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THIS WEEK AT WAR

This Year At War: A look Back at the War in Iraq; Predictions on the Future of the War

Aired December 31, 2006 - 10:00   ET

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


JOHN ROBERTS, HOST: Saddam Hussein has gone to the gallows, but Iraq is still in chaos. We'll look at the world's battlegrounds and flash points: Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea, and the Middle East. What were the key events of 2006 and more importantly, what's at stake ahead in 2007.
THIS YEAR AT WAR is just one minute away after a check on what's making headlines right now with T.J. Holmes at the CNN center in Atlanta.

Hey, T.J.

T.J. HOLMES, CNN NEWS ANCHOR: Thank you so much, John. A new take on Saddam Hussein's execution.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SADDAM HUSSEIN, FORMER DICTATOR (SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE): Prayers are upon the prophet Mohammad and on his family and glorify the mighty and curse his enemy.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HOLMES: This apparent cell phone video appeared on the Arab language al Jazeera Network, although CNN cannot verify its authenticity it appears to show the deposed Iraqi president and on lookers exchanging taunts moments before the hanging.

And one day after his execution, Saddam Hussein buried near Tikrit, Iraq not far from the graves from his sons. About a hundred people attended the service.

And it's already 2007 in Asia. You're looking at live pictures now of the New Year coming in Seoul, South Korea. Also midnight in Tokyo.

Meanwhile, New Year's celebrations cancelled in Bangkok, Thailand, after a series of explosions. Two people are dead. It's believed the blasts were coordinated but the motive not known.

We now want to get back to John Roberts and THIS YEAR AT WAR.

ROBERTS: T.J., thanks very much and good day to you all. In this special hour, perspective on the wars fought in 2006 and a look ahead at the dangers and the possibilities for peace in 2007.

In Iraq, will Saddam Hussein's execution prove only a footnote in an increasingly bloody civil war?

When the snows in Afghanistan melt, will NATO forces be able to contain, a bigger, tougher Taliban?

Can diplomacy crack the nuclear standoff with Iran and North Korea and will the increasing chaos in Lebanon and Gaza spread across the Middle East?

I'm John Roberts with THIS YEAR AT WAR. Let's take a look at how these nations and conflicts demanded our attention.

In Iraq, violence against U.S. and coalition forces was eclipsed by violence against Iraqis themselves, much of them Muslim on Muslim.

In Iran, defiance from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the face of international pressure to stop nuclear development. In Afghanistan, the Taliban fights back from the brink of defeat and NATO forces find a tougher enemy than they bargained for.

In North Korea, diplomacy runs into a brick wall again. Talks break down, nuclear tests follow, then new sanctions.

And along the Israel Lebanon boarder, a tense peace flairs into war and slips back to a dangerous siege with Beirut in a stranglehold of assassination and protest.

Among our elite, THIS YEAR AT WAR troops, Cal Perry on sectarian violence in Iraq. Barbara Starr on a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan, and Aneesh Raman on a defiant leader in Tehran. THIS YEAR AT WAR.

From our vantage point at end of the year, what stands out in the war in Iraq and what are the life and death decisions facing the United States and Iraqi leaders?

Joining me from Baghdad is our Baghdad bureau chief, Cal Perry. Here in Washington, CNN military an least Brigadier General James "Spider" Marks, U.S. Army retired; and Hisam Melhem, he's the Washington bureau chief of an-Nahar newspaper out of Lebanon, he's also the host of a weekly program on al-Arabiya Television.

After receiving confirmation of Saddam Hussein's execution, late Friday night, Iraqi-Americans in deerborne, Michigan, poured into the streets to celebrate the news.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Feels so great. What goes around comes around. That's what Saddam got today. He deserved what he got tonight.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTS: So, a lot of happiness around Iraqi expatriates in Dearborn, Michigan, but what's the reaction in Baghdad and what will the reaction across the region be? Cal Perry, let's go to you first. What has been the early reaction there, there were a series of car bombs yesterday, any reason to believe that could be connected to the execution of Saddam Hussein?

CAL PERRY, CNN BUREAU CHIEF: No reason to believe that those car bombs were specifically related to the death of Saddam Hussein and in fact, interestingly enough, most people found out via cell phones, via text messages. Power was out in most of the city the night they brought him to death which is actually very symbolic, of course, of the situation here in Iraq. The question on everyone's mind is with the end of an era of Saddam Hussein, what is next to follow in Iraq?

Sectarian violence is the No. 1 concern. Figures range all of the way to 2,000 per month, dead in sectarian violence, earlier this year the U.S. ambassador even saying sectarian violence now a bigger concern than insurgent violence. So the big concern here, of course, did putting Saddam to death make any difference? Will it will stop sectarian violence or will it only fuel it further?

ROBERTS: So, Hisam Melhem, what do you think? Is this going to make the Sunni on Shiite and Shiite on Sunni violence -- will it exacerbate it or could it, as some leaders hope, have a palliative effect by saying to the Sunnis the old days are gone you better come into a new dawn in Iraq if you want to be a part of it?

HISAM MELHEM, AL-ARABIA TELEVISION: It is very likely that Saddam will be lethal in death as he was lethal in life. This will certainly going to deepen the sectarian divide that already exists in Iraq. Many people in Iraq, especially the Sunnis and the Sunnis throughout the Arab world, or many of them, at least, including those who hated Saddam and considered him to be the worst leader in modern Arab history, believe that what happened, I mean, that macabre, ugly exchange between Saddam and his executioner tells the tale of Iraq, unboundless hatred and driven by sectarian fanaticism.

They are seeing this as a Shiite avenge against Saddam Hussein. So this is definitely will deepen the divide in Iraq and in the Arab world and beyond that, if you look at the commentary in the major Arab newspapers, people are saying now Saddam was sacrificed -- during the feast of sacrifice (INAUDIBLE), and they are seeing this as an insult to the rest of the Sunni world because of the victims of Dujail were Shia and people were saying how come they did not wait to put Saddam on trial for the killing of the Kurds who are Sunnis, for the killing of the Sunni Arabs for the killings of countless numbers...

ROBERTS: The other genocide trials of which he was accused of killing hundreds of thousands of people.

Spider Marks, what do you think the potential effect could be on the U.S. military? May they be increasingly in harm's way because of the execution?

BRIG GEN JAMES MARKS (RED), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, they certainly could be, but the real issue is what does the soldier or marine do about what just occurred and frankly, there isn't much of a change. There will be vigilance as there always is and probably what you might see is an increased number of patrols on the street just so you have more presence and a little more capability to respond to violence that might occur, if as Hisam indicated, it kind of moves into a period where there might be more sectarian violence.

The view, however, with the military is this is business as usual. We've got to be able to work within these conditions and try to make a difference, and continue to grow the Iraqi forces and get them to work as well.

ROBERTS: Cal Perry, of course, the execution was either videotape was captured images on camera phone which has been playing the world over and it was played on Iraqi TV and we now see this angry exchange between Saddam Hussein and his executioners. How is that playing there in Iraq?

PERRY: It's not playing well at all and in fact, it's very symbolic. Saddam was killed in the very same room where he carried out all of his executions. We heard this very strange exchange where some people were heckling him saying "Moqtada, Moqtada," obviously referring to the Shia cleric Moqtada al Sadr. Saddam ending his life exactly as he reined Iraq, very stoic, very confident, actually heckling back saying very sarcastically, "Moqtada."

But for those people that are going to try to drive a wedge, a sectarian wedge between Sunni and Shia, this only drives the wedge even further. He was heckled by Shias, he's a Sunni, he was basically then executed by those Shias that support Moqtada al Sadr. It certainly does not bode well to bridging that divide -- John.

ROBERTS: So, Hisam Melhem, what does this suggest? Does it suggest that militia members were actually present at execution, the fact they were chanting "Moqtada, Moqtada, Moqtada" instead of democracy or al Maliki? Who's the real powerbroker in Iraq?

MELHEM: You know many people are going to as, I mean, the United States go to Iraq to bring down an illegal regime, a brutal regime to be replaced by sectarianism and religious fanaticism. Is this the rule of law? These are some of the questions that are being asked.

Here we have, essentially, members of Moqtada al Sadr's Mahdi army, the same man that the U.S. at one time was after his death or his arrest -- in charge of executing, admittedly, a brutal leader, but is this the future of Iraq? I mean, that place was full of symbolism there. This is sectarianism run amok in Iraq and the Iraqi regime doesn't look good and unfortunately, the United States is not going to look good.

ROBERTS: That's part of our take in hindsight and now looking forward, was it a mistake for the U.S. military to not take out Moqtada al Sadr a few years ago when they had him in their gun sights.

MARKS: Well, they certainly had the opportunity to do that. And Moqtada evidenced himself as a thug early on and back as March of '03 when he killed the other cleric Quy (ph), and the United States had an opportunity. I can't speak as to why the decision was made not to do it, but certainly he was... ROBERTS: Do you think it was a mistake to not do it?

MARKS: Well, you know, I think, frankly, that he is part of the landscape, right now, in Iraq and he's got to be dealt with. Better the devil who know than the devil who don't know. Who's going to stand up in his place? And I agree, I mean, he's an awfully bad guy and he's evidencing this right now...

ROBERTS: And the administration is trying to do everything it can under the sun to try to marginalize him.

In the middle of this, of course, in the next few days, maybe week or so, we should hear from President Bush about what his new strategy for Iraq is. Let's just take a look back, let's turn the clock back to January 31 of this year. Here's what President Bush said about the situation and the future of Iraq in his State of the Union Address.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I am confident in our plan for victory. I am confident in the will of the Iraqi people. I am confident in the skill and spirit of our military. Fellow citizens, we are in this fight to win and we are winning.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTS: Well, "woops" is about all you can say about that and President Bush admitted in early December we're not winning and he also said we're not losing either.

General Marks, part of what the White House is looking at is a surge in troops temporarily, maybe weeks, a few months, 20,000 to 30,000 additional troops in there by crossing over rotations, delaying other rotations out of the country. Is this a strategy that's going work? It's been met with resistance by military leaders although they do seem to be sort of coming around to the White House's, perhaps under pressure.

MARKS: Well, a surge, I think, frankly, is not going solve the problem and you have to define -- if the surge is 18 months, is that a surge? You have to sustain your presence, if you're going to clear, hold and build. You got to hold. The ability to clear, you can do that precisely and with very small force. You have to hold and you have to hold and then build with a pretty sizeable force.

What are you going to achieve if that is in fact your operational objective to clear, hold and build? How are you going to do that with a surge -- 90 days, 120 days? I don't know how that's defined.

So my point is that you're going go big, go big and stay and make it work. I don't know that 20,000 is enough and I don't know that bringing them in and kind of disrupting the readiness and the deployment schedules that exist. This is a very thin force, back in the states waiting to support the operations in southwest Asia. ROBERTS: Cal Perry, one of the other initiatives that the White House is looking at are sort of economic incentives to try to pull Iraqis away from the militias, and not just winning hearts and minds, but winning wallets as well.

When I was rolling with the military in Baghdad, they said they didn't have the funds to be able to compete with the militias. We're paying people a lot of money to set these IEDs. If there is the money to do it and it's appropriately applied, do you think that's something that could have an effect there?

PERRY: I think if this past year was the year of the police, I think this next year is going to be the year of the militias.

As you said, the militias have the money to pay people to plant IEDs, but it's now evolved past that. These militias are picking up where the government cannot. They're providing basic services in places like Sadr City. The Mahdi army is providing fresh water, they're providing real sewage answers, they're providing answers to the sewage problem, they're providing gas issues. They in fact even have coupons where they can distribute gas fairly to their population.

Worse than all of that, they're providing simple, basic security. People here in Iraq no longer trust their security forces. They have no idea if the man that's wearing that Iraqi army uniform is there to protection them, kidnap them or kill them. These militias are who they trust. These militias are who are giving them jobs. If this last year was the year of the police, this next year is the year of the militias.

ROBERTS: That's a big hill for the American military and for the White House to climb.

Hisam Melhem, at the end of every segment today, we're going to ask one of our guest for a prediction of where we're going to be a year from now. Where are we going to be this time, 2007, in Iraq?

MELHEM: In a worse situation, I think. I fear that the future, the immediate future's going to be a mirror of the past. There will be more sectarian violence; Iraq will keep its own descent towards hell and taking with it not only the Iraqi people, but also the America forces there. The situation in the region is going to be uglier.

The Iranian-American confrontation will be worse. This confrontation already covers a whole swathe of land from the al Anbar and Baghdad to the public squares of Beirut all of the narrow alleyways to Gaza. This is a regional war and the United States really lacks a regional vision.

ROBERTS: Not a happy New Year's prediction.

MELHEM: Unfortunately.

ROBERTS: But thank you for it anyway. Hisam Helhem, as well as General Marks and Cal Perry in Baghdad. Thanks much. As chaos pulls Iraq down, the nation next door, Iran, has stepped up. More on that straight ahead on THIS YEAR AT WAR.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: The Iranians know our position on Iraq and they know it clearly. More importantly, they know the Iraqis' position relative to Iran. We're helping a sovereign government succeed.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTS: President Bush in October warning Iran not to interfere with Iraq's affairs. In our coverage of THIS YEAR AT WAR we've gone back to Iran again and again. Will Iran dance with or defy the West? And is Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gaining or losing ground inside his own country?

CNN Middle East correspondent, Aneesh Raman is back in Tehran and with me here in Washington, Joseph Cirincione, he's the senior vice president for National Security at the Center for American Progress. He's also the author of "Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Threats."

Aneesh Raman in Tehran, not only the issue of Iranian involvement in Iraq, but its nuclear program had a lot of people in the year 2006 very worried that Iran is trying to make a play to become the dominant power in the region. Are those fears well founded?

ANEESH RAMAN, CNN Middle East CORRESPONDENT: They are. We've seen the Iranian regime, John, over the past year make no secret that they want American influence in the Middle East out and they've made no secret they'd like to replace that with the regime in Tehran become the dominant player in this part of the world.

It's important to remember, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who was elected just about a year and a half ago, August 2005. At that point he was a virtual unknown. No one even covered his campaign, that was how unlikely a victor he was expected to be, instead he won a populace landslide victory and has spend the past year dominating world affairs and emerging as what he wants to be, a defining voice for the Muslim world and a defining voice for Muslim anger against the West, against the United States, specifically. And he so enjoys his role, at least from what we've seen here. It's unlikely for any reason that he'll back down next year -- John.

ROBERTS: And of course, as the year wore on the U.S. tried to lean more heavily on Iran, enlisting the help of its European allies, provoking a very strong response from Ahmadinejad. Here's what he had to say July the 13th in response to that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PRES MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD, IRAN (through translator): We are not after tension and dispute in the region, but they should know they cannot hurt the Iranian nation even one bit. With god's help, the Iranian nation and government are powerful enough to be ensured from any harm that these tensions can cause.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTS: Joseph Cirincione, Ahmadinejad has done and continues to do a pretty good job of keeping the West off balance. He's still not subject to any really harsh sanctions and meanwhile, the nuclear program continues?

JOSEPH CIRINCIONE, CTR FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS: He's been on a roll all year. Iran has made more progress in the nuclear program in the last five years than it made in the previous 10 and the last year has been the most significant of all. He's actually opened up an enrichment facility. There aren't many countries in the world who have those facilities. He enriched his first small quantities of uranium, and now is steadily expanding that. All the while being able to blunt U.S. efforts to try to contain that program, deftly playing off the various members of the U.N. Security Council.

ROBERTS: Aneesh Raman, what's the talk there in Tehran about how close Iran is to completing the nuclear cycle? There was news not long ago from one of the Islamic publications that said that they had proclaimed that they had actually perfected it, but I'm not sure if that's exactly the case.

RAMAN: It's tough to tell. We hear very and often vague statements from Iran's government. We've heard from the president that they are now a nuclear power. that they have the full fuel cycle to provide peaceful, civilian nuclear energy. They have claimed any number of assets to have on the ground to keep this cycle going. They've also offered their technology to other countries within this part of the world. All of that has raised concerns. But the biggest concern comes on the fact that very few people know exactly where Iran stands. The estimates range, but Iran has made no secret of the fact that it's pushing ahead and nothing really is going to stop it.

ROBERTS: And Joe Cirincione, if Iran is seeking hegemony over the region what part does nuclear power play in that?

CIRINCIONE: A big part. They want nuclear capability, at least, perhaps nuclear weapons, for the same reason most countries do, status and prestige and domestic politics. Ahmadinejad has used this issue domestically to increase his status in the country.

The problem is other states are starting to react, even the perception that Iran is inevitably heading down this road has caused statements from officials in Egypt and Turkey to talk about their own nuclear power program and in December the Gulf States themselves. So, you're starting to see other people hedge their nuclear bets.

ROBERTS: Right, Saudi Arabia, for one, very worried about it as well.

Aneesh Raman, Ahmadinejad, though, not bulletproof, suffering some pretty stunning losses in regional elections not too long ago. RAMAN: Yeah, we saw city-wide elections; Tehran's city council is the most important, seen as a barometer for national trends. There his hard line conservative allies lost big. Their majority, which they had since 2003, is now in the hands of moderate conservatives, also reformists have made a comeback. But this does very little when we talk about Iran's relationship with the world. It only affects domestic politics, it sets the staet stage for contentious political battles in parliamentary elections in 2008 and presidential elections is 2009.

But as we've head the nuclear issue has near uniform support. Tactics might be difference if reformists were in power, but the end is still there upon. Iran feels it can have peaceful civilian nuclear energy and no one can stop it. Iran's president, really, has shown no indications these elections are going to soften his rhetoric. He's maintained his defiance, and again, he really sees himself as playing this role as the leader of the Muslim world. He's exploited some opportunities, such as Iraqis created others, and there's nothing really that's going to stop him perhaps until that reelection comes in 2009.

ROBERTS: But perhaps a sign of things ahead. Joe Cirincione, very quickly, where do you think we're going to be with Iran a year from now?

CIRINCIONE: 2007 is the make or break year. It's up to us. If we can skillfully use our diplomatic, economic and political power to both contain the Iranian program and Ahmadinejad's ambitions themselves, we can have direct negotiations with some of the moderates in Iran, can reduce Ahmadinejad power, slow down the program. They are having technical difficulties. It's up to us. If we play it right we can see the turning point in 2007, if we blow it it's off to the races and there's no stopping Iran.

ROBERTS: But perhaps a sign of things to come. Joe Cirincione thanks. Stick around we want to get your expertise on North Korea, coming up. And as always, Aneesh Raman in Tehran, thanks very much.

Iran and its leaders missed no opportunity to denounce Israel and ratchet up tensions across that whole region. We'll dig into that part of THIS YEAR AT WAR straight ahead.

But first, holiday greetings from the front lines.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SPEC BENJAMIN RODRIGUEZ, U.S. ARMY: My name is Specialist Benjamin Rodriguez's and I'm here at Echo (ph) Company 212 Camp at Camp Liberty, Iraq. And I want to say a Merry Christmas and happy New Years to my mother and my daughter, Ziann (ph), and the rest of my family in Starkville, Mississippi. Bye, I love you all.

PVT AMBER HOY, U.S. ARMY: Hi I'm Private Amber Hoy with the 592nd Ordinance Company out of Billings (ph), Montana. I just want to say happy holidays to my patients and my husband in Yankton, South Dakota and that I think about you always and I love you. (END VIDEOTAPE)

ROBERTS: From skirmishes and rocket attacks to outright attacks to outright combat in the Middle East, THIS YEAR AT WAR. In hindsight, who won the conflict on the Israel-Lebanon border this past summer and could the current tensions in Lebanon and Gaza descend into separate civil wars?

Joining me now, in Gaza, senior international correspondent Matthew Chance and in Beirut Jamil Mroueh, he is the publisher of Lebanon's "Daily Star" newspaper.

Jamil start us off here. When you look at the whole region and what's transpired over the past year and continues to transpire, you have to say to yourself, is there ever be peace with stability there?

JAMIL MROUEH, "DAILY STAR" NEWSPAPER: Well, instability lives here and it's been living here for 50 years. It's a very unstable situation, now exceptionally unstable and the events in Iraq, American policy, ambitions of Iran are not making things easier. In fact, they are, sort of, the storm is gathering.

We are now in a situation where it's a field of instability. As you mentioned, Palestine, of course, Lebanon, Iraq -- the threat of a squeezed Damascus, an insecure Saudi Arabia and an aloof, yet wary, Egypt. All of this makes for really awesome possibilities in the negative sense.

ROBERTS: Right. Well, we'll get to that in just a second.

Matthew Chance, when you look over the past year, the various conflicts, Israel-Hezbollah, Israel-Hamas, you look at the people involved, Olmert, Nasrallah, Abbas, Hania (ph), who are the winners, who were the losers or is everyone losing?

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think there's very little doubt the big picture, everybody in this region loses as a result of the incessant conflict that they're subject to year on year. Undoubtedly people will be more prosperous, people would be more secure if there weren't conflict here.

Of course, they're on a tactical level winners and losers. The one conflict we witnessed together, John, between Israel and Hezbollah in the summer saw Hassan Nasrallah of Hezbollah emerge as a bolstered political figure. The Israeli army looked much worse for its inability to crush Hezbollah as a movement.

In January, elections saw Hamas in the Palestinian territories, become the victors and that weakened the Fattah faction of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian presidents. But look at the result of the chaos that virtually in Lebanon, certainly chaos in the Palestinian territories and yet again, it's ordinary people that pay the price for these gains and losses when it comes to tactics.

ROBERTS: And of course, a huge question in that region is where is it all going, particularly in Lebanon. Hezbollah protestors now try to unseat the Siniora government, where is Lebanon headed. Here's how Brent Sadler reported that story back on December 7.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BRENT SADLER, CNN NEWS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Some Western diplomats worry the country could veer towards civil war. And many Lebanese, especially those who want the pro-Western government to survive the opposition campaign, fear that if the United States re- engages Syria and Iran to help stabilize Iraq, then Syria's president, Bashar al Asad, will want payback.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTS: Jamil Mroueh, what do you believe is the future for Lebanon. You seem to have ruled out stability, so is it headed toward civil war, renewed involvement of Syria? Where's it going?

MROUEH: It's going -- if we don't, as Lebanese, create an agenda, a balance to keep us down in this stormy situation, we will be the victim of American obduracy in conducting a policy that is basically unsensical. You want to make war, but you don't want to recognize the other side's concerns or you don't want to open up for possibilities of negotiation.

On the other side, you have ambitions from Iran. They want to be a regional power and they have the wherewithal to do it, the weakness in the region also invites it like a vacuum sucking them in. This situation cannot be resolved or approached by the tools being used right now. Certainly not by the Americans. There has to be a review. There has to be a review from America.

ROBERTS: And Matthew chance, where do you think Gaza is headed? Will it descend into civil war? Are Fattah and Hamas just too far apart idea, logically?

CHANCE: Well, they're certainly far apart and I think that civil war is a possible, but I don't think it's inevitable. A lot of Palestinian families, for instance, have, for instance, a father who's a member of Fattah and a son who's a member of Hamas, another one perhaps a member of Islamic jihad or al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. Palestinian families, very much, spread their bets, as it were, when it comes to the Palestinian militant groups and various factions.

And even though there are big differences between those factions at the moment, in Palestinian territories blood is often proved to be much thicker than water. Those family ties often cut through the political differences between the various factions and that's what many Palestinians, I speak to here in the Palestinian territories, as saying they hope will hold Palestinian society back from the brink of civil war. It is possible, but it's not inevitable.

ROBERTS: Well, certainly a lot of people are hoping that they don't go all the way to civil war. Matthew Chance in Gaza and Jamil Mroueh, thanks very much.

From the Middle East to what some call the "forgotten war," that is until the Taliban's tenacious attacks surprised NATO troops in Afghanistan. That's straight ahead, but first, a THIS YEAR AT WAR homecoming.

This month Army Specialist Scott Nichols, Jr., was given a blue light escort by the Maine state police upon returning from training Iraqi forces in Baghdad. Lead by Scott's father, state trooper, Scott Nichols, Sr., everyone was glad to have him home.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TROOPER SCOTT NICHOLS, SR., FATHER: I'll be able to sleep at night now without strong having to worry about what's going on over there, and everything -- my wife and I -- it's been a long year, but we're very happy to have him back.

SPEC SCOTT NICHOLS, JR., U.S. ARMY: This is overwhelming. I'm just taking it all in right now.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTS: Many of the troopers who escorted Nichols said they hope one day he can work alongside his father as a Maine state trooper.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

HOLMES: I'm T.J. Holmes at the CNN Center in Atlanta. THIS YEAR AT WAR continues in a moment, but first, a check of the top stories.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SADDAM HUSSEIN, FORMER DICTATOR (SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE): Prayers are upon the prophet Mohammad and on his family and glorify the mighty and curse his enemy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Moqtada, Moqtada, Moqtada.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HOLMES: This apparent cell phone video of Saddam Hussein's execution was shown on the Arab language al Jazeera Network although CNN cannot verify its authenticity, the video appears to show Hussein and onlookers exchanging taunts as the noose is placed around his neck. Hussein was buried today at dawn near his hometown of Tikrit.

New Year's celebrations cancelled in Bangkok, Thailand. A string of explosions ripped through the city hours before midnight. At least two people were killed, so far no claim of responsibility.

Paying their final respects to President Gerald Ford, visitors, some waiting in line since yesterday filed past the casket view at the capitol rotunda. Ford's funeral will be held Tuesday at Washington National Cathedral. More top stories in 30 minutes and THIS YEAR AT WAR continues, right now.

ROBERTS: THIS YEAR AT WAR in Afghanistan, the Taliban rallied and gave NATO forces a fight. Will they return even stronger when the snows melt this spring and will coming months see this part of the world reveal its secret, the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden?

With me now, three people who have spent a lot of time in Afghanistan, CNN international correspondent Jennifer Eccleston, she's in Virginia. Barbara Starr is at her usual post at the Pentagon, and in New York, Gary Berntsen, the author of "Jawbreaker: The Attack on bin Laden and al Qaeda, a Personal Account of the CIA's key Field Commander."

Here's how NATO supreme commander, General James Jones characterized the Taliban's strength during a phone interview back in September.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

GEN JAMES JONES, SUPREME NATO COMMANDER: What's going on in Afghanistan currently, particularly in the southern region of -- while not a complete surprise, certainly the tenacity of the resistance is a little bit of a surprise?

(END AUDIO CLIP)

ROBERTS: Gary Berntsen should it be a surprise given the U.S.'s approach in Afghanistan.

GARY BERNTSEN, FMR CIA FIELD COMMANDER: No, it shouldn't be a surprise. The Taliban have a sanctuary on the Pakistani side of the border. They went from squad to company -- well, squad to platoon to company and now battalion sized attacks. We've had up to 400 of them at a time doing attacks. This is very serious and, of course, it's linked to the issue of narcotics in southern Afghanistan. It's funding, you know, this effort for the Taliban.

All right, Barbara Starr, you've been there twice. How bad is it now? Does the Karzai government have control?

BARBARA STARR, PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, they have control where they have control, but there's an awful lot of places they don't. Afghanistan remains a country of hundreds if not thousand of very small, remote villages. The Taliban can readily move in, take over and Afghan security forces simply aren't strong enough or in the numbers enough to be everywhere. So the Taliban move in, they terrorize the people and until either NATO forces can get there or Afghan forces can get then their and run them out, they are in control in many of these remote areas and that is a continuing problem -- John.

ROBERTS: Jennifer Eccleston, look ahead for us, if you will, here. There's a typical winter lull in the violence right now. The country's got very severe weather conditions, very severe terrain and attempts to dial back during the winter months, what do you expect will happen in the springtime when the weather warms up, the snows start to melt?

JENNIFER ECCLESTON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I think Gary hit the nail on the head. It all has to do with the other side of the border in Pakistan. If they cannot get a handle on the training forces, the regrouping, the rearming, the remanning, then we're going see yet another major offensive and not just in those smaller numbers, but as Gary said in battalion size, very well- coordinated, large group of fighters, well-armed fighters, well- trained and coordinated fighters who are giving the Americans and the Afghan army there a very, very tough time.

ROBERTS: What is going in Pakistan, Gary Berntsen, to the best of your knowledge? We remember back in September, Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistani president signed this deal with tribal leaders in the Waziristan area. He said they had pledged to not launch cross-border attacks into Afghanistan. They pledged to keep al Qaeda and other insurgents under control, but recent reports seem to suggest that Waziristan is turning into what Afghanistan was pre-9/11.

BERNTSEN: That's right, they haven't kept their word, but Musharraf has a problem. He's got 24 million batons living on that side of the border. He's negotiation with some of them, trying to split them away from the more radicals, but he's got, you know, 80, 90,000 troops in there, and he's taken 700 casualties in the last year. So, he's making an effort, but this is a tough road to hoe.

ROBERTS: Is there anything Musharraf can really do to address that situation, there?

BERNTSEN: He's going to need to put more people. He's going to have to do more of what he's been doing. He's going to need more force and then we're going to have to do a better job, the United States and NATO of equipping and training the Afghans on their side to resist.

ROBERTS: And now a key to security is going to be training up and equipping the Afghani forces. But according to a report that Jennifer filed back on November 9 they seem to be having the same problem in Afghanistan as they are in Iraq when it comes to training up those forces.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ECCLESTON: Dissertion is common, in this battalion alone, almost 50 percent of the men haven't returned from their vacation. Despite a salary of under $70 a month, a sizeable paycheck for an ordinary Afghan, recruitment is also a substantial challenge. Soldiers and their families are frequent targets of Taliban intimidation and attacks.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTS: Jennifer Eccleston, is the Taliban aware of these deficiencies in the nascent Afghanistan army and how might that factor into their strategy come spring when you expect these attacks to increase?

ECCLESTON: Oh, certainly. Not just the Taliban fighters themselves, but those supporters they have within the local communities who are spreading the word to various communities, to various villages, to make it very uncomfortable to Afghan forces who either live in those areas or any young man who has aspirations of going into the army which, as I mentioned, carries with it a very decent salary for your average Afghan.

There is intimidation and it's rife, there's violence which is rife. So oftentimes you have to recruit these soldiers from outside of the territory and outside of the region, from the north of Afghanistan, from the west of Afghanistan. That doesn't instill a lot confidence in the local communities when they bring them down, let's say, to the south who largely distrust their northern neighbors. So you have that mixed into the equation as well.

It's a great challenge, and as I also mentioned dissertation. Some of them will sign up and they'll try it out and when they go home they simply decide to not come back for of what reason, but mostly because it's just too dangerous.

ROBERTS: Barbara Starr, you traveled expensively through the region with NATO commanders, you've seen the situation on the ground there. Give me your forecast for where Afghanistan is going to be 12 months from now.

STARR: Well, I think there's probably no question that it's still going to be very fragile. The Karzai government will still struggle to expand its influence across the country in the east along the Pakistan border, there is still a substantial al Qaeda-Taliban presence as there is in the south.

But you know, there are signs of progress in Afghanistan. Many, many Afghans are against the Taliban. They want jobs and they want progress and let me just give you one little snapshot they noticed this year on my second trip to Afghanistan. Traveling the road between Kabul, the capital, and the north to Bagram, we passed two gas stations on the road under construction. A very small sign, but that's part of the new Afghanistan -- John.

ROBERTS: Well, perhaps like many people are saying about Iraq, 2007 will be a decisive year. Jennifer Eccleston, Barbara Starr, Gary Berntsen, thanks all.

Coming up, what chance does diplomacy have to force change on North Korea? THIS YEAR AT WAR.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The White House has announced that North Korea test launched at least six missiles, today, that include one long-range missile, the Taepo Dong 2.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The North Korea missiles set off their own political fireworks this Forth of July. And THIS YEAR AT WAR, will North Korea continue to test nuclear devices and fire off missiles? And will the rogue nation continue to brush off sanctions and walk away from substantive talks?

With me now is senior United Nations correspondent Richard Roth and again we welcome back Joseph Cirincione, senior vice president for the National Security at the Center for American Progress.

Back in October after North Korea claimed success in testing a nuclear advice, then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolten led the charge.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN BOLTON, FMR U.S. AMBASSADOR TO U.N.: The North Korea signed an agreement in 1994 called the "agreed framework" where they were supposed to give up their pursuit of nuclear weapons in exchange for tangible carrots. They never did. As far as we can tell now, they probably began violating that agreement before the ink was dry.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTS: Richard Roth, it looks like despite all of the tough talk from the White House over the past year that North Korea managed to get away with it again.

RICHARD ROTH, CNN SENIOR U.N. CORRESPONDENT: They did in terms of whatever they mighting building in the nuclear field behind closed doors, you might say, but they did start to unify the world a little bit to get more concern, whether that leads into substantial reaction to diplomatic teeth, that's too early to say on that.

ROBERTS: Big news toward the end of the year, Joe, when North Korea said it was coming back to the six-party talks. Those talks took place in December and again kind of fell flat, nothing came of them. North Korea didn't even really want to talk about its nuclear program, just wanted to talk about frozen bank accounts in Macow. Is it time to go for something different, a different process in the six- party talks?

CIRINCIONE: We're definitely stalemated on these talks, but we can't tell whether we're inches apart or miles apart. The specific issues is over $24 million that the U.S. froze in a bank in Macow. North Koreans want us to unfreeze that money before they'll talk about the nuclear program. We want them to freeze their nuclear program before we'll unfreeze the assets. Is this just a tactical principle divide or is North Korea decided to irrevocably go forward on its nuclear program. We just don't know. We have to keep talking.

ROBERTS: Of course, all during the year the United States was trying to put the squeeze on Kim Jong-il, trying to get the United Nations Security Council to agree on a package of tough sanctions. It finally did, though, they weren't so tough. Here's how Richard Roth reported on that on October the 14th.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROTH: The Security Council resolution demands North Korea stop testing nukes, slapped a variety of sanctions on the regime and tell us Pyongyang to start talking again with the world. The goal is to cut off Pyongyang from getting technology and equipment that can power the country's nuclear desires, but North Korea instantly rejected that message.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTS: Richard Roth, there's all these sanctions, all this talk, yet North Korea keeps going. What's the problem?

ROTH: The problem with the Japanese ambassador (INAUDIBLE), well sanctions take time, and they've only had a few dozen countries contribute what they're doing to stop North Korea from getting that material and now the U.S., Japan other want to slap sanctions on the luxury goods field, stop Kim Jong-il from getting motorcycles, jet skis, iPods and expensive beef, but it doesn't seem like there's real maneuvering to get that accomplished. Perhaps they want to see if the six-party talks can succeed.

ROBERTS: Cognac as well, if I'm not mistaken. Joe Cirincione, one of the big concerns here is proliferation, because North Korea has shared its missile technology with anyone who wants to buy. Any evidence they are proliferating here?

CIRINCIONE: No, none so far. They've sold missiles to both Pakis and Iran, but none of the nuclear technologies as far as we know. The proliferation problem is a little different. It's the impact of their nuclear test that sends ripples through the region that for the first time in decades has Japanese officials whether they should have a nuclear program or not. That's the real danger from a nuclear North Korea.

ROBERTS: Richard Roth, the United States insists it doesn't want to go to war to North Korea and it doesn't want to engage in one- on-one talks. Something's got to budge somewhere, doesn't it? Doesn't the White House risk spinning its wheels for another year?

ROTH: That's right, I mean, these six-party talks, if they were a New Year's Eve party, nobody would go back. But this six-party talk sequence just keeps going on and going on. Condoleezza Rice says these things take time, the Russians say you need patience. It may be up to whatever North Korea does and how provocative they get.

ROBERTS: Joe Cirincione, you've been good at predictions. You predicted accurately that North Korea would test the nuclear device. Let me get your prediction for where this is going to be a year from now.

CIRINCIONE: I think 2007 is the year of a breakthrough on the Korean peninsula. Remember, as long as we're talking to them they're not testing either missiles or bombs. China doesn't want then to test, they don't want to rile up Japan. They want Democratic Congress is coming in, they want to direct negotiations with North Korea, that increases the pressure and there's pressure on President Bush for a breakthrough. He needs a foreign policy victory. North Korea is the one place he might get it. I see those lining up and I predict a breakthrough in 2007.

ROBERTS: Let's hope you're right, Joe, because the world could certainly use a little bit of relief. Joe Cirincione, the Center for American Progress, Richard CNN at the U.N., thanks very much.

Coming up, heroism and sacrifice in Iraq. A tribute to the fallen in THIS YEAR AT WAR.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The most painful aspect of my presidency has been knowing that good men and women have died in combat. I read about it every night. My heart breaks for a mother or father, a husband and wife or son and daughter, it just does.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTS: President Bush acknowledging the sacrifices of the fallen and their families during his final news conference of 2006.

Among the fallen, Navy Corpsesman, Christopher Anderson of the 1st Battalion 2nd Marine Division who was killed in an attack earlier this month in Iraq's al Anbar province. His body was flown to Denver where loved ones and even strangers braved a cold, Colorado night, lining up along the airport road. Holding American flags, they wanted to pay their respects to Anderson's family.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICK ANDERSON, FATHER: He wanted to serve, he wanted to protect his family, his neighborhood, his country and he gave every effort to it, a little more than we really wanted him to.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTS: Anderson represents the fourth generation of his family to have served in the Navy. He was 24 years old.

Another member of the fallen in THIS YEAR AT WAR, Corporal Joshua Pickard of Merced County, California. He was killed by small arms fire this month in Iraq.

A member of the Second Assault Amphibious Battalion, this was Packard's third year of service for the Marines, upon leaving for Iraq, Packard became pen pals with the third grade glass from his alma mater, McSwain (ph) Elementary school. The students wrote letters to his family when they heard that Pickard had died.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LAWANNA SPRINKLE, TEACHER: Dear Mrs. Pickard, I know you feel bad about Josh. I hope you love the letters. When Miss Sprinkle told us Josh, we started to cry.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTS: Pickard took time to visit his students between deployments back in April. He was just 20 years old.

Behind every fatality there is a person who is remembered and missed. Coming up, it's decision time for U.S. leaders concerning the war in Iraq. But first, more of the fallen in THIS YEAR AT WAR.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROBERTS: There really is no way to sugar coat it, nor should it be sugar coated. This has been a terrible year in Iraq. All of the rosy political projections blown away by an endless trail of blood and violence, a nation now on the brink of completely falling apart.

Call it what you will, sectarian violence or civil war, it doesn't make much difference on the ground. Iraq is about the most dangerous place in the world right now, for Iraqis and for U.S. troops trying to bring peace to that tattered country.

Some big decisions face this nation's leaders, something has to change in America's approach to the war. The problem is, there are no good options, no magic bullet, as the Iraq Study Group put it, to fix Iraq.

The stakes are enormous. A failed Iraq could become not just a new Afghanistan for terrorists, but it could also draw other nations of the region in, a region that America depends on for the lifeblood of its economy, oil.

The Iraq war will soon be four years old. As 2006 passes into history, a question many people are asking, will Iraq survive another year? And what will that mean for us?

Thanks for joining us on this special THIS YEAR AT WAR. I'm John Roberts. Stay with CNN for the latest news in Iraq and around the world.

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