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THE SITUATION ROOM

Is U.S. Sending Message to Iran?; Is Fred Thompson Running for President?

Aired March 27, 2007 - 17:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: And to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Happening now, a massive show of U.S. military might -- war games right now off the coast of Iran.

Is the U.S. sending a message?

Is Britain now sounding a warning?

A top aide to the attorney general won't be speaking to Congress.

Is she trying to save herself or protect Alberto Gonzales?

Who is she and what does she know?

And he's not even in the race, but he's gaining in the polls among presidential hopefuls.

Can senator turned actor Fred Thompson go from TV to the White House?

I'm Wolf Blitzer.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

But up first, though, right now, a showdown happening in the U.S. Senate. At stake -- a measure to set a pullout date for U.S. combat troops in Iraq.

But will the senators strip that timetable from the war spending bill?

They're about to vote. We're watching this very closely. Let's go to our Congressional correspondent, Dana Bash.

How do we expect this key vote -- Dana?

This hour we expect -- how do we expect it to play out?

DANA BASH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It's a real nail-biter, Wolf.

We just were informed by a senior Democratic aide that the vice president, Vice President Cheney just arrived here at the Capitol. He has the ability, perhaps, to cast a vote if there is a tie. That tells you how close it's going to be.

What this is, is language to actually take out the Democrats' plan, which would pull all U.S. combat troops from Iraq by about this time next year.

Now, just two weeks ago, this actually was narrowly defeated. But we also noted that two senators, including Republican Chuck Hagel, has decided to switch his vote. He will vote with the Democrats. So this could pass, but it's going to be very, very close.

But if Democrats do get a victory here, Wolf, I will be short- lived because even they admit they do not have the votes to override what the president promises would be a veto.

BLITZER: But it would send a message if they got it passed. The last time they tried, they only got, what, 48 votes?

BASH: That's right. It was very narrow. They were two votes short. I think it was 48-50. But we are told that two senators are switching their votes, Republican Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. He went on the Senate floor to give a speech but didn't say why his mind is changing from just two weeks ago.

The Democratic senator from Nebraska is also switching his vote. We do know why. He got some language put in that establishes benchmarks for Iraqis. That's what made him come back to the fold and his party and that's why he'll vote with the Democrats -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Dana, we'll watch the floor of the Senate together with you. As soon as that vote happens, we'll bring it to our viewers.

Meanwhile, war games only miles off the coast of Iran. In a massive show of American force, fighter jets are now screaming off the decks of two -- yes, two U.S. aircraft carriers, carrying out mock attacks on enemy ships and planes in the Persian Gulf.

Let's go live to our Pentagon correspondent, Jamie McIntyre -- Jamie, what's behind these war games?

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SENIOR PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, Wolf, the U.S. Navy says simply they had two carriers in the Gulf, thought it would be a good idea if they exercised together. But while the Pentagon is downplaying the significance, it's certain these war games are anything but routine.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

MCINTYRE (voice-over): A Navy FA-18 flies out of the sun and onto the deck of the USS Eisenhower, one of two U.S. aircraft carriers now conducting high profile air warfare exercises right off the coast of Iran.

The decision to dispatch a second aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf was made months ago, long before Iran's provocative capture of 15 British sailors and marines last week. But Pentagon sources tell CNN the decision to conduct a rare duel exercise, with two carriers, 100 war planes and more than a dozen escort ships, was ordered just this week to make a show of resolve to Tehran.

ROBERT GATES, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: They are watching what the United States and our coalition partners are doing and will draw their own conclusions about the reliability of our word and the strength of our commitments.

MCINTYRE: While the Eisenhower and Stennis battle groups are practicing hunting submarines, sinking ships and clearing mines, all things they would do in a war with Iran, the top U.S. commander for the region insists with its hands full in Iraq, the U.S. is not spoiling for a fight.

ADM. WILLIAM FALLON, U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND: We're not interested in a war. We've got a conflict going here that we've got lots of folks tied up trying to fix.

MCINTYRE: But the American armada is aimed at reassuring other Gulf states the U.S. has the naval power to keep vital shipping lanes open. Jittery investors have already sent oil prices to a high for the year on fears that rising tensions could disrupt the 40 percent of the world's oil that flows through the Strait of Hormuz.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I understand.

Thanks, Tim.

MCINTYRE: Three -- when -- when the U.S. had five aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf. But this exercise is only going to last a couple of days. Then the gunboat diplomacy will go back to being more about diplomacy than the gunboats -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jamie is at the Pentagon watching this.

Iran is doing some serious saber rattling of its own. Watch this. Iran's navy also on maneuvers in the Persian Gulf. Since last week it's been showing off warships, submarines and missile boats. And check this out -- just last month, Revolutionary Guards in Iran flexed their muscles, firing missiles from mobile launchers. These are just two of the series of Iranian war games unfolding as tensions clearly rising in the region.

Is Britain now warning Iran?

British officials have been holding urgent talks with Iranian counterparts. But now there's tough talk from the very top.

CNN's Robin Oakley is in London -- Robin.

ROBIN OAKLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Tony Blair has today given the Iranians a sharp dig in the ribs. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TONY BLAIR, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: I hope we manage to get them to realize they have to release them. If not, then this will move into a different phase. But at the moment, what we're trying to do is to -- is to make sure that that diplomatic initiative works.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OAKLEY: What that doesn't mean, I'm told by Downing Street officials, is any dramatic expulsion of Iranian diplomats from London. It certainly doesn't mean military action.

But what it could mean is dragging into the public domain the private arguments Britain has been having with the Iranians.

Back to you -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Robin, thank you.

Has the standoff with Iran reached the crisis stage?

Look at this -- it started Friday when 15 British marines and sailors set out from their warship in rubber boats, boarded a vessel suspected of smuggling in disputed waters. Patrol boats from Iran's Revolutionary Guard quickly surrounded and seized the British and hauled them off to Iran.

In Teheran, hard-liners are pushing to prosecute the British forces with espionage.

And Iran, only last -- the last time they seized British military personnel was back in 2004. This is what they looked like in captivity. Iran released those troops a few days later, something the country is still not doing this time around.

Teheran has a track record when it comes to this sort of thing.

Let's go to our State Department correspondent, Zain Verjee -- Zain, some are seeing a bit of deja vu all over again.

What's going on?

ZAIN VERJEE, CNN STATE DEPARTMENT CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, Wolf.

Iran has done it before and now it's doing it again.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

VERJEE (voice-over): Grab and detain -- Iran's holding 15 British sailors at a time when the world is turning up the heat.

KARIM SADJAPOUR, CARNEGIE ENDOWMENT: They want to send a message that if you want to take coercive measures, two can play at that game, as well. VERJEE: U.S. officials and diplomats say the capture of the British military men was likely not planned, but Iran may be seizing the moment in desperation more than provocation.

This latest capture comes days after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei shot a warning to Iran's enemies, saying it still strike back if Iran is under threat.

Iran has just been hit with new sanctions.

The U.S. is still holding Iranian operatives it seized in Iraq. So this could be a tit for tat, though the State Department won't connect the dots.

TOM CASEY, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: The Iranians certainly haven't drawn a connection between that and we certainly would neither.

VERJEE: Iran has a history of capture as a tactic.

Back in 2004, Iran detained 10 British servicemen, accusing them, like this time, of being in Iranian waters.

In 1979, Iran stormed the U.S. embassy in Teheran and seized more than 70 hostages for 444 days.

SADJAPOUR: Historically, especially in contemporary Iranian history, when they've taken action like this, they want to make a point. They want to project an image that we're powerful, we have to be dealt with. But they also want to save face.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

VERJEE: Officials and analysts, Wolf, say that they expect that Iran will release the British troops soon -- Wolf.

BLITZER: If they want to send a message to the United States, why seize the British troops?

VERJEE: Well, that's a good question. I mean Iran experts are saying going after the British is really a way of antagonizing the West, but with a lot less repercussions. When it detained the British back in 2004, as you pointed out, Iran just got a slap on the wrist, really.

But if it detained 15 Americans, the consequences for Iran, Wolf, would just be a lot greater.

BLITZER: Serious tensions unfolding.

Zain, thanks very much.

And we're just getting word the actual vote on the floor of the U.S. Senate has just started. This is a resolution that would strip any time line -- any formal timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. Republicans and some Democrats seeking to eliminate this time line in this war funding measure.

It's very, very close. It's a nail-biter, as they say.

We'll watch the vote unfold and get you the results as soon as the roll call is over with.

In the meantime, let's go to Jack Cafferty in New York.

He's got The Cafferty File -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: A top aide to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is going to take the fifth amendment to avoid possibly incriminating herself in lieu of testifying.

Monica Goodling's announcement came hours after the Justice Department said that its aides would fully cooperate with the investigation. Well, except for Goodling.

She is the department's liaison to the White House and she's now on voluntary leave. Imagine that.

A "New York Times" editorial today says this latest news "takes the U.S. attorney scandal to a new level" and that Goodling's decision suggests that she "at least believes crimes may have been committed."

It calls on the attorney general to testify before Congress this week instead of waiting for his scheduled testimony in three weeks. Not likely to happen.

Meanwhile, another Republican is out with tough words about Gonzales. The top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, Peter Hoekstra, says: "The president needs to make the decision as to whether this drip, drip, drip on the attorney general -- you know, there's not anything that's come out in 10 days to enhance his position or his credibility."

So here's the question -- what does it mean when a top aide to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales decides to take the fifth amendment and refuses to testify in the federal prosecutor case?

E-mail us at caffertyfile@cnn.com or go to cnn.com/caffertyfile -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack, thanks very much.

And we're going to have more on this story coming up. She's pleading the fifth, as Jack just pointed out, raising the stakes as Congress investigates the Justice Department's prosecutor purge.

We're going to show you just exactly who this new figure is and what she may know.

Also, another high profile political figure battling cancer again -- the White House press secretary, Tony Snow. We're going to show you how his condition may be very common, why doctors say there are some reasons for optimism. And we're monitoring that Senate vote on the Iraq War and a timetable for a U.S. withdrawal. We'll be joined by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're watching what's happening on the floor of the U.S. Senate right now. The voting has just started on legislation that would include a time line, a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces in Iraq about a year or so from now.

Republicans, by and large, have introduced an amendment that would strip this funding for the war legislation of any time line. It's a very, very close roll call that we anticipate. The vice president, Dick Cheney, has now arrived in the U.S. Senate. If it's a 50-50 tie, or any tie, he breaks that tie as president of the Senate.

We're watching this roll call. We'll get you the numbers as soon as they are tallied.

Meanwhile, a top Justice Department official now in the spotlight in the Congressional investigation of the firing of those eight federal prosecutors.

Monica Goodling is invoking the fifth amendment to avoid testifying about what some are alleging was a politically charged purge.

So who is she?

What might she know?

CNN's Brian Todd is joining us now with more on this woman.

What do we know about Monica Goodling, Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we found out that this 33-year-old counsel to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, also the Justice Department's point person to the White House, is a plugged in aide who dealt closely with the dismissals of those U.S. attorneys and had a laser-like focus throughout her career.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

TODD (voice-over): She's at the center of the U.S. attorney firing scandal. But Monica Goodling, seen here in pictures from a law school reunion, has apparently gone underground.

ALBERTO GONZALES, ATTORNEY GENERAL OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm not going to comment on the decision by a -- an employee at the department to exercise her constitutional rights.

TODD: Goodling's decision to take the fifth has angered the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D), VERMONT: If she feels that what she has to tell us would subject her to criminal -- criminal prosecution, well, that raises some really serious questions.

TODD: Goodling's attorney cautions taking the fifth could also be intended to protect her innocence. That's all we hear from Goodling or her attorney. Neither returned our calls.

Who is this woman?

No traces of Goodling at her suburban Virginia home. Neighbors say they don't know her.

But a former colleague at the Justice Department tells CNN no one outworked Monica Goodling. That person was part of what's described as a core group of Goodling's close friends.

Other current and former Justice Department colleagues describe a woman who was abrupt, who ruffled feathers among U.S. attorneys and others.

But a close friend at Justice says that's because Goodling was unfailingly honest and might have sometimes been too direct.

As for her earlier career, classmates at Messiah College in Pennsylvania describe her as relentlessly hard-working, driven, a loner.

Goodling, seen here in the college yearbook, became editor of that publication by her junior year, at one point writing in a thank you passage to colleagues: "You guys more than anyone felt my anal retentiveness for perfection and quality."

(END VIDEO TAPE)

TODD: From there, it was on to Regent University Law School in Virginia, the first Bush campaign and the press office at the Justice Department. Her upward arc from there, according to colleagues, was meteoric -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Well, what do they say at Justice?

I know you've spoken to some people over there about this meteoric rise -- only 33 years old.

What was behind that?

TODD: I was really just this relentless hard work, Wolf. That's the consistent account that you get. She would often stay there until late hours of the night. That first caught the attention of former Attorney General John Ashcroft, when Goodling was in the press office of the Justice Department. It later caught Alberto Gonzales' attention.

BLITZER: Brian Todd, thank you for that.

Coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM, could you or I walk the streets of Baghdad safely?

Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain says in some neighborhoods, the answer is yes -- things are getting better on the ground. We're going to go live to the Iraqi capital for a reality check. Our own Michael Ware is standing by.

And a politician turned actor gaining support as he weighs a White House run. We're going to show you what may be behind former Senator Fred Thompson's growing popularity.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: As you can see behind me, they're voting on the Senate floor right now on a resolution that would end Democrats' hope of having a time line, a timetable for withdrawing troops. We're watching this closely. As soon as the final roll call is tallied, we'll tell you how this crucial vote winds up.

In the meantime, let's go to CNN's Carol Costello.

She's keeping an eye on all the feeds, all the wires coming in.

What's the latest -- Carol.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Here's the latest, Wolf.

One side is a U.S. ally in the war on terror, the other friends of the Taliban. Now, Pakistan's government has signed a peace deal with tribal leaders along the country's border with Afghanistan. It calls for government troops to warn the tribes of any arrests or raids in their territory. In exchange, the tribal leaders agreed not to harbor any Taliban or al Qaeda terrorists.

A sign of progress in the Middle East peace talks. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announcing that the Israeli prime minister and the Palestinian president are agreeing to meet every two weeks. Rice says Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas will discuss immediate concerns, including security issues and work on building confidence.

A victory for drug maker Merck in the latest trial over its now recalled painkiller, Vioxx. An Illinois jury found the drug did not cause the death of a 52-year-old woman who took it. It is the 10th victory for Merck out of 15 Vioxx cases that have gone to trial.

That's a look at the headlines right now -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We'll check back with you shortly, Carol.

Thanks.

Coming up, she calls the growing tension with Iran a very dangerous situation.

Is the Bush administration up to the task? I'll ask former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

And we're watching the Senate vote on that very controversial bill right now calling for U.S. troops to be out of Iraq by next March.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin asking Louisiana's governor to extend deployment of some 300 National Guard troops in his crime plagued city. With 40 homicides this year, New Orleans has the country's highest per capita murder rate.

No response yet to Nagin's request from Governor Kathleen Blanco.

Also, Democratic Senator Jim Webb speaking out about the arrest of a top aide trying to bring Webb's loaded gun into a Senate office building. That aide pleading not guilty today to a felony. Webb, who has a permit for the gun, called the situation unfortunate, says he's not sure how the aide wound up with the gun.

And Hollywood and Washington insider Jack Valenti is recovering from a stroke. The 85-year-old said to be resting comfortably at Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore. Valenti worked for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson before serving as president of the Motion Picture Association of America for almost four decades. Our wish to Jack Valenti for a speedy recovery.

I'm Wolf Blitzer and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We're also watching the Senate floor right now. A vote anticipated shortly on whether or not the U.S. Senate will be on record calling for a formal time line for the withdrawal of combat forces from Iraq.

Republicans seeking now to include an amendment that would strip that funding bill of any such time line. It's going to be a very, very close vote. We're watching it right now. The vice president, Dick Cheney, is on the scene in case he needs to break the tie. He is the president of the U.S. Senate.

Meanwhile, insurgent car bombs killed dozens of people today in the Iraqi cities of Tal Afar and Ramadi. Violence claimed six lives in Baghdad, where a massive security crackdown is underway.

Senator John McCain suggests that crackdown is already working.

I asked him about that in the last hour.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

BLITZER: Here's what you told Bill Bennett on his radio show on Monday.

MCCAIN: Yes.

BLITZER: "There are neighborhoods in Baghdad where you and I could walk through those neighborhoods today."

MCCAIN: Yes.

BLITZER: "The U.S. is beginning to succeed in Iraq."

You know, everything we hear, that if you leave the so-called green zone, the international zone, and you go outside of that secure area, relatively speaking, you're in trouble if you're an American.

MCCAIN: You know, that's why you ought to catch up on things, Wolf.

General Petraeus goes out there almost every day in an unarmed Humvee. You want to -- I think you ought to catch up. You see, you are giving the old line of three months ago. I understand it. We certainly don't get it through the filter of some of the media.

But I know for a fact of much of the success we're experiencing, including the ability of Americans in many parts -- not all. We've got a long, long way to go. We've only got two of the five brigades there -- to go into some neighborhoods in Baghdad in a secure fashion.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

BLITZER: Senator John McCain, a Republican presidential candidate, speaking here in THE SITUATION ROOM within the past hour.

Let's go live to Baghdad right now.

CNN's Michael Ware is standing by -- Michael, you've been there, what, for four years. You're walking around Baghdad on a daily basis.

Has there been this improvement that Senator McCain is speaking about?

MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I'd certainly like to bring Senator McCain up to speed, if he ever gives me the opportunity. And if I have any difficulty hearing you right now, Wolf, that's because of the helicopter circling overhead and the gun battle that is blazing just a few blocks down the road.

Is Baghdad any safer?

Sectarian violence -- one particular type of violence -- is down. But none of the American generals here on the ground have anything like Senator McCain's confidence.

I mean, Senator McCain's credibility now on Iraq, which has been so solid to this point, has now been left out hanging to dry.

To suggest that there's any neighborhood in this city where an American can walk freely is beyond ludicrous. I'd love Senator McCain to tell me where that neighborhood is and he and I can go for a stroll.

And to think that General David Petraeus travels this city in an unarmed Humvee. I mean in the hour since Senator McCain has said this, I've spoken to some military sources and there was laughter down the line. I mean, certainly, the general travels in a Humvee. There's multiple Humvees around it, heavily armed. There's attack helicopters, predator drones, sniper teams, all sorts of layers of protection.

So, no, Senator McCain is way off base on this one -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Michael, stand by.

There's a development on the floor of the Senate that we want to go to.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Let's get right to Dana Bash.

What's -- what's the vote?

DANA BASH, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The vote is 48-50, and what that means, Wolf, is that Republicans have failed in their bid to try to take out a language that would have a withdrawal of U.S. troops, U.S. combat troops from Iraq by this time next year. So it is, at this point, a victory for the Democrats.

This was, as we talked about, going to be a nail-biter vote, whether Democrats could keep their plan to have a withdrawal of combat troops by March 31, 2008, in this funding bill, this war funding bill. And the Democrats have succeeded.

Again, this is a short-term success for Democrats. Even they admit, Wolf, that the White House, of course, has said that they're going to veto this and that Democrats will not have the votes to override that.

BLITZER: But this is a significant victory for the Democrats. There's no doubt about that. The last time they got 48 votes trying something along these lines, now they got 50 votes to keep that language in this funding bill that calls for this timeline for the start of a withdrawal of combat forces from Iraq.

BASH: No question. And that vote, Wolf, was just 12 days ago. And what happened was you had one Democratic senator stitching his vote because the Democratic leadership changed the language a little bit.

What they did is they put some measures in there to require Iraqis to meet certain benchmarks that allowed a conservative Democrat Ben Nelson of Nebraska to vote with his party. And then you had Republican Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. He switched his vote as well. He, this time, voted with the Democrats. Last time he voted with Republicans.

You also had a couple of senators missing. Senator Mike Enzi, for example, he is not here. He had an illness in the family. That's why he's not voting.

It shows just how narrow the Democrat's majority is, and that could go either way with these votes. But it also -- if you ask Democrats, I'm sure they're already saying, Wolf, that this is part of their strategy, to try to go step by step and keep putting those votes on the floor because they think eventually they're going to pull enough votes their way that they're actually going to be successful, ultimately.

BLITZER: Now, in the end, this funding bill, Dana, is going to have to be reconciled between the House version, the Senate version. I take it the Republicans are not going to use some procedural efforts that would require 60 votes on the part of the Democrats. They're going to let the president of the United States do what he has threatened to, veto this spending bill, and make the whole Congress start all over again from scratch.

BASH: That's exactly right. They are not going to do that. So what you are going to see is, once this finally clears the Senate, they're going to come together with the House, quickly pass something along the lines of this, what you just saw today, something that has a deadline for troop withdrawal in it.

It's going to go to the president's desk. As you said, Republicans are going to allow the president to veto it, send it back to Congress and start back over again. So this is going to be an interesting tug-of-war that you're going to see right down Pennsylvania Avenue for some time.

What Republicans say is they want to at least get the ball rolling, because they insist that this is about funding for the troops, and they know that this fight is happening, so they want to get it started as quickly as possible.

BLITZER: A Democratic win in the Senate. Last week, a Democratic win in the House. The showdown, though, with the White House continues.

Dana, thanks very much.

BASH: Thank you.

BLITZER: We're going to stay on top of the ramifications of this.

But I want to go back to Baghdad right now. CNN's Michael Ware is on the scene for us, as he has been for the past four years.

Michael, when Senator McCain says that there are at least some areas of Baghdad where people can walk around and -- whether it's General Petraeus, the U.S. military commander, or others, are there at least some areas where you could emerge outside of the Green Zone, the international zone, where people can go out, go to a coffee shop, go to a restaurant, and simply take a stroll?

WARE: I can answer this very quickly, Wolf. No. No way on earth can a westerner, particularly an American, stroll any street of this capital of more than five million people.

I mean, if al Qaeda doesn't get wind of you, or if one of the Sunni insurgent groups don't descend upon you, or if someone doesn't tip off a Shia militia, then the nearest criminal gang is just going to see dollar signs and scoop you up. Honestly, Wolf, you'd barely last 20 minutes out there.

I don't know what part of Neverland Senator McCain is talking about when he says we can go strolling in Baghdad.

BLITZER: What about this vote? The tug-of-war, the political battle unfolding here in the Senate. The House of Representatives calling for some sort of timeline for a withdrawal of combat forces.

How does this play out in Baghdad? What do people there where you are, Michael, say about this?

WARE: Well, on the ground, it barely passes without a flicker. Of course, people take notes of the domestic politics back in D.C., in the United States. But honestly, that seems so far removed from the reality here on the ground.

People are still dying in the dozens every single day. There may be a security crackdown, but al Qaeda's suicide car bombers are still getting through. And we're finding 20, 30 tortured, executed bodies on the streets of the capital every morning, and American troops continue to die every day.

And just this afternoon, we've seen a double suicide truck bomb attack, followed by ground infantry assault by al Qaeda launched against an American position. Now, that was repelled, but eight American boys were wounded in the process.

Do you think anyone enduring that is paying attention to artificial deadlines that are going to get vetoed by the president? And even if they were to pass through the legislative process, would only serve al Qaeda and Iran, America's enemies? No. People are focusing on the near game -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Michael Ware reporting for us from Baghdad.

Michael, as usual, thanks very much.

Just want to remind our viewers, we're staying on top of the breaking news here in Washington. The U.S. Senate following the lead of the House of Representatives, voting only moments ago to keep language in a war funding bill that calls for a timeline of a withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq. President Bush threatening to veto this legislation if it reaches his desk.

We're staying on top of this story. We'll have more on that. That's coming up. Also, other tensions in the region with Iran. We're going to be speaking about the escalating tension with Iran. The former secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, she'll be joining us right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: As U.S. troops try to put a lid on the situation in Iraq, is there a full-blown crisis looming with Iran after the seizure of those British sailors and marines?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And joining us now in New York, the former secretary of state, Madeleine Albright. Her best-selling book, "The Mighty and The Almighty," is now available in paperback.

Madame Secretary, thanks very much for coming in.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT, FMR. SECRETARY OF STATE: Great to be with you, Wolf. Thank you.

BLITZER: Tensions involving Iran clearly heating up. Listen to the British prime minister, Tony Blair, today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TONY BLAIR, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: I hope we manage to get them to realize they have to release them. If not, then this will move into a different phase.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: It sounds to me that this is the way wars sometimes get started. What do you think?

ALBRIGHT: Well, I think it's a very dangerous situation, because we are dealing on the side of the Iranians with Ahmadinejad in a way where I think that there are wiser voices that need to prevail there, that there is a hysteria that develops. I think the British are trying very hard to keep this in diplomatic channels, where it belongs, and to try to figure out a way to get their people back. But obviously, given the region and the stakes, this is a dangerous situation.

BLITZER: Why are they doing this? It's not the Iranian military, we're told. This is the Iranian Revolutionary Guard that has kidnapped, captured these 15 British marines and sailors and are holding them now.

What's their point?

ALBRIGHT: Well, I think that they are obviously feeling under some kind of pressure. They are the ones that are being accused of doing any number of things in Iraq. I think there's a real question within Iran who is in charge of various aspects and where the control is coming. As I understand it, also, some of the sanctions that have been put on are against various parts of the Revolutionary Guard, or businesses that are associated with them. But this is a very unwise move by the Iranians in a very difficult place.

As you know, that waterway is one that's under dispute. But I think that diplomatic channels are the ones that need to be pursued. And the British have been playing -- have been stating the issue, I think, very clearly.

BLITZER: Here's what Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, said on Saturday.

He said, "Nations seeking to impose sanctions against Iran will suffer a greater damage themselves."

This guy is not backing down in the face of the unanimous United Nations Security Council resolution that was approved over the weekend.

ALBRIGHT: Well, it's interesting, because the resolution itself is not as strong as the United States wanted. It is unanimous, however. And I think that Ahmadinejad needs to hear the message from the international community.

Among those voting were obviously people that he thought were his friends and protectors -- the Chinese, Russians, and some of the Muslim countries. And so this is serious.

What's worried me all along, Wolf, is that we have two carrier groups in the Gulf, the Iranians have been having military exercises there anyway. And these are the kinds of issues -- problems that somehow escalate. But I think wise heads need to prevail in Iran, and that they have an opportunity to use diplomatic channels and show that they can be responsible partners within an international system. So I think they need -- pressure needs to be put on them to be part of a diplomatic solution.

BLITZER: I've heard some analysts suggest that what the Iranian Revolutionary Guard has done in capturing these British sailors and marines right now is similar to what their allies, the Hezbollah, did in Lebanon in capturing in Israeli soldiers across the border and holding them now for a long period of time, seeking to ratchet up the tension, just as the situation might have been going in a different direction.

Do you see an analogy there, a comparison?

ALBRIGHT: Well, I don't, really, in the following way, Wolf, because the analysis on the Hezbollah in Lebanon was that they were -- they were trying to ratchet it up, but they didn't expect that it would bring full-time military action. And there, in many way, was a miscalculation on their part. So I think people have to be very careful about not miscalculating on something like this. The question is, who ordered this and how rational voices -- and there are rational voices in Iran -- can prevail so that the diplomatic road can be taken, because as you know, earlier, I think three years ago, some British military people were captured and they were returned within a few days. So I hope that is the path that this will take.

BLITZER: Do you have confidence in President Bush and his team that they know what they're doing as far as this tension with Iran?

ALBRIGHT: Well, that's a difficult question, I have to say. I hope that they are learning that it's a mistake to demonize various countries, that they are seeing the value of diplomatic action. But unfortunately, as a result of the war in Iraq, the Iranians are feeling empowered in any number of ways.

I think that has been one of the truly unfortunate consequences of this war, and that the Iranians are flexing their muscles and causing everybody in the region great difficulty. So I hope that there is indication that the diplomatic route can be followed and that we are not hasty. And I think from what I hear, Prime Minister Blair is taking a strong but measured response.

BLITZER: The former secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, joining us from New York.

Madame Secretary, thanks very much.

ALBRIGHT: Thank you.

(NEWSBREAK)

BLITZER: Also coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM, Fred Thompson's been a president on the screen, the big screen, the little screen. Now he's flirting with trying to be a real president. Mary Snow has some stunning new numbers on how he's shaking things up.

That's coming up next.

And in our 7:00 p.m. Eastern hour, we're going to hear from Senator John McCain. He's already in the race. Find out what he has to say about Senator Thompson, about the situation in Iraq, and a lot more.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: He appears to be crashing the party of presidential prospects. Republican and former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson, now that his name's on the list of potentials, a fresh poll suggests he might just be the life of the party.

Take a look at these numbers from a new "USA Today"- Gallup poll of Republicans and Republican-leaning voters. About six weeks ago, Rudy Giuliani actually -- and John McCain -- Rudy Giuliani -- let's take a look at that -- was at 40 percent, John McCain was at 24 percent. Those numbers rough roughly the same on March 4th.

But throw Fred Thompson's name into the mix and watch what happens. A new poll shows him at 12 percent. And while he still trails, Thompson sliced into Giuliani's support, bringing his number down 13 points from the last poll. That may be why many people are calling for the actor on NBC's "Law & Order" to run for president.

Our Mary Snow is looking into all of this political news. She's joining us from New York.

Mary, what are you finding out about Senator Fred Thompson's appeal?

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, you know, when you talk to Republicans excited about Fred Thompson, they say they like the fact that he is a conservative. And some say it doesn't hurt that he has star appeal.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW (voice over): Fred Thompson, the man who plays a prosecutor on TV's "Law & Order" made his case for a presidential run. Roughly two weeks ago, the former senator and current actor said he's considering a run for president. Since then, Thompson has skyrocketed out of nowhere to rank third among GOP White House hopefuls in a new poll. He's even surpassed former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.

And Thompson hasn't yet formally announced.

KEATING HOLLAND, CNN POLLING DIRECTOR: One way to read these numbers is that there's a lot of Republicans that are still shopping around for a candidate.

SNOW: Why are Republicans shopping around? Republican strategist David Winston, who's not affiliated with any campaigns, says a key title has alluded candidates Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Mitt Romney.

DAVID WINSTON, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: What has not occurred is someone has not grabbed a sort of conservative mantelpiece, the person who's identified as the lead conservative candidate. And that's been sort of bouncing around, and a lot of the candidates have been sort of jockeying for that, with no one succeeding.

SNOW: Why hasn't a single candidate pulled ahead with conservatives? Strategists say McCain hasn't gained overall momentum, Giuliani supports abortion and gay rights. And although Romney is now viewed as a conservative, that wasn't always the case.

WINSTON: The one thing that this poll would certainly suggest is Fred Thompson getting in the race, the candidacy that gets hit the hardest will be Romney. SNOW: Many now see an opening for Fred Thompson among Republicans. Thompson calls himself pro-life and opposes same-sex marriage.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW: And some Republicans I spoke with say, while they're intrigued by Thompson, it's hard to say whether they can fully support him until he gets out on the campaign trail, if he decides to do that -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Mary. Thank you.

And only in the last month, Web sites have started to pop up across the Internet, rallying support for Fred Thompson's presidential run.

Let's go to our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton.

Abbi, where are all these sites coming from?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, these are grassroots efforts from Thompson's supporters. One of these sites you can't even get on today, DraftFredThompson, set up by a Memphis IT professional. Had so much traffic after this latest poll that it crashed.

Another site completely separate is Fred08. That boasts two Tennessee congressmen as its co-chairs, Zach Wamp and John Duncan.

And another entirely separate site, GrassrootsVoter. This has only been going 10 or 12 days. Already amassing 5,000 names and addresses that they're ready to pass on to Thompson.

Now, none of these efforts are affiliated or coordinated with Thompson. But one site that claims to have his ear is the site of former senator Bill Frist, who says at his site, "Pass along your messages of support. I'll pass them on to Thompson." He says that Fred is listening -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Abbi, thank you for that.

I want to thank Abbi, Mary Snow. They're both part of the best political team on television.

Up next, Jack Cafferty wants to know what it means when a top Justice Department official plans to take the Fifth and not testify before Congress. He has your e-mail.

That's coming up right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's check in with Jack Cafferty for "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: The question is: What does it mean when a top aide to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales decides to take the Fifth Amendment and refuse to testify in federal prosecutor's case?

Carol writes from Colorado, "Call it women's intuition, but my feeling is Monica Goodling could deep-six the credibility of Gonzales and the White House bit time if she testified before Congress. One can take it to the bank that this woman knows something and has had her arm twisted into not testifying."

Charles in Texas writes, "Basically it means she doesn't trust the Congress. Can't say I blame her. One minor slip, she'd spend millions in defense funds she most likely doesn't have. Does witch hunt mean anything to you? I obviously doubt if anyone in America would give a darn about anyone working in the government losing their job if the press didn't make such a big deal out of it."

Paul writes, "having watched how Scooter Libby was thrown to the wolves, every junior member of the Bush administration is in full duck-and-cover mode. The famous Bush loyalty, it seems, is vigorous but mighty thinly-shared. I expect this president will spend most of the last two years of his doomed legacy preparing pardons, so that once his term is over, he'll be able to visit his friends without first having to clear it with the warden."

Steve in Oklahoma writes, "No employee of the federal government should be allowed to continue their federal employment if they plead the Fifth Amendment concerning subjects associated with their governmental duties."

And Gail writes from Ohio, "It means this Republican Monica has the potential to cause as much upheaval in the government as the Democratic Monica did."

If you didn't see your e-mail here, go to cnn.com/caffertyfile, where we post more of them. And you can see video clips of the stuff, too -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Two Monicas, what, about nine, 10 years apart, causing some stir here in Washington.

You can't make this kind of stuff up, Jack.

Stick around. We're going to be back here in one hour.

Jack Cafferty with "The Cafferty File".

Remember, coming up at 7:00 p.m. Eastern tonight, Senator John McCain, my interview with him here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Tomorrow at this time, don't miss my interview with senator and Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. He'll be joining us as well.

Until then, thanks very much for watching.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. A special edition of "LOU DOBBS TONIGHT" starts right now.

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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