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CNN LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER

Interview With Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno; Interview With President of Vietnam

Aired June 24, 2007 - 11:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: It's 11 a.m. here in Washington, 8 a.m. in Los Angeles, 4 p.m. in London and 7 p.m. in Baghdad. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks very much for joining us for "Late Edition."
The new U.S.-led military offensive in Iraq is taking the fight to insurgents, but it's been another very deadly week for U.S. forces. Indeed, 81 U.S. troops have been killed so far in June. Joining us now to discuss this and more, Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, he's a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas. As part of the Senate GOP leadership, she chairs the Republican Policy Committee.

Senators, welcome back to "Late Edition." Always good to have both of you on the program. Senator Wyden, I'll start with you. I want to play a little clip of what the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace, said this week about the increasing number of U.S. troop casualties.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GENERAL PETER PACE, CHAIRMAN, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF: It is our expectation that this surge is going to result in more contact, and therefore, more casualties.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Is that acceptable to you?

SEN. RON WYDEN (D), OREGON: It isn't. Look, we're just not making the progress we need for a national reconciliation there. We are not going to get a military settlement. And if you look at every objective measure, if you look at the fact they haven't passed the oil law. They are not making progress and bringing the Baathists back to government. We don't know how reconstruction money is being spent.

What we've really seen is a surge of overly wishful rhetoric. And I think we've now got a blizzard of reports coming. Thee are going to be four of them starting in the middle of June. They're all going to show the same thing: We're not making the progress we need from a political standpoint. It's time to start bringing our people home.

BLITZER: I've interviewed Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, several times in recent weeks. And he's increasingly frustrated. He's angry at the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for not doing what Senator Wyden and others want him to do: Do those political acts that the U.S. needs in order for the Iraqis to take charge.

SEN. KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON (R), TEXAS: Well, of course I think we all want the Iraqi government to do more, to be more successful, but I do think...

BLITZER: You are not satisfied with what they are doing?

HUTCHISON: I'm not satisfied. I am really on a different approach than even we are doing now. I think we should be encouraging them, working with the other countries in the region to have semiautonomous regions, states where they can stabilize and have an economy.

BLITZER: Three partitioned areas of Iraq, which is what Senator Biden, Senator Brownback, others have called for, basically dividing it up into a Kurdish, a Shia and a Sunni zone.

HUTCHISON: Well, I tell you you would have to have more than three. You'd have the Kurdish zone and the Shia zone in the south, but in the middle I think you would have to have more because it is more mixed.

I've done an op-ed also on this subject. And I think that's the direction we should be going politically, not us dictating, but they've already...

BLITZER: Just to be precise, you want one Iraq but three separate autonomous areas, is that what you are saying?

HUTCHISON: Yes. I think you should allow them, sort of in the Bosnian model, when you let them live with their own and get some stability in the country...

BLITZER: Well, Bosnia and Herzegovina and the other former republics of Yugoslavia are all independent.

HUTCHISON: Well, that's exactly right, but that happened because they found their own after just mass genocide.

BLITZER: What do you think of that idea of partitioning Iraq?

WYDEN: I'm willing to consider it, but it's getting late in the day. The fact of the matter is, Prime Minister al-Maliki continually denies the facts.

For example, he told Deputy Secretary of State Negroponte recently that sectarian warfare was over. And then we had the attack on the mosque in Samarra. So it's time to focus on reality. That means addressing those benchmarks that have been laid out for real progress. And I think Prime Minister Maliki is still in denial on these issues.

BLITZER: The Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, said this on CNN this week about how much longer the U.S. should stay in Iraq. Listen to what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PRINCE SAUD AL-FAISAL, FOREIGN MINISTER OF SAUDI ARABIA: When they are there, I mean, how can they leave without leaving the country in a better condition than what they found it?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right, it may not be a good situation right now, but what's your answer to the Saudi foreign minister?

WYDEN: My answer, Wolf, is that the National Intelligence Estimate, the public one, says our policies are creating more jihadists there rather than fewer. I think what we ought to do is get out of the business of trying to referee a civil war in Iraq, and we ought to strike Al Qaida, particularly in the Sunni areas and Afghanistan, what is really called the pull and strike kind of option.

Get out of the Baghdad area, this question of going house to house, and focus on Al Qaida.

BLITZER: Do you agree?

HUTCHISON: No. I really don't. I don't think you can separate our interests there and just say, well, it's a mess. It's a civil war, so we leave. I think that would be the worst thing we could do for Congress, especially, to set a timetable and to leave without regard to what's going on on the ground.

This is a war on terror. This is trying to keep terrorism from spreading all over the world in a much worse way than it is now.

BLITZER: Do you buy that argument that if the U.S. leaves Iraq now without destroying Al Qaida in Iraq, they're simply going to have that as a base from which they can then come here and attack the United States?

WYDEN: Wolf, we're going to change our mission. We're not going to do the heavy lifting primarily just on the military side. We are going to go after Al Qaida relentlessly, particularly in those Sunni areas and Afghanistan.

We're also going to protect our assets there. We're going to be involved in training the Iraqis. But as long as the Iraqis can use our incredibly courageous soldiers as a crutch, they are not going to make the judgments politically to form a nation.

And I just don't think a military solution is going to work. The American people don't think a military solution is going to work. And I think we are going to have a bipartisan majority in the United States Senate in these upcoming votes for a specific deadline to start bringing our people home.

BLITZER: Do you agree? HUTCHISON: We cannot look like we are just putting our tail between our legs and going home without regard to the promises we've made, the commitments we've made. Should we push the Iraqi government? Absolutely. But to just leave regardless of what's happening on the ground, set a deadline, in fact, I think that would put our troops more in harm's way.

BLITZER: Well, the argument is that there is no incentive on the Iraqis to use their military, their police force to go out there, hunt down these insurgents, these foreign fighters, as they're called, as long as the U.S. is doing the job for them.

HUTCHISON: Well, I think we need to push them harder. I think we need to have more realistic possibilities for them.

And, Wolf, I think we need more help from the region. I think to have the Saudi minister there suggest that we shouldn't leave without a better Iraq suggests that the Saudis and the Jordanians and the Egyptians and others in the area should be stepping up and helping to solve this. It's in everyone's interest.

BLITZER: I'm going to be speaking live in Baghdad later this hour with Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno, the number two U.S. commander in Iraq. But I want you to listen, Senator Wyden, to what he said earlier this week.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LT. GEN. RAYMOND ODIERNO, U.S. ARMY: I believe, if you ask me today, I think by the spring or earlier, they will be ready to take on a larger portion of their security. Which means, I think, potentially, we could have a decision to reduce our forces.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: He's referring to Iraqi security forces potentially taking on more of the responsibility. Some have suggested he is way, way too optimistic in painting that scenario right now. And even David Petraeus, the overall U.S. commander, today suggested he wouldn't go that far. But what do you think?

WYDEN: Wolf, I always root for our troops. But the fact is, in 2005 we had generals in the Bush administration saying that. In 2006, same thing. In 2007. We've had multiple surges.

What this is again is a surge of wishful rhetoric. I hope they're right. I wish General Petraeus well.

But the fact is nobody is talking about turning tail and running. We are relentlessly going to focus on counterterrorism, we're going to protect our assets, we're going to be training Iraqis. We are not going to be taking the lead in refereeing a civil war.

And I think we'll have the votes in the Senate.

BLITZER: We're going to take a quick break. I want to move the subject to immigration reform. Both of you are deeply involved in that, but one quick question. You're on the Intelligence Committee.

Without sharing with us any classified information, is there anything that you've learned, anything you've been told by the highest-ranking intelligence officials who study this on a day-to-day basis that gives you any hope that there's going to be a resolution, a victory, if you will, in Iraq?

WYDEN: Of course I'm hopeful. But our intelligence in Iraq is still not good enough. You see particularly the insurgents just moving from one area to another. They are constantly in advance of our courageous troops. So we're going to have to do a better job of intelligence-gathering in that region, too.

BLITZER: All right, I'll take that as you haven't gotten that upbeat assessment yet.

WYDEN: To me, a victory is bringing about stability in the region. That's not going to be military; it's going to be politics. And Maliki isn't delivering that.

BLITZER: All right, Senators, stand by because we're going to make the turn to immigration reform. Lots going on. This could be a make or break week, the coming days in the Senate as far as immigration is concerned.

We'll also get their take on Vice President Dick Cheney. He's taking heat for not following his own administration's oversight rules. What's going on on that front?

Then, U.S. and Iraqi troops in a new crackdown against insurgents. We'll get a live report from the commander of the Multi- National Corps in Iraq, Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno. He's standing by in Baghdad.

And later, will Michael Bloomberg be the third New Yorker to enter the presidential race? We'll dish the week's politics with CNN's Bill Schneider, Elaine Quijano and Joe Johns. They are part of the best political team on television.

You're watching "Late Edition," the last word in Sunday talk.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to "Late Edition." I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

Coming up later this hour, my exclusive interview with Vietnam's president.

And in our next hour, three top Middle East diplomats weigh in on the Palestinian power struggle and its impact in the Middle East and U.S. policy in the region.

But first, let's continue our conversation with Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, and Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas. The comprehensive immigration package is expected to be make or break this week in the U.S. Senate. Are you going to support it or are you going to vote against it?

HUTCHISON: Well, we haven't seen the full bill yet.

BLITZER: As it stands right now, what's your inclination?

HUTCHISON: Well, I don't like what's in it now. I think the amnesty, the cutoff after five years of the guest worker program is, I think, completely unworkable.

BLITZER: The president denies this is amnesty. He says this is making those 12 million or so illegal immigrants -- giving them an opportunity to have some legalized status, but they have fines to pay, they have to jump over some hurdles. And he insists that is not amnesty. You disagree with the president?

HUTCHISON: I do, because I think that if we're going to have a unified system that applies to everyone, whether it's in the future or now, you have to have at least a return home provision so that people can get legal from outside our country and come into the process. I do think we have to deal with the 12 million or so. We have to do that and the president is right in that point.

BLITZER: So if the vote were now, you'd vote against it? I assume your other colleague from Texas, Senator Cornyn, is with you on this, and both Texans would be against a fellow Texan, namely George W. Bush?

HUTCHISON: Well, I hope we can find a way to do the right thing, to secure our border and to have a guest worker program going forward, and I think we can do it without amnesty, which is what I've been trying to do, Wolf.

WYDEN: The first big vote is going to be Tuesday, and that's a question on something called cloture. The typical American doesn't know what the means.

BLITZER: To allow debate to continue.

WYDEN: To allow debate to continue, and if cloture passes -- and I'm going to vote for that -- there would be allowed...

BLITZER: That would be to limit the debate.

WYDEN: But it would allow about 25 amendments, so we'll have a long discussion. I want an immigration policy that is tough, practical and fair. Seems to me we have to do a better job of securing the borders. This new approach is going to provide about $4 billion for technology. It's going to provide additional money for fencing. So it would be a lot more in the area of border security.

Then we need to do a better job enforcing the laws in our own books, and then finally we need to address this question of what do you do for American business where they can't find workers at any price where they can stay in business? That's already in agriculture.

BLITZER: But your inclination would be to support it?

WYDEN: I want to support moving ahead. That's the Tuesday vote. Then, it seems to me, we have to address the question of what to do about the 12 million people who are here in this country.

It seems to me when you break the law -- and I was always raised this way -- you ought to have to face a penalty. There are going to be penalties here. There are going to be fines. There are going to be sanctions.

But then we ought to talk about what is practical. And if somebody faces a penalty and a fine, and other than coming here initially illegally has been a good citizen, I personally would be allowed to let them go to the end of the line -- not the beginning of the line -- to go through the process of citizenship.

BLITZER: And at least have a pathway to citizenship.

WYDEN: Right.

BLITZER: Let's talk about President Bush's veto of the embryonic stem cell legislation that was passed in the Senate. I'm going to play a little clip of what the president said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I made it clear to Congress and to the American people that I will not allow our nation to cross this moral line. Last year, Congress passed a similar bill. I kept my promise by vetoing it, and today I'm keeping my word again. I'm vetoing the bill that Congress has sent.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Did the president, Senator Hutchison, do the right thing in vetoing this federal funding for embryonic stem cell research?

HUTCHISON: Well, Wolf, I support embryonic stem cell research and this is why: I think that...

BLITZER: So you think he did the wrong thing?

HUTCHISON: I do. I mean, I'm consistent here because I think we can take the embryos that are created that otherwise are going to be discarded -- these are not embryos that will ever become live human beings. They are going to be discarded because the people who produced them are no longer going to have them.

I think to take the embryos with very strict requirements for making sure that you can't create one to destroy it, to take those and put them into research that has so many possibilities to cure diseases is the right thing to do.

BLITZER: I assume you agree?

HUTCHISON: Kay's analysis is spot on. I think the president made a huge mistake. It's going to mean a lot of our best scientists go overseas, and particularly it's going to deny hope to those who are suffering, those with Parkinson's, Alzheimer's. That's wrong.

BLITZER: Your colleague, Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat of California, was on Fox News Sunday earlier today railing against the vice president, Dick Cheney, for suggesting he's not bound by some of these rules in the executive branch because he's also the president of the Senate, so he's not really a member of the executive branch. He sort of spans both the legislative and executive branch. Listen to Senator Feinstein.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN, D-CALIF.: In my view, this is the height of arrogance: "I, the vice president, don't have to abide by any law, any act of Congress or any executive order, particularly" -- and I serve on the Intelligence Committee and have for a long time, "the laws as it relates to intelligence." And I find this just amazing.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Were you surprised by this interpretation that the vice president had that would disqualify him, as opposed to everyone else in the executive branch, from following certain rules dealing with protected classified information?

HUTCHISON: Well, I think that the vice president does have a foot in both camps. I don't agree with everything the vice president does, but I think that you have to have some balance here.

I think there should be some ability for a president or a vice president to have meetings that are private. I think some should be public, some should be private. I think we just have to have the right balance.

BLITZER: Senator?

WYDEN: The vice president is saying he's above the law. And the fact of the matter is, legal scholars are going to say this is preposterous. The idea that because once in awhile you show up in the Senate to handle a debate that you're not part of the executive branch is flat-out wrong. They've had a lot of e-mails, for example, disappear. They ought to comply with the law.

BLITZER: Senators...

HUTCHISON: Well, I don't think that the vice president, with all due respect to everyone, is saying that the law doesn't apply to him or that he is above the law. I think there are some legal interpretations. We have to look at those, but I don't think he is saying, "I'm above the law or nothing applies to me."

BLITZER: What he's saying is that there's a certain law involving everybody in the executive branch that doesn't apply to him. That's what he's suggesting.

HUTCHISON: Well, he does have some legislative responsibilities, but I'm not saying that he is right. I don't know enough of the details yet, but I do think we're just, it seems like, having investigations and every time I get up in the morning it's another investigation, somebody trying to tear down the administration. And I think we need to try to work this out together.

BLITZER: Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, Senator Ron Wyden, thanks to both of you for joining us.

WYDEN: Thank you.

BLITZER: And coming up, the man who's second in command of U.S. forces in Iraq, Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno. We'll get his assessment of Operation Phantom Thunder. That's the new U.S. military offensive against insurgents. He's standing by to join us live in Baghdad.

And later, the U.S. and its Arab allies are behind Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. But is he up to the challenge of governing without Hamas? We'll talk to three top diplomats.

Stay with "Late Edition." We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to "Late Edition." I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

We'll be talking to Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno, the day- to-day operations commander in Iraq in just a moment or so.

But first, let's go to Hala Gorani. She's in Baghdad. She has an update on the genocide trial, as it's being called, of the infamous "Chemical Ali."

Hala, what happened today?

HALA GORANI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Once one of the most feared men in Iraq, Wolf, Ali Hassan al-Majid was being tried for charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide alongside other defendants. He was sentenced to death by hanging.

Now, this relates to the Anfal campaign in 1988 when poisonous gas and other chemical weapons were used against the Kurdish population because the regime of Saddam Hussein felt they were cooperating with Iran. Saddam Hussein was originally one of the defendants in this trial but the charges against him lapsed because, of course, he was executed last December.

Now, when "Chemical Ali" heard the ruling against him, sentencing him to death, he remained calm. He muttered twice, "Thank God" under his breath and that was it. The other defendants, some of them objected to the charges and to the sentencing. Now, the legal team of "Chemical Ali" and the other defendants told CNN they plan to appeal the verdict and called the proceedings political.

But if the appeals are rejected, Wolf, then these men who were sentenced to death today could be hanged at any time. Back to you.

BLITZER: All right, Hala, thanks very much. Hala Gorani reporting for us from Baghdad. Coming up next, despite a new military clampdown, insurgents in Iraq are hitting back and they're hitting back hard. We'll talk about that and a lot more with the commander of the Multi-National Corps in Iraq, Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno. He's standing buy live.

Then, the leader of Vietnam welcomed to the White House for the first time since the Vietnam War. History was made in Washington this week. My exclusive interview with the Vietnamese president, Nguyen Minh Triet, on warmer relations with the U.S. and a lot more.

All that coming up right here on "Late Edition."

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: It's called Operation Phantom Thunder, the newest U.S.- led military offensive against insurgent strongholds in Iraq. But this week's death toll of U.S. forces signals just how tough this fight is right now.

Joining us in Baghdad, the number two U.S. and coalition commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno. General, thanks very much for coming in and joining us here on "Late Edition."

I want to start off by letting you clarify, if you can, some of the remarks you made earlier in the week which caused a stir when you suggested U.S. forces might be able to start withdrawing from Iraq maybe as early as the spring. What exactly do you have in mind?

ODIERNO: Well, what I said was first is that we'll make a decision in September or so. I'll make a recommendation. And one of the recommendations will be how much longer do coalition forces have to remain.

And a lot of that has to do with the ability of the Iraqi security forces as well as the progress that we are making with security. And what I said is if the Iraqi security forces continue to improve and we are successful, there's a potential that we could with draw by the spring.

But I said we have not made that decision yet. And there's a lot of water that has to go under the bridge between now and then. And so, that's really what I meant to say. And that is actually what I did say.

BLITZER: Right. The big question though, and that's a huge if, if the Iraqi security forces continue to improve and are willing to engage, to step up to the fight and deal with the insurgents, deal with Al Qaida in Iraq.

Do you see evidence, strong evidence that the Iraqis have the will, the political capability, the military capability to do that and that in turn would allow the U.S. to start withdrawing?

ODIERNO: I think what I do see is I do see the Iraqi army improving every day. I do see them fighting alongside us, and sometimes independently here in Baghdad and the surrounding areas.

They are staying and fighting. They are taking casualties. They have a system in place to replace those casualties. We're seeing those, that capacity that is needed in the ministry of defense starting to improve.

They are nowhere near where they need to be yet. But they are beginning to improve. The issue becomes how far along will they be and how much will they be able to take over when we're prepared to turn it over to them?

Part of that is us working together to eliminate these threats or reduce these threats. Al Qaida as well as the Shia extremist piece of this insurgency.

BLITZER: The fact, though, is that the death toll on U.S. troops remains very high, what, 81 this month already, 3,558 killed so far since the start of the war. General Barry McCaffrey, a retired four- star Army general, was quoted in The Washington Post as saying this on Saturday. He said, "Why would we think that a temporary presence of 30,000 additional combat troops in a giant city would change the dynamics of a bitter civil war? it's a fool's errand."

Very strong words from General McCaffrey, a man I'm sure you know and respect. What do you say to him?

ODIERNO: Well, first off, it's not just 30,000 U.S. troops. Iraqi security forces continue to grow. Iraqi police continue to grow. So it's a much higher number than that that are dealing with this threat.

So it's just not U.S. forces, although we play a large role in it. The other thing is that I question the comment about an all-out civil war. I don't see that. I do see sectarian violence in some cases, but it's not all over the country. There are elements of sectarian violence that occur in Baghdad, but not all throughout Baghdad.

So we have to continue to work with that, and we will, against it. So his comment of all-out civil war I don't agree with. I do agree with that there is sectarian violence. I do agree with that the growth of coalition forces as well as the growth of Iraqi security forces is required in order to deal with this current threat.

BLITZER: Why is the U.S. now arming Sunni militias in the Al Anbar Province?

ODIERNO: Well, first off, we're not arming anybody. What we are doing is, we are reaching out to them and bringing them across to work with us. As I tell all my commanders, I'd much rather have them shooting at Al Qaida than shooting at coalition forces.

They want to join us to fight Al Qaida. So let them point their guns at Al Qaida and not coalition forces. As they do that, and as we come to agreement with them, what we do is we bring them along as part of the government of Iraq security forces. In Al Anbar, all of those forces that have joined us are now members of the ministries of the interior police force.

BLITZER: Here is what the prime minister, though, of Iraq said about this strategy of trying to beef up these Sunni former insurgents, if you will, in the Al Anbar Province and presumably Diyala and other provinces as well. Nouri Al Maliki told Newsweek magazine, "Some field commanders make mistakes since they do not know the facts about people they deal with. They make mistakes by arming tribes sometimes, and this is dangerous because this will create new militias."

He seems to disagree with this strategy.

ODIERNO: I think he's come out since then, actually, in the last couple of days here, he has come out and said how he is reaching out and developing a reconciliation committee himself, and he is absolutely involved in this and wants this to occur. And again, I will say is, we are not arming these individuals. Many have arms already.

And what we're now doing is having them work with us in order to fight Al Qaida. So I think under that context, he's comfortable with it. He's also comfortable with it as long as they become part of the legitimate Iraqi security forces. And as we go along in this process, that's one of the things that we want them to become is part of the legitimate Iraqi security force.

BLITZER: Well, let me just be precise, General, because I want to make sure our viewers completely understand. What you are saying is these Sunni tribesmen who used to be fighting the U.S., now they're fighting Al Qaida, and you're bringing them formally into the Iraqi military, and at that point they get the arms. Is that what you are suggesting?

ODIERNO: What I'm saying is, yeah, there's two things. First, not all of them were fighting coalition forces. Some were. There were others that were just passably neutral in the tribes.

So you have some that are passively neutral. You have some that were fighting Al Qaida. But they've all decided now they are tired of Al Qaida. They're rejecting Al Qaida. They reject all the brutality, the intimidation that's occurred on their families. And they want to become part of the force here that fights Al Qaida.

They also agree to, once they agree to do that, and we encourage them to do that, they then come along and they become part of the government of Iraq security forces. They have to do a few things to do that. They have to renounce violence against the government of Iraq. They have to renounce violence against the coalition, and they have to pledge their allegiance to the government of Iraq. And they will sign documents to do that. If they do that, they then become part of the Iraqi security force structure.

BLITZER: And at that point you do arm them, is that right?

ODIERNO: Well, we would then go through a training program and the government of Iraq training program, and we would then provide them training and arms and uniforms and equipment then to become part of the normal security forces.

BLITZER: What should we expect in mid-September when General Petraeus and the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, Ray Crocker, when they go ahead and they make their report to the U.S. about what the next steps should be? Because some people are now suggesting this is going to be simply a snapshot, it's not necessarily going to be a hard and fast rule.

ODIERNO: Well, I think what they have to do is they're going to make an assessment. They are going to make -- General Petraeus will make a military assessment. Ryan Crocker will make a political assessment.

And then based on that, they will present some recommendations. Now I would say, I don't think they are ready to do that yet. You know, September is 60 days away or so. A lot happens over here in Iraq in 60 days. I feel like we are building some momentum over here, momentum of change both within the government of Iraq and on the ground, but we'll see.

I mean, that could change very quickly. But what we have to be able to do is provide recommendations on whether we think we are making enough progress to continue in the direction we are going, or we are not making progress and we have to change our strategy. And I think that's fundamentally what we're going to have to do. And that's what will be left up to General Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, and I will provide them my assessment as we get closer to that point.

BLITZER: Raymond Odierno is the number two U.S. commander in Iraq. Ryan Crocker is the U.S. ambassador in Iraq. General, thanks very much for coming in. Good luck to you and all the men and women you command in Iraq.

ODIERNO: Thank you so much.

BLITZER: Coming up next, my interview with Vietnam's president, Nguyen Minh Triet. He's the first Vietnamese head of state to visit Washington since the end of the Vietnam war. You're going to hear what he has to say about the legacy of that war and the future of the relationship between the U.S. and Vietnam.

And later, the immigration battle. A potentially make-or-break week coming up in the Senate. We'll talk about it with the best political team on television. Stay with us. You're watching "Late Edition," the last word in Sunday talk.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to "Late Edition."

History was made in Washington this week when President Bush warmly welcomed the president of Vietnam to the White House. I spoke with President Nguyen Minh Triet during his Washington visit.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Mr. President, thanks very much for joining us. Welcome to the United States.

Let's start with your meetings with President Bush. Were you satisfied with the conversation you had with the U.S. president?

PRES. NGUYEN MINH TRIET, VIETNAM (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): I was very satisfied with the conversation, with the meeting with President Bush. We have exchanged views on many issues that are very useful to both sides, and in the spirit of mutual understanding.

BLITZER: What's the most important part of the relationship between your country and the United States right now?

TRIET (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): The most important part in our relations right now is to further develop our friendship and cooperation.

BLITZER: There seems to be, though, one impediment, one major problem, and that's the U.S. charge that you are abusing human rights of your own people in Vietnam. President Bush said he raised that issue with you today. How did that part of the conversation go?

TRIET (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): We did have a direct and open exchange of views on this matter. I think that the United States and Vietnam, different histories, have different legal systems, and that's why it's natural that we have certain different perceptions on different things.

BLITZER: Did the president of the United States raise specific cases with you, individuals, names of people the United States feels are -- their human rights are being violated in Vietnam?

TRIET (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): We have agreed that this is a matter that we would exchange views between us, not to divulge to the outside. BLITZER: Because I ask that specific question, because the president at June 5th conference on democracy and security, a conference that he had in Prague, he did mention one specific name, Father Nguyen Van Ly of Vietnam, someone that he said -- he included within a group of others around the world whose human rights were being violated.

TRIET (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Reverend Nguyen Van Ly was brought to court because of these violations of the law. It absolutely is not a matter of religion.

BLITZER: I'm going to show you a picture that was seen around the world, and it caused a lot of concern, especially here in the United States. You're probably familiar with this picture.

TRIET (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Yes, I do know this picture. During the trial, Reverend Ly also uttered violent and bad words at his trial. And that is why you have seen on the picture what happened.

I can assure that to cover somebody's mouth like that is not good. It would take a good measure in order to take care of this matter. And this is a mistake make staff right there. It's not the government policy of doing such a thing.

BLITZER: I want to move on to some other subjects, but one final question on the dissidents, the human rights part. On the eve of your visit here, you released two prisoners, two political prisoners, as they are described. There are at least another half a dozen, if not more, who are being held. Do you think others will be released anytime soon, including Father Nguyen Van Ly?

TRIET (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Those violators of the law, they were put away because of their violations.

And whether they are released depending on the attitude and the perceptions of what wrong they have done.

I would like to tell you that Vietnam has experienced long years of war, and during that period, Vietnamese people did not enjoy full human rights. Many of us were arrested, were put into prison, tortured, without recourse to the court. We conducted the liberation war in order to regain our human rights.

And therefore, more than anybody else, we love human rights, and we respect them. Perhaps you cannot truly understand or sense how much we hold in high regard human rights.

BLITZER: I don't know if you're aware that, outside of the White House, when you were there with the president, there were some demonstrations, Vietnamese-Americans who are concerned.

I wonder if you have any message to the Vietnamese-American community who remain very fiercely proud of their Vietnamese heritage, but also would like to see the situation in Vietnam improve, and that's why many of them were demonstrating here outside the White House.

TRIET (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Our message is that the Vietnamese living abroad, in general, and in the United States in particular, is part and parcel of the Vietnamese nation. The blood they have is the blood of the Vietnamese. The flesh they have is the flesh of the Vietnamese.

The government of Vietnam wants to see them succeed in the United States, and we also would like to see them to serve as a bridge between the United States and Vietnam. As far as our differences in views and opinion, we should exchange dialogues in order to solve those differences. We invite them to come back to visit Vietnam in order to see with their own eyes our changes, our improvements.

BLITZER: Let me ask you a question, Mr. President, about the Americans unaccounted for still in Southeast Asia. According to the Defense Department, the U.S. Defense Department, 483 American troops are still unaccounted for in what was called North Vietnam; another 882 in South Vietnam, about 1,365.

I know this issue came up with the president at your meeting at the White House, and he thanked you for your help. But I wonder if you had any new information to provide on missing American troops in Vietnam.

TRIET (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): In past years, Vietnam had active cooperation with the United States in MIA-related issues. We do that out of humanitarian cause. And Vietnam will continue to cooperate with the United States in solving these matters.

BLITZER: But you have no new information about specific cases, no more remains that you found recently, any other information on missing in action, POWs, anything like that?

TRIET (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): I don't have specific data on this matter.

BLITZER: But as the president of Vietnam, can you assure the American people that your government is doing everything possible to find out what happened to these American troops?

TRIET (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Absolutely, 100 percent. The government of Vietnam has and is and will be in full cooperation to do its utmost in order to help the United States to account for MIAs. We do this and we do what -- everything possible in order to account for American MIAs, while we still have a host of our own MIAs.

BLITZER: There is another issue that came up at your meeting with the president, President Bush, and that involves the very sensitive matter of Agent Orange. U.S. Congress recently appropriated funds to deal with the fallout from this very deadly toxin that was used during the war. Are you satisfied with what the United States is doing now to deal with the remnants of Agent Orange in Vietnam?

TRIET (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): I'm grateful for the efforts made by President Bush and the Congress with regard to support for Agent Orange and dioxin victims. And at the meeting, I also expressed my thanks to President Bush. But there are many Agent Orange afflicted victims, and their lives are difficult, and the afflicted environments must be restored.

BLITZER: Does your government right now have a better relationship with the United States government, or the government of China? TRIET (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): The foreign policy of Vietnam is based on independence and self-controlling. And Vietnam wants to be friends with all countries, want to be a reliable partner of other countries.

China is a neighboring country with traditional relations with Vietnam. Both China and Vietnam would like to enhance our cooperation for development. Cooperative relations between Vietnam and China would not adversarily affect our relations with other countries, and we also would like to seek an increase in our friendship and cooperation with the United States.

BLITZER: So you want to have good relations with the United States and China. I hear a very diplomatic answer.

TRIET (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): No, it's not a diplomatic answer at all, and it is our true desire. That's what we want.

BLITZER: Mr. President, did you ever think during the war that you would be the president of Vietnam, and that you would come to the United States and would be warmly received by the president of the United States at the White House?

TRIET (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): I never thought, even after the war, in capacity of a regular citizen, I wouldn't have thought of coming -- having a chance to come to visit the United States. And that's why this visit of mine to the United States is historic.

Now, President Bush and I had a good exchange of views on how to further enhance our relations, and both President Bush and I are satisfied with our meeting.

BLITZER: Thank you so much, Mr. President, and welcome to the United States.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: There's must more ahead on "Late Edition," including some breaking news in Lebanon, an attack on United Nations peacekeepers. We'll have a live report. That's coming up at the top of the hour.

Plus, our diplomatic roundtable on the Palestinian crisis and the impact on the Middle East.

We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: This is "Late Edition," the last word in Sunday talk.

Reversing the Middle East meltdown.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: A vision that speaks to the hopes and aspirations of the Palestinian people and a vision that speaks to the security of Israel.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Israel's U.S. ambassador, Sallai Meridor, Egypt's U.S. ambassador, Nabil Fahmy, and former U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross on the crisis in Gaza.

Presidential poker.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BLOOMBERG: I'm not a candidate.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Is New York's mayor playing the joker or does he have a winning hand?

Insight on the race for the White House and more from CNN's Joe Johns, Elaine Quijano and Bill Schneider, part of the best political team on television. The second hour of "Late Edition" begins right now.

Welcome back. We'll talk about the situation in the Middle East with a roundtable of ambassadors in just a moment.

First, though, there's breaking news coming in from Lebanon right now, where a unit of Spanish troops serving as U.N. peacekeepers has been hit. Let's get some specific details on what we know. Our Beirut bureau chief Brent Sadler standing by on the phone. What do we know, Brent?

BRENT SADLER, CNN BEIRUT BUREAU CHIEF: Thanks, Wolf. Lebanese security sources are saying an IED, an improvised explosive device, went off as a patrol of uniformed peace keepers made up of Spanish troops were on operations in the south of the country along that volatile border area between Lebanon and Israel.

At this stage, Wolf, security sources here saying at least two Spanish peacekeepers killed and six injured. There was a secondary explosion after the first detonation. That's when the armored personnel carrier that the Spanish troops were arriving in went up in smoke and flame. Ammunition exploded, making it a very dangerous area indeed for rescuers to get to.

Now this attack, as it's being articulated by Lebanese security sources, is indeed a grave escalation in the security situation on the ground coming as it does as Lebanese army troops engage a holdout of Islamic militant remnants in the north of the country the day after Lebanese government troops killed seven terrorists in a shootout in the northern city of Tripoli.

And again, this coming attack it seems, although still not confirmed, investigations are under way, this attack coming after many weeks of intelligence reports that Al Qaida-style groups are escalating in strength in Lebanon and planning attacks against a variety of targets to try to destabilize this country. Wolf?

BLITZER: I know the numbers are fluid at this point, very early preliminary numbers. The associated press now quoting Lebanese security sources as saying four Spanish United Nations peacekeeping troops have been killed. Four others wounded.

But one quick question, Brent, before I let you go. You say there have been intelligence reports that Al Qaida-affiliated groups in south Lebanon might be targeting these United Nations forces. Thousands of them have moved in, as our viewers remember, in the aftermath of last summer's war in south Lebanon between Israel and Hezbollah.

SADLER: That's right, Wolf, 15,000 U.N. peacekeepers bolstered an existing force that had been here since 1978 after the war between Israel and Hezbollah last year. But intelligence reports have been pretty frequent here that there have been some groups who have been caught being questioned by security services here. And they confess to either having knowledge or knew of people who were plotting to attack the peacekeeping operations in this country. Wolf?

BLITZER: All right, Brent, stand by. We'll be getting back to you as more information becomes available. Elsewhere in the Middle East, Hamas's bloody victory in Gaza has certainly challenged the power balance across the Middle East. Tomorrow's hastily called summit between Egypt, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas underscores all of that.

Last week here on "Late Edition," we spoke with two Palestinians, Ahmed Yusef from Hamas and Saeb Erekat from Fatah. Those are the two factions that were engaged in bloody battles in Gaza. Joining us today to discuss the future of this very unstable region, three diplomats with intimate knowledge of the conflict.

Nabil Fahmy is Egypt's ambassador to the United States. Sallai Meridor is Israel's ambassador to the United States, and Dennis Ross is a former U.S. special envoy to the Middle East. He served in both the Clinton and first Bush administrations. He's also the author of a new book, "Statecraft and How to Restore America's Standing in the World."

Ambassadors, thanks to all of you for coming in. Let me get your quick reaction, Ambassador Meridor, to what we just heard from Brent Sadler. This attack on United Nations troops in south Lebanon. What do you make of this?

SALLAI MERIDOR, ISRAELI AMBASSADOR TO U.S.: Well, I think that it is another expression of how volatile the situation is and the nature of the threat that we're all facing in the Middle East.

BLITZER: But do you have intelligence reports suggesting Al Qaida-affiliated groups in south Lebanon might now be targeting United Nations peacekeepers?

MERIDOR: I have not yet seen the reports on this very event. But given what I know, I would not exclude that possibility that Al Qaida seems to have their beginnings in Lebanon. We see what happens in Al Anbar in the north. And that would not exclude they would try to bring now their activities to the south in order to destabilize the region.

BLITZER: Is that consistent, Ambassador Fahmy, with information that you have?

NABIL FAHMY, EGYPT'S AMBASSADOR TO U.S.: I don't have information that's conclusive enough to say that a direct link to this. And frankly, I'm not one who believes that all conflicts are necessarily linked. But when you have a region like the Middle East where you have volatility among Palestinians and Israelis in Lebanon and in Iraq clearly the frustration and the playing field for those who want to create havoc is widened considerably.

BLITZER: What do you think, Dennis Ross, about this instability, obviously, in Iraq it's very unstable, Gaza, the Palestinian territories. In Lebanon now it seems to be deteriorating rather rapidly, as well.

DENNIS ROSS, FORMER U.S. MIDDLE EAST ENVOY: Well, obviously, we've seen a conflict in the northern part of the country in Tripoli. And we've seen Fatah Al-Islam, who has members who have gone to Iraq and come back. That could be a factor. It could be an Al Qaida presence.

But I also have to tell you, I was on the northern border between Israel and Lebanon a couple of weeks ago, and one of the things I saw was actually Hezbollah flags flying again, which wasn't supposed to be the case. So I'm not sure exactly what is going on.

We know a week ago today there were two Katyusha rockets fired from southern Lebanon into Israel. That could have been linked up to what was going on in Lebanon. It could have been an effort to divert attention away from fighting affecting Palestinians trying to involve Israelis, but it's a reminder apropos of what Nabil was saying, how everything in a sense could come together in a very volatile mix.

BLITZER: Hezbollah denied that it was responsible for those rockets coming into northern Israel.

ROSS: But think about the fact that if you have rockets continuing to come out of Gaza into Israel. Think about the fact that if Hamas at some point decides to divert attention away from its own failings within Gaza, which is not a far-fetched possibility, could you have a northern front open up again?

What we've seen today is that the U.N. forces who are there themselves are being targeted now.

BLITZER: And Reuters quoting Hezbollah television in Lebanon right now denying that Hezbollah had anything to do with this attack on United Nations peacekeepers in south Lebanon. Let's move on to the summit, Ambassador Fahmy, that your government is hosting tomorrow in Sharm El Sheikh bringing leaders in from the Palestinian Authority.

Mahmoud Abbas will be there. The Israeli prime minister will be there. Jordan's King Abdullah, obviously President Mubarak.

President Mubarak said this on Saturday. He said, "We are following closely the fallout from the coup against Palestinian legitimacy. I reiterate Egypt's support for the Palestinian National Authority and its president, Mahmoud Abbas."

Has Egypt effectively severed its relationship with Hamas?

FAHMY: No, but, again, our relationship was with the legitimately recognized bodies among Palestinians. What the president said is consistent with our policy. We have always supported Abu Mazen, and we have always...

BLITZER: Abu Mazen is Mahmoud Abbas, his code name.

FAHMY: ... who is the Palestinian president. And we've supported the policy that he has promoted, which is trying to achieve a Palestinian state through negotiations with the Israelis. We will continue to have contacts with Hamas, but they will be defined by the nature of the theater itself. We cannot ignore the fact there was been a direct challenge to Palestinian legitimacy, which I think is frankly quite tragic.

BLITZER: The Israeli cabinet authorized the transfer of hundreds of millions of dollars in frozen Palestinian funds to the Palestinian Authority now that the President Mahmoud Abbas has taken charge and Hamas is no longer part of that government, if you will. The spokesman for the Israeli government said this, David Baker, "These talks," referring to tomorrow's talks in Egypt, "These talks do not include final status issues, but rather, how the prime minister and the president of the Palestinian Authority would envision a future Palestinian state."

Are you optimistic that there can be a real revival of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process right now?

MERIDOR: What we want to see is whether against this negative trend in Gaza or development in Gaza that maybe there is opportunity to try to move things in a positive direction with the moderates among the Palestinians. This is why we are not just watching the events and saying are we optimistic or pessimistic.

We are trying to take the opportunity that seems to be rising and work with it. And this is why we see high importance in the meeting tomorrow, and this is why our government took today far-reaching steps in trying to move carefully together with the leadership of the Palestinians with a Hamas-free, terror-free government now.

Hopefully corruption free government now, to move forward towards creating conditions on the ground that would allow for future negotiations and the creation of a Palestinian state.

BLITZER: But do you think that this president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, has the political clout among his own people to get the job done? Because Hamas, as you know, remains firmly in control of all of Gaza and has a wide base of support in the West Bank, as well.

MERIDOR: We think that, at the end, it's a matter of Palestinian decision and the Palestinian will. We cannot replace them in their decisions, nor in what they need to do internally within the Palestinian society.

We, America, other friends in the region, can and should help them as much as possible, but at the end of the day, we should all realize that it is their choice to make and their action to take.

And we all hope that this would be now a strategic choice on the part of the Palestinian Authority and these people not to go back and dance or flirt with to terror, but to take a strategic course for peace. And we would love to be there with them in order to bring about that peace.

BLITZER: The deposed Palestinian prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, delivered a fiery speech in Gaza today in which he said "only resistance," which usually is a code word for armed struggle, if you will, "would achieve any results for the Palestinian people."

I want you to listen to what President Bush said this week at the White House during his meetings with the prime minister of Israel, Ehud Olmert, referring to Abu Mazen, Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: We recognize the president of all the Palestinian people and that's president Abu Mazen who was elected. He's the president.

Secondly, we recognize that it was Hamas that attacked the unity government. They made a choice of violence.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Is it a wise U.S. strategy effectively to ignore Hamas and simply put all of the U.S. eggs in the Palestinian Authority's basket, if you will?

ROSS: Look, I think the key is going to be is Fatah prepared now to take the kinds of steps that will restore their own credibility among the Palestinian people. They lost an election. They lost an election largely because they lost credibility. They were seen as being corrupt. They were seen as being detached from the Palestinian needs. They were seen as not delivering.

Now, they're at a point where I believe what's happened in Gaza has been a wake-up call. My own conversations with a large number of Palestinians in the West Bank a couple of weeks ago suggested to me that they understood if they didn't get their own act together, if they didn't begin to organize at the grassroots level, if they didn't reach out to the Palestinian public, what happened in Gaza could well happen in the West Bank, as well.

They understood they're now involved in the struggle for the future of the Palestinian identity. They represent a national, secular future based on coexistence.

BLITZER: We're going to take a break, but do you think Fatah, which is the ruling political party of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas' party, the party of the late Yasser Arafat, that this has been a wake-up call for them and they will get the job done?

ROSS: I think that they have the potential. I think they're going to have to roll up their sleeves. On their own they're going to have to take steps, and they will need help from the outside.

BLITZER: Very quickly, Ambassador Fahmy, do you agree?

FAHMY: I agree, but I don't think it's a complete answer. I think, frankly, that what was missing from the outset, even before the Hamas/Fatah conflict, was a peace process. If we don't have a peace process that provides vision towards a Palestinian state side by side with Israel, you will have frustration and that's the basic failure of the Palestinian community.

BLITZER: And that's what you're trying to revive tomorrow at Sharm el Sheikh.

FAHMY: And the initial idea of having a summit started, frankly, started even before the coup in Gaza.

BLITZER: Do you think Fatah is up to the job?

MERIDOR: Well, we will watch and we will hope but the proof will be in the pudding.

BLITZER: Diplomatic answer. All right, guys, stand by. We're going to continue this assessment of what is happening in the Middle East, a very volatile situation.

What about Iran? What role is Iran playing, if any, in the Palestinian territories? That is coming up. Also here on "Late Edition," we'll take a look at the politics of the U.S. presidential campaign. If New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg runs for president as an independent, which looks possible, who will it hurt? The Democrats of the Republicans?

Three of the best political team on television will discuss that and a lot more, all coming up on "Late Edition," the last word in Sunday talk.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to "Late Edition." I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. Later this hour, our political panel will assess the increasingly fluid race for the White House.

But, first, more on the chaotic situation in the Middle East. Once again, we're joined by the Egyptian Ambassador Nabil Fahmy; the former U.S. special envoy to the Middle East, Dennis Ross; and the Israeli ambassador, Sallai Meridor. Ambassador Fahmy, I'm going to read to you some strong words that Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, said this week about Hamas. He said on Wednesday, "There is no dialogue with those murderous terrorists. Our main goal is prevent sedition from spreading to the West Bank."

How concerned are you that what's happened in Gaza -- Hamas firmly taking charge in all of Gaza -- could happen in the West Bank as well?

FAHMY: We are concerned. We think it's a very severe derailment of the Palestinian cause. We will push the Palestinians to talk together under the right circumstances and with respect to the legitimacy of the P.A.

BLITZER: So when President Mubarak meets with the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas tomorrow, he's going to urge them to try to revive a dialogue with Hamas?

FAHMY: Again, at the summit tomorrow, we will work with the Israelis, the Palestinians and the Jordanians on how to support Abu Mazen which we believe short-term is material assets and long-term is peace process.

In terms of the Palestinian-Palestinian dialogue, it has to emerge. But you have to create the right conditions for it to be held. Whether it is done in a bilateral dialogue or whether it is done through elections of the people, that's something for the Palestinians to decide. But we will push the Palestinians to unite.

BLITZER: What do you think? Is that something Israel would like to see, Hamas once again being brought into the framework of a Palestinian government?

MERIDOR: Whoever, I think, wants to see peace in the Middle East should not want to see Hamas coming back into the Palestinian government because this is a clear moment of choosing between terror on the one hand and destruction, and peace and hope for the people.

And what we are trying to do now is to work with the Palestinian president, President Abbas, who has made the statement that you have just mentioned, to make sure these murderous terrorists don't have the day tomorrow, that we can work with him to prove to the Palestinian people that there is hope, that they can have a hope for a Palestinian state through steps that need to be taken on the ground that would change their quality of life.

BLITZER: Is it possible, Dennis Ross -- and you've spent a lifetime studying this issue -- to get Hamas to accept the conditions that Israel, the U.S., the Europeans, the moderate Arab states have called for that would recognize Israel's right to exist, renounce terrorism, accept previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements. Do you think, under any circumstances, that's realistic?

ROSS: I'm very dubious of that. I think the only circumstance under which Hamas would ever change is if, ironically, Fatah becomes much more competitive. If Fatah is able to remake itself, rebrand itself, in a sense, demonstrate it can win that competition, politically, socially, economically and strong enough militarily to deter it, then I think you could certainly see a split within Hamas.

But right now, the essence of Hamas is defined by what they're saying -- not just by what they're doing, but also what they're saying. People say, "Well, don't always pay attention to their words." You make a mistake not to pay attention to their words.

Before we came on the air, you were quoting from Haniyeh and what Haniyeh is saying about resistance. Is the credo. I mean, after all, that's what Hamas stands for, Islamic Resistance movement.

BLITZER: There's a sensitive issue involving arms smuggling from Egypt into Gaza. The Jerusalem Post in an editorial wrote on Wednesday, "The first, most urgent task, is to force Egypt to shut down the flow of weapons through its territory to Hamas. There has been almost no public pressure by Olmert, Bush or European leaders on Egypt to do this, though all recognize that Egypt can do much more."

Is that true, that arms are flowing into Gaza through Egypt?

FAHMY: Flowing, no. And let's be realistic about this. First of all, there were weapons in Gaza before the unity government, before Hamas was elected and when Israel was occupying Gaza. So if you have a demand with either an occupation or a conflict, you will have a demand for weapons.

Look at your Mexican border, by the way, which is in between two peaceful states. You can't control the border if there's a demand. And the border between Egypt and Palestine, there is a security force on one side and nothing on the other. Nevertheless, the majority of the weapons there do not come from Egypt.

We will do everything we can, but to solve this problem you have to have a peace process and you have to drive demand. BLITZER: Is that acceptable to you, the position that we just heard from the Egyptian ambassador.

MERIDOR: Well, really, it's what we have seen over the last year, and the strengthening of Hamas had much to do with the fact that Iran could help the Palestinians get arms smuggled. And it's not only arms, by the way; it's explosives and it's people who are going out of Gaza to Tehran to be trained by terror masters.

So we see that as a very serious threat and we hope to be working together with the Egyptians, who are allies in peace, in order to make sure that this is coming to an end. Because if we want to contain and drawback a Hamas victory in Gaza, the terror victory in Gaza, we need to make every effort to work together to put a stop to that.

BLITZER: Your foreign minister said this week -- and I'll read it to you -- he said, "The Iranian moves have encouraged what Hamas has done in Gaza. This presents a threat to the Egyptian national security. Gaza is only a stone's throw away from Egypt." Do you see Iran directly involved in strengthening Hamas and Gaza? FAHMY: Well, the minister's statement is clear and very straightforward. I just wanted to comment on what the ambassador of Israel said. We have the same objective of creating a stable, secure area in Gaza which ultimately will be part of the Palestinian state.

What I'm arguing is, we need to do more simply than to try to deal with weapons smuggling, whether it is from the sea, from Egypt or black market smuggling.

BLITZER: One final question for you, Dennis Ross, comments that former President Jimmy Carter made this week. He was quoted as saying this: "That action was criminal. The United States and Israel decided to punish all the people in Palestine and did everything they could to deter a compromise between Hamas and Fatah."

He says there was a moment; there was an opportunity after the Palestinian elections in which Hamas was democratically-elected, free and fair elections. He was one of the observers. And you acknowledge that those were free and fair elections. Hamas won.

He says there was an opportunity to try to bring Fatah and Hamas together, but he's blaming the U.S. and Israel for rejecting that, and in his words, that action was criminal.

ROSS: You know, I have a view about statecraft that it always has to be based on reality-based assessments, not faith-based or ideologically-driven assessments.

The fact is, Fatah and Hamas came together in a national unity agreement. There was the Mecca deal. Who was the one who, in the end, violated that? Who was the one who perpetrated a coup in Gaza?

The military attacks that were carried out in Gaza against Fatah didn't originate over the last few weeks. The tunnel that was tunnelled into the Preventative Security headquarters in Gaza -- a place I have been in, which was a fortress -- that was five or six months in the making which was something that preceded the Mecca deal.

So there was a time when they tried to work out a compromise among themselves. Obviously, it wasn't vetoed by Israel or by the United States, and it certainly wasn't vetoed by Egypt.

BLITZER: So you're rejecting what Jimmy Carter said?

ROSS: I'm rejected what he had to say, yes.

BLITZER: We've got to leave it there. Gentlemen, thanks very much for joining us. Ambassador Meridor, Dennis Ross, Ambassador Fahmy, thanks very much to all of you.

Coming up, the power of Vice President Dick Cheney. What impact has he had on the Bush White House? Our panel tackles that question and much more.

And remember, the candidates for president will be at our CNN YouTube debates. The Democrats face on July 23 in South Carolina. The Republicans take the stage September 17 in Florida. Submit your videotape questions at CNN.com/youtubedebate.

Stay with "Late Edition." We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: You're watching "Late Edition." I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting from Washington.

The actress Lucy Liu is taking on her most challenging role yet. The United Nations Children's Fund special ambassador just returned from the Democratic Republic of Congo, raising awareness of the plight of those affected by horrible, horrible violence.

I spoke to her Wednesday, World Refugee Day, in "The Situation Room."

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: People hear about this, they see the pictures and they wonder what can they do about it? What advice do you have when you see what's going on? You were just there.

LUCY LIU, UNITED NATION'S CHILDREN'S FUND SPECIAL AMBASSADOR: Well, I think that people should educate themselves as much as possible, because this is one of the worst humanitarian crises since the Second World War and it's not something that people talk about very often because it's been going on for so long.

If you go on to UNICEF, their Web site, and you can educate yourself on it and you can also donate money. Even loose change will make a huge difference for these children.

I met people, women and children, who have been raped and who have been so severely violated that one woman had dislocated her leg completely. There are people that have been displaced out of their villages. One woman fled when the militia came into loot and witnessed a neighbor of hers who was decapitated.

I mean, these are things that are happening every day, and the people have so little hope. And I know that for children, especially, that they can bounce back so quickly with just a little bit. It's pretty tremendous how children are so vulnerable yet they have such strength.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: That was Lucy Liu, the actress, doing incredibly important work for UNICEF. Up next on "Late Edition," Congress's sinking poll numbers. What's going on? Our political panel getting ready to tackle that and a lot more.

And later, Congressman Luis Gutierrez and former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan faced off this morning over the pending immigration bill. You're going to hear their war of words in our "In Case you Missed It" segment.

"Late Edition" will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to "Late Edition." I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

Bloomberg goes independent. The always independent Ralph Nader hints at another run. Vice President Dick Cheney declares independence from the executive branch of the federal government. Some of the hot topics in the political world this week.

Perfect fodder for the best political team on television. With us here in Washington, our senior political analyst, Bill Schneider, our correspondent Joe Johns and our White House correspondent, Elaine Quijano.

Elaine, let me start with you. Dick Cheney made this -- at least it became known that he's got this new legal interpretation that he and his office are not necessarily bound by all the other people in the executive branch of the U.S. government in dealing with protecting classified information because he's also president of the Senate, and as such, he's not strictly an executive branch official.

And that's caused a huge uproar, as you know. But the White House is serious about this.

ELAINE QUIJANO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, the White House is serious about this. I will say this much, when Thursday happened and the letter from Chairman Waxman went up to the White House...

BLITZER: Henry Waxman from the House.

QUIJANO: Henry Waxman, that's right. And this was where all of this information was revealed about this sort of legal reasoning. Initially it was difficult to get a clear explanation about what exactly, in fact, the White House position was.

The argument as told to us was that essentially this is a unique role that the office of the vice president has, straddling both the executive and the legislative branches of government. And as such, not necessarily the same kind of requirements apply, these reporting requirements.

So, Friday, a lot of questions about this certainly, Dana Perino, the deputy White House press secretary, peppered with questions about this. Reiterating and said at different points, saying, look, when President Bush in '03 amended his executive order, he intended for the president and the vice president to be the same on this. But it's just definitely caused a lot of questions to be raised.

BLITZER: You could argue, Bill, and I've been in Washington for a long time, that there's an executive branch of government, a legislative branch, judicial branch, the three traditional branches of government, but there's also now a vice presidential branch of the U.S. government, a Cheney branch of government. BILL SCHNEIDER, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: That's right. And it's a very secretive branch of government, making the argument for executive privilege, which will not fly politically. Of course, he doesn't have to run again. He's not going to run for president. So he feels insulated from politics.

The fact is, it's a very difficult argument to make. The Constitution, the vice president comes under the executive branch. Sure, he has a connection to Congress. So does the president. He vetoes legislation.

There are interconnections among all these branches of government. To argue he's not a member of the executive branch seems to me to be very far-fetched.

BLITZER: The Washington Post has a fascinating new series they started running today, Joe, on the vice president. And I'm going to read to you a little excerpt from the article.

"Stealth is among Cheney's most effective tools. Even talking points for reporters are sometimes stamped 'Treated As: Top Secret/SCI.' Experts in and out of government said Cheney's office appears to have invented that designation, which alludes to 'sensitive compartmented information,' the most closely guarded category of government secrets."

By adding the words 'treated as,' they said, Cheney seeks to protect unclassified work as though its disclosure would cause exceptionally grave damage to national security." This part of a series on the vice president called "Angler." You're a lawyer. You studied law.

JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I have a law degree.

BLITZER: I know something about classified information. But SCI represents the most sensitive kind of information. You go to jail if you reveal that without authorization.

JOHNS: Sure. Well, it's been fascinating all along. The thing about this administration is it has really had a penchant for secrecy. But going back to the business about the fourth branch of government or whatever, when you look at that, I don't see where there is a legal precedent. I mean, I haven't researched it closely. I don't see where there's a legal precedent about the vice president falling within the lines. However, if he does want to sort of declare himself president of the Senate and exempt from the executive branch, Democrats would be pretty sure to welcome him to the Senate Ethics Committee to be disciplined there for anything that he's done.

BLITZER: He would be bound by all the rules of the U.S. Senate as well.

JOHNS: Right. So he could get it on the other side if he wants it from the Democrats, but I'm not sure he wants that.

BLITZER: I don't think he wants that. He wants the best of all worlds, and that doesn't include part of it.

Let's talk about vetoes. This week, the president issued his third veto since taking office, which is a tiny, tiny number, but until recently he only had a Republican-controlled House and Senate to deal with. Two of the vetoes on embryonic stem cell research federal funding, one on a timeline for troop withdrawal.

But you've been reporting this week that we're going to be seeing a whole lot more presidential vetoes in the, what, year and a half remaining.

QUIJANO: Yeah, absolutely. When it comes to these budget battles, this is an opportunity for the president to basically take on the Democratic-led Congress.

But what's interesting about this is sort of a key architect or someone who was leading the charge on this front, Rob Portman, somebody of course who has close ties to Capitol Hill, the Republican leadership, leaving now just 18 months to go in the president's term here, and instead, Jim Nestle coming in.

But certainly, the president appears to be poised to, as you say, get all these vetoes pushed through to basically take on Congress.

BLITZER: It's a more traditional role when you have the opposition in control of Congress and a president. Then they start issuing vetoes.

SCHNEIDER: That's right. And it's a recipe for gridlock. Look, though, it's not just the president going to veto the legislation, but the Democrats in Congress do not have a big enough majority. The numbers just are not there to override these vetoes. They couldn't on stem cells. They couldn't on the Iraq war funding bill.

And that is immensely frustrating to Democrats who elected this Congress. They believe to get something done, to stand up to President Bush on the war and to defy him, and they don't have enough votes right now to override his vetoes.

BLITZER: In this new Newsweek poll, Joe, the president's job approval number is at 26 percent. Only 26 percent of the American people think he's doing a good job. They approve of the job he's doing. Sixty-five percent disapprove.

But look at this. Only 25 percent think the Congress is doing a good job. They approve of what the Congress is doing. Sixty-three percent disapprove. Why is Congress right now, and it's a Democratic- controlled Congress, albeit only since last November, why is Congress in less a high regard than even the president?

JOHNS: I think if you talk to a lot of Democrats on Capitol Hill, they would say the Iraq war is the thing. That there were a lot of very energized voters who went to the polls and pulled the lever or whatever to get Democrats in office on the Congressional level because they are very concerned about ending the war in Iraq. Now, if that's true, if it is not true, whatever, that seems to be the perception on the Hill right now. And also the fact that Democrats are perceive bid some to have sort of caved in in the fight with the president on the issue of Iraq certainly plays into that.

So it's part and parcel of the Iraq thing, mostly, I think.

BLITZER: And it also underscores the high disregard for Washington in general, which potentially opens the door for a third- party candidate. And we're going to talk about that, the potential for a third-party candidate. Maybe the mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg. He's only worth $5 billion. He's got the cash. Will he jump in?

And Senator Ted Kennedy spoke out early today on the Sunday talk shows. You're going to hear what he had to say in our "In Case You Missed It" segment. "Late Edition" will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: And now, in case you missed it, let's check some of the highlights from the other Sunday morning talk shows here in the United States. On ABC, Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy said he expects Congress to keep pushing President Bush toward an endgame in Iraq.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. EDWARD M. KENNEDY, D-MASS.: The president's going to get a timetable again and we're going to keep at it until we're successful. And I think we're going to pick up increasing support. I can't give you when the final time will be when we'll have the majority, but it's coming. It'll get there.

We got there at the time of Vietnam. It took too long. We got there in the Contra war, and that took too long. And we're going to get there on Iraq.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: On Fox, Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein discussed the Democratically controlled Congress's low approval numbers.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN, D-CALIF.: I think people had the expectation, not knowing the rules of the Senate, wow, we would be able to move this country out of Iraq. Well, the Senate works very differently. You need 60 votes for virtually anything that is controversial, and so it's not that easy to obtain the goal. I think people don't understand this.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: On NBC, former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan and Illinois Congressman Luis Gutierrez squared off over the immigration reform bill. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PATRICK BUCHANAN, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: What I'm saying is, you are risking having two countries. Let us stop -- no amnesty, stop this, secure the border and enforce the laws. Then we can debate what to do with the folks who are legally, who are not criminal.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. LUIS V. GUTIERREZ, D-ILL.: The fact is, there is no amnesty in either of the bills. We say, come out of the darkness, come out of the shadows, we will fingerprint you. If you have been convicted of any felony, you're out of the program. Number two, pay fines. They do exactly what you propose to do, learn English, learn -- but let me...

BUCHANAN; If they were illegal yesterday and they're legal today, isn't that amnesty?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Highlights from the other Sunday morning talk shows here on "Late Edition," the last word in Sunday talk.

Up next, more of our political panel discussion. We'll talk about Michael Bloomberg. Is he serious about running for president? And what about Ralph Nader?

And across the United States this week, viewers watched as the people of Charleston, South Carolina said farewell to nine brave firefighters. Now you can do something to help. Log on to cnn.com/impact, and with a click, you'll get the information you need to take action and take action right now.

Not just on the tragedy in Charleston but on many, many other stories you see every day. Be a part of the solution. Use the news on CNN to impact your world.

We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BLOOMBERG: I think they're wasting their time. I'm not a candidate. So they should get down to polling on people who are candidates. And we've got a lot of them in this country. We even have two people from New York who are candidates for president of the United States. I'm not sure the state needs a third.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: The mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, sounding a bit cagey about whether or not he will run for president of the United States as an independent.

Welcome back to "Late Edition." We're back with the best political team on television: Bill Schneider, Elaine Quijano and Joe Johns.

What do you make of this talk? And it is talk at this point. But he accelerated it this week by announcing he's no longer a Republican. He's non-aligned, if you will.

SCHNEIDER: Well, when you have $5 billion, you can do just about anything you want politically. And he's got it. You need two things. You need money, which he's got, and a message.

What's his message? Well, it's sort of nonpartisanship, unity, like Arnold Schwarzenegger in California, he argues that the only way to get problems solved in this country is to take a nonpartisan approach.

And if we're seeing all these vetoes piling up and gridlock between the president and Congress, the market for that message could expand.

BLITZER: Because he could run really as somebody outside of Washington without the taint, if you will, and there are a lot of people out there around the country, Joe, as you know, Democrats and Republicans, who aren't very happy with Washington right now.

JOHNS: Well, sure, and there was this Quinnipiac -- I think I said it right -- poll out there that was taken to see who he would take votes from, and I saw that it suggested he would take votes equally from Rudi Giuliani as well as Hillary Clinton.

You know, look, the guy has been many times called the quintessential rhino, a Republican in name only. He's like pro- abortion...

BLITZER: Abortion rights and gay rights.

JOHNS: ... right, gun control and so on. That makes him attractive to a lot of different audiences. So you never know. We know the history of independent runs in this country. You never know how it's going to turn out.

BLITZER: And if you've got $5 billion, if he take a half a billion and decides he's going to roll the dice, presumably he would get some residence out there. Even though he's well-known in New York, but he isn't really all that well-known outside of New York.

QUIJANO: Yes, you know, for the White House's part, they're staying out of this right now. The president was funny. He was asked a question about this, as this news was developing in the Oval Office. And he said, "Bloomberg, great news organization," and that was his comment. They are staying out of the politics of this right now but, obviously, watching very closely to see how it develops.

SCHNEIDER: And make no mistake; Democrats are worried, because given his profile on the issues, they're worried he could split the liberal or the Democratic vote. He has been a Democrat in the past and hurt them in their race for the presidency.

BLITZER: In this Newsweek poll that just came out, "Should there be a major third party running for president," 57 percent said they agree, 36 percent said they disagree, 7 percent said they don't know. So people remember Ross Perot back in '92 and all of us remember that campaign. Maybe there's an appetite; maybe there isn't.

But here's the question for you. Is there an appetite for a fourth party candidate? And would that be Ralph Nader if he decides, once again, to jump in? As you know, the Democrats call him the spoiler because they think had he not run the last time, Al Gore would have been elected back in 2000. I had this exchange with Ralph Nader in "The Situation Room" this week.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Does the Bloomberg decision affect your decision?

RALPH NADER, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It makes it more interesting and more useful. You know why? Because you reduce the political bigotry against the small party candidate because you've got a three-way race. It's more mixed, more diverse and they will be otherwise preoccupied, shall we say, with Michael Bloomberg.

BLITZER: So as much as you say you like some of the things he stands for, even if he ran, you might still run anyhow?

NADER: Yes.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: How nervous should Democrats specifically be that Ralph Nader could jump in once again this time?

JOHNS: Well, there's always that issue of a spoiler and there's always that issue of taking away, in a very close race, just a few hundred thousand or a million votes or whatever from your candidate. That said, it seems like every time Ralph Nader starts talking about this, he gets less and less support, I mean, over the past couple cycles.

So you kind of wonder if the power of Ralph Nader is diluted except for those extremely progressive, ultraliberal groups that would really like to see him out there pushing some of the causes that he pushes.

BLITZER: You studied the 2000 election, specifically Florida. He got, what, 90,000 votes in Florida and Gore lost by 500 some number of votes.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: He denies that he was the spoiler. But do you -- based on all the research you have done, Bill, and you've looked at these numbers about as closely as anyone. Would Al Gore have been elected president if Ralph Nader had not run?

SCHNEIDER: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: Simple as that.

SCHNEIDER: Simple as that, yes. Because with 90,000 votes in Florida, Bush carried Florida by 537. Of course, most of those votes -- some of them wouldn't have voted. Very few of those votes would have gone to George Bush. They would have mostly gone to Al Gore among those who voted. Probably half of them wouldn't have voted, but so what? Five hundred and thirty-seven votes is tiny.

BLITZER: We're almost out of time. What is the president's agenda this week? What's he up to?

QUIJANO: Immigration. Tuesday, another immigration remarks that he's going to be delivering. But it's interesting, a late add we saw. He's going to be going to the Islamic Center of Washington, D.C., marking the 50th anniversary of its dedication. So it will be interesting with all the events going on in the Middle East and Iraq to see what he has to say there.

BLITZER: Make or break this week on immigration reform.

QUIJANO: Absolutely.

BLITZER: And we'll see what happens, guys. Thanks very much for coming in, Joe, Elaine, Bill, all part of the best political team on television.

Up next, see what the candidates are up to in the next few days in our "On the Campaign Trail" segment.

And if you would like a recap of today's program, you can get highlights on our new and improved "Late Edition" podcast. Simply go to CNN.com/podcast.

And coming up at the top of the hour, "This Week At War" with host Jamie McIntyre. Here's a preview.

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SR. PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: It's called Operation Phantom Thunder. It's one of the biggest military operations in years, and the success or failure of the U.S. presence in Iraq could depend on how it turns out.

We'll bring it all to you from the viewpoint of the troops on the dangerous streets of Baqouba, to the big picture, the critical areas that commanders are watching, all coming up on "This Week At War."

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's take a look at where some of the U.S. presidential candidates will be spending time over the next few days, "On the Campaign Trail" as candidates face the end a second quarter. And in a new round of the so-called "money primary," most of out in search of money.

Senator Joe Biden will be fundraising today in California.

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and his supporters will be hitting the phones to raise money in Boston today and tomorrow. On Monday, Senator Hillary Clinton will be raising funds in Chicago and New York.

Congressman Tom Tancredo is in Iowa today hitting a county fair, a picnic and, of course, a fundraiser.

Senator Chris Dodd is doing events in New Hampshire today. Apparently, he's not raising money.

But a former Wisconsin governor -- that would be Tommy Thompson -- will also be in New Hampshire on Monday holding a fundraiser.

"On the Campaign Trail" with some of the presidential candidates.

And let's take a look right now at what's on the cover of this week's major news magazines here in the United States.

Newsweek tells us "181 Things We Need to Know."

Time magazine teaches readers, "What we can learn from JFK."

And U.S. News and World Report looks at some "Secrets of the Civil War."

And that is your "Late Edition" for this Sunday, June 24th. Please be sure to join us next Sunday and every Sunday at 11:00 a.m. Eastern for the last word in Sunday talk, two hours every Sunday. I'm also in "The Situation Room" Monday through Friday from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. Eastern, than another hour at 7:00 p.m. Eastern.

Until then, thanks for joining us. For our international viewers, stand by for world news. For those of you in North America, "This Week at War" with Jamie McIntyre 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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