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New Security Crackdown Under Way in Iraq; Battle Over Anna Nicole Smith's Body; Iran's Quds Force

Aired February 15, 2007 - 09:00   ET


TONY HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: And good morning, everyone. You are in the CNN NEWSROOM.
I'm Tony Harris.


For the next three hours, watch events as they come in to the NEWSROOM live on Thursday, February 15th.

Here's what's on the rundown.

Crackdown -- American, British and Iraqi troops putting a security stranglehold on Baghdad and Basra. New checkpoints, new searches.

HARRIS: President Bush focusing on the other war. His speech on Afghanistan and the revived Taliban live in the NEWSROOM. CNN coverage from the best political team on television.

COLLINS: A court hearing in 30 minutes considering tabloid celebrity Anna Nicole Smith. Three people fighting over her corpse.

Body of evidence, in the NEWSROOM.

Our top story this hour, a crackdown in Iraq. Coalition troops increasing a security plan across the country. Checkpoints, raids, arrests and at least one firefight.

CNN's Arwa Damon is in Baghdad this morning and is reporting for us now live.

Arwa, the latest on this new crackdown?

ARWA DAMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Heidi, it is pretty much the increase in operational tempo that we have been expecting for quite some time now. This is the Iraqi government and the U.S. administration's Baghdad security plan which is now being called Operation Law and Order.

What we are seeing right now is an increase in tempo of operations. Since this new U.S. brigade has arrived in country, since the additional Iraqi troops are beginning to arrive, what we are now seeing is U.S. and Iraqi forces moving throughout neighborhoods, trying to implement this new plan which involves clearing certain areas of the capital of insurgents, weapons, and gunmen, and then establishing those joint security stations that will have U.S. troops, Iraqi police, Iraqi army, and Iraqi national police all operating out of one location.

The aim of these JSS's is to ensure that the Iraqi army and the Iraqi police do not conduct unilateral operations and that there is a centralized command and control, if you will.

Now, we saw this operation really beginning towards the end of December. What we are seeing over -- over time is an increase in tempo. You will be seeing it continuing to increase its tempo as these new additional brigades continue to arrive in country.

In the southern city of Basra, another part of this new plan is also being seen and felt. The Iraqi government has closed its borders with Iran and Syria, according to the British military in Basra. There are also increased checkpoints around that city. According to an Iraqi official, that is out of concern that perhaps some of the militia, some of the insurgents might be trying to flee Baghdad, and they're trying to prevent them from establishing strongholds in other parts of the country -- Heidi.

COLLINS: Arwa, it might be kind of a strange question, but as we hear what sounds like aircraft in the background of your live shot there, when you look around, does this operation look just visually different than what you have seen before?

DAMON: Not just yet, Heidi. Certainly not when you scan the Baghdad horizon. Really, the scenes that you normally see are the aircraft flying overhead, the crack of gunfire, the explosions. And these really are the background noise of Baghdad.

But down in some neighborhoods we are hearing reports from citizens that live there that they are seeing the increase in U.S. troops, Iraqi troops, increase in patrol and increase in checkpoints. Although we do have to point out that the actual impact of this operation has yet to be felt. In fact, one of the neighborhoods where it is currently under way, the neighborhood of Dora, in southwestern Baghdad, the operation has begun there. But this morning there were still two car bombs that exploded in that neighborhood, killing four Iraqis -- Heidi.

COLLINS: CNN's Arwa Damon reporting for us live from Baghdad today.

Arwa, thank you.

Afghanistan now, President Bush's primary focus this morning. His speech on the persistent fight there, it will come your way live 10:00 Eastern. The best political team on television covers it for you right here in the NEWSROOM.

HARRIS: What a story to tell you. Slick roads, record snow, plane passengers ready to blow. A snowstorm that swept across the Northeast will stick in people's memories long after its melted.

Check out this scary shot. A police dashboard -- man -- dashboard camera -- wow -- captures a crash on Interstate 75. Video shows a FedEx truck slamming into one car and then spinning the police cruiser in a circle.

Amazingly, seven vehicles were involved in the accident, but no one was seriously injured. Can you believe that?

In Vermont it wasn't black ice but whiteout conditions making driving hazardous. The storm was remarkable, eve for hardy Vermonters.


COLLINS: Vermonteers (ph) maybe.

HARRIS: Yes, maybe.

More than 25 inches of snow fell in Burlington in 24 hours. That's a record. Other areas of Vermont and New York received between 20 and 30 inches of snow yesterday.

And a flight to hell that never left the ground. Passengers on a JetBlue plane were trapped on the tarmac, Heidi, for eight hours.

COLLINS: Been there.

HARRIS: Stuck on a plane for eight hours?

Been there, done that?

COLLINS: On the way to Disney World.

HARRIS: No food was served, and the heat, we understand, went out for a while. Buses finally took passengers back to the JFK airport terminal.

JetBlue has apologized for the inconvenience, said it's offering passengers a refund and free tickets.


COLLINS: Moving on now, who gets Anna Nicole Smith's remains? The issue back in court this hour. At least three people are fighting over the "Playboy" model's body -- her estranged mother, Vergie Arthur, her companion, Howard K. Stern, and photographer Larry Birkhead, who wants Smith's DNA to prove he is the father of her baby girl.

Live now to CNN Susan Candiotti at the Broward County, Florida, courthouse.

Boy, Susan, it has really turned into something, hasn't it?


You know, when Anna Nicole Smith died, at first it was a battle over her baby, who certainly stands to inherit nearly a half billion dollars. Now it's a legal tug of war over her body.

Howard K. Stern, her partner, says, I want her. I want to take her back to the Bahamas and bury her, as was her wish, next to her son, Daniel, who died of an overdose at the age of 20 back in September.

Her mother says, no, I want her. I deserve to have my daughter and fly her back to Texas where she was born.

And, of course, then we have, as you indicated, her ex-boyfriend, who is worried about how the DNA samples will be preserved because he's trying to claim that he's the father and he wants to try to prove it.

You have the probate judge saying, I will be the decider. And he's telling everyone to, in effect, chill out. He's going to take his time about this. And he says don't worry, in colorful worry, that her body might decompose in the meantime.

Heidi, I think -- I thought that we had some sound available with the judge in that. We do not.

But he told the parties in the courtroom that he -- that they should just take their time, that he's going to cross his Ts and dot his I's. He said that Anna Nicole Smith's remains are being preserved in a very cold storage room at the Broward County Medical Examiner's Office. And he's not in any hurry of any kind to make a decision.

He might have to hear from witnesses. For example, from people who say that they can attest to what her wishes were. And, of course, the attorneys will be arguing both sides of the case.

Back to you.

COLLINS: Yes, many sides of the case, certainly. All right.

Susan Candiotti reporting for us on the latest of Anna Nicole Smith.

Thanks so much, Susan.

HARRIS: Afghanistan, President Bush's primary focus this morning. His speech on the persistent fight live, 10:00 a.m. Eastern Time. The best political team on television covers it for you right here in the NEWSROOM.

COLLINS: The president's remarks this morning come as the U.S. military prepares for a spring offensive in Afghanistan. A live report from the Pentagon on that coming up in the NEWSROOM.

HARRIS: Questions about the quds. Iran's elite unit blamed for supplying armor-penetrating weapons to Iraqi insurgents. But who are they and what is their mission?

Some answers ahead in the NEWSROOM. COLLINS: An old rule worth repeating: Slow down on icy roads. Nobody hurt in this one, believe it or not. Packages that absolutely, positively won't make it on time, though. That's for sure. FedEx crash in the NEWSROOM.


COLLINS: Questions this morning about Iran's Quds force. Well, what is it? We're going to tell you a little bit about it.

It is an elite unit of the Islamic Revolution Guard Corp. consisting of the guard's most skilled warriors. The force is believed to have been put together soon after Iran's revolution back in 1979. The highly-secretive unit carries out operations outside the country. The force is thought to be close to the religious clerics who rule Iran. And some of the experts who study this group believe the Quds move only on orders from Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, others believe they act on their own.

Let's go ahead and take a close look, if we could, at the Quds force with CNN Chief International Correspondent Christiane Amanpour. She appeared earlier today on CNN's "AMERICAN MORNING."


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The Quds force means "Jerusalem". "Quds" is the Arabic word for "Jerusalem".

It is a division of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. And like all the military and all the other kinds of force and ministries in Iran, it is nominally under the direct orders, or rather supervision of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, like all the military and other kinds of arms of foreign policy and military policy in Iran.

As you know, both President Bush and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace, have stepped back from earlier rhetoric that suggested the Iranian government may be directly ordering attacks against coalition forces in Iraq.

What we know about the Quds force is that they are a division that was created shortly after the Iranian revolution back in 1979, that they are responsible, I'm told, for sort of international, you know, affairs. They are like many, many places in many parts of the world, an arm that is attached to international diplomacy, I'm told.

Many of the Quds forces, I'm told, are also attached as military attaches like many other countries have around the world in their embassies, whether it's the U.S. embassy, the British embassy. All the other embassies around the world have their cultural, diplomatic, scientific, educational and military attaches. I'm told members of the Quds force are operational and officially sanctioned in many, many places in such a way.

Obviously, the Iranians -- and I've been speaking today with very highly-placed people -- they obviously deny that the Quds force is in any way sanctioned or involved in operations against American forces in Iraq. They say that the first to suffer for that kind of instability in Iraq would be Iran. And they say that is not their mission right now.

In addition, they're saying that the Quds force, as I said, are known and they're there in many countries, including in Iraq, as officially sanctioned people attached to the embassy.


HARRIS: Well, they wanted to leave the cold and the snow behind for the warm beaches of Cancun. It didn't work out that way.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Nobody gave us any answers. They kept telling us, "We know as much as you do." And I said, "I don't work here. You work here. Give me answers." "We have no answers."

That's all we were getting all day.


HARRIS: Stranded on a runway for eight hours. The story ahead in the NEWSROOM.

And we are "Minding Your Business" this morning. Stephanie Elam is here for Ali Velshi.

Stephanie good morning.


So, yesterday was Valentine's Day, and that's a day that's covered in red. But the markets were all green yesterday. And I will tell you what spurred the Dow to new heights. That's coming up in the NEWSROOM.


HARRIS: Stranded at the airport. The airline blaming the weather. The passengers blaming the airline.

CNN's Carol Costello has the story.


CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): They are frustrated. They're uncomfortable. Many are anxious and hungry. And they are literally trapped on JetBlue Flight 751 bound for Cancun but going nowhere.

Passengers took these photos during the eight hours they were literally trapped on the tarmac at New York's Kennedy airport. Victims of the winter weather gripping the Northeast, and also victims of what JetBlue admits were unacceptable decisions. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I mean, it was just sitting there and sitting there. And they would say that they were going to pull us into the gate. And they never did. They had -- you know, there was very little food. It was just a nightmare.

COSTELLO: This trip from hell started just after 8:00 in the morning, when the plane pulled back from the gate and got in line for de-icing. The airline says it was anticipating a break in the weather, but that never materialized.

Then, JetBlue says there were no gates available and some of the plane's wheels actually froze to the ground. So people on Flight 751 waited and waited and waited.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There was no power and it was hot. There was no air. They kept having to open the actual plane doors so we could breathe comfortably.

COSTELLO: Hours went by with no movement and no information. One passenger said it was like being held hostage.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Nobody gave us any answers. They kept telling us, "We know as much as you do." And I said, "I don't work here. You work here. Give me answers." "We have no answers."

That's all we were getting all day.

COSTELLO: After more than eight hours, buses were finally brought in to take the passengers back to the terminal. In a statement, JetBlue conceded it "... should have returned Flight 751 to a gate."

(on camera): The airline is apologizing to the passengers and offering them a full refund, as well as free round-trip ticket.

Carol Costello, CNN, New York.


HARRIS: Adam Sankary is on the line with us.

Adam -- Adam, were you scheduled for this flight to CANCUN yesterday?

ADAM SANKARY, STRANDED JETBLUE PASSENGER: No. I was on a different flight going to Florida to catch a cruise.

HARRIS: OK. You were headed to Florida.


HARRIS: So what was your experience like yesterday?

SANKARY: I was in the terminal for 30 hours.

HARRIS: How many hours? SANKARY: About 30, going on 30 now.

HARRIS: Oh, come on. Are you telling me you were, what, at the airport for a total of 30 hours?


HARRIS: Trying to get to Florida?

SANKARY: Yes, basically.

COLLINS: Hey, Adam, it's Heidi Collins sitting next to Tony here. A quick question for you. Before you went to the airport, did you have any indication that it was not going to be a go?

SANKARY: No. Actually, it was funny. You kept on calling JetBlue and they said everything was good to go.

COLLINS: Really?


COLLINS: But you were aware of some of the weather situations, yes?

SANKARY: Yes. Everything was great, and then the second I got there, an agent called me and told me that the flight was canceled

COLLINS: So you've been sitting around that airport, JFK, for 30 hours?

SANKARY: Yes. But, you know, it's all right, because JetBlue is good. They gave me a bad of chips.

HARRIS: Oh, sarcasm. We love it. We love it.

So wait a minute? Aren't you scheduled to take -- to take a cruise somewhere.

SANKARY: I think I'm going to miss that, but it's all right.

HARRIS: But it's OK?

SANKARY: What are you going to do?

HARRIS: Well, you seem in pretty good spirits.

Are you scheduled to fly out here this morning?

SANKARY: Well, after I get off the phone with you, I'm hopefully going to get a flight going to Florida.

HARRIS: So you need to get off the phone with us to make the flight?

COLLINS: Yes, don't let anybody in front of you in that line, that's for sure.

SANKARY: Well, we're (ph) only two people. So you guys owe me one.

COLLINS: Oh, wow.

HARRIS: All right.

COLLINS: About the most laid-back passenger I've ever heard of in my life.

HARRIS: There you go.

Adam, fly well.

That's a quirky little laugh there.

Adam, thank you.

COLLINS: After 30 hours of sitting around in an airport we might have a quirky laugh, too. I don't know.

All right. New this morning, the dollar coin. A new version featuring George Washington rolls out today. The previous $2 coins showing Susan B. Anthony and Sacagawea failed to catch on, even though I had four of them in my wallet the other day.

HARRIS: Were we just goofed on a little bit there by Adam?

What do you think?

COLLINS: I don't know.

HARRIS: Was that the deal, you think?

COLLINS: I don't know. I couldn't sit around JFK for 30 hours.

HARRIS: I'm feeling like perhaps...

COLLINS: On a bag of chips.

HARRIS: ... exactly.

Questions linger as we ask around here.


COLLINS: Afghanistan, the other war. President Bush giving the fight his attention shortly. His speech live at 10:00 Eastern right here in the NEWSROOM.

HARRIS: Slow go or no go in the snow? Tedious traveling after the northeastern storm. Drive time in the NEWSROOM.


HARRIS: Hey, where might the Dow go today? You've been saying it for how long now, a couple months now, Dow 13,000.

COLLINS: Over 13,000.

HARRIS: Over 13,000?

COLLINS: Do I win anything? If I'm right?

HARRIS: Sure, sure, sure.

We're just trying to figure out what it was that Ben Bernanke said yesterday that sent the Dow soaring. Well, he said that inflation is poised to ease, while the economy grows. So the Dow just took off yesterday, closing 87 points higher. The Nasdaq picked up 28 points.

We will follow the markets today with Susan Lisovicz in the NEWSROOM.

COLLINS: In about a half hour, President Bush set to deliver an important speech on the war in Afghanistan. CNN, of course, will carry it live.

The U.S. military anticipating a spring offensive from the Taliban. Now to Barbara Starr at the Pentagon with more on this.

Barbara, what is the status of the military side of this fight? When we talk about higher troop levels?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, Heidi, that spring offensive that the U.S. military refers to is clearly is already under way this winter in Afghanistan. There is no question attacks are on the rise.

The U.S. now has a troop level in Afghanistan of about 27,000 U.S. forces. That is the highest level since the invasion back in 2001. And this week, clearly there was a decision made that those higher troop levels will now continue most likely through 2008.

The Pentagon announcing the next rotation of troops going to Afghanistan that will keep the troop levels at that higher rate, this is a war that definitely goes on, Heidi.

COLLINS: Yeah. We've heard it termed as the forgotten war. But with that many troops there, it's hard to think of it as forgotten. How strong are the Taliban at this point?

STARR: Well, we're going to be watching to see what the president says about that very carefully. The Taliban do have some considerable strength in the rural areas, where Afghan security forces cannot get to. A lot of people may not be aware, but over the last several weeks, the Taliban retook a town, basically invaded, and took over a town in southern Afghanistan. They held onto it. NATO forces couldn't dislodge them.

For the Afghan people living out in the very rural areas, still the Taliban are a force they must contend with, Heidi. COLLINS: We are just learning here, too, Barbara, that apparently Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman General Peter Pace are going to be holding a news conference, briefing reporters at about 4:30 today. Will they be talking about Afghanistan here?

STARR: Well, they will probably be talking about Afghanistan. But General Pace, of course, has just returned to the United States from his trip over to Australia and Indonesia. He was out of the country during this whole dust up about whether or not the U.S. military believed the Iranian government, was responsible for shipping those weapons into Iraq.

General Pace has now, for the last couple of days, very much wanted to meet with the Pentagon news media, directly, present his point of view. This is something we expected. General Pace is going to talk about the difference between what he knows, and what some people may believe.

And General Pace's position, by all accounts, very firmly remains unchanged. General Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he says he does not know who in the Iranian government may be ordering those weapon shipments -- if they even are -- into Iraq. He knows the weapons are there, but he doesn't know who is behind it all. That is what we expect to hear from him at 4:30 today Eastern Time, Heidi.

COLLINS: All right. Very good. We will be watching that one as well right here at CNN. Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr, thank you.

HARRIS: Heidi, right now, let's take everyone over the skies of Los Angeles right now. You're looking at a Lear jet, that is reportedly having some kind of technical problems. We thought for a moment that it might be with landing gear, but we can see the landing gear deployed. Not sure if it is locked, at this point, which would be a critical issue here.

Our pictures is being provided to us KABC in Los Angeles. This is a Lear jet that is trying to make a landing at the Ontario Airport in the Los Angeles area. So, again, this is a picture we're going to continue to follow, an unfolding situation in the skies over Los Angeles.

The Lear jet just out of the frame and back into the frame now, at the center of your screen. Reportedly having some problems perhaps with the landing gear, landing gear that we can see deployed, but not sure if it is locked. That, of course, is critical. This is a Lear jet trying to make a landing at Ontario Airport in the Los Angeles area. We will continue to look at this situation.

Don't know how many people, obviously, are on board the Lear jet at this time. We're starting to hear a little bit of the conversation, we believe that is with the chopper pilot from KABC. But we will continue to follow this developing story and bring you the latest information and these pictures as we get them here into CNN.

Should we just continue to watch this?

All right. We will continue to follow this and bring you additional information. Heidi?

COLLINS: I'm not really sure, I think, at this point, whether or not that is a business jet or not. You know, we assume that it is by way of knowing that it is a Lear jet. The military equivalent for the C-21. So they oftentimes fly them as well. Just wondering as our satellite picture begins to dissolve a little bit whether, or not that is, indeed, the business aircraft, or military. Not really sure at this point. And you can't tell from the way this is being shot.

HARRIS: And you don't have a relationship with where this plane is right now and the airport where it is attempting to make this landing. So we don't know how much time we're talking about.

COLLINS: Yeah. We're hearing now it's going to be about an hour before they can get it down. We are going to continue to watch it, of course. Not sure if they're trying to dump some fuel.

HARRIS: Exactly, exactly.

COLLINS: So they can reduce the load, or the weight, of the aircraft as they try to bring it down on the runway. That is usually the case in a situation like that. As we say, we don't want to stay on that for an hour, but we will monitor it.


COLLINS: And let you know what happens.

HARRIS: OK. In the meantime, a year on the ground in Afghanistan. Afghanistan, the focus for us here in the NEWSROOM this morning. It changed the life of an American aide worker, and it may change what you think about the country. CNN's Jamie McIntyre has the story.


JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SR. PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT (voice over): It was this scene of desecration, the bodies of dead Taliban fighters burned by U.S. psychological operations troops in 2005 that seared the consciousness of an American aide worker, just beginning her year-long tour in Afghanistan.

HOLLY HIGGINS, FMR. AID WORKER IN AFGHANISTAN: The burning of the bodies over in Kandahar by U.S. psy-ops guys, what to say? I kept too busy to feel rage as the reports rolled in. But if I had been still, that's where I would have gone. We have been placed at tremendous risk because of their actions. There is no excuse. No justification. There is something broken along the chain of leadership.

MCINTYRE: As Higgins rereads her laptop journal she says it reveals the ground truth. It's a record, she says, of how well-meaning intentions utterly fail there because the Taliban still rules often using a simply weapon of intimidation.

HIGGINS: It's called the night letter. It served as notice to holy worriers to fight back against the unholy infidels. It specifically states that any Afghan known to work as a cook or a driver or engage in social intercourse with the likes of us, will result in the execution of the Afghan.

MCINTYRE: Higgins is now back home in the U.S., but for that year her home was a sandbag compound in Lashkar Gah, capitol of Afghanistan's southern Helmand Province. Where every year a bigger harvest of opium poppies fuels the Taliban resistance. All but one friend told her not to go. A security expert warned she would be a target.

HIGGINS: And that the Taliban are -- they're patient and they'll wait, and they'll watch, and they'll get you.

MCINTYRE: Fair skinned, blonde, the only woman in a U.S. development project, Higgins couldn't hide.

HIGGINS: I've been warned that the locals would believe I was a prostitute brought in from the West to service the ex-pat staff and that this blatant violation of Islamic morality in the conservative south would put the team at heightened risk for violent retaliation.

There was a lot of staring. The men literally looked just bewildered, bewildered by me. So, I just felt like kind of a freak of nature, really.

MCINTYRE: Higgins job for that year was to showcase economic development success stories.

HIGGINS: There was just -- there was really very little to say. It was heartbreaking.

MCINTYRE: In fact, she could point to only one project, a cobblestone road that for a time provided work to the locals, until the funds ran out.

HIGGINS: See how it's -- it's just beautiful. And these are all from the nearby Helmand River.

MCINTYRE (On camera): It is progress it just --

HIGGINS: A proud moment.

MCINTYRE: It just didn't last.

HIGGINS: No, it's a drop in the bucket. Boy, we had to milk it over and over, and over, and over because that's what we had.

MCINTYRE (voice over): There was little else. Here's the new women's center with shiny singer sewing machines donated by the U.S. government. It's empty, unused. All the women scared off by the Taliban.

(On camera): So, having spent a year there, are you discouraged?

HIGGINS: I am. I am.

MCINTYRE: In a "Washington Post" opinion piece last month, Higgins wrote, "Now I am home hearing with dismay that President Bush lauds our work as a success and is requesting more aid for Afghanistan."

HIGGINS: Helmand is no success story. You ask anyone there, anyone.

MCINTYRE: After a year, far from the U.S. military, Holly Higgins ground truth is this: Grandiose plans to improve life there were defeated by Taliban bribes. Roughly $200 a month for Afghans to resist the U.S.

HIGGINS: We could have paid $250 a month for high -- you know, quick impact projects, high visibility projects, that would have encouraged the citizens to sort of understand that we were their allies.

MCINTYRE: Is it a lost cause? Five thousand New British troops are going into Helmand. But Higgins says it will take money not military force to defeat the Taliban.

HIGGINS: They desperately wanted our help. They were happy that we were there. We've lost that to a great degree.

MCINTYRE: During her year of living dangerously, Higgins learned the hard way that in Afghanistan good intentions are not enough and disappointment can be as perennial as the spring poppies. Jamie McIntyre, CNN, Dickysville, Maryland.


COLLINS: And speaking of Afghanistan, we are watching for this, about 20 minutes for now, the president will be coming to the microphones at the Mayflower Hotel. Yesterday we heard him from the East Room. Today it will be at the Mayflower Hotel. He'll be making his comments on the global war on terror, and a revised Taliban, and plans for that war.

We are also watching something we brought to you moments ago. This Lear jet trying to make its way to Ontario International Airport. That is 35 miles from downtown Los Angeles. Apparently, having some trouble with its landing gear. We are hearing it's going to be about another 50 minutes or so, before they can get that plane down. Just want to le you know that we are watching it, make sure it lands safely.

HARRIS: Slow go, or no go in the snow? Tedious traveling after the Northeastern storm. Drive time in the NEWSROOM


HARRIS: And once again, we just want to update the situation in the skies over Los Angeles. We're following a Lear jet, reporting some problems possibly with the landing gear. The pilot wants to attempt to land the aircraft in Ontario International Airport. That is 35 miles east of downtown Los Angeles, in the west end of San Bernardino County.

We have seen, on our air, a number of these episodes unfold. And it looks like what the pilot is attempting to do now is burn off some fuel before attempting to land. You see the landing gear is deployed. Whether or not it is locked in place, we just don't know that.

And the other thing, to mention here, is something that you know full well, Heidi, and if Miles O'Brien were here, he would tell us the same thing. These pilots are very skilled, very trained. And Miles is on the line with us. Miles is with us live.

I was just going to mention, that if you were here -- and now you are -- the pilots are trained and would know how to handle these circumstances.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Well, it's one of those things you definitely go through before you get checked out, in type, as they say. This, we think, is a Lear 45. Not the earliest version of the Lear jet, but of course the Lear jet, is kind of a synonymous term for business jets.

Take a look at this close-up shot, though, Tony. I want you took look closely at the left main landing gear. That's the protrusion in the middle of the three protrusions there. I don't think it's down entirely perpendicular, which may mean it's not entirely down and locked.

So, what they're doing right now, as they circle around, it's a two-fold issue. First of all, if this happened shortly after takeoff, and we don't know the scenario yet, they would have taken a lot of fuel on. And they want to be lighter when they come in. So they'll go around and burn fuel off. The Lear 45 can't dump fuel or anything like that.

Then what they'll do is they'll troubleshoot this landing gear simultaneously while they're going around boring holes in the sky, and burning jet fuel, trying to see if they can figure out a way to get this down in a manual way. Which is all part of the backup scenario on these airplanes, so --

COLLINS: Hey, Miles, real quickly, we want to bring in Chad. Chad has been able to pull up some information on the jet, through his computer system over there. Chad, what are you hearing might be a different aircraft?

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: It's a 55, Miles, which isn't that much different than a 45. But we did find out from Flight Tracker, we found the N (ph) number, we found out where it was going.

Actually, on Flight Tracker, we can find what we call -- we "show a history". You can see these red lines. This thing has been flying around in a big circle here, Ontario, up to the north and west there. This is basically, Riverside, 215 Freeway. So, all it's doing is spinning around in big, big circles, down here. About, oh, I'd say maybe 20 miles, 15 miles south of airport. It is an N-55; 14 seats possible in this plane.

I can walk over here for a second, and it is owned by International Jet Fleet Holdings, of Redlands, California.


COLLINS: Quickly the question would be, wouldn't it, Miles, if it is a 55, is there any difference between those two models of Lear jets with regard to being able to dump fuel?

O'BRIEN: No. We're not going to be able to dump fuel on this aircraft. Let's talk about one thing, Chad. It's an important thing. On the Flight Tracker, I haven't had a chance to get the N number, so you were a little ahead of me on this.

What was the route of flight? Do you know where this plane began it's flight?

MYERS: I can click on it, Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Anyway, let's keep going, while Chad is doing that, that's a key point because that will tell us -- essentially it will give us a good sense of how much fuel they would have on board. If they were beginning a long journey, they would load up on fuel. If it was something at the tail end of a journey, they would be light on fuel. That will give us an idea of when this is all going to come to a conclusion, when they are going to have to finish their troubleshooting one way or another and get down on the ground.

MYERS: Hey, Miles?


MYERS: I was going to KUDD, UDD is the airport there in Dunes, Bermuda Dunes, Palm Springs, California. So not going very far.


O'BRIEN: But it had left from Ontario, though, Chad? So it had just taken off, in other words?

MYERS: I don't know that it just took off from there. I just know they're going to use Ontario as the emergency landing, for it, if it needs to do that.

O'BRIEN: OK, all right.

MYERS: Still looking for the takeoff place.

O'BRIEN: Let's assume for a moment here, Heidi, we have somebody early in flight, they tried to retract the gear, the gear didn't retract properly. That's a possibility. We'll have to watch that. But in the meantime, as I say, they're not going to land heavy and there's no hurry to land, while you're trying to troubleshoot the gear problem.

COLLINS: Which is a really good thing, because lots of times when you have a weather situation, and you're carrying passengers, you mentioned the typewriting, and the way that these guys train, in order to get themselves through weather situations when landing gear is not quite fixed the way they want to, we can very easily see -- hopefully not -- another belly landing like we saw, I believe it was just a couple of few weeks ago, wasn't it?

O'BRIEN: Yes. It is interesting though, when you get in this kid of scenario, it gets a little more complicated. Actually, a belly landing in the grand scheme of things is straightforward. When you end up with an asymmetric situation, two of them down and locked, and one of them not, it can actually be a little bit more challenging for the pilot.


O'BRIEN: I think that's intuitive for most people. So at some point if there's a possibility, you want to do a first do-no-harm type of scenario. If you come to the point where you feel you can't get the gear down, you might try to retract all the gears, and come up with a nice smooth belly for a landing and see the insurance guy later.

COLLINS: Yeah. Also a bit of a difference we're talking about general aviation and prop-type plane. I believe that was a Cessna we talked about last time with a belly landing. This is a jet.

O'BRIEN: Yes, yes. That doesn't change too much the scenario. It might be a little faster approach speed. So he would probably needs a little more runway to do what he needs to do. Beyond that, nothing too terribly different in what a pilot is doing right now. He's trying to do everything he can, he or she, to crank that gear down, go through the emergency procedures for getting the gear down.

Meantime, flying around trying to burn off some fuel. Good chance on this Lear 45 probably in a charter operation, very good chance there are two pilots on board, which helps quite a bit in these scenarios.

COLLINS: And what do you know, Miles -- as we continue to watch here, we want to keep up the picture for a little bit -- about Ontario International Airport. Is this a real busy airport?

M. O'BRIEN: Yeah. I don't know the exact length of the runway. Haven't had a chance to pull that up yet; but I'm guessing, probably 9,000 foot runway. Delta flies in there, big carriers fly in there. It's a heavily trafficked airport. It would certainly have all the capability that you would want to have for emergency response in a situation like this.


O'BRIEN: Clearly it's part of what they're thinking when they make a decision to troubleshoot, and possibly come in for a belly landing, what airport can properly accommodate this, as far as runway and emergency services.

COLLINS: Certainly the longer the runway, in a case like this, I assume, the better. Chad Myers wants to jump back in.

Chad, you have something else?

MYERS: It left from French Valley Airport, which is Tamekula (ph), Miles. They're really not flying very far. This thing, unless it had just a quick stop in Palm Springs and they didn't want to buy fuel there, it was going to go on somewhere farther, shouldn't have a lot of fuel on board here.

COLLINS: That's good. We shouldn't say dump fuel; the wrong term. We should be talking about burning off fuel. That's why he's circling around there.

MYERS: Some planes can dump fuel. This one cannot.

What we got from the KABC helicopter pilot, he took a closer look. Obviously, we've had these long-range shots. He reported that the front gear was at a 30-degree angle. So that's interesting. I know it's very, very hard, Miles, to see even at this angle, from this relatively close-up shot, compared to what we had.

COLLINS: All right.

O'BRIEN: That sort of leads me to believe if the front gear is at a 30-degree angle, what we saw in the left main gear, seemed like it was not perpendicular. Maybe in the process of retracting the gear, as they took off, something blew in the system. That's could be what we're seeing. We'll just have to keep watching this one.

Look, right there, that looks like he's ready to land, but you just can't tell.

COLLINS: Miles, will you continue to watch it for us?

O'BRIEN: Will do.

COLLINS: Let us know when it's about to come down?

O'BRIEN: Sure.

MYERS: That's the left one. I can tell you that. I can see that now, Miles. You're right.

COLLINS: Thanks to both of you guys, Miles O'Brien and Chad Myers, watching the situation there. Coming into Ontario International Airport in California. We will watch it.

Meanwhile, on the war front now, focus Afghanistan. In about an hour we will hear from President Bush. He's set to deliver an important speech on the war in Afghanistan. Our Ed Henry, is live now, at the White House.

What will the headline be here today do you think, Ed? ED HENRY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Heidi.

We already knew that the president and his new budget, a couple of weeks ago, called for about $11 billion more for Afghanistan both in forces, but also economic aide and other programs.

What we have learned over the last 24 hours is there's also going to be more U.S. troops, more NATO troops going into Afghanistan, as well.

What we have to sort out, when we actually hear the president, though, is whether this is really a net increase of more U.S. troops. What we're hearing is in the neighborhood -- as our Pentagon folks like Barbara Starr and Jamie McIntyre have been reporting -- in the neighborhood of 3200 more U.S. troops going into Afghanistan.

What we have to hear from the president is whether this is sort of a somewhat normal rotation. So that while more U.S. forces are going into Afghanistan, will more rotate out, so at the end of the day, is it really not a net gain of U.S. forces. But there will be more U.S. troops going in, and there will be more NATO forces as well.

There's been a big push to get more -- a larger NATO commitment. In the words of one White House official here, the president will be calling for a larger U.S. footprint on the ground in Afghanistan, Heidi.

COLLINS: And I bet that we will also hear, Ed, a little bit about some of the successes there in Afghanistan, learning today about the coalition forces killing a senior Taliban commander. I'm sure the president will point to some of these successes?

HENRY: He certainly will want to point to some successes. But as the Democrats now running Capitol Hill have been pointing out in recent weeks, Afghanistan also has some failures. Where, you know, just a couple of years ago it was widely assumed all around the world that that was already a military victory fort United States.

But now we have seen the Taliban come back. Other terrorists organizations on the ground really causing problems. And while it's perhaps not in the same scale of what's going on in Iraq right now, obviously, it's still a foreign policy headache for this administration. Something they thought was already a victory, now is something where, as we just noted, the White House saying the president will call for a larger footprint here -- Heidi.

COLLINS: All right, Ed Henry will be watching it as we watch it here. Thank so much live in front of the White House today.

HENRY: Thank you.

HARRIS: And as we wait for President Bush -- he again, is set to deliver a an important speech on the direction of the war in Afghanistan -- let's talk to Senior International Correspondent Nic Robertson. Nic is intimately familiar with the situation in that country and he joins us live now, from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Nic, good to talk to you. First of all, how much concern is there among U.S. commanders and NATO commanders, in Afghanistan, about this much-talked about, much-anticipated spring offensive?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN. SR. INT'L. CORRESPONDENT: There is concern, and the analysis has been that the Taliban will come back stronger this year than they were last year. They were growing in strength, able to fight in much larger groups last year.

And the military planners are certainly looking at a situation now where they anticipate that the Taliban will be ready to strike again, in bigger numbers. The reason for the spring offensive, the mountaintops and some of the more impenetrable areas of the country tend to clear of snow, and that makes it easier for the Taliban to group, organize and fight.

The analysis, though, that they will be putting together a more organized, bigger and stronger force this year, Tony.

HARRIS: And Nic, to what extend has the increased violence over the last year or so, played a role in the decision to launch this major offensive against the Taliban?

ROBERTSON: Well, what the Taliban has been trying to do, according to NATO commanders, is turn from a phase one insurgency, which is small groups of armed men, trying to take control of perhaps a road or a strategic road junction, trying to fight limited skirmishes, to ambush convoys, to turn it into what they call a phase two insurgency. Which is take control of swathes of territory, to run a parallel administration, a parallel government, if you will, in those particular areas.

That's what the Taliban were able to achieve in a limited fashion last year. That's what military commanders know they have to stop now; which is to stop the Taliban effectively controlling large areas.

Indeed, there was one particular town in the south, not far from center of Afghanistan where the British essentially struck a deal with the Taliban, pulled out. And according to the people on the ground, the Taliban were pretty much running the situation. It will be turning those types of situations around that will be a priority for NATO this year -- Tony.

HARRIS: One final question, the poppy fields, and the heroin trade there, particularly in Helmand Province, to what extent does the Taliban control that drug trade in Afghanistan?

ROBERTSON: Well, they can offer the farmers protection against the Afghan government anti-narcotics force that would come and cut some of these poppy fields down. The narcotics force is a tiny fledgling force. It doesn't have any real military backup. The Afghan army is not as strong as everybody hoped it would be by now, after five years of development and training.

The Taliban are able to protect these farmers against the counter narcotics force. The Taliban take money from the farmers. It is estimated the Taliban may make as much as about half a billion to $1 billion a year out of this illicit poppy trade, which accounts for $3 billion of revenue for the Afghan farmers. There is corruption, that is reported, to the highest levels of government in Afghanistan.

Stamping it out is very, very difficult. Not just because of the limited strength of the Afghan army but because of that corruption. And the Taliban are taking advantage of that situation to make money, to pay for their fighting campaign -- Tony.

HARRIS: Our Senior International Correspondent Nic Robertson for us in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Nic, thank you.

COLLINS: Good morning, once again, everybody. I'm Heidi Collins.

HARRIS: And I'm Tony Harris. Spend a second hour in the NEWSROOM this morning and stay informed.

Here's what's on the rundown. War in Afghanistan. President Bush speaking this hour about the long-running fight with the Taliban. The speech live, coverage from the best political team on television.

COLLINS: In Iraq, the squeeze is on. American, British, and Iraqi forces throwing down new security barriers in Baghdad and Basra.


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