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THIS WEEK AT WAR

Week's War-Related Events Recapped

Aired March 18, 2007 - 13:00   ET

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


RICK SANCHEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I'm Rick Sanchez. Let's try and bring you up to date now on what's happening in the news. First of all, America's growing confliction over the war in Iraq. Today thousands of anti-war protesters including well-known critic Cindy Sheehan took to the streets of the nation's capital ahead of the four- year anniversary of the Iraq war. At the Vietnam memorial a counter demonstration was held to try to diminish the anti-war message and sentiment.
Also $25 million fine may not spare Chiquita banana executives from the Colombian courts. Today Colombia's president and attorney general said they support extraditing Chiquita officials from the United States to their country, this after revelations that a company subsidiary paid Colombian guerilla groups nearly $2 million in extortion money.

Not everybody is welcoming the news of the new unified Palestinian government, brokered today between warring political factions Hamas and Fatah. Israel quickly rejected deposing Hamas's contention that Palestinians have a right to resist Israeli occupation.

Meanwhile, Norway and the European Union are recognizing the new government. U.S. officials say they are assessing the situation.

I'm Rick Sanchez. When news breaks, I'll break in and bring it to you. Right now, let's take you to John Roberts and THIS WEEK AT WAR.

JOHN ROBERTS, CNN ANCHOR, THIS WEEK AT WAR: In December, 1945, Japan was defeated. Adolph Hitler was dead and a shattered world had begun the slow process of rebuilding. That was the beginning of the fifth year after Pearl Harbor. There are no victories to celebrate as the United States enters its fifth year in Iraq. But this is not a program about past mistakes or unintended consequences. Instead, we're going to look ahead at where we're going, what could be done, how problems can be solved, and when or whether our troops can come home. I'm John Roberts with a special edition of THIS WEEK AT WAR, year five begins.

Let's take a look at what our correspondents reported day by day this week. Monday as outrage continued to mount over the treatment of wounded veterans, the Army's top doctor, Lieutenant General Kevin Kiley, finally resigned. Tuesday Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki flew to Ramadi, long a hotbed of insurgent attacks, to encourage local leaders to oppose al Qaeda. Wednesday, the language of war is killing. With those chilling words, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed reportedly admitted he was the planner behind the 9/11 attacks. Thursday, debate on Capitol Hill as new attempts to get U.S. troops out of Iraq were launched in both the House and the Senate. Friday, one day after six leading nations agreed to impose tougher sanctions on Iran, President Ahmadinejad declared that no amount of pressure would halt Iran's nuclear program.

Joining thus week, Brigadier General David Grange on what's next in Iraq. Kelli Arena on the confession of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Barbara Starr on America's wounded warriors. THIS WEEK AT WAR, year five begins.

There's a new military commander in Iraq with a new strategy. In his first month violence is down, down a little. Is this real progress or are combatants just waiting until the pressure is off? Can the sectarian violence ever be controlled? CNN Baghdad correspondent Arwa Damon is in our Atlanta headquarters on some well-deserved home leave. Military analyst brigadier General David Grange, U.S. Army retired joins us from just outside from Chicago and in San Diego, Vali Nasr is a professor at the naval postgraduate school, also the author of the book "Shia Revival." Earlier this week General David Petraeus spoke exclusively with our Jennifer Eccelston in the field about what's needed to achieve stability in Iraq.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS, U.S. COMMANDER IN IRAQ: The security operation is absolutely vital, it's absolutely necessary, but it's not sufficient. The sufficiency piece comes from the political dynamics and political negotiations, the political reaching out to where the government establishes itself as legitimate in the eyes of all Iraqis.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTS: Vali Nasr, as year five is about to begin, where do you think this is all headed? What's the final chapter going to be?

VALI NASR, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS: I think we're still not out of the woods. There are some gains made but I think General Petraeus is absolutely correct. He's under a lot of pressure to both maintain security in Baghdad but also to push against the insurgents in the west. Given the short time line that the American people and the Congress have with this strategy, unless there is credible political process to bring peace between these communities in Iraq, it's not going to be tenable and we're going to be seeing an escalation of violence down the road.

ROBERTS: General Grange, where do you think we are now, compared to even just six months ago?

BRIG. GEN. DAVID GRANGE, U.S. ARMY (RET): Well I think there is definitely some progress. You have to go back a couple years and look at progress that was made with elections, opening markets, schools, those type of things. It was slipped away when the enemy started the civil war and then we let the militias and other factions get out of control. Now with this new strategy, they're trying to regain that in a very tough environment. I think they're starting to make progress, but unless they establish some acceptable level of a safe and secure environment, the political process that was just discussed will never take place.

ROBERTS: A person who is going to have a big role in that General is Muqtada al Sadr whose Mehdi militia controls a lot of Sadr city. The United States is in Sadr city now with one of these joint security stations. Al Sadr still believed to be in Iran. On Wednesday, Major General William Caldwell, who's the spokesman for multinational forces, was asked what effect Sadr being out of the country is having on the situation on the ground there. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MAJ. GEN. WILLIAM CALDWELL, MULTINATIONAL FORCES IRAQ: We do think there is some connection. Unquestionably the Sadrist movement has been working in close cooperation with us. A lot of discussion just like we're doing in all 10 districts in Baghdad, we're also doing in Sadr city area.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTS: Arwa Damon, how important is the Mehdi militia and Muqtada al Sadr to the success of this new security plan?

ARWA DAMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Very important, John. If we just look at who Muqtada al Sadr is the type of support that he is able to rally amongst the masses and the relationship that he still does have with the highest levels of the Iraqi government, the Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki himself, for one. The Mehdi militia itself has proven to be, time and time again, a very viable fighting force, especially when it is out there conducting acts of sectarian violence. They are believed to be behind much of the sectarian violence.

Now, it does appear that they are laying down their weapons. They have faded back into the background, into the communities where they came from, but we really need to examine why. Has there been some sort of deal reached between al Sadr and the government or are they just waiting out this new surge in U.S. troops and then will take control over the streets once again?

ROBERTS: Certainly we seem to be hearing from some Mehdi militia members that they do have orders from on high to cooperate with the Americans, at least for the time being. Vali Nasr, in your book "The Shia revival" which really is required reading if you want to try it understand what's going on in the region, you tie what's going on in Iraq right now to Iran's ascendancy. Given the programs that Iran is undertaking now to try to dominate the region, given the statements of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, where do you see this going?

NASR: I don't see this trend changing. Even if we look at the March 10th security meeting in (INAUDIBLE), Iran emerged as the only player that mattered. All the other neighbors basically disappeared. It was very clear that the fate of Iraq was in the hand of negotiations between the U.S. and Iran. Iran is still a dominant force. It still has its assets in Iraq. It has been influential also in persuading the Mehdi army not to engage the United States right now and to get the U.S. to focus on the Sunni insurgency much more. I don't see right now the calculus in the region changing in the manner which the United States would want it to.

ROBERTS: General Grange, I was speaking with an officer who is close to General Petraeus, from Iraq this morning. We were discussing what's going on in the Anbar province. He said out there they're noticing more cooperation between the sheikhs and the other tribal leaders saying we're sick and tired of this violence. We're exhausted from it. We don't want al Qaeda operating in our area anymore. He likened sort of the situation in Bosnia where everybody just got battle fatigue. How could that affect the situation going forward?

GRANGE: I think it's a very positive effect. I believe that, you know, al Qaeda had a chance to, and were, in fact, dominating the area, controlling many of the groups and I think that's starting to change somewhat in Anbar province and I think the people are tired of that. Just like any group of people, they're tired of the fighting, and they just want someone to provide that environment where they can get on with their life as they know it. So I think if we keep on working the way they are right now, they'll make definite progress against al Qaeda-type influences in Anbar province.

ROBERTS: Arwa Damon, last year you did a really good piece talking about the lack of trust there is between the Sunnis and the Shia and between the military in both Islamic sects. Since the beginning of this security plan for Baghdad, has there been an establishment of any more trust between the Sunnis, the Shias and the military, and between Sunni and Shia?

DAMON: John, the reestablishment of trust which many people are saying, as you just mentioned, really is one of the main cornerstones for Iraq to eventually reach the status of security and stability, is going to take an incredibly long time. Just look at what the nation has gone through over the last four years in the state, within which it finds itself today. It is in a civil war. It is fighting an insurgency. It has a fairly weak government, trying to reestablish itself and getting all of the different parts that really need to come together to ensure that Iraq does remain stable in the future. Reestablishing that trust is going to take an unbelievable amount of time.

ROBERTS: Wouldn't it be nice though Arwa if by the time you go back to Baghdad, there were some noticeable changes on the ground. Arwa thanks. Enjoy your home leave. General Grange, as always thank you. Vali Nasr, always good to see you thank you.

Coming up later this hour, two million Iraqis have fled the chaos in their country. Where will they go and what will Iraq be like without them?

And straight ahead, he says he planned 9/11 from "A" to "Z". Is this the mastermind behind dozens of other terrorists' attacks? This is a special THIS WEEK AT WAR, year five begins.

But first a THIS WEEK AT WAR remembrance. Members of the 82nd airborne pause to remember six of their own who died in a single incident in the town of Samarra. One Humvee was struck by an IED and as their comrades in a second humvee tried to push them clear, both vehicles were hit by the blast of a second bomb. In a small town outside of Houston, Texas, American flags sprung up on every driveway as neighbors comforted the father of PFC Corey Kosters (ph). He spoke of how his son would have want to be remembered.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MARLON KOSTERS, FATHER OF FALLEN PARATROOPER: As an adventurer and as a leader, and as someone who cared about defending his country.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTS: PFC Corey Kosters was 19-year-old.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROBERTS: This is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. If you believe his confession to a secret military tribunal in Guantanamo, he organized the 9/11 attacks, personally cut off the head of journalist Daniel Pearl, planned to assassinate President Carter, President Clinton and the pope and plotted or carried out some two dozen other terrorist actions. What does his confession tell us about the war on terror going forward? Here to tell us is CNN Justice correspondent Kelli Arena and Paul Butler. He's formerly in charge of detainee policy at the Defense Department, now an attorney in private practice. What does this confession tell us about the big picture regarding al Qaeda? He seems to be the director of operations here, the mastermind, that if it weren't for him, al Qaeda wouldn't have done much in the last decade.

KELLI ARENA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: John, he was very pivotal obviously in the organization several years ago. He was known for his logistical strength. He spent a lot of time in the United States, could speak English very well. And it wasn't like he was a part of the original little band of thieves, but he definitely became an integral part of this organization and his capture was very significant.

ROBERTS: You know, Paul, it almost seems like you could infer from his capture and infer from the confession that this is the biggest blow against al Qaeda that the United States has struck, if not just in the last few years, perhaps ever.

PAUL BUTLER, FMR DEFENSE DEPT OFFICIAL: I think that's probably right. Not to say that there aren't people waiting behind him. It's a very difficult Catch 22. You take out the main operational leader and then the cells kind of metastasize and become harder targets because they're dispersed. And so you don't really have one person in charge. You might have many people in charge. So they can eventually replicate the abilities he brought, but it was a very serious blow to the group when he was taken out.

ROBERTS: We wonder who was this guy really at his core? Was he a religious fundamentalist? Was he a professional terrorist? Our terrorism analyst Peter Bergen took a look at that question on Wednesday. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PETER BERGEN, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: Unlike a lot of the other people in al Qaeda who seem to be motivated by some sort of religious belief, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed actually dated women in the Philippines, was living the life not really of a sort of committed jihadist. I think he was in it because he really enjoyed doing what he was doing.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTS: It sounds like he was a professional terrorist as opposed to a true believer.

ARENA: A cold-blooded killer as many officials said. You don't have to listen to what Mohammed said in his testimony. I mean, you have investigations that have brought up further intelligence to corroborate what he said in front of these military interrogators. So this man was definitely, he definitely had his hand in it, and I think it was, Paul, you might have even said that basically, who cares if he exaggerated if it wasn't exactly 31 or not. Even if it's three or four, they're three of the most heinous terrorist acts we've known in our history.

ROBERTS: You wonder if this guy was bragging a little? He was claiming credit for just about everything.

BUTLER: I don't think so. I think we just believe him in our own great peril here. A lot of these things that he described were in various stages of maturity. Some of them were just plots that he may have conceived or taken things that others had told him and tried to formulate plots around them and others were at more advanced levels of operational maturity. So if you see, he operated for a good 10 years within this group basically unimpeded and so he had a lot of time and a lot of experience to plan all this stuff.

ROBERTS: And as we mentioned at the top, in his confession, he admits for the first time playing a role in the murder of Daniel Pearl, the journalist who was killed in Karachi, Pakistan. Here's what he said, quote, I decapitated with my blessed right hand the head of the American Jew, Daniel Pearl in the city of Karachi. For those who would like to confirm, there are pictures of me on the Internet holding his head. Here was this guy who was basically the operations director of al Qaeda. Why would he want to kill a journalist?

ARENA: Getting his hands dirty for the first time and it wasn't like he was out in other plots doing the surveillance or actually being hands-on. Here he was and it just shows you that he actually took pleasure in that.

BUTLER: In addition, he alluded to the fact in his recent hearing that he wanted to prevent Daniel Pearl from finding out any more information about Richard Reid's role and his connection.

ROBERTS: He was on that trail, Pearl was on that trail? BUTLER: Um-hum, yes.

ROBERTS: He was trying to interrupt that to preserve Reid's operation?

BUTLER: That's what Khalid Sheikh Mohammed said.

ROBERTS: Is he going to stand trial? Will he get the death penalty?

ARENA: You know, a military tribunal is what it looks like. He is an enemy combatant. He is not in the U.S. judicial system yet.

ROBERTS: It's going to be an interesting case to keep watching. Kelli Arena, Paul Butler, thanks very much. Appreciate it.

Later on the special edition of THIS WEEK AT WAR, the murder and torture of Iraqi civilians planned and conducted by death squads inside the Iraqi government.

And another showdown on Capitol Hill, as opponents of the war press to get U.S. troops out, all coming up in a moment as we look ahead at the fifth year in Iraq.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROBERTS: Thursday's Senate vote on troops in Iraq was a foregone conclusion. It failed. It was however the first time that Congress voted on withdrawing troops since the war began and it appears it's certainly not going to be the last. More proof that things are going to be very different in year five. Joining me from Capitol Hill, CNN congressional correspondent Dana Bash and in the offices of "The Politico" in Washington executive editor Jim Vandehei. Years of pent up Democratic sound and fury on the Iraq ware came pouring out this week. Just listen to Senator Joe Biden on the Senate floor on Wednesday.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOE BIDEN (D) DELAWARE: Our troops don't lose war. Bad policy, bad leadership loses wars. We should have the courage to stand up and tell the administration they have had a God-awful policy. They have put our troops in a position that, in fact, has made it virtually impossible for them to succeed at the outset.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTS: Dana Bash, a good friend of Joe Biden, South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham told me not too long ago that this is all political theater. The Democrats are skirting the real issue which is funding. They know that these measures aren't going to pass so they just keep on floating everything forward. Is this political theater?

DANA BASH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: There's no question that everything about this is drenched in political theater. What you saw is the Democrats now have the ability to set the debate, to set the terms of the debate, but they basically do not have the ability and they know this very well to actually pass anything when it comes to the real deal, which is sending something to the president's desk, especially something, John that actually sets a time line for withdrawal. You saw Democrats, a couple of Democrats at least revolt against their own party and say we're not going to do this. What they said at the end in the wake of this defeat in the Senate is, look it's progress, it's baby steps but they know the baby steps are going to take a very long time to get to the point where they actually have enough Republican support to pass a time line for withdrawal.

ROBERTS: Jim Vandehei, the White House knew that this wasn't going to pass, yet they went out there while the president was on his trip to South America, issuing veto threats. Are they just taking the opportunity for a little political theater or are they genuinely concerned that the Democrats could get some traction at least in the court of public opinion on this?

JIM VANDEHEI, POLITICO.COM: There's certainly concern. Their biggest concern is did they start to lose Republicans. So far, they have not. Republicans have been markedly united throughout this entire process. They lose one or two Republicans here and there, but for the most part Republicans in the Senate and the House are standing with Bush and saying we don't want a fixed time line. For Democrats there's still a disconnect between the rhetoric you hear and the actions they take. They say the war is unwinable, yet they don't want to cut off funding. As long as it's debate about timetables and sort of Congress managing the war, I think Bush can hold his people together for a little bit longer.

ROBERTS: Dana, the Democrats are trying to, if you will, Christmas tree up these measures as well to attract as much support as they can, aren't they?

BASH: Having peanut storage in Georgia has a lot to do with the war, right? Things like that were in the measure that did pass a key committee in the House and it was for one reason and that is to try to attract Democrats, who are not very happy with the way they tried to sort of thread the needle on this whole issue, just as you and Jim were talking about, whether or not to cut off funding, whether or not to set benchmarks or a timetable. They're so divided and this is a way to sort of coalesce or bring them all together in some cohesive way. You heard one Republican stand up and say, attention Kmart shoppers, this is not the way to do this.

ROBERTS: And Jim, Republicans are also going to their playbook and coming out saying, well, what this is all about is the consequences of pulling out of Iraq. You're going to leave a failed state behind if do you that. And certainly there is one Democrat who seems to believe that. Hillary Clinton in talking with the "New York Times" said quote, I think we have a vital national security interest if the Iraqis ever get their act together to continue to provide logistical support, air support, training support. I don't know that that's going to be feasible but I would certainly entertain it, saying if she were president, she'd leave at least some American forces in Iraq. Is that going to get her in trouble with her base, Jim? VANDEHEI: It might but you have to be a realist if you want to lead, if you want to govern. And the truth is, even if you start to set these fixed timetables and start to pull out troops, it would be an utter disaster. Most people would tell you if there's no U.S. support whatsoever. What Hillary Rodham Clinton is saying in public and what everyone else says in private, you (INAUDIBLE) we can start to pull back troops but you're going to need some U.S. assistance there. We're the ones who initiated this war and that there is some responsibility to make sure that we keep chaos from ensuing.

ROBERTS: Well, certainly they're losing in the court of public opinion in terms of whether or not the war was worth it. Take a look at a recent CNN poll from Opinion Research Corporation, was Iraq worth going to war over now? No, 61 percent, yes 35 percent. Compare this to 2003, 68 percent said yes, 29 percent said no and there's been a real reduction in the number of Republicans who think it's worth it, 25 percent, look at that in 2003, it was 95 percent who thought it was worth it, only 70 percent now. What's the reason for that? Kit Bond on Thursday suggested maybe the media's got something to do with it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. KIT BOND (R) MISSOURI: When you look at the condition that our troops ran before D-day and all the things that went wrong, 24- hour news coverage would have convinced an overwhelming majority of American people, forget it, pull the plug, let the Nazis have it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTS: Dana, does he have a point there? Is war hard and the American public just doesn't have the stomach because they're seeing these pictures 24 hours a day?

BASH: Sure. There's no question about that but some Democrats, even some Republicans say part of that is the administration's fault in terms of public opinion not putting the American public on war footing. This sort of seems like a place that's far away. One thing that's interesting about those polls, John, is that that is what Democrats point to over and over again. Yeah, we may have lost in terms of these votes, this big vote in the Senate this week, but they say that is a public opinion poll that Republicans are going to have to deal with, because they're going to go home and they're going to see that they're on the wrong side of public opinion. That's what they're banking on for those numbers to keep going up in terms of opposition to the war, for their votes to go up in terms of really making a difference here in Congress.

ROBERTS: Certainly not the last shot in this debate either. Dana Bash, Jim Vandehei, thanks very much. Appreciate it.

Coming up on THIS WEEK AT WAR, are wounded troops being reclassified as healthy and sent to Iraq just to meet troop levels? A shocking report you'll want to hear about.

And my investigation into death squads that operate from inside the government of Iraq. All coming up on this special edition of THIS WEEK AT WAR, year five begins.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

JOHN ROBERTS, HOST: Iraq's bloody civil war has cost thousands of civilian lives -- more than 34,000 last year alone. Sunni insurgents launch terror attacks. Shia militias torture and murder.

This weekend on CNN Special Investigations Unit, my report from Baghdad on rogue death squads operating deep within Iraq's government security forces.

Iraq's Ministry of the Interior says it launched major efforts to combat them. And U.S. forces on the ground are also cracking down.

Here's a segment from "Death Squads."

A warning -- it includes some extremely graphic images.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

ROBERTS (voice-over): The Mahdi Army controls large sections of Baghdad.

Its leader?

Muqtada al-Sadr.

Nearly everyone is affected by the militia, and many need protection from it. So they come here, to the Association of Muslim Scholars, a Sunni religious and civic group, because they did not trust the police or security forces.

HAMED: Salam (ph).

ROBERTS: Hamed is a Sunni living in a mixed neighborhood. The Mahdi Army, he says, has given his family two days to leave their home or be killed.

SHEIKH YUNIS AL GAIDI, ASSOCIATION OF MUSLIM SCHOLARS: They attack people, burn houses and threaten the citizens, all of it under the nose of the government, the army and the police. That's why I say these violations take place with the blessing and the participation of the government. That's why we place the responsibility on the government.

ROBERTS: The Sheikh has dozens of videos, like this one showing 36 Sunnis who he says were tortured and killed by the police for no reason other than living in an ethnically mixed neighborhood.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): It's been a week since it happened. I'm his brother. The people who took him away at dawn wore the uniforms of police commandoes.

ROBERTS: The Sheikh says this video shows what happened to 14 Sunni farmers arrested, reportedly as revenge for a car bomb that killed many Shia. UNIDENTIFIED MALE (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): This is Mabar Mutlaq, one of the victims. Bruises on his face. His teeth have been pulled. Bruises all over his body. His skull has been smashed, his eyes gouged out, his ear torn apart.

ROBERTS: The violence is an everyday occurrence for American forces.

(on camera): The commander of this company tells me that they find dead bodies in this neighborhood every day. So what they're going to do is spend about the next six hours here going building to building, house-to-house in a clearing operation, searching through the buildings. They might find caches of weapons. They might find explosives. They might even find a few militia members who they suspect might be behind some of these sectarian killings.

(voice-over): Instead, the soldiers find Iraqi citizens desperate for help.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Basically, a month ago your son was kidnapped. I have his name.

Have they asked for a ransom?

ROBERTS: This woman has a similar story.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): They came up to his car. They held a gun to his head and then walked off with him.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK.

And you haven't gotten a ransom for your son?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): No. There's been nothing, nothing since then.

ROBERTS: Captain Thomas Babbitt says this happens here often. Sometimes those who are kidnapped are later released. Sometimes they're not.

CAP. THOMAS BABBITT: One of the major body dumping grounds is right down at the end of the street.

ROBERTS: Kidnapping, bodies dumped in the streets, IEDs, suicide bombings -- Baghdad is gripped in a cycle of sectarian killing.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

ROBERTS: CNN Special Investigations Unit: "Death Squads," tonight at 8:00.

Coming up, troops being sent into combat when they are still so injured they can't even wear their body armor?

Can the military survive another year of war?

Year five begins -- a special edition of THIS WEEK AT WAR returns in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROBERTS: Is the pressure of fighting another year in Iraq pushing the Army to the breaking point?

At Fort Benning, Georgia, soldiers this week charged that Army doctors, under pressure to increase troop strength, changed their medical status, marking injured soldiers fit for combat.

Mark Benjamin of Salon.com originally reported on this story and CNN correspondent Barbara Starr is at her post at the Pentagon to help us out.

Here's what Mark Benjamin wrote in his article on Monday: "As the military scrambles to pour more soldiers into Iraq, a unit of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division at Fort Benning, Georgia is deploying troops with serious injuries and other medical problems, including G.I.s whose doctors have said are medically unfit for battle. Some are too injured to wear their body armor, according to medical records."

Mark, it was the soldiers who originally brought this to your attention, as well as a veterans' advocate.

What were they saying?

MARK BENJAMIN, SALON.COM: What they were saying is that the commander of this brigade -- this is the 3rd Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division -- has made a decision to send some of these soldiers to Iraq.

The other thing that they're saying is that on February 15th of last month, 75 of these injured soldiers were lined up in front of the troop medical clinic and it appears that their health was quickly reevaluated, perhaps in order to let them deploy.

ROBERTS: Here's what one female soldier told you: "'My spine is separating. I can't carry gear.' Her medical records include the note: 'unable to deploy overseas.' Her status was reviewed on February the 15th, and she has been ordered to Iraq this week."

Barbara Starr, how thinly stretched is the military?

Is it conceivable that they could resort to tactics like this to try to keep the numbers up?

BARBARA STARR, PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think it's a little difficult to assess the medical situation. I mean the clear reason not to send someone who's medically unfit is not just for themselves, but they become a danger to the rest of their unit if they get into trouble and they can't move fast and that sort of thing.

So that's a little unclear to me.

Is the military stretched thin? John, you bet. The troops are tired. The equipment is tired. Units coming back to the United States are going back before they spend the required period of rest and recuperation at home.

And with this so-called troop surge, it's getting even tougher. The signs are in place now that the administration is going to try and keep the surge in place through early 2008. And as we speak, the Army and the Marine Corps are struggling to figure out where they're going to get the troops to do it.

ROBERTS: Of course, that's all under discussion in Congress.

And, Mark, this particular issue made it into Congress, as well. On Wednesday, Senator Patty Murray of Washington asked two members of the military if the Army is "in the habit of doctoring medical records so that it can meet its troop deployments."

Take a listen to what the answers were.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PETE GEREN, ACTING SECRETARY, U.S. ARMY: These allegations are serious and any allegation of that sort, I can assure you, we're going to follow up on and investigate.

General Schoomaker, you want to speak to that?

GEN. PETER SCHOOMAKER, CHIEF OF STAFF, U.S. ARMY: I just -- I don't know of a commander that would want to take somebody with them in their unit that wasn't capable of doing the full job.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTS: And, Mark, here's what Lieutenant Colonel Bob Tallman, U.S. Army Public Affairs, told me on Thursday: "The purpose of this effort was to provide commanders with a clear understanding of soldier capability and to ensure that soldiers were receiving the appropriate level of medical care. This was not an effort to increase the number of deployable soldiers and no soldier was purposefully put at increased risk."

Do you believe the Army? Could it -- could it be malingering on the part of the soldiers, that they wanted to believe they were sicker than they were?

BENJAMIN: Well, not unless a lot of soldiers down at Fort Benning made up the same story at the same time to tell it to me in separate interviews. So, we'll have to see how this pans out.

I would add, also, that it sounds like the General Accounting Office is going to investigate, the House Armed Services has requested that investigation. And when they made that announcement, the House Armed Services -- the chairman of the House Armed Services said that he has been now receiving calls that this may be happening across the Army.

So that's something they're going to look into.

ROBERTS: Barbara Starr, another issue that came up again this week that certainly is going to play a larger role as we transition into year five is the issue of gays and lesbians in the military. On Monday, General Peter Pace was asked about that.

Here's what his response was.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GENERAL PETER PACE, JOINT CHIEFS CHAIRMAN: I believe that homosexual acts between individuals are immoral and that we should not condone immoral acts. So the don't ask, don't tell allows an individual to serve the country.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTS: So, Pace is saying that don't ask, don't tell should continue. It's a good policy. But then, on the other hand, saying that he believes that homosexual acts are immoral, which has created somewhat of a firestorm on Capitol Hill.

But, Barbara, when you look at the figures, take a look here. 2001 -- 1,227 gays and lesbians were dismissed from the U.S. military. In 2006, that number was reduced to 612. An indication, perhaps, that because of the stress on the military, they're allowing more gays and lesbians to stay in.

So where do you think this issue is headed?

STARR: Well, it also may be an indication that people who are gays and lesbians who want to serve their country very honorably in the U.S. military simply aren't joining up because they know they're not welcome in the U.S. military.

So it's hard to really get a good read on those numbers.

As for where it's all headed, this has always been an issue that's a political firestorm. There is draft legislation on the Hill, 14 years later, to try and repeal don't ask, don't tell. General Pace, intentionally or not, firing a shot across the bow that he's not going to put up with any such new legislation. And, of course, with the presidential campaign coming up, maybe it's the case that nobody really wants to deal with this very tough issue this year -- John.

ROBERTS: But it's something, I know, Barbara, you'll be keeping your eye on.

And, Mark, we look forward to your next article to see where this story is going.

Mark Benjamin of Salon, Barbara Starr, thanks very much.

Coming up on THIS WEEK AT WAR, millions of Iraqi refugees fleeing death squads and suicide bombs.

Where can they find safety?

We'll talk to a reporter for whom it's more than a story -- it's a family crisis.

But first, a look at some of those who fell in this week at war.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROBERTS: Iraq is a nation in flight. It's estimated that almost four million people have been forced from their homes. Two million of them have left the country. Those who can afford to flee are, to a great extent, the educated, the professionals, the middle class so desperately needed to build a stable Iraq.

It's a very personal story for "Newsweek's" senior writer, Lorraine Ali. She has family members still trying to escape Iraq.

She joins us from Los Angeles.

And with me here in Washington, Ken Bacon. He was Pentagon spokesman during the Clinton administration, now president of Refugees International.

Ken, this is being called the worst refugee crisis -- quickly becoming the worst refugee crisis in the world, worse than Darfur. Yet, I don't think a lot of Americans understand that.

KEN BACON, REFUGEES INTERNATIONAL: Well, I think they're beginning to and they will by the end of the year because it is growing at a very rapid rate.

As you said, two million have left the country already. They're leaving at the rate of about 100,000 a month. So we're going to have another million refugees outside the country and the internal displacement is increasing by almost that rate. So we'll have another one million displaced internally by the end of the year.

ROBERTS: Lorraine, as we mentioned, you have family members who are still in Baghdad. You have some who have fled to other countries, Jordan, I believe.

Give us the personal side of this.

LORRAINE ALI, "NEWSWEEK": Well, it's one thing when you hear, you know, that two million have fled, almost that many are displaced inside Iraq. It's another when they're your uncles, aunts and cousins.

And I have every example in my family. I family members trapped in Baghdad. I have family members whose houses were taken over by insurgents and had to flee inside of Iraq. And I have others that are displaced -- Syria, Jordan and even Germany.

ROBERTS: How does -- how does it leave you feeling?

Can you help them? ALI: It's really hard. We feel really helpless. We can help in the way of maybe sending money and helping out in that way. But we can't help them get visas into Jordan, into Syria, because those countries have almost sealed off their borders, because there's been such a huge influx of Iraqis.

And, really, we can't even help them get to the U.S. because it's so difficult to get Iraqis into the U.S.

So we feel really helpless about it.

ROBERTS: In fact, take a look at this graphic. This really lays out where these displaced persons are going. Syria has taken up to a million Iraqi refugees. Jordan, 750,000; Iran, a little more than 50,000; Lebanon, 40,000; Egypt, 20,000 to 80,000.

What's it doing to those countries?

BACON: Well, the biggest burden is being absorbed by Syria and Jordan. The Syrians h been enormously generous. But it's beginning to hurt both these countries.

Clearly, real estate prices have been driven up. Rents in Damascus -- these are generally urban refugees. They're not in camps, as they are in Darfur. They have been absorbed by families. They've looked -- they've bought houses on the open market or rented apartments.

So it's having a real impact on these economies.

ROBERTS: And what's the impact going to be on Iraq?

This is something that you tackled, Lorraine, in an article in "Newsweek" in the March 19th issue. You write: "The exodus has not only scattered my family, it has hollowed out Iraq's most skilled classes -- doctors, engineers, mgrs and bureaucrats. Baghdad was once home to one of the most educated populaces in the Middle East. Many were part of a generation of middle class professionals who, during the 1970s, transformed Iraq into the Middle East's most diversified economy."

If there is such a brain drain there now, Lorraine, what's the future of the country? Will it return to an educated class or could it perhaps leave Iraq in the hands of religious fundamentalists?

ALI: See, I worry about that, because even if we could secure the city tomorrow, you know, I don't know who's there to run it and who's there to rebuild a healthy society. I mean you're talking about the least sectarian slice of society being gone.

So I don't know who will be there. And, you know, when you have your doctors, engineers, professionals gone, then, you know, it's kind of left up to who's left in the city to rebuild it.

In my family alone, we have engineers. I have a curator that was at the Museum of Baghdad, people that were running an oil ministry. Those people are gone now so...

ROBERTS: Another big piece of this...

ALI: ... who's left?

ROBERTS: Yes.

Another big piece of this, Ken, too, is the fact that the United States isn't taking many Iraqi refugees, even though it was the United States that invaded Iraq. In 2005, they took in 18; 2006, 202; projected to take 7,000 in 2007. But that's less than Sweden took last year.

Does the U.S. need to step up to the plate here?

BACON: Well, absolutely.

I think the U.S. particularly has to focus on some of the most vulnerable people. And those are people who work for the U.S. as translators, as drivers, as assts, both for the government, the military, the State Department, but also for CNN, for BBC, for the "New York Times," for "Newsweek."

These are people who have risked their lives to help Americans interact. Many of them have had to flee because their kids have been kidnapped, their houses have been targeted, their cars have been bombed.

So they're now in Amman or Damascus trying to get to the U.S. and having a very difficult time.

ROBERTS: Well, it's good work that your organization is doing, Ken.

A great article this week, Lorraine.

Best of luck to you and your family.

Appreciate it.

ALI: Thank you.

ROBERTS: And when we come back, a look at another change coming in year five -- increased Congressional scrutiny of reconstruction spending in Iraq.

This is a special edition of THIS WEEK AT WAR -- year five begins.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROBERTS: I came back from Iraq four months ago with almost no hope that things there were going to improve. And, in fact, over the next 60 days, they did appear to get progressively worse.

But in the past couple of weeks we have seen what may be the very first glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.

The open question -- is it the light of success or an oncoming train?

The Iraqi government would like us to believe it's the former. They're touting a dramatic reduction in sectarian violence in Baghdad. A senior U.S. official close to General Petraeus agrees that there are some encouraging signs. But the new American command in Iraq isn't yet prepared to call it a trend. They've seen apparent successes crumble into setbacks before.

They do have high hopes, though, for the strategy of stationing American forces in troubled neighborhoods. In the past, troops were basically commuting to work from bases as much as 20 miles away -- on each leg of the drive, risking ambush or attack by an IED. As General Petraeus said, you don't want to have to fight your way into work.

Is Iraq safe?

Not by a long shot. But now, there is a constant presence of U.S. and Iraqi forces in some of Baghdad's worst areas.

Is it becoming more secure?

Perhaps. And with security, Petraeus hopes, can come political and economic progress. But he cautions it's going to be a slow process.

Year four of the Iraq War began with a mosque bombing that ignited a firestorm of sectarian violence.

Year five begins with some promise.

And wouldn't some good news be a welcome change?

Here's a look now at some of the stories that we'll be covering in the next week at war.

On Monday, the six party talks with North Korea are scheduled to resume.

On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee will quiz the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction about whether enough is being done to ferret out fraud and abuse.

And Friday will be the last day for Big John. The aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy, a veteran of wars from Vietnam to Afghanistan, will be decommissioned in Jacksonville, Florida.

Thanks for joining us on THIS WEEK AT WAR.

I'm John Roberts.

Straight ahead, a check of the headlines.

Then, CNN Special Investigations Unit: "Death Squads" -- kidnapping, torture and murder. I'll uncover the brutality of secret Iraqi gangs and possible ties to top government officials.

TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.voxant.com

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