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THIS WEEK AT WAR

This Week's War Happenings

Aired September 23, 2007 - 13:00   ET

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


TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, they've been called mercenaries, the shadow army - they are the contractors who work the dangerous streets of Iraq. The Iraqi government says they killed Iraqi civilians in cold blood. In one report, a contractor said they killed who they needed to kill to get out of there. Heroes or hired guns? THIS WEEK AT WAR right after a look at what's happening in the news right now.
(NEWSBREAK)

FOREMAN: Here is where we are going in THIS WEEK AT WAR. To CNN's Suzanne Malveaux at the White House where the war of words seems stalled. Does the president now have a free hand in the Iraq war? We'll ask analyst Vali Nasr about the worsening political and military battles between Shiite factions in Iraq. Who can change the militias into a functioning government? Colonel Sean MacFarland was commanding Anbar Province when the Sunnis there rose against al Qaeda. Can his methods work all across Iraq? At the United Nations, Richard Roth has been watching as a mystery goes nuclear. We'll ask how close to the brink things really are in trying to clear up some of the smoke.

But first, Aneesh Raman is in Baghdad and he's been covering the growing crisis between Blackwater bodyguards and the Iraqi government. Is anyone really in charge of THIS WEEK AT WAR.

What happened in Baghdad's Mansour intersection last Sunday? Did the Blackwater bodyguards act in self-defense, protecting their State Department client and themselves or was this a cold blooded slaughter of innocent Iraqi citizens? We may never know the answers to all those questions, but we do know this -- armed contractors are an essential part of life in Iraq these days. So what rules do they follow and whose laws do they obey? Aneesh Raman is standing by in our Baghdad bureau. And with me in Washington is Kathleen Hicks, a senior fellow for the Center of Strategic and International Studies. We're going to turn to the map, Aneesh, as I ask you to describe what happened in this neighborhood in Baghdad.

ANEESH RAMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Tom, there are right now two competing stories and the central question is who fired first. Blackwater says this is what took place. Midday last Sunday, they were protecting State Department officials in a meeting when a car bomb detonated close enough, they felt the need to evacuate the personnel. As they left they say they came under fire, fired back. Only in their words, armed enemies.

Now the Iraqi government from the start has presented something almost completely opposite, sourced in large part with eyewitness accounts. They say Blackwater initiated fire, fired first and indiscriminately fired on civilians, killing at least 20 Iraqis. There is some talk that perhaps there was a sniper fire that might have instigated Blackwater's reaction.

The key issue is did Blackwater fire first and in a larger sense, did they use excessive force and indiscriminately fire on civilians? We don't have a conclusive answer on that yet.

FOREMAN: I want to show an interview you did on Wednesday on the issue with a witness, an Iraqi citizen. Listen to what he had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HASAN SALMAN, EYEWITNESS (through translator): As I arrived I found the street blocked by Blackwater. There were four armored SUVs and on top of each, were two armed guards. When we turned back, they opened fire at all cars from behind. The bullets are in my back. Within two minutes, the helicopters arrived and they started firing randomly at citizens.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

FOREMAN: Kathleen, these are not soldiers, but many of them are people who are trained as soldiers. They're over there working for our government. What rules are supposed to apply?

KATHLEEN HICKS, CTR FOR STRATEGIC AND INTL STUDIES: Well, it really depends, is the answer. It depends on who they work for. It depends on what they're doing in Iraq. In particular, it's depends on whether they report to the Department of Defense or to another element of the U.S. government. Blackwater has no contracts with the Department of Defense, for example. They work for the State Department. And in that case, there appear to be almost no rules that would apply to them today.

FOREMAN: I want to look at the graphics in here because the numbers are quite astonishing here. If you look back to the first Gulf War, there were less than 10,000 contractors. One contractor to every 50 troops.

In this war there are about 180,000 contractors over there, more than we have troops and they're doing a lot of jobs there. They're not just these defense jobs if you consider the different tasks before them. They handle food, laundry, convoys, reconstruction, all sorts of things. It is very dangerous work.

At least a thousand contractors have died and we haven't talked about that a lot on this show or any other, but a lot of people have died doing this. And the armed contractors, the part we're talking about now, are often involved in protecting U.S. bases -- the corps of engineers, they protect convoys, and carrying vehicles, weapons and ammunition and they're Ambassador Ryan Crocker's security detail.

They really aren't, Kathleen, when you talk about these armed folks, in kind of a legal limbo now. We've never had this many people doing this, so do we know really what laws govern them? HICKS: We have to make a choice about what laws govern them. They're a strategic issue in Iraq. And they're going to be a strategic issue in the future. The United States has to start understanding that what these folks do in Iraq, in the theater of operations has a significant impact on how different countries view the United States.

So the U.S. Congress, the U.S. executive branch needs to start getting a grip on how we'll hold these folks accountable. Just as the military has long made sure its soldiers are held accountable for actions they take overseas, we need to show that good faith effort here so it doesn't undermine the incidents like this, don't undermine the strategy overall.

RAMAN: Aneesh, do the citizens of Iraq see private contractors carrying guns as different than soldiers of the United States military carrying guns?

RAMAN: Definitely. Among the civilians here, there is abject fear among most of them when these convoys come down. Blackwater, for example, protects all senior American officials as they travel. They have a reputation among Iraqis for shooting first and asking questions later.

Among the people, there are actually DVDs that are passed around of these incidents where western contractors have, in their view killed Iraqi civilians and they have seen over the past few years little to no legal recourse on the ground.

It is in part why Iraq's government decided to take such severe action calling for Blackwater to leave the country. We've seen them in the course of the week back away from that. They know they don't have any authority to kick Blackwater out, but what they want to do more than anything else is to force the discussion we're having here - should these western contractors at all in any way work under Iraqi law so they can be brought into Iraqi courts when there is use of excessive force.

That's the debate they're now forcing with U.S. officials. It's why the embassy here is really tight-lipped at the moment about all of this as they try to figure it out, because the implications are quite severe on the ground.

FOREMAN: Aneesh very briefly here, nobody does anything in Iraq these days without some kind of security detail.

RAMAN: No, but these western security contractors are known to use force unlike other military forces that are on the streets. They're known to be more aggressive, they're known to be more present, barreling down the roads. They are a separate entity -- of course, Iraqis will tell you they all have stories of friends that have been shot by U.S. forces as they approached checkpoints that the U.S. troops deemed to be a threat, but Blackwater and security firms stand alone in terms of the abject fear they feel when they come down the streets.

FOREMAN: And with that, we're going to have to call it done. Thank you both for being here. We appreciate it.

Later, we'll tell you how goo is saving lives in Iraq. That's right, goo.

Straight ahead, the bloody business of Shiite politics in THIS WEEK AT WAR. A fascinating segment you don't want to miss, but first, we'd like to take time as we always do for this WEEK AT WAR remembrance. Private first class Mykel Miller was killed earlier this month during combat operations in Zabul Province in Afghanistan. This week in Ahwatukee, Arizona, hundreds of family members and friends gathered to say one final good-bye. Mykel's father said his son was very proud to fight for his country.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAVID MILLER, FATHER: He went and chose to go to war and he fought for us, for this country, for our freedom and that makes him our hero and I hope it makes him your hero, too.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

FOREMAN: Mykal was assigned to the 1st battalion 150th infantry regiment of Arizona's National Guard and he was 19-years-old.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

FOREMAN: We talk an awful lot on this show about the divisions within Iraq. The Kurds up north, the Sunni over here and the Shia down here. We'll be talking a lot more in coming weeks about the Shia because that's really where the conflict is centered now.

Underneath Iraq's Basra Province is an estimated 200 billion barrels of oil, the profits from what little oil is currently being pumped provides 90 percent of the national budget there. Money and politics have always been intertwined.

So it's no surprise that the political future of Iraq could be determined by the street battles being fought between Shia militias on the streets of Basra.

Aneesh Raman johns us again from our Baghdad bureau to talk about that. Vali Nasr is a senior fellow on the Council on Foreign Relations and he's here. He's the author of "The Shia Revival." We're going to talk a bit about all of these things.

Vali, this really is the focus right now. What's going on with the Shia?

VALI NASR, AUTHOR: But three important things have been happening. One is that the British have decided to leave Basra and they're pulling out. It's a very important province with a lot of oil, the largest single Shia-dominated city in southern Iraq. That means there's a prize on the table and every major militia in Iraq is trying to take it over.

On the other hand, the surge from the north has been carrying many more security operations particularly against one of the major Shia militias, the Mehdi army, and what we're gradually having is much more turf battle and confrontation with the United States as the surge pushes south. So we're going to see a lot more conflict in southern Iraq.

FOREMAN: I want to talk about the major players. You mentioned the Mehdi army. You've the one we're going to start with. You're talking about Muqtada al-Sadr. You've heard his name raised an awful lot on this show and many others. He's part of the Sadrist movement, obviously. His militia is called the Mehdi Army and he's seen as young and somewhat inexperienced, but from a long line of people involved in this. What do we make of him right now, Vali? Is he somebody who can become an ally, won't become an ally, will work with other Shia or won't?

NASR: Well, he has worked with others. He joined the parliament, he joined the cabinet. But he's also become a lot more popular on the street. He has a claim to taking over, if you would, the mantle of Shia leadership in southern Iraq. And most people have often underestimated him. He's actually proved to be far more shrewd and tenacious than was the case and he's also grown much more closer to Iran the more he has been alienated from the politics. In fact, the rumor is that he's currently in Iran.

FOREMAN: Let's take a look at another one of the leaders there, Abdel Aziz al-Hakim. He's the supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, that's his political organization. The Badr organization is his militia. He's suffering from lung cancer, but has a family group around him that's also involved in all of this. Aneesh, what kind of player is he?

RAMAN: Well, he was a lot more powerful than he is now. When they formed the Shia coalition that is now starting to fray in parliament, his group really was the puppet masters. Muqtada al-Sadr emerged as the kingmaker, giving Maliki the job by one vote. But really, they were controlling this majority.

The theory was essentially the Shia have the most to gain from foreign troops leaving Iraq, from everyone getting out of Iraqi affairs because they had the majority population and then they'll deal with internal discord. But because we've seen this government process, the political process takes so long, we're seeing that coalition start to fray.

He is, as you mentioned ill. I spoke to his son who is taking more of a leading role a few weeks ago. I asked them about the militia, the Badr organization. They say look, we don't have a militia. Why? Because of the power they had, they brought them all into the Iraqi security force hold. So they're in a good position right now, but they're seeing their power decrease.

FOREMAN: That certainly seems to be leading the guy that's supposed to be in charge there, Nuri al-Maliki flapping in the breeze right now if he doesn't have Sadr behind him, correct?

NASR: You know, he doesn't have Sadr behind him anymore. But what we've been trying to do is create an alliance between him and Hakim's group as Hakim is becoming the Iraqi security force and still Hakim controls a good chunk of the parliament. Now the key in containing Sadr politically is to make a deal between Hakim and Maliki to work out.

FOREMAN: Aneesh, how much does it raise the tensions there that in fact there are members of these militias who are in the government, as it is? So another militia group might say we can't recognize the government because we're recognizing an opponent if we do that.

RAMAN: It's a huge issue. The Iraqi prime minister for months has had tried to have the governor of Basra replaced. He called down to the security forces there when the governor refused. And the head of the security forces said, I only have about 10 percent of my forces loyal to you and the central government. I just can't do it.

Especially down south, the militia are essentially controlling that dynamic and as the British pull out, they're doing so even more. And as we look down to the future that is going to be a Shia battleground between these rival groups. There is debate within the Shia as well. Should we have powerful regional authority or powerful central government? And all of that is still yet to play out.

FOREMAN: We can't have this conversation without talking about the Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, the spiritual guide for all Iraqi Shia. He holds to what's known as the quietest tradition which means sort of not getting involved in the day to day things, but looking more at the bigger issues. And he's supposedly independent of politics. Vali, is he really or is this a player that we have to talk about?

NASR: No, he's still a very important player because most Iraqi Shias and beyond Iraq, Lebanon and Iran look to him as their spiritual leader and put a lot of weight on his words and opinions.

And if he accepts or provides support for a certain deal, then it's more likely to succeed and vice versa. Recently when Prime Minister Maliki agreed to the de-baathification, Ayatollah Sistani came out against it and support under Shia basically evaporated for supporting de-baathification.

Traditionally, Sistani has been supportive of Hakim and has supportive of a Shia-governing coalition in Iraq. But he has removed himself from micromanaging or interfering in day to day affairs of the state and it's been said that he's very unhappy with both government failures, with the fact that the government doesn't provide for people and also with the level of violence that's happening in Iraq.

FOREMAN: With that in mind then, Vali, is there any sense then that the Shia, regardless of what we do, want to work things out there or do they even want to fight things out to see who's going to control the Shia region?

NASR: Well, the Shias are united when the battle is against the Sunnis and against other enemies. And the battle was for getting control of Iraq. But ultimately the reality that's within the Shia region, within the Shia population and politics, there still is no one dominant force and there's going to be a fight for who is going to be that dominant force. You have too many people claiming that power and ultimately that competition has to be settled.

FOREMAN: Is there any possible they will unite simply around the idea of saying we just want to get the Americans out of here first so then we can fight it out?

NASR: If the Americans become a force behind the Sunni restoration, if we keep giving arms to Sunni tribes in al Anbar and the Shias begin to view that as a threat, then they will band together.

FOREMAN: Band together to fight us or to simply diplomatically get us out?

NASR: Well, to protect what they gained so far. The Shias don't want to lose what they've gained as a consequence of the war, which is that they've come on top and become the most important community and they've taken over the government. They want to continue to dominate the future of Iraq and they will defend that position.

FOREMAN: We haven't been able to get to Iran. We'll have to leave it for another talk. Vali, you have got to come back because we are going to be talking about the Shia a great deal more because that's the thing we have to talk about now in the war. Aneesh, thanks for being with us, good talks.

Moving from Shiite to Sunni politics. Straight ahead, a conversation with the man who turned around the most dangerous area in Iraq at one time.

But first, a regular segment on the work of combat photographers. In a quiet moment, a U.S. soldier shares a cigarette with a detainee near Muqdadiya, Iraq. Carol Princely (ph) was with Bravo 69 cavalry troop as they engaged in Operation Saber Hammer 3.

In the West Bank town of Nablus, Maji Muhammad (ph) caught this Israeli soldier throwing a smoke grenade during a raid on the al An refugee camp.

For Muslims around the world, this is the month of Ramadan when Muslims fast during the day. In the Shiite holy city of Najaf, Alaa al-Marjani took this photograph of Iraqis gathering for Iftar, the breaking of the fast.

And finally, Khalid Muhammad caught this image of two girls waiting at a mosque in Baghdad where food is being given to poor families during Ramadan. The food was distributed during the day for security reasons, leaving these girls to wait until sunset to enjoy it. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

FOREMAN: Back in May, we talked about a colonel who went into Anbar Province armed with the philosophy of an English philosopher, John Locke. Be sociable with those that are sociable and formidable with those are not. OK, well he had a side army and bunch of M1 Abrams tanks as well.

But the point is the methods worked and now he joins me here in Washington. Colonel Sean MacFarland, the combat of the first brigade combat team, first armored division in Anbar and now chief of the Iraq division with the joint chiefs of staff.

We're going to zoom in on the map as we talk about this. This is the area that you went into and has become all the rage in this war and it's a sense of a success story. What happened out here from your vantage point?

COL. SEAN MACFARLAND, U.S. ARMY: Well, we were very fortunate. We got a couple of breaks and one of the most important breaks was finding a willing partner. It takes two to tango and the key to counter insurgency fight is to develop indigenous forces that have the legitimacy that -- to separate the insurgents from the population.

FOREMAN: At the time you were doing this, Anbar was, by fatality rates and everything else, by far, the worst part of Iraq. The part people said could not be saved. This might be impossible to make a deal with the Sunnis. What did you do different?

MACFARLAND: Well, I started out with a bit of an advantage because I started out in a different part of Iraq with my brigade and we moved to Ramadi from Tal Afar. And we followed in the 3rd armored cavalry regiment up there where they had success and we replicated some of the techniques that they used in the north down in Al Anbar Province. Started putting small combat outposts and using the Iraqi security forces to actually live with us amongst the people and introduce them back into this city. And my intent was to make Ramadi look more like Tal Afar looked, which at that time was being touted as the only success story.

FOREMAN: Were you at this point already talking to the tribal sheiks in this area about this, or did you do this first to show your willingness to do it and then the sheikhs came to you - how did that happen?

MACFARLAND: No, it was concurrent. I was looking to a go-to guy similar to what I had with the mayor of Tal Afar. And in Tal Afar, there's somebody who could interpose for me with the locals and have the legitimacy that I would never have as an outsider. And we were talking to a number of sheikhs and Sattar was one of them, but he wasn't really the foremost of the sheikhs at the time.

FOREMAN: You're talking about the sheikh who was killed quite recently who you became quite good friends with.

MACFARLAND: Sheikh Sattar Abu Reesha.

FOREMAN: And when you talked about this, you knew that in some cases you were talking to sheikhs whose followers had been actively fighting against coalition forces up until that point? MACFARLAND: Absolutely. We knew that all of these guys were in some way and to some degree more or less complicit with what had been going on.

We had some pretty strict red lines that we wouldn't cross. We wouldn't deal with anybody who had directly fought Americans, for instance or were responsible for any kind of terrorist activities.

But we knew that in order to survive in that environment, all of these sheikhs had to make some sort of live and let live arrangement.

FOREMAN: And the one thing you had in common certainly with them seems to be that al Qaeda was operating here, attacking the sheikhs and their followers and attacking you. It sounds like to some degree the sheikhs said we've had enough of this. We can't drive out the U.S. military, but we can get rid of these guys.

MACFARLAND: That's right and, in fact, they tried earlier that same year to drive out al Qaeda on their own without making any kind of security arrangements with the coalition.

The baathist insurgents of the 1920s revolutionary brigade foremost among them tried to fight two different directions at once and as a result got crushed by al Qaeda. The sheikhs saw this and said when we make our move, the first thing we're going to do is ally ourselves with the coalition, with the Americans.

FOREMAN: One year ago roughly Michael Ware said this about Anbar Province. Take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: American soldiers in al Qaeda's heartland in Iraq and a gaping black hole in Washington's global war on terror.

MACFARLAND: The folks that we are fighting are the same kind of folks that took down the World Trade Center and drove an airplane into the Pentagon, and these people here want to turn al Anbar into what one smart guy called alQaedastan.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

FOREMAN: That's back when you had no reason to suspect that your efforts there would be nearly as rewarding as they are now. Right now many other U.S. soldiers are on the ground in other parts of Iraq facing similar circumstances.

Can the methods you use here, this joint partnership with local folks work elsewhere -- if so, why? If not, why?

MACFARLAND: Well, they can work and they are working. They're being used very effectively in Diyala Province and they're beginning to get traction in other parts of Iraq as well. In fact, there's even been some Shia Sheikhs now that have begun to try to replicate it. FOREMAN: Do you think -- that was the last thing I want to ask you about the Shia area. We're talking about that in this show. Can you make that work with these big Shia leaders if you work from the ground up with the localized leaders? Do you think it will work?

MACFARLAND: Well, I think so. I think there's a very strong sense of tribal identity in any rural area of Iraq and there are a lot of rural areas in the Shia parts of Iraq as well and that's an untapped resource that I think that we're just now beginning to exploit.

FOREMAN: I very much wish we could talk a lot more. You'll need on come back and see us again.

Thanks so much, Colonel MacFarland

MACFARLAND: Thanks for having me.

FOREMAN: We appreciate your time.

Next, we'll turn from what could be a promising political solution in Iraq to a much tougher stalemate, the one right here on Capitol Hill. And later, what really happened in the skies over Syria? A military mystery in THIS WEEK AT WAR.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR, THIS WEEK AT WAR: Hello, I'm Fredericka Whitfield at the CNN Center in Atlanta.

"Now in the News": New problems for Blackwater, the private security firm hired to guard U.S. officials in Iraq. An Iraqi official says Iraq's government will charge criminal charges against employees of the company, who are blamed at a gun battle last weekend in Baghdad, which killed several Iraqi civilians.

Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai is at the United Nations with ahead of this week's General Assembly. Mr. Karzai has been meeting with Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon and other officials.

Japan's ruling party picks a new president. Veteran moderate Yasuo Fukuda is now in line to become the next prime minister when parliament votes on Tuesday. Fukuda pledges to keep a pro- U.S. foreign policy.

Hamburg, Germany is recovering from a night of riots. Police say it started after a festival when hundreds of people began erecting street barriers and setting fire to trash containers. Police moved in with clubs and water canons. At least 15 people were injured, at least 50 arrested or detained.

More news coming up at the top of the hour. Now back to THIS WEEK AT WAR.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think that the American public is slightly shifting in our direction because of the success of the surge on the ground.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

FOREMAN: Is that really what's happening? Because it certainly seems as if this week may have marked the end of any serious attempt to put a timeline on U.S. troop withdrawals from Iraq. So does President Bush now have a freehand in this?

Jim Vandehei, the executive director of Politico.com joins me from their offices, in Virginia; and CNN White House Correspondent Suzanne Malveaux is on her post on the North Lawn.

Suzanne, is the White House breathing a sigh of relief? Because only a couple of months ago it looked like a lot of Republicans were ready to defect and the president was under enormous pressure.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: I'm sure, Tom. It's been an amazing week for the White House here.

They've definitely got some breathing space now and really this campaign to win the moderate republicans paid off big time here. As you mentioned, we saw the defeat of that legislation from Senator Jim Webb, which would have given equal time for U.S. troops deployed on, as well as off, and the person who flipped, of course, was Senator John Warner, a very respected relationship Republican.

There were a lot of backdoor meetings, and backdoor channels, that were going to make sure that those Republicans stuck with this White House. So now President Bush feeling like he's got until march essentially, he said to give another Iraq progress report, but they're feeling pretty good about it.

FOREMAN: Democrats aren't happy at all. Listen to what Carl Levin said late this week.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. CARL LEVIN (D), MICHIGAN: We obviously had hopes for picking up a few more Republicans, but it didn't happen. So we've just got to -- hey, keep going because we just believe that the course that we're on, in Iraq, is a course which isn't leading to a political solution.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

FOREMAN: Jim, what happens to the Democrats? They were elected last fall with a lot of people counting doing something about the war. Public sentiment about the war is still quite strong and the democrats have delivered for practical purposes, nothing on the war.

JIM VANDEHEI, "THE POLITICO": Absolutely nothing. And the problem is they've run into a wall of opposition among Republicans. For the last couple of years we keep hearing that we're almost at the tipping point where Republicans were going to turn against Bush in the war. It hasn't happened.

And I think the big reason, a least recently, has been Petraeus engaged. These members are talking to the generals; they're talking to folks outside of the White House and hearing things are going well, or well enough with the surge, to convince them to continue to give Bush a freehand.

I think the Democrats may have made a strategic mistake a couple of months ago when they did have a better chance to work with moderate Republicans to put some more restrictions -- on what Bush could do, and this was before the surge. You know, that didn't work. They decided they would work with the anti-war activists and take a hard line and try to fix a concrete end to the war. And that ended up turning off Republicans and since then Bush has had a freehand, and he will have a freehand at least until next year, or events on the ground change.

FOREMAN: Why do the Democrats keep talking about a timeline in this context? Because the fact is, politically, the timeline is dead. They cannot get the numbers for that. They've made the point they'd like one. Why don't they look more to middle ground, or maybe they could make some progress?

VANDEHEI: They are under a tremendous amount of pressure from anti-war activists who do not want to compromise. They don't want to just say, hey, we'll put a couple of minor medications on this war policy. They want the war to end and end now. They know they'll lose their base and liberal Democrats in the House and Senate if they start compromising too far.

They really felt like this web proposal where you would essentially allow the military troops to spend as much time at home as they're spending when they're over in Iraq. They thought that would be a good way to at least limit the troop numbers. And they couldn't even win that much Republican support on a fairly popular proposal like that. So, they can't get much further.

FOREMAN: Suzanne, the White House has made much of the Petraeus report and the notion that some progress is being made there. Do they have any sense of where they are in the timeline of progress, or they feel like they're reaching their own tipping point for the public at large to say, gee, it's much better. Or do they feel like anything like that is still way off in the future?

MALVEAUX: Well, I think they know that the tide has not turned when it comes to the public. That a lot of people still very much against the execution of this war.

I want to say there was really a political opening, however, that the White House seized this week. This MoveOn.org, this ad that said "General Petraeus or General Betray Us?" They have really taken that and wrapped their arms around it.

President Bush, giving him an opening to criticize the Democratic presidential candidates, saying, look, perhaps, they're more afraid of irritating this group by not denouncing that ad, than they are of irritating the military. So now you have this opening where President Bush and others have come forward slamming some of the Democrats, again, trying to paint them as the party that's not able to assure national security.

FOREMAN: Jim, Democrats, overall, they're not winning what they want here. Are they confident at all that they can get their act together to promote their agenda? Because it certainly sounds like republicans are feeling more confident now.

VANDEHEI: No, they're not confident at all, because they know they don't have the votes. Their agenda is to try to stop the war. It cannot be done. Even if they can get those moderate Republicans, a couple more, to vote for some of these proposals, Bush will veto it. Bush will veto any bill that ties his hands.

FOREMAN: So, Jim, is this just political theater, now? Does any of this have anything to do with the actual war anymore?

VANDEHEI: I mean, it's political theater in that we know what the outcome will be when these votes are taking place, but it's pretty serious stuff. They firmly believe this. This isn't about politics that the war should be over, that we cannot win it. As, you know, at one point Harry Reid said the war is lost. And they want to bring the troops home.

The problem is that there's no way that they can make that happen. They have the Constitution and they have Republicans working against them. And until they can turn Republicans to their side, they can't do much. There is a this disconnect. They're frustrated because they look at the polls and most of the public has turned against the war and they wonder why can't we get more people in Congress to turn against the war?

FOREMAN: I'm afraid on that, Jim, we're going to have to bail out.

And with you as well, Suzanne, thanks for being here.

The war of words will go on. We'll be back next week with it.

Straight ahead, the silence is deafening. What is the story behind the covert attack on Syria this week; and why is nobody talking about it? Stick with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm not going to comment on the matter. Would you like another question?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Did you support --

BUSH: I'm not going comment on the matter.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Can you comment about your concerns that come out of it at all? Talk to the region?

BUSH: No. Saying I'm not going to comment on a matter, it means, I'm not going to comment on the matter.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

FOREMAN: Well, there's one of the great non-statements of all time. Well, OK. We are going to talk about it. What is it? Well, here is what we know. Israeli jets flew into Syrian airspace last week. That's it. That's all we really know. Everything else is conjecture and rumor.

And I'm joined by three of the best collectors of conjecture and rumor in the business. Glenn Kessler, diplomatic correspondent for "The Washington Post" and the author of the "The Confidant: Condoleezza Rice and the Creation of the Bush Legacy."

CNN Senior Military Correspondent Jamie McIntyre, is reading the tea leaves at the Pentagon and CNN's Senior United Nations Correspondent Richard Roth is drinking tea at his listening post up in New York right now.

Glenn, start us off here. What on earth are we talking about, or better, not talking about in Washington?

GLENN KESSLER, DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Well, what we're talking about is the possibility that Israel took out some sort of facility in Syria, that sources we've spoken to say is linked to some sort of cooperation with North Korea. On the face of it, that's a pretty extraordinary event.

FOREMAN: OK. Let's look at that on the map. This is where Syria is, Israel down here. Iraq, Iran over here. What we're talking about is the idea that airplanes took off from Israel, came up here and possibly bombed some supplies somehow connected to a shipment that came in from North Korea; that the North Koreans might be helping build something here.

But, Jamie, are they talking about that at the Pentagon?

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SR. PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Tom, remember the old Buffalo Springfield song "Something's happening here, but it ain't exactly clear"?

Here's what I can tell from my sources at the Pentagon. I've talked to U.S. officials who have actually looked at a picture of the building that was bombed by the Iraqi (sic) F-15s. And it shows a hole, dead center in the middle of this building with no damage to any of the structures nearby. So it was a pretty -- we know it was a precision-guided bomb. It looks like some kind of penetrating bomb.

But the mysterious thing is once that picture got in the Pentagon, suddenly the subject disappeared from all of the morning intelligence briefings. It's not mentioned anymore at the Pentagon and the word here is it's not our subject. We're not dealing with it. Any word on this will come from some place else. FOREMAN: All right, Richard, so diplomatically, why does nobody want to talk about this?

RICHARD ROTH, CNN UNITED NATIONS CORRESPONDENT: By the way, I don't like tea, but they're certainly reading the tea leaves on this whole story here, Tom.

It's also kind of a shutdown of information and comment even by U.N. standards, everyone's tight-lipped. Syria did send a letter of complaint to the U.N. Security Council president and to Secretary- General Ban Ki Moon, but there was no action taken. Syria's ambassador told me he thought there would be a U.S. veto if they went for some type of big meeting.

FOREMAN: Richard, did they say in the letter what they were complaining about, specifically?

ROTH: They said it was Israeli aggression and that there could be consequences for the region if Israeli motives and intention were not checked. They didn't spell out what those consequences were. But it is interesting that Syria didn't press the matter, thus hushing up more on this.

FOREMAN: Glenn, I'm guessing that part of the reason that Syria may be hesitant to press it a bit, is because none of their neighbors in the region seem to be raising a fuss and stepping forward and saying, ahh, we should stop this. What does that tell us about the relation between the neighbor and Syria?

KESSLER: Syria, right now, is a bit of an outcast in the region particularly with its neighbors, such as its Arab neighbors such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, who are annoyed that it's been increasingly allied with Iran. The silence in the region is deafening.

The Israelis seem to have learned a lesson from when they took out the nuclear reactor in Iraq in 1991, which is if you trumpet your success the world has to condemn you. So in this case they're not saying a word. And there's nothing for anyone to condemn. Interestingly, about the only country that has actually officially complained about this incident is North Korea. And they almost never comment on international matters, but as soon as it happened, North Korea issued a statement saying it was an outrageous act of aggression.

FOREMAN: There's chatter now about a lot of things involving Syria. James reported on Monday about chemical weapons, they said, Syrian defense forces told "Jane's" that during a July 26 test to weaponize a 500 scud C with a mustard gas warhead, an explosion occurred. The explosion killed 15 Syrian military personnel and dozens of Iranian missile weaponization engineers.

Jamie, does that add to the heated silence over what's going on in Syria?

MCINTYRE: Yes, and Tom, earlier I said Iraq -- when I meant to say Israeli jets. But you know there is an Iraq parallel here. A lot of speculation is there some kind of nuclear facility or connected to nuclear materials. And if you go back and look -- even before the invasion of Iraq when the U.S. struck sites in Iraq that were said to be weapons of mass destruction sites, when we finally saw the targets they weren't direct weapons of mass destruction sites. There were things like missile factories. There were even some troop barracks.

So a building like this that maybe has some kind of machine parts, or other high-tech equipment, could be said to be connected to a nuclear program even if there's no radioactive material there, it still could be seen as that kind of a target.

FOREMAN: And, Glenn, people are drawing some kind of tenuous links here with the possibility of bombing nuclear facilities in Iran eventually. What is that about?

KESSLER: I mean, the way that's looked at is there's been an Israeli bank shot against Iran, which is if they can demonstrate that they can go in the middle of the night across Syria, take something out, get out, not have a problem then that's a signal to the Iranians that you may be next. And, of course, they would have to traverse Syrian airspace.

FOREMAN: And Richard, I'm guessing the North Koreans don't like to hear things like that. The Iranians don't like hearing things like that.

ROTH: No, the Iranians scoffed off French Foreign Minister Kouchner's comment that there could be war eventually if there wasn't a compliance by Tehran on its nuclear ambitions. At the U.N., Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon again stressing quiet diplomacy.

FOREMAN: Well, thanks for all three of you for helping clear up the mystery, at bit, at least.

In just a moment a new segment on THIS WEEK AT WAR, "Dispatches". You really don't want to miss it. Stick with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

FOREMAN: We're quite excited about a new feature we're trying today. And it's called "Dispatches," reports on YOUR WEEK AT WAR. Our I-Reporter this week is Harley Elliott of Endicott, New York.

She was an army medic when she married Private First Class Nathan Elliott of the 3rd Infantry Division. Now she's a civilian mom. Her husband deployed to Iraq only 11 days after their son was born. When dad came home on leave in August, Noah was already eight months old. You could tell the two of them liked each other an awful lot when they got back together.

Mom reports that Noah said his first words then, "Mama and Dada" during those 18 days of R&R. Harley says she keeps a picture of dad in the baby's crib. But Noah hasn't said those words since Dad when back to the war. PFC Elliott will be back, from Iraq, sometime in the spring and we hope they'll have time for them all to chat then.

We would like very much to tell your story. Please go to CNN.com/thisweekatwar and click on the I-Report link.

We'll be back with the mother's struggle, in just a moment, but first, we want to take a final look at some of the many who fell in THIS WEEK AT WAR.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

FOREMAN: If you've ever been to a nine-year-old's birthday party you know what silly string is. It's goo, you shoot it out to cover your friends, living room furniture and the dog. You get the idea.

Well, it turns out that it has a military use as well. You shoot it into a room somewhere, in Ramadi, for example, and if it hangs up off the floor you can be pretty sure there is a trip wire there. The added benefit is that it's light enough that it doesn't set off whatever nasty device is attached to that tip wire.

Marcelle Shriver (ph) has a son in Ramadi and according to "The New York Times" he asked for a couple of cans last year. One thing led to another and pretty soon Mrs. Shriver 120,000 donated cans, ready to go. But things are never that easy. Apparently this isn't standard- issue goo so the government isn't interested in shipping it for her. She did get 40,000 cans to Iraq through the Naval Reserve, but there are still 80,000 cans ready to go.

Please, please don't send her any more, but Marcelle Shriver (ph) hasn't given up. Todd Shriver (ph) is still over there and she's still looking for ways to get all that goo where it can do the most good. We wish her the best of luck in that.

Turning now to some of the stories that we'll be following in the next WEEK AT WAR. Tuesday is the opening of the 62nd United Nations General Assembly. George W. Bush and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are two of the leaders scheduled to address the assembly.

And on Thursday, the six party talks over North Korea's nuclear weapons program are due to start up again. They were postponed after this week's mysterious Israeli air strike into Syria.

Thanks for watching joining us on THIS WEEK AT WAR. I'm Tom Foreman. Straight ahead, a check of the headlines. Then, CNN Special Investigations Unit "Lifting the Veil".

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