBERTS: It was a dire warning this week from the army's chief of staff, General Peter Schoomaker predicted that the active duty army will, quote, break under the strain of current war zone rotations.
This comes just a few weeks after the commandant of the marines said his branch of the military either needs to grow or have its commitments cut.
There's a political component to all of this of course. Commanders are lobbying the incoming secretary of defense and the Congress to get what they want. But there is also an early warning sign here that can't be missed. The vaunted U.S. military, peerless among the nations of the world is quickly finding itself in serious trouble. Extended and repeat deployments, equipment degradation and an uncertain outcome in Iraq and Afghanistan are taking their toll on the military's ability to defend America.
There is no argument that something has to change. The open question, how will it change?
President Bush first said he'd know before Christmas. But now insists he needs more time to work it all out. That's a bad signal to send, say political consultants. It makes it look like you don't know what you're doing right at the very moment when it's imperative that you do.
A quick check now on what we're expecting next week at war. Monday a changing at the guard of the Pentagon. Robert Gates will be sworn in as the new secretary of defense.
Also next week, talks start up again about North Korea and its nuclear plans, resumption of the so-called six party talks.
Thanks for joining us on THIS WEEK AT WAR. I am John Roberts. Straight ahead, a check of the headlines and then CNN PRESENTS "Time Magazine's" "Person of the Year."
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