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CNN LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER

Interview With Nawaz Sharif; Interview With Richard Shelby

Aired September 2, 2007 - 11:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: It's 11:00 a.m. here in Washington, 8:00 a.m. in Los Angeles, 4:00 p.m. in London, 7:00 p.m. in Baghdad. Wherever you are watching from around the world, thanks very much for joining us.
All those stories coming up, but we begin today with a story that has enormous ramifications for the U.S. war on terror, the hunt for Osama bin Laden, U.S.-Pakistani relations.

As political pressure mounts against Pakistani's president, Pervez Musharraf, one of his top opponents is trying to reclaim power. That would be Nawaz Sharif. He's been exiled from Pakistan since President Musharraf ousted him in a bloodless coup back in 1999.

Just a little while ago, I spoke to the former prime minister in London.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Nawaz Sharif, thanks very much for joining us. Let's get right to the issue at hand: Are you planning on going back to Pakistan by September 10th?

NAWAZ SHARIF, FORMER PAKISTANI PRIME MINISTER: That's right, yes.

BLITZER: And are you afraid that once you get there you will be arrested because of the allegations of corruption, the history, the exile? A lot of potential threat for you if you step back into Pakistan.

SHARIF: This is what Mr. Musharraf is threatening and he says if I come back to Pakistan, he'll arrest me. There are no charges of any corruption. There are no cases against me. And if he wants to manufacture cases against me, that is his choice, because he doesn't believe in the rule of law. He doesn't believe in the constitution. He doesn't believe in ethics, morality.

And that is what you've seen in the last eight years of Mr. Musharraf's rule. He believes in might is right. He believes in the law of jungle. He has no respect for the parliament, no respect for the constitution. And he is the man who is also of guilty of abrogating the constitution of Pakistan.

BLITZER: So let's be clear. You are definitely, in the next few days, going back to Pakistan? SHARIF: Yes. I have already announced that I will be going back on the 10th of September.

BLITZER: OK. Let's talk a little bit about the politics, what's going on right now. President Musharraf, obviously, one of the key players, you as a former prime minister, one of the key players -- another former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, she says she is ready to go back to Pakistan as well to run in elections. She also said this on Saturday. I want you to listen to what she said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BENAZIR BHUTTO, FMR. PAKISTANI PRIME MINISTER: We have been engaged, in contact with the present regime for the restoration of democracy so that there can be a viable, political system.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Have you also been engaged in such discussions with President Musharraf's government?

SHARIF: Well, actually, you see, we both -- myself and Benazir Bhutto -- have signed a charter of democracy. We have put our signatures on this document which is a very fine document which states very clearly that Democrats must not talk to dictators.

So it's very clearly written in this document that we should not have any parlays, no negotiations, no give-and-take with dictators. And we would jointly launch a struggle for undiluted democracy in Pakistan. And I stand by this.

BLITZER: Well, she's ready to work out a deal. She's had secret meetings, as you well know, with President Musharraf and others from his government.

And I guess the question to you is, have you had any kind of contacts directly or indirectly with President Musharraf's government that would encourage you to go back to Pakistan?

SHARIF: Well, there have been watches from Mr. Musharraf. But you see, I have never responded to them because I think dictatorship is dictatorship and democracy is democracy.

BLITZER: So on this point, Prime Minister, you disagree with Benazir Bhutto?

SHARIF: Yes. It's a matter of principle. And we both signed not to enter into any deal with dictators because that will only amount to strengthen the hands of dictators, so that's not serving the cause of democracy.

BLITZER: She is suggesting that he's ready to give up command of the Pakistani military, to take off his military uniform, as they say in Pakistan.

His information minister, Muhammad Ali Durrani, said this on Thursday. He said, "The issue of the uniform will be decided by the president and he will not take any pressure on that issue."

If President Musharraf decides to give up his role as commander of the Pakistani army, would that be acceptable to you in enabling him to continue on as president?

SHARIF: You see, a uniform has no place in our constitution, has no place in politics. An army has no role in politics according to our law and according to our constitution.

BLITZER: So if he gives up the uniform would that make him acceptable?

SHARIF: Well, you see where the difference lies, because we don't accept any patchwork of democracy and dictatorship. Whether he gets himself elected in uniform or without uniform is unacceptable. And this is why the total -- the (inaudible) community, the entire civil society of the country, the 160 million people are struggling for.

BLITZER: Here is what The Washington Post in a very tough editorial on Wednesday wrote about you and the other former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto: "Ms. Bhutto and Mr. Sharif both are two- time failures as Pakistani prime minister. Both have been credibly accused of breathtaking acts of corruption, both of them unscrupulous in pursuing their personal ambitions."

Those are strong words of condemnation from The Washington Post and I wonder if you'd want to respond to that.

SHARIF: I think we should go by the track record of a government. Our track record shows that there are no cases of any corruption, no cases of any commission or kickbacks. And there is no case of any corruption against me or any member of my government.

So Mr. Musharraf, despite his eight years hard work to find anything against me, has not been able to find anything against me or my government. So the track record is very evident from this.

BLITZER: You have an important political base in Pakistan. And some people are looking toward you as a once again future prime minister.

Here is what the U.S. government's National Intelligence Estimate wrote in July about Pakistan and Al Qaida, the war on terror: "We assess Al Qaida has protected or regenerated key elements of its homeland attack capability, including a safe haven in the Pakistan Federally Administered Tribal Areas, operational lieutenants and its top leadership." If you were to emerge, Prime Minister, once again as leader in Pakistan, where would you stand on the fight against the Taliban and Al Qaida in Pakistan?

SHARIF: I think it's very simple. We're all against terror. I am against terror as much as anybody else in this world. And I have been fighting terror. We had excellent rapport with President Clinton when I was a prime minister. And we both fought terror even then. And I have also been, myself, a target of terrorism. I had a narrow escape twice when I was the prime minister. So you see, you can't fight terror as the way Mr. Musharraf is fighting. He needs the threat of terror for his own survival. We will fight out of conviction.

And then you can't win the battle against terror when the nation is not behind you, when the people of the country are not supporting you, when the parliament is not behind you.

So I think a democratic government can effectively fight terror with the support of the parliament, with the support of the people of the country, which is of course not there with Mr. Musharraf.

BLITZER: And you would have what kind of relationship with the United States in this war on terror?

SHARIF: Well, good. Well, you see, we have been cooperating with the United States, but then of course Mr. Musharraf is being supported as one individual against the wishes of the 160 million people. And I would say that Pakistan is Pakistan, Musharraf is Musharraf. Pakistan must not be equated with Musharraf. And of course our battle against terror has been very successful. It's produced results in the past.

BLITZER: Nawaz Sharif is the former prime minister of Pakistan. Prime Minister, good luck to you. I know you're heading back to Pakistan. We'll be speaking with you down the road. Thanks very much for joining us.

SHARIF: Thank you.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And when we come back, what's happening on the legal front as far as a now soon-to-be-former U.S. senator is concerned, Larry Craig? He resigns yesterday amid a sex sting operation at a Minneapolis airport. Serious allegations on that front. Also, the resignation of the attorney general, Alberto Gonzales. Our legal panel and a lot more coming up right here on "Late Edition."

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to "Late Edition." I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. We're going to be going at the top of the hour to Baghdad to get a live progress report from the chief U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, Major General Kevin Bergner. That's coming up here on "Late Edition."

But first, after only a few days after the scandal erupted and certainly after his guilty plea involving an incident at an airport men's room, U.S. Senator Larry Craig declared his intention to leave the U.S. Senate by the end of this month. His political feature is obviously dim.

What about his chances, though, in a courtroom? Joining us now, two guests, the former Republican Party general council, Ben Ginsberg, and the former Clinton White House special counsel, Lanny Davis. Guys, thanks very much for coming in. Let's talk about Larry Craig first. An extraordinary development here in Washington. I'm going to play a little clip of what he said earlier in the week in denying any wrongdoing. Listen to this.

Unfortunately, we don't have that clip. I'll read to you what he said. He said, "I chose to plead guilty to a lesser charge in the hope of making it go away. I did not seek any counsel either from an attorney, staff, friends or family. That was a mistake and I deeply regret it."

Ben Ginsberg, first to you. Do you understand how this scandal unfolded and his argument now that he is going to try to seek to reverse his guilty plea?

BEN GINSBERG, GOP ATTORNEY: Sure. I think I understand it on a human level, if not necessarily the political level, which is what you're really asking about. But on a personal level, I think it was embarrassing to him. He recognized he made a mistake. He resigned from the Senate as he should have. And all goes on.

BLITZER: And do you think he has a chance of reversing this guilty plea legally? Is that doable?

GINSBERG: I think that's awfully difficult to do. I think he may be able to. He's hired an excellent lawyer to help him out. I'm sure Lanny and I would agree that you ought to hire a lawyer sort of instantly when any trouble comes.

BLITZER: He's hired Billy Martin, who's a well-known criminal defense attorney here in Washington with a long history of clients. Stan Brand to help him with the Senate ethics investigation, another well-known Washington attorney. What are the prospects, Lanny, that you think he can reverse this?

LANNY DAVIS, FORMER CLINTON WHITE HOUSE COUNSEL: Well, I don't know about the legal situation. And I believe his plea was a misdemeanor. I don't understand why Republicans are so quick to shoot in for the kill with one of their own colleagues rather than letting the voters of Idaho decide this or the voters of Louisiana decide it in the case of Senator Vitter. It seems to me a double standard with Senator Vitter having a personal issue, which I think has nothing to do with his public...

BLITZER: Senator David Vitter, for our viewers not familiar, he acknowledged when, in his words, he committed a sin by having some telephone -- his telephone numbers were listed on a D.C. madam, in what the D.C. police allege was a prostitution ring.

DAVIS: I mean, these are private issues that don't affect public performance as far as I'm concerned. Both of those senators have a right to go back to their own constituents and say you judge me. And rather than having their colleagues in the Senate, before he even has a chance, to demand his resignation, I just -- it strikes me. I feel sorry for him. And I'm quite sympathetic. GINSBERG: Lanny, one...

BLITZER: Do you think -- yeah, go ahead, Ben.

GINSBERG: One pleaded guilty and one didn't. So, I think that there is a legal system. Senator Craig did plead guilty to the charge. And I think that's the distinction.

BLITZER: It's a significant distinction. One just acknowledged that maybe he committed a sin, but there were no legal charges filed against Senator David Vitter.

DAVIS: My law school professor would say there are some things that are distinctions without differences. In other words, it's OK to be unfaithful if it's heterosexual, but not if it's homosexual. The fact is, Senator Craig never even had a chance to explain himself before members of his own Senate caucus were calling for his resignation.

I would have at least given him a little bit of time, hire a lawyer, see what the charges are about. My point is, private behavior should be judged in a family situation, in a religious and certainly a personal situation, but not in a political situation.

GINSBERG: I think pleading guilty is fairly significant. I think what's most interesting is the Democrats are trying to make a political issue of this, which I think, number one, is more a human situation.

But if anything else, I think people out in America look at this more about the mess in Washington and the need to clean up Washington. I don't think that resounds to the Democrats' benefit to keep on doing the Democrat-Republican fight that Lanny has shown is really representing what most of the Democrats are doing.

BLITZER: Let's get back to the legal issue. I assume one of his arguments is going to be what he said initially back in June when he was arrested, that he felt that he -- this was entrapment. I want to listen to this audiotape of what the police officer recorded when he had that initial exchange with Senator Craig at the Minneapolis airport.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

U.S. SENATOR LARRY CRAIG, R-IDAHO: I am not gay. I don't do these kinds of things.

MINNEAPOLIS AIRPORT SERGEANT KARSNIA: It doesn't matter. I don't care about sexual preference or anything like that. Here's your stuff back, sir. I don't care about sexual preference.

CRAIG: I know you don't. You're out to enforce the law.

KARSNIA: Right.

CRAIG: But you shouldn't be out to entrap people either. KARSNIA: This isn't entrapment.

CRAIG: All right.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: It sound like if he had then on June 11th, when he was arrested, decided that he was going to fight this, he could have made a relatively reasonable case: This is a huge misunderstanding between him and the undercover police officer who was sitting in a stall next to him at the Minneapolis airport.

DAVIS: Look, first of all, I completely agree with Ben this should not be a political issue. If I sound like I'm making it into one, that's not my intention. The legal issue is between Senator Craig, his lawyer and a future court whether that plea was valid or not.

But to make an argument that he should be forced to resign immediately rather than letting his constituents in Idaho make the decision, the way that the constituents in Louisiana will make the decision about Senator Vitter, to me strikes me as too fast, too quick and not enough.

Let's give it time before we start to demand this man's scalp. That's a human comment. It isn't about parties. I would say the same thing if Democrats did it to one of their colleagues.

GINSBERG: It was his choice, Lanny. It was nobody else's. And because it was his choice, you have to respect that and not try and make some sort of a broader political statement about it. And the truth of the matter is, his actions in that tape that you played and the way he did plead guilty to it showed it was an incident he wanted to get behind him quickly. And I think the resignation yesterday was completely in keeping with that.

BLITZER: If you take a look at the timeline of what happened, and let's go back to May, a month or so before the actual arrest. That's when he was formally interviewed by his home state newspaper, the Idaho Statesman, on May 14th. And they were involved in a months- long investigation about earlier allegations of improper sexual activity, including here in Washington at Union Station.

He formally denied any such actions involving homosexuality, denied soliciting sex in a bathroom here at Union Station in Washington. That was May 14th. And on June 11th, that's when the incident occurred. That's when he was arrested. It wasn't, though, until August 6th, almost two months later, that he signed the paper saying that he was guilty, pleading guilty to disorderly conduct.

He had a lot of time to think about it. How do you explain, Lanny Davis, that he didn't hire a lawyer in between those two months between the time of his arrest and the time he pleaded guilty?

DAVIS: Look, I just have to say I wrote a book about this. We shouldn't be focusing on somebody's private life and their indiscretions. Newspapers have better things to do. The Idaho newspaper maybe thought it was journalistically appropriate. I do not.

I have sympathy whether it's a Democrat or a Republican. There are an awful lot of people who have private lives that don't want to be investigated by newspapers. We've got to judge people on their public performance, on their ethical behavior as public officials rather than this type of subject.

BLITZER: Do you want to button this up, because then I want to move to Alberto Gonzales.

GINSBERG: Yeah. I think this is a personal decision on his part, and we ought to respect that. And he did the right thing.

BLITZER: Here's what the president said after word emerged this week that the attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, had decided to resign. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: It's sad that we live in a time when a talented and honorable person like Alberto Gonzales is impeded from doing important work because his good name was dragged through the mud for political reasons.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: I assume, Lanny Davis, you disagree with the president that his name was dragged through the mud for political reasons?

DAVIS: I think to some extent there were some politics played about some of Attorney General Gonzales's problems. But I think he brought it on himself. He made some poor judgments. He mishandled the firings of the U.S. attorneys. He gave at least, at best inconsistent testimony, and I think that he had lost his effectiveness at the Justice Department.

Having said that, I've met him. He's worked on national missing children issues with the National Center. He has some things that he should be proud of. And I think that it is time for him to go to bring in someone who can reinforce the independence of the Justice Department.

GINSBERG: Good of you to concede there was some politics involved in this, Lanny. I think the president summed up what he felt had happened to Al Gonzales, who is as decent and good a man as who's ever served this government. Somebody who has dedicated a lot of years of his life to public service.

Having said that, the atmosphere had become such that I think he properly recognized that it was time to move on, and he did.

BLITZER: What about next? Should the president go with someone who could be confirmed relatively easily, or should he go with someone that might have some problems getting confirmed even though ideologically and politically might be more in tune with his views?

DAVIS: Look, I think the Justice Department's credibility has been undermined, rightly or wrongly, by what Attorney General Gonzales has presided over in the last couple of years. And I think whoever President Bush appoints is somebody who's going to be philosophically compatible with him as a conservative. And that may cause some opposition. But most important to me is someone who's a man of the law who believes in rebuilding what is the independence of the Justice Department.

BLITZER: Do you have anybody in mind that you'd like to see him nominate?

DAVIS: Well, I just posted my own personal blog on thehill.com that I worked with Ted Olson on the privacy and civil liberties board. I've had tremendous disagreements with Mr. Olson, especially his harsh judgments of the Clintons, which I thought were unfair at the time. But I also think he is a man of the law. He comes out of the Justice Department and institutionally would be quite independent and forceful while still being a good conservative.

BLITZER: A former solicitor general with the Justice Department. Lanny Davis endorses Ted Olson. What do you think?

GINSBERG: Well, I think Lanny has shown good judgment here, which I want to congratulate you for. Ted Olson would be an outstanding choice. There are a number of outstanding choices the president could make.

And I think it is an interesting sign about the Bush administration on which of the two alternatives they take, someone who will be confirmed because he is or she is such a student of the law and such a fine public official, or take someone who can score some brownie points with the base as they move on.

I think there is a way to combine the two. My guess is that's what the president and Josh Bolten are going to try to achieve.

BLITZER: We'll see who they pick. Ben Ginsberg, Lanny Davis, thanks to both of you for coming in.

DAVIS: Thank you.

GINSBERG: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: And coming up, a live conversation with the Republican senator Richard Shelby. He's just back in the United States from Iraq, where he and three other U.S. lawmakers narrowly escaped a rocket-fire attack. My conversation with Senator Shelby here on "Late Edition" right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to "Late Edition." I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. This week, four U.S. lawmakers experienced what American troops and Iraqi civilians have to deal with every single day, the dangers in Iraq.

The U.S. Air Force C-130 cargo plane they were on came under rocket fire as they took off from Baghdad Thursday night. Fortunately, all aboard escaped the attack unharmed. Among the passengers, Republican Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama. He's joining us on the phone now from his home state of Alabama.

Senator Shelby, we're happy you and your colleagues made it out OK. Tell us what happened as you were taking off on that C-130 out of Baghdad.

SEN. RICHARD SHELBY (R), ALABAMA: Well we'd been in Iraq all day. We'd met with General Petraeus, among other people. And we were on our way back to Amman, Jordan in a C-130.

We were outside of Baghdad. I don't know how far. It was a dark night of flying.

And all at once, I look up -- maybe we are 10 minutes out. I'm not sure about the time. I look up and I see a rocket near, exploding a few feet from the window. I thought something's going on.

Then I see another one. And then we -- the crew did such a professional job. They started shooting flares, because I guess they were concerned about the heat-seeking missiles. And they started changing the direction of the plane, something we're not used to, but our soldiers do it every day.

BLITZER: It's a pretty steep incline when they fly out of Baghdad to begin with, so were they then adjusting that incline? Were they doing aerial maneuvers to avoid that kind of rocket attack?

SHELBY: They were. They were. Wolf, you've been over there many times. And we were experiencing what our soldiers experience every day, I'm sure. The crew did such a tremendous, professional job. We're lucky we're alive. We understand what they go through every day and it's not good. It's a dangerous place. I think they've made some significant progress there, but they've got a long way to go.

BLITZER: You were with Senator Mel Martinez, the Republican from Florida -- he was on that C-120, as was Senator James Inhofe, the Republican from Oklahoma, and your colleague from Alabama, the Democratic Congressman Bud Cramer.

SHELBY: That's right.

BLITZER: When you go through a few moments of terror like that, how scared were you, Senator Shelby?

SHELBY: Well, it happens so fast I guess you're beyond being scared, but you are really concerned because I knew we were in danger. I didn't know how much danger. But I thought, goodness, we've got good pilots because I had flown with them all most of the day, and a good crew. And that's what happened.

BLITZER: Did you say a prayer?

SHELBY: Say a prayer always.

BLITZER: You did?

SHELBY: Absolutely right.

BLITZER: It might not help, but it certainly can't hurt.

SHELBY: Well, it always helps.

BLITZER: That's what my dad used to say. Let's talk a little bit about your impressions of what you saw in Iraq. Do you agree with Senator John Warner, the ranking Republican, former chairman of the Armed Services Committee, that the U.S. should start at least a modest troop withdrawal right away in order to send a signal to the government of Nouri al-Maliki they have to get their act together?

SHELBY: I think Senator Warner is on the right track. But I believe that General Petraeus is the one to deliver that message. I don't know what he's going to say. I had lunch with him. I had a long meeting with him with the other people in the delegation. But I think he should be the messenger on that.

My own personal belief is that we will be withdrawing some troops. But it is -- we should send the strongest message in the world to the Iraqi government that, "If you are not going to do something, we're going to leave." They are doing some things, but it looks to me like they are jockeying for the edge, too.

BLITZER: Do you agree with a lot of observers, including Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, that Nouri al-Maliki, in effect, has been a disaster as far as doing what he is supposed to do?

SHELBY: I agree with the senator on that. And, actually, the four of us wanted to meet with him while we were there. And he didn't seem to have time to meet with us. And I thought that was a bad sign in itself.

BLITZER: The Democratic leader, the majority leader, Harry Reid, this week seemed to reach out to Republicans saying, "Let's work together to come up with some sort of troop reduction plan for Iraq." Are you receptive to working with the Democrats on this?

SHELBY: Well, I would want to see what they have to say. I think we realize we've got challenges over there. You've got to remember, Wolf, that you've covered this for years.

Our troops have never been defeated on the ground over there. The morale of our troops there and in the future is important, that whatever we do, we'd better do it in a measured way, a thoughtful way and not just cut-and-run. We can't do that.

BLITZER: Because there's talk now that the president wants more money, maybe as much as $50 billion over the next few months, to try to support the U.S. military operation in Iraq, increasing the expenditures from about $2 billion a week to $3 billion a week. Are you inclined to give him that?

SHELBY: Well, I'm an appropriator and that would come before the committee of defense that we serve on, chaired by Senator Inouye right now. We need to do look at the details on where any kind of money is going to be spent. But at the end of the day, we should do everything we can to support our own troops and put pressure on the government over there to step up to the plate with police and soldiers. And if they are not going to do it, then we'd better reconsider.

BLITZER: We're almost out of time, Senator. But your quick reaction to your colleague from Idaho, Larry Craig, and his decision to leave the U.S. Senate by the end of the month?

SHELBY: I think it was the proper decision from what I've read and heard. And, you know, it's just one of those things. We have to put it behind us. It's not a good thing.

BLITZER: And I want your quick reaction also to what Senator Patrick Leahy said on another Sunday talk show today. I want to play a little clip and get your reaction to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. PATRICK J. LEAHY, D-VT.: We have another senator who apparently used telephones in the Republican cloak room to call the so-called Washington madam, set up illegal activity with call girls. And nobody seems to be upset with that. Frankly, I would think that that, as compared to a sting operation in a men's room in Minnesota, would be as serious.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: He says...

SHELBY: Well, they're both bad situation, but I think you're talking about apples and oranges.

BLITZER: Hold on, Senator. Let me just clarify for our viewers. He was referring to the allegations made against Senator David Vitter of Louisiana. He says there's a double standard at play here. And I wanted your reaction.

SHELBY: Well, I think you're talking about apples and oranges. On the other hand, they're both bad situations and people will have to judge them. We deal with the human condition in Washington, D.C. And I believe at the end of the day, you'll see that both parties will have problems because you are dealing with people.

BLITZER: And as far as Senator Vitter is concerned, do you think he should step down or should stay?

SHELBY: I think that's up to him. At the same time, I don't know all the facts of this. He said he's made a mistake and -- that he's now said to the people of Louisiana. I haven't heard anything -- outcry from the people of Louisiana, but he will have to face his own judgment. Everybody does.

BLITZER: Senator Shelby, we're happy you and your colleagues got out of Iraq safe and sound.

SHELBY: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: I'll see you back here in Washington. Thanks very much for joining us.

SHELBY: Thank you.

BLITZER: And coming up on "Late Edition," the latest military situation in Iraq. We're going to be speaking live to U.S. Army Major General Kevin Bergner. He's the chief spokesman for the Multi- national Forces in Iraq. That's coming up.

Also a new report says Iraq is failing almost every major benchmark. Is the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on the verge of collapse? We have a panel of experts on Iraq. They're standing by.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

This week, Iraq's Shiite factions clashed in street battles that left dozens of people dead, while the country's Sunni politicians continue to boycott the government. All this happening as the Iraq prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, is under intense pressure from Washington to meet major political benchmarks.

For some insight on what's really going on in Iraq, we turn to three guests: in London, the former Iraqi government spokesman, Laith Kubba; on the ground for us in Baghdad, as always, our correspondent Michael Ware; and here in Washington, The New York Times chief military correspondent Michael Gordon. He's also the author of the best-selling book "Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq."

Gentlemen, thanks to all of you for coming in.

Laith Kubba, I'll start with you in London. Can Nouri al-Maliki survive this political crisis he's facing right now?

LAITH KUBBA, FORMER IRAQI GOVERNMENT SPOKESMAN: I think he can. He is at the mercy of maybe a handful of heavyweight political players in Iraq. That is, the two Kurdish leaders, the leader -- Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the biggest Shia block.

And I think so long as those key figures want him to stay in office and have not developed an alternative to his premiership, I think he will stay in office. But the minute they strike a deal, I think this will change.

BLITZER: All right. Let's bring Michael Ware in. You've been there a long time, Michael. In recent days, the prime minister has made some very defiant statements about the criticism he's facing, especially from some politicians here in Washington.

He said this -- he said: "We will pay no attention. We care for our people and our constitution and can find friends elsewhere." He also said: "I will not abandon my legal and legitimate responsibility in serving Iraq. Neither do I see any legitimate patriotic reason to resign."

Give us your assessment right now on where he stands, Michael. Can he do what the U.S. really wants him to do and mainly crack down the militias and get tough and achieve some of those political benchmarks?

MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: No. There's very little chance -- slim to none actually, Wolf -- of Nouri al-Maliki delivering now or ever. I mean, we know he's a lame duck prime minister. He has absolutely no power. It's not even in the interest of the true power blocks within this government to see these benchmarks met. They don't share U.S. agendas.

And Nouri al-Maliki, many senior commanders and American diplomats doubt whether he shares these agendas. And certainly they all agree that even if he wanted to, there's simply no way he can deliver.

Nonetheless, we hear Iranian officials here on the ground in Baghdad telling us that they still strongly support him and fully intend to see him remain in his post.

BLITZER: It's interesting, Michael Gordon, that what -- Michael Ware has been reporting consistently on this for some time. But in August, the National Intelligence Estimate had some very similar assessments: "The Iraqi government will become more precarious over the next six to 12 months."

It goes on to say: "The level of overall violence, including attacks on and casualties among civilians, remains high. Iraq's sectarian groups remain unreconciled. Al Qaida Iraq retains the ability to conduct high-profile attacks. And to date, Iraqi political leaders remain unable to govern effectively."

You've spent a lot of time there over these years as well. You basically agree with that NIE, that National Intelligence Estimate?

GORDON: Well, I think the NIE did make a pretty correct assessment, but there was another side to it, Wolf. It also said that if the U.S. was to withdraw its troops in a pretty short timeframe, that the security gains that have been achieved over the past several months would be forfeited.

BLITZER: And they would be forfeited almost -- some say within 48 hours or within days if the U.S. were to start withdrawing or reducing its force structure. What does that say, though, about the Iraqi military?

KUBBA: Well, it says that the Iraqi military is what it's been for the last several years: a work in progress and not really prepared, at this point, to step up to the plate. So the NIE was pointing to some security gains, the prospect of more, but also identified the political reconciliation is not really advancing.

BLITZER: What about this notion, Laith Kubba, that Nouri al- Maliki and his colleagues are really aligned, if you will, at least informally, with the Iranians?

In that NIE, it also said this. It said: "Over the next year, Tehran, concerned about a Sunni emergence in Iraq and U.S. efforts to limit Iranian influence, will continue to provide funding, weaponry and training to Iraqi Shia militants. Iran has been intensifying aspects of its lethal support for select groups of Iraqi Shia militants."

As you know, Laith Kubba, seen from Washington, this alliance between the Iraqi government and the Iranian government is very disturbing.

KUBBA: There is no question about it, number one, that the concern is real. But also, I think all Iraqi politicians know very well that Iraq's neighbors will play a bigger role in Iraq's future, that ultimately America will withdraw its troops and the neighbors are there to stay.

They already have their inroads. That includes, of course, Iran, I think the biggest player in Iraq affairs today. And no question, they have their inroads to many Shia areas.

But having said that, I think highlighting the concern is one thing. Deciding how to deal with it is totally another. And I think where people differ is while most Iraqi Shias agree with that concern, they differ slightly on what is the best way to deal with it.

BLITZER: Michael Ware, how do you feel or how do you know that Iran is playing a significant role in Iraq right now? What tangible evidence is there that they are so deeply involved?

WARE: Well, certainly, we have Iraqi Shia militias who, in their quieter moments, will concede that, yes, they do have certain alignments with Iran. And then further, we have the evidence that U.S. military intelligence has compiled.

Now, chief amongst this apart from the tons of ordinance that bears recent Iranian markings that is being used here in Iraq, and given the nature of the state control of its munitions in Tehran we know simply haven't popped up on the black market.

There's also particular key individuals in U.S. custody who have confessed to very strong links to elite elements of Iran's military apparatus. And, indeed, they have a multitude of documents that tend to corroborate this. I think on the body of evidence that there is an extremely persuasive case to the point where there is not a single U.S. official in this country who shoulders any doubt that Iran is playing an active military hand in this country.

BLITZER: We're going to pick that up with Michael Gordon in just a moment. A lot more to discuss with our panel: Laith Kubba, Michael Gordon, Michael Ware. We'll take a quick break. "Late Edition" will continue after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

IYAD ALLAWI, FORMER PRIME MINISTER OF IRAQ: I don't see that we are getting closer to reconciliation. I don't see we are getting closer to getting rid of militias. I'm not seeing that we are getting closer to having assertive policies, foreign policies which would not allow Iran to intervene in Iraqi affairs.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Iraq's former interim prime minister, Iyad Allawi, here on "Late Edition" last week with some strong words. Welcome back. We're getting insight to what's happening in Iraq right now, politically as well as militarily, from Laith Kubba, Michael Ware and Michael Gordon.

Michael Gordon, you have an important article in The New York Times Sunday magazine today which goes into great detail on this U.S. effort to work with Iraqi Sunnis. Former insurgents, but it's causing a lot of heartburn for the Iraqi Shiites.

MICHAEL GORDON, NEW YORK TIMES: Right, Wolf. Well, there has been a change in the situation in Iraq, at least in the military domain. And it's partly a consequence of the surge. And when the Americans sent additional forces to Diyala north of Baghdad and south of Baghdad, what happened is a lot of the local Sunnis there who were basically turned against the Al Qaida of Iraq militants saw this as an opportunity to strike a marriage of convenience with the Americans. And as an embedded correspondent I was one of the units that was carrying out raids with these insurgents.

BLITZER: But the Iraqi government doesn't like this, especially giving arms to these Sunnis, because they think it's going to enable them to kill Shiites down the road.

GORDON: Well, the American military does not give them arms. What it does is, it helps them get organized. It vets them and it pays them for some of their services. And they may take the money and buy arms.

But it's a double-edged sword, as you point out. This is a means to pacify and provide security for places like Baquba or Arab Jabour, different locations in Iraq. Not just Anbar. So, it's a very positive development. The problem is getting the Iraqi government, which is a Shiite-dominated government, to accept them and institutionalize this arrangement.

BLITZER: And the other problem, Laith Kubba, is that once the U.S. leaves those areas, whether the al-Anbar Province or Diyala or anyplace else where they've made some military inroads, the whole thing could collapse very quickly.

KUBBA: I think the concern is real. There are tactical benefits of creating or pushing a wedge between the local insurgents and Al Qaida. There is tactical benefits in stopping them shooting at the Americans, but I think this does not address the real concern that basically the insurgency has a totally different political view, that within the Shias, there is heightened concerns.

And I do believe it is not the position of the U.S. Army to micromanage Iraq local wars. I think there ought to be a very clear strategy. One needs to stick to it. I am concerned about these emerging pockets that are reorganized that do not share the political view on how Iraq should proceed.

BLITZER: Button this up for us, Michael Ware, because you know this situation about as well as anyone. We're all waiting for General Petraeus's report, Ambassador Ryan Crocker's report. That's coming up in the next few days.

But for all practical purposes, what do you see happening on the ground in Iraq over the next six to nine months, let's say?

WARE: Well, it depends on a whole host of things, Wolf, as you can well imagine. I mean, in my opinion, there's a very brief window right now for America to finally act decisively. Where it's plodded and fumbled, now is a moment to recapture the momentum. It's whether they will take that opportunity or not.

What we could see if we look to, say, Basra in the south, for example, the key oil region, the oil-producing region, is that this place could simply disassemble into a region of militia blocks who will all be at great rivalry and essentially warring factions, as we saw in Lebanon in the '80s.

Clearly this is a concern that the Iraqi government cites when it criticizes the American program of backing these Sunni militias. Now, indeed, whilst we've all done embeds with U.S. forces who are working with the Sunni insurgents now, we've just returned from Anbar Province ourself, where we embedded, so to speak, with the insurgents.

We were the guests of the Islamic Army of Iraq, the Brigades of the 1920 Revolution, former members of Al Qaida, and other groups of Baathists and Iraqi nationalists. Now, they are essentially America's insurance policy, an insurance policy to keep America's Arab allies on-site with the developments here and as a counterbalance to the Iranian-backed Shia militias which simply dominate this government.

BLITZER: Michael Ware reporting for us from Baghdad. Laith Kubba, thanks very much for joining us from London. Michael Gordon of The New York Times here in Washington.

Coming up, we'll get a live assessment from the top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq. Stay with "Late Edition." We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: There's a developing story we're following, possibly a breakthrough involving North Korea's nuclear program. We'll have an update for you on that at the top of the hour. We'll also go to Baghdad to hear from the chief U.S. military spokesman. "Late Edition" will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

Only days to go before General Petraeus presents his progress report on Iraq. We'll get a live update on the situation on the ground from Major General Kevin Bergner in Baghdad. Plus, two very different assessments from two Congressman back from Iraq: Democrat Kendrick Meek and Republican Charles Boustany.

A fatal blow to a Senate career.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CRAIG: I am not gay. I never have been gay.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: From Idaho Senator Larry Craig's sex scandal to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales's resignation, insight and analysis from Ed Henry, Lisa Goddard and Joe Johns, part of the best political team on television. The second hour of "Late Edition" begins right now.

Welcome back. We're going to be speaking with two Congressmen just back from Iraq in a moment.

First, though, there's some significant news coming out of North Korea. Fredricka Whitfield is at the "Late Edition" update desk with some details. Fred, what are we picking up?

FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN: Well, good to see you, Wolf. Well, an apparent breakthrough in the nuclear talks with North Korea. The chief U.S. negotiator says the North Koreans have agreed to fully declare and disable their nuclear programs by the end of this year.

He says the declaration will include uranium enrichment programs, which could be used to develop nuclear weapons. This announcement follows two days of talks between the United States and North Korea in Geneva, Switzerland. There's no immediate comment from the North Koreans.

Meantime, Wolf, the U.S. assistant secretary of state, Christopher Hill, is saying this time, he is convinced that this is workable and that the North Koreans will actually do as they say. Quoting him now, he says, "This is quite achievable." Wolf? BLITZER: All right. Let's hope he's right. Thanks very much. Fredricka Whitfield with that important news.

In the coming days, Congress is about to get two highly anticipated progress reports on Iraq from the U.S. military commander, General David Petraeus, and the U.S. ambassador, Ryan Crocker. But during the August recess, several members of Congress traveled to Iraq to try to form their own assessments.

Two of them are joining us now here on "Late Edition." In Miami, Democratic Congressman Kendrick Meek of Florida, and here in Washington, Republican Congressman Charles Boustany of Louisiana. Gentlemen, thanks very much for coming in.

Kendrick Meek, I'll start with you. Did you come back convinced that the president is right, that there is some progress on the military front and that the U.S. Congress should just let the White House do what it wants to do?

REP. KENDRICK MEEK (D), FLORIDA: Well, I didn't come back with that assessment. I came back with the reality that we still have to make major, major political leaps in Iraq. If we don't, then the military effort will be for naught.

Security is important, but that has become a point, Wolf, where we are able to say, especially as the U.S. government, claim victory in some areas, turn it over to the Iraqi security forces and government and close the door on it and lock it. Because this war is continuing to cost us not only money, but U.S. casualties and over 27,500 injuries.

And I think it's important that we can make that kind of advancement, show the American people that we have achieved in an area where we can turn these areas over. Not just turn them over temporarily, but turn them over so that we don't have to go back into those areas and secure them again.

BLITZER: What about you, Congressman Boustany?

REP. CHARLES BOUSTANY (R), LOUISIANA: Well, first of all, Wolf, I want to say thank you to the troops and the embassy personnel and the State Department personnel that we worked with over there. They're doing an outstanding job.

I think General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker are going to give us an independent, unvarnished report. We'll base our policy decisions on that.

But we're clearly seeing some major improvements. Clearly in the Anbar Province, we've seen significant improvement. We were able to walk the streets of Fallujah. Sectarian deaths are down. Attacks are down. We've captured double the number of weapons caches. Attacks against our troops, our coalition troops, are down. And we're seeing a ground-up political grassroots development occurring in Anbar and some of the other areas. So I think there's room for optimism.

BLITZER: So you're encouraged? The president is very upbeat, even before, Kendrick Meek, he receives the formal report from General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker. Here's what he said in Nevada on Tuesday. Listen to the president.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: Sectarian violence has sharply decreased in Baghdad. The momentum is now on our side. The surge is seizing the initiative from the enemy and handing it to the Iraqi people.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right. What do you say to the president?

MEEK: Well, I mean, Wolf, you really have to listen to his words. I mean, if I was to say that violence is down in Miami, does that mean that violence is down throughout the United States of America? That's not true. That wouldn't be true.

And I think it's important for the American people to pay very close attention to the reports that are going to be coming through. We know that the Governmental Accountability report will be coming out, the GAO report will be coming out soon. We'll hear that next week in Armed Services.

We'll also hear the Jones Commission report. And we'll hear from General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker. I think it's important that we hear these reports. It's going to take Democrats and Republicans to be able to bring -- hopefully, the goal of bringing our combat troops home. That's who are receiving many of our casualties.

And I think it's also important, the reality of this, Wolf, is that this war is costing the American people. It's been leaked that the president is going to ask for $50 billion more. I think it may end up being north of that, if some of the reports that we've heard, over $50 billion. This is all borrowed money.

BLITZER: Let me have Congressman Boustany respond. The Washington Post had a story, another $50 billion the president is seeking. That would raise the U.S. cost, the cost to American taxpayers from $2 billion a week in Iraq to $3 billion a week. Is this money well spent or just good money thrown after bad?

BOUSTANY: Well, Wolf, I've seen the reports about the total amount of money the president's requesting, but I haven't seen the breakdown, and I'd like to see the breakdown on that before we move forward. But I want to say this, that the plan that has been implemented since January is showing significant success. Everybody focuses on...

BLITZER: You say that. But on the military front, a lot of people will agree. But politically, there is huge disappointment that the Iraqi government, democratically elected, is simply incapable of doing what they need to do. And they're failing to meet those 18 benchmarks that the U.S. Congress had put forward that they must meet.

BOUSTANY: Wolf, that's true about the central government being weak. But I believe that the pressure on that central government has to be Iraqi pressure. And the positive developments we're seeing at the local level and provincial level are going to make the difference.

Our provincial reconstruction teams, which have just really gotten started in Iraq throughout the provinces, are having an effect. We're seeing microlending occurring, some economic development that's positive that's occurring. We're also seeing...

BLITZER: The fear, though -- excuse me for interrupting, is that as soon as the U.S. starts to draw down, starts to withdraw troops from some of those provinces, it immediately reverts back to what it was, which is in effect a civil war.

BOUSTANY: Well, that is the concern. But I would say that in Fallujah, for instance, we're seeing Iraqi solutions with the policing within Iraq -- within Fallujah. And that's the balance we have to strike on how to transition out.

And I got positive -- I saw positive signs that the police in Fallujah are doing a good job with the Iraqi solutions to the local situation there. And each locale in Iraq is going to be different. And that's one of the hallmarks of the Petraeus plan.

BLITZER: Here's a statement that was made today, Kendrick Meek, from Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister. He's obviously very sensitive to the criticism he's hearing from various U.S. politicians, Carl Levin on the Senate side, Hillary Clinton, among others, criticism from you. Criticism from plenty of Republicans as well.

"Such statements sometimes cross the limits and send signals to terrorists, luring them into thinking that the security situation in the country is not good." How concerned are you that by criticizing the Iraqi prime minister, you or other Democrats and several Republicans, including Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, who seems to have lost almost all confidence in Nouri al- Maliki, that you're, in effect, helping the terrorists?

MEEK: Well, I can tell you that the General Accountability Office -- like I said, this GAO report we're going to hear next week, is even going to talk further about what the prime minister is speaking about.

We don't have to report the violence in Iraq. It's reality every day on television, need it be in the Middle East or here in the United States. The reality is that there is a civil war going on. His government is not able to come together to provide the security nor the peace.

And I think that Americans have to hear the truth and not necessarily frosting on a cake. We don't have to dress it up for them. We have to tell the truth because we're making a major investment in Iraq right now, not only in U.S. casualties and injuries, but also the U.S. -- taxpayer dollar.

And I think it's important. If we're going to hold U.S. mayors' feet to the fire and U.S. governors' feet to the fire, I think it's important that we hold Iraqi government feet to the fire. And it's not a pleasant process, in many cases. And we have to give people straight talk. The American people voted for a new direction in Iraq. They're looking for it. They're going to get it. We're going to need Republicans to join us in that effort. So I'm excited about the three reports that are coming up.

BLITZER: And Congressman Boustany, you say that the number of casualties is going down. But we took a closer look -- and The Los Angeles Times did as well -- citing Iraqi Health Ministry numbers. In June, it was 1,227 civilian deaths in Iraq. In July, it went up to 1,753 civilian deaths in Iraq. And in August, the month that just ended, 1,773 civilian deaths in Iraq. Those numbers are going in the wrong direction.

BOUSTANY: Well, I think what I mentioned earlier, Wolf, was the number of attacks. And, clearly, we have to look at all the metrics very carefully.

BLITZER: But statistics -- you can play a lot of room with statistics. In terms of dead people, civilians, Iraqi dead people, those numbers are high and they're getting worse, despite the increased military troop levels of the United States, the so-called surge having been in effect over the past couple of months.

BOUSTANY: Well, Wolf, I want to point out that just two or three months ago, I would have never thought that four members of Congress would be able to walk through the streets of Fallujah. That's a major...

BLITZER: But you had a lot of security with you. You had a lot of U.S. military protection.

BOUSTANY: We had a platoon of Marines.

BLITZER: Yes, well, a platoon of Marines is a lot of Marines to walk through Fallujah. That's not like...

BOUSTANY: But, Wolf, three months ago, two months ago, not even that could have happened so I think that's...

BLITZER: I was in Fallujah two years ago, and it was a bad situation then. But some argue that maybe there's a slight improvement right now, but it's still very dangerous.

BOUSTANY: I would argue that the improvement is major.

BLITZER: And if you didn't have a platoon of Marines with you, you couldn't be walking around by yourself.

BOUSTANY: I would argue that the improvement has been major in Fallujah. The bottom line is -- and there are many, many different reports out there, but I think the report that's going to be issued by General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker is the one that we need to base our policy on.

They're there, day in and day out. These are experienced people who are doing a great job on the ground under very difficult circumstances.

BLITZER: Congressman Charles Boustany, thanks for coming in. Kendrick Meek, Congressman from Florida, thanks to you as well.

MEEK: Thank you, Wolf.

BOUSTANY: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank god that both of you came back from Iraq safe and sound.

There's a lot more ahead here on "Late Edition," including a live interview with the chief military spokesperson for the Multi-National Forces in Iraq. There is he, Major General Kevin Bergner. He's standing by live.

Also, a whirlwind week in politics here in the United States. We're going to cover the scandals, what's on the campaign trail with some 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.

And joining us now from Baghdad to discuss what's going on on the ground in Iraq is the chief spokesman for Multi-National Forces in Iraq, U.S. Army Major General Kevin Bergner.

General Bergner, first of all, congratulations. I know you've just been promoted from brigadier general to major general. Congratulations to you on that front. Appreciate your hard work and good work for the U.S. military. Let's get right to the issue, though, at hand. We're standing by, all of us, awaiting to hear from General Petraeus, on his progress report that's coming up in the coming days.

He told the Sydney Morning Herald in an interview -- an Australian newspaper -- on Friday, he said: "We say we have achieved progress and will do all we can to build on that progress and that Al Qaida is off balance and we are certainly pressuring them."

It sounds like the preview he's giving is going to be upbeat, that things from the U.S. military's perspective are moving in the right direction.

MAJ. GEN. KEVIN BERGNER, U.S. ARMY: Well, Wolf, what General Petraeus has said all along is that when he and Ambassador Crocker come back, he will provide a very candid and forthright assessment, a firsthand account, his personal views, of the facts on the ground.

And so he will cover areas where there's progress being made -- and you've mentioned some of that -- and he'll also cover areas where more progress needs to be made. BLITZER: The GAO, the Government Accountability Office, in their draft report, which was leaked here in Washington earlier in the week -- The Washington Post got a draft copy -- it said this about Iraqi military forces: "Some army units sent to Baghdad have mixed loyalties and some have had ties to Shia militias, making it difficult to target Shia extremist networks."

I guess the bottom line is, the U.S. has been saying now for the past several years, once Iraqi forces step up to the plate, U.S. forces can step down. Are the Iraqi military forces ready to take charge any time soon?

BERGNER: Well, in many cases, they already are, Wolf. In fact, I was in a little area south of Yusifiyah, Iraq the other day with the 2nd Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division, and they're working with a battalion of Iraqi army soldiers who are working very, very well, doing a superb job. They happen to come from the 10th Iraqi Army Division in that case.

In my old area of operations in up near Mosul, the 2nd Iraqi Army Division is also doing very well. In fact, just recently, they killed the amir of Mosul with a unilateral operation by the 2nd Iraqi Army Division soldiers. And so you do see areas where effective Iraqi leaders and their units are performing very well. That's not to say that there isn't significant...

BLITZER: But is that the exception or is that the overwhelming majority of the Iraqi military forces? Because you've heard a lot of the suggestions that if the U.S. were to pull out too quickly, within days it would revert back to the status quo ante, if you will. It would be a horrendous turnaround.

BERGNER: Well, and your point reflects the fact that I was about to share with you, which is there is still a mixed situation. There is still a lot of progress that's necessary on the part of the Iraqi security forces.

And just as you pointed out, there's still very -- our partnership with them remains very important to their consistency and to their overall effectiveness.

So, you're right. As we look to the way forward, we have to find ways to sustain these hard fought gains in a way that enables and supports the Iraqi army and Iraqi police forces as well.

BLITZER: Here's another quote from this GAO draft report that was leaked on Thursday, General: "While the Baghdad security plan was intended to reduce sectarian violence, U.S. agencies differ on whether such violence has been reduced.

"The capabilities of Iraqi security forces have not improved. Key legislation has not been passed. Violence remains high. And it is unclear whether the Iraqi government will spend $10 billion in reconstruction funds."

That's a pretty gloomy assessment from that GAO report. BERGNER: Well, that's a pretty sweeping summary to address. The first thing I would just say, though, is we look forward to seeing it officially. And, as you know, it hasn't been released yet.

The other point to make is that the GAO methodology is significantly different from the benchmarks reporting methodology. The GAO approach is an all or none standard. And so you either achieved the benchmark or you didn't.

The benchmarks methodology that the Congress requires the administration to report on is more a description of progress and a description of the efforts being made to achieve those benchmarks as well. And there's a lot of importance to understanding it in that context, because there are places where they are actually either making progress or they're performing in the absence of those benchmarks.

They're sharing revenue today, whether there's a revenue sharing law or not. They are working with the provinces and sharing power with the provinces even though they're still working on a legislative basis for that and their society. So that activity is going on even as they work towards these legislative benchmarks.

BLITZER: As important as the Iraqi military is to the future of Iraqi, the Iraqi police force is, perhaps, just as important, some would argue maybe even more important.

I'm going to read to you a sentence that was in The New York Times on Friday. And give me your assessment of where you see this part of the story going: The commission, headed by General James L. Jones, the former top United States commander in Europe, concludes that the rampant sectarianism that has existed since the formation of the police force requires that its current units be scrapped and reshaped into a smaller, more elite organization, according to one senior official familiar with the findings. "The recommendation is that 'we should start over.'"

This report suggesting that this separate investigation into the capabilities, the loyalties of the Iraqi police force by General Jones, the former NATO supreme allied commander, is going to be devastating in that the Iraqi police are more interested in protecting their own, let's say, largely Shia constituency than in doing a really good police force job. What's your assessment?

BERGNER: Well, first of all, that's another report that we look forward to reading and understanding in more detail. But there is no question that the national police have suffered a great deal of sectarian problems in years past.

This is something also, though, that the government of Iraq is equally concerned about. And the government of Iraq, along with the minister of interior, has replaced the battalion commanders in the national police. They've replaced most of the brigade commanders. And so they have made significant changes in leadership to get at some of the problems that you mentioned in your comment. And I would also point out that our NATO allies are actually stepping up to help with this. They are working to help train a carabiniere-like force and to help transition the national police, because of the kinds of problems you cite, into a more professional and accountable force.

BLITZER: I assume, General -- and General Odierno suggested this last Sunday here on "Late Edition," as well, that unless the U.S. Army increases the troops rotation, the tours of duty in Iraq from currently 15 months, that by April of next year, no matter what happens, the U.S. military is going to have to start drawing down its military force structure in Iraq, in part, because of what General George Casey, the former U.S. commander in Iraq, now the army chief of staff, said on Thursday.

He said here in Washington: "Our force is stretched and out of balance. The tempo of our deployments are not sustainable. Our equipment usage is five times the normal rate and continuously operating in harsh environments."

Is that a fair assessment, that no matter what happens on the ground, starting in April, at a minimum, you're going to have to start reducing the U.S. force structure in Iraq?

BERGNER: Well, first, let me say that all of us here have tremendous respect and appreciation for the burden our troopers are carrying, and I know all Americans do too. And our soldiers and their families are carrying an enormous burden to see this important and critical effort through for our country.

Now, we have said all along that the surge of forces was temporary in nature. And we knew that it would run its course. And so one of the thing that General Petraeus and General Odierno have been doing in the past few weeks is looking at the various courses of action that would allow us to transition from the surge of forces in a way that doesn't give up our hard fought gains our troopers have achieved.

And so they're looking at the risks associated with those courses of action. They're looking at the Battlefield geometry that could be used to support that. And that will be the basis of the recommendations that General Petraeus brings back when he comes.

BLITZER: I'll end this interview the way I began it, General. Congratulations on your promotion from brigadier general to major general. We'll look forward to speaking with you here on CNN many times in the coming weeks and months. Be careful over there. Thanks very much for joining us.

BERGNER: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: And coming up next, the first African-American governor here in the United States has some advice for Barack Obama on the campaign trail. Doug Wilder explains what he means by a very, very significant quote -- and I'm quoting him now -- "pimping of race." What does he mean when he says that? Stay with "Late Edition." (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: You're watching "Late Edition." I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting from Washington. Our political panel coming up, but first this.

Doug Wilder -- he made history as the first African-American governor here in the United States. He tried a presidential run back in 1992 and now has some serious advice for another presidential candidate, Senator Barack Obama. I spoke to the current mayor of Richmond, Virginia, earlier this week in "The Situation Room."

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Let me read to you a quote from "The Politico." You gave an interview to "The Politico," the Web site. Here's the quote: "So many people have made a living off of the pimping of race. I told him when he runs, one of his big problems he would have is with the African-American leadership as such. He didn't question it. He said, 'I think I know what you mean.'"

All right. Tell our viewers what exactly -- who you're referring to when you talk about the issue, the pimping the race.

MAYOR DOUG WILDER, RICHMOND, VA: Well, those people who appear regularly on the television shows and they have their radio shows, and they always take the different view, you know? Let me give you the other African-American view, or let me give you this view which is black enough.

And I was at an event at Hampton University, which was sponsored by Tavis Smiley, the Black State of the Union piece.

And there were critics because Obama wasn't there. He was in Illinois in Springfield announcing the kickoff of his campaign.

And there was some criticizing: Well, he should be here. Why? Why could he not kick off his campaign in the capital of the state from which he has been elected and where he's running? It's those types of things, those people who will be called, shortly after this, with others like yourselves, asking questions about the election.

What makes him not electable? What is black enough? What does he have to do? No, he's not going to play the saxophone on Arsenio Hall's show. Does that qualify to be black enough? Of course not. It's silly.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: The former governor of Virginia, Doug Wilder, speaking with me in "The Situation Room" earlier in the week.

Up next here on "Late Edition," two Republican senators are leaving, one voluntarily, the other under pressure. What will it mean for GOP efforts to recapture the majority next year? The best political team on television standing by to weigh in on that and a lot more.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Senator Larry Craig taken down by a sex scandal. President Bush's attorney general finally gives his critics what they've been calling for. And one of the Senate's most powerful and respected members is closing the book on his career. So much for it being slow here in Washington in August.

Here to talk about that and more, three of the best political team on television: CNN White House correspondent Ed Henry, CNN Radio's Congressional correspondent Lisa Goddard and CNN correspondent Joe Johns, who helps keep politicians honest on "Anderson Cooper 360."

Guys, thanks very much for coming in. I'll play a little clip of what Senator Larry Craig, Republican of Idaho, said yesterday in Boise.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CRAIG: It is with sadness and deep regret that I announce that it is my intent to resign from the Senate effective September 30th. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Ed Henry, he was under enormous pressure to do this, not necessarily from the Democrats, but fellow Republicans.

ED HENRY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right. They wanted him out. And I find it interesting to tie this to Karl Rove, not directly but indirectly. You know, Friday was Karl Rove's last day at the White House. And in recent months, Karl Rove has been telling me and any other reporter that they would listen that the reason why the Republicans lost in 2006 was not Iraq, but it was Republican scandals.

So you look at it from Duke Cunningham to Mark Foley, David Vitter recently, Larry Craig now, Ted Stevens, another very powerful Republican under federal investigation by the FBI. They raided his house.

I think Karl Rove maybe was overplaying scandal and underplaying Iraq as a factor in the last election, but the reason why there is so much pressure, Karl Rove is right, scandal played such a role for Republicans, and they have to clean up their act going into '08. Otherwise, it's going to be more trouble.

BLITZER: They really wanted this to go away. Senator Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, the Republican leader in the Senate, he issued a statement after Larry Craig's announcement saying, "Senator Larry Craig made a difficult decision, but the right one. It is my hope he will be remembered not for this, but for his three decades of dedicated public service." Only a couple days earlier, he told the newspaper in his home state it was unforgivable what Larry Craig had done. Republicans really made no secret that this guy had to go.

LISA GODDARD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Right. That shows the pressure that we were talking about, and it shows the thanks (ph) afterward that Republicans in the political spotlight have.

I think what's to watch for, though, this story may not entirely be over. We heard just this morning on another talk show, Senator Arlen Specter, a Republican of Pennsylvania, saying, hey, I hope he does fight this plea.

Spector, a former prosecutor, says maybe he can get somewhere in court. And as we just played that clip, Larry Craig didn't say, I am resigning. He said it is my intention to resign. Specter was making something of that. Now, who knows.

BLITZER: Should we read something into that? Do you think he might change his mind between now and September 30th?

GODDARD: Very small crack open there, but he left it open.

HENRY: But I have a feeling that national Republicans, if he tries to open that door...

GODDARD: They don't want it.

HENRY: ... they're going to slam it shut.

GODDARD: Yeah.

BLITZER: What do you think, Joe?

JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, withdrawing the guilty plea obviously is a possibility. The problem is...

BLITZER: Legally, it's a very difficult maneuver.

JOHNS: Yeah, and but then you have...

BLITZER: He signed a document saying, I'm guilty. I know I'm not innocent.

JOHNS: Right. Yeah, but, the deal is, if you're able to do that, then you have to have a trial. And the problem is if there are any other, you know, skeletons in the senator's closet or whatever, that opens up the possibility that there will be more reporting, more looking at this issue.

Democrats, of course, would like for Senator Craig to stick around for a while, because they can use him to remind voters of the issues they had in the last campaign, which Ed just said, is a lot about scandal. So, it's very tricky for Senator Craig to open this can of worms up again.

BLITZER: Let's talk about Alberto Gonzales, the attorney general. He announced this week he's stepping down as well within the next few days. Do you think, Ed -- and you cover the White House -- the president's going to nominate a replacement to pick a fight, if you will, with the Democrats in the Judiciary Committee that has to confirm any nominee? Or will he look for someone above the fray to try to sail through and move on and forget about this? HENRY: When you talk to senior officials, they're very tempted to pick a fight. Because they think that would really rally the conservative base and maybe stick it to the Democrats, but the more realists in the administration are probably saying, look, we've got to find somebody who can ride out the last 16 or 17 months and deal with some very serious legal issues as attorney general.

And that's why, while the president might like to pick a fight, he's more likely to go and find someone who's more of a senior statesman. You hear names like Ted Olson, a respected former solicitor general. Even a liberal like Lanny Davis who was on this program earlier saying he could support someone like Olson. I think he's more likely to go in that direction. Not Olson per se, but more of a graybeard around town, I think in the model of Robert Gates replacing Rumsfeld at Defense, someone from the Bush 41 era to show that there's really a new day.

BLITZER: But no matter who they pick, they could pick the most wonderful lawyer or whatever with impeccable credentials. Democrats in the Judiciary Committee -- Lisa, you cover the Hill for us -- they're going to want a commitment that some of the documents that Alberto Gonzales refused to make available to them, whether on the firing of those prosecutors or on the domestic surveillance program, they're going to want a commitment to get those documents, and they might not get that commitment.

GODDARD: That's right. That fight is not going anywhere. Democrats see it as a sort of Little Round Top, to look at the Battle of Gettysburg. They're not giving up.

But they're probably not going to gain any ground either when it comes to this nomination. And just like Ed is saying at the White House, on Capitol Hill, Democrats also have that sense. They really would still like a fight, because these issues are unresolved. They want to have a clear victory.

It doesn't look like they're going to get it anywhere. But we did hear last week from Chuck Schumer, who indicated he does want some kind of compromise candidate. Could that be a game of nice? We've seen Schumer play that before.

BLITZER: But could the Democrats be overplaying their card, if you will, and find if they get into too many fights, it could negatively affect them.

BLITZER: Sort of like the way the Republicans, when they were in the majority, operated against a Democratic administration, the Clinton administration?

JOHNS: Congress has really seen its popularity ratings plummet. And there are obviously a lot of reasons for that. People say at least part of it had to do with the Iraq war and their inability to force the president's hand.

But there's also that issue of how much investigation is too much investigation, and what else are you doing in the meantime? So, voters out there are watching, and by this time next year, the Democrats, now in control of Congress, are going to hope to have things to show the voters what they've done positively.

HENRY: You're right. And the Democrats have an opportunity here, if they start getting some things done, like energy reform and other things that matter to the American people, instead of all the investigations and dragging out confirmation battles, they could actually get some things done.

And they've got a picture, when you look at the national outlook, with people like John Warner retiring now as a Republican, there are a lot of open seats and possibilities for Democrats to pick up. But as you noted, Wolf, if they spend a lot of their time looking like they're monkeying around, they might not pick up some of these seats that they have a golden opportunity to gain.

BLITZER: They want to expand that majority as opposed to lose the majority. All right, guys, stand by. A lot more to talk about with our political team. Some of the best political team on television.

But up next, presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, riding the momentum from his second-place finish in the Iowa straw poll, commenting today on Senator Larry Craig's troubles, among others things. We're going to tell you what he had to say in our "in case you missed it" segment.

Lots more coming up right here on "Late Edition."

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: More of our political panel in a moment. But first, 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 Fox and ABC, there was serious discussion about the sex scandal involving outgoing Senator Larry Craig.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER, R-PA.: If he could change the underlying sense of the case, feel of the case -- listen, you can go to court and you can withdraw a guilty plea. The underlying facts, OK. Question of what happened and what was intended and if that case goes to trial -- and I say I've seen matters like this since my days as a prosecutor. He wouldn't be convicted of anything.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. PATRICK J. LEAHY, D-VT.: From a legal point of view, he makes a very, very good point. Now, from political point of view, I don't pretend to know what Idaho's politics are or how they might be. But Senator Specter has laid out as strong a legal case as I've heard.

(END VIDEO CLIP) (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

FORMER ARKANSAS GOVERNOR MIKE HUCKABEE, REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: If he have stayed, I think it would have been a very, very challenging environment. And you might say we would be waiting until the other shoe dropped, which would not be a good situation for the Senate, for Senator Craig or for anybody else for that matter. And I think Senator Craig did us all a big favor by leaving the stage and taking this issue away from further discovery.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: And on CBS, two very different views about progress in Iraq.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOSEPH R. BIDEN JR., D-DEL.: God love General Petraeus. I think he's a great guy. He's going to tell you where we're making some military progress. But if I could have -- I could go back and quote you what he said, what the president said and the secretary of defense said, the purpose of this surge was to give breathing room to acquire some political reconciliation. There is no political reconciliation.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, R-S.C.: I think we're going to see very soon political reconciliation in a meaningful way at the central government level, and there will be no successful effort in the Senate to withdraw troops. Now is the time to pour it on, not withdraw.

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

We'll take another quick break. More of our political panel right after this. We'll talk about Senator Fred Thompson. Lazy like a fox? That's the cover story in Newsweek.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back. We're getting insight into the week's big political stories with three of the best political team on television: Ed Henry, Lisa Goddard and Joe Johns.

Joe, Karl Rove, his last day was Friday at the White House. He wrote this on the National Review online. He said, "I believe history will provide a more clear-eyed verdict on this president's leadership than the anger of current critics would suggest. President bush will be viewed as a far-sighted leader who confronted the key test of the 21st century.

BLITZER: "He will be judged as a man of moral clarity who put America on wartime footing in the dangerous struggle against radical Islamic terrorism."

He was working until his last day on the job trying to put out the best word possible about this president.

JOHNS: That's certainly true, and obviously, there are going to be people who debate it. But I mean, if you listen to people like Hillary Clinton, there are a lot of people who say one catastrophic terrorist attack in the United States will dramatically change the way people will view this president and his approach toward issues like radical Islamism or what have you.

So, there you go. I mean, the book of history is not written until it's written. And the president still has a lot of time going forward to say, "Look, I told you. I was right."

BLITZER: Yes, and we also learned on Friday, thanks to you, Ed Henry, that Tony Snow, the White House press secretary, he's going to be leaving in a few days as well. He's been battling colon cancer. The president had some very nice words to say about him. Let's play a little clip.

HENRY: Sure.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: He has -- it's been a joy to watch him spar with you. He's smart, he's capable, he's witty. He's able to talk about issues in a way that the American people can understand.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: And, Ed, you've sparred with Tony Snow, among your colleagues. A lot of them have. All of us know and respect and like Tony Snow, wish him only the best as far as his health is concerned.

HENRY: He's battled with cancer, and he's been doing it as he has been working for this administration, difficult circumstances. He came in very late, an unpopular war that he has been trying to explain to the American people. There are signs of some progress in Iraq now. Tony Snow keeps telling us, "Just wait a few more months and we'll all see where that goes."

But the point of Tony Snow leaving at the same time as Karl Rove, Alberto Gonzales, this president is increasingly alone in terms of the Texans that first came in with him -- not that Tony Snow falls in that, but there's a whole new group of people.

We're going to see Dana Perino more and more as the new press secretary...

BLITZER: She is the new press secretary.

HENRY: ... 35 years old, very young and also the first women to do the job since Dee Dee Myers. So there's a new day at the White House, but getting back to what you said about Karl Rove, he's certainly pointing to that vision thing that President Bush's father talked about all the time.

But I think one of the great challenges of President Bush's legacy as viewed in coming years is the fact that while he may have had that vision, people around him like former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, made a lot of mistakes in trying to implement that vision in Iraq and elsewhere -- Katrina, other big, big mistakes where he may have had the vision, but implementing some of these things, really some big mistakes.

BLITZER: Lisa, I'm going to put the cover of "Newsweek" up on the screen. And it's got a headline that says "Lazy Like a Fox: Sure, He's Laid Back, but Don't be Fooled. Fred Thompson's Good Ol' Boy Style Masks A Drive That's Propelled Him to the Front of the Field."

He's going to announce on Wednesday -- excuse me -- Wednesday night at midnight that he's running for president, Thursday morning actually. But that's the -- right after the Republican presidential debate in New Hampshire. That's Wednesday night.

What he's going to do that's very interesting, he'll have a 30- second commercial right before that debate airs and he's also going to be on the Jay Leno late night show that night, Wednesday night. You can argue, what's more important, to be at a Republican debate or be on Jay Leno's program.

But this is a candidate who seems to be very serious. Even though it's late, he's throwing his hat in the ring.

GODDARD: He's completely serious. And he has a lot of supporters, a lot of folks who have been waiting for him to come and say this, come out. But the question is, as we were saying during the break, has he waited too long? Is he going to be the Wesley Clark of this year's election?

He also has a factor that, even if his base is energized for him, are they energized in general? Conservatives have won some battles at the Supreme Court recently. Abortion is not the electrifying issue this year, at least not yet, that it used to be, and they're disappointed overall with Republicans.

Hey Joe, listen to Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, a Republican presidential candidate himself, speak about Fred Thompson.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

FORMER GOV. MIKE HUCKABEE, R-ARK.: I would rather run on my record than I had on his record. My record is somebody who hasn't had a Washington zip code. I've not been a Washington lobbyist. I've not been a United States senator, but I have been a governor. I have actually run a government.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: And Senator Thompson is going to learn very quickly that that record that he has as a lobbyist here in Washington, that's going to be scrutinized and scrutinized -- already has been to a certain degree. But I suspect it's going to be come much more focused.

JOHNS: It certainly will be much more focused. We all know Fred Thompson has star power, but now we're going to find out whether he can light up a room, whether he can make conservatives feel warm, whether he can make people give him a lot of money and just actually believe that he can be the nominee.

So there are a lot of issues out there for him. Meanwhile, he's going to have people like us nipping at his heels, asking questions about his lobbying, the things he did and didn't do on Capitol Hill. And it could be a long road in a short time for Fred Thompson.

HENRY: When Joe and I covered the Senate, the book on Fred Thompson was that he was lazy, lackluster as a senator. So what does he do to try to counter that image as a presidential candidate? He runs sort of a lazy, lackluster campaign. He's already had staff reshuffling before he got into the race, and I think that's what that "lazy like a fox" Newsweek cover is about. That could be a negative, obviously.

But the positive could be the fox part, is that there's so much uncertainty and tumult, the calendar is all scrambled, that maybe if there's so much chaos, Fred Thompson could be the guy who picks up all the pieces.

BLITZER: Ed Henry, Lisa Goddard, Joe Johns, three of the best political team on television. Guys, thanks for coming in.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: And that's your "Late Edition" for your Sunday, September 2. Please be sure to join us next Sunday and every Sunday at 11:00 Eastern for two hours of the last word in Sunday talk.

We're also in "The Situation Room" Monday through Friday from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. Eastern, another hour at 7:00 p.m. Eastern. Until tomorrow, thanks very much for watching. Have a safe and happy Labor Day here in the United States. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. For our international viewers, stand by for world news. For those of you in North America, "This Week at War" with Tom Foreman starts right now.

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