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THIS WEEK AT WAR

Week's War-Related Events Reviewed

Aired October 20, 2007 - 19:00   ET

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


TOM FOREMAN, ANCHOR, THIS WEEK AT WAR: In the battle against al Qaeda in Iraq, the U.S. has found a new weapon. It's not precision- guided 500 pound bombs or mine-resistant armored vehicles, although they are nice things to have. It's thousands, tens of thousands, of Iraqis who have decided to cooperate with the occupying troops for at least a time. Are we finally witnessing a lasting change for the better in Iraq? THIS WEEK AT WAR right after a look at what in the news right now.
TONY HARRIS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hello, everyone. I'm Tony Harris. Here's what's happening right now. 90 days and counting for Atlanta. That's how long one of the largest cities in the south has left before it runs out of drinking water. Georgia Governor Sonny Purdue has declared a drought emergency tonight. He is asking President Bush for help as 85 counties enter the first drought on record. The governor wants the president to ease Federal rules requiring the state to send water downstream to Alabama and Florida.

Where do the GOP presidential candidates stand among Christian conservatives? This weekend's straw poll in Washington could be an indication. Mitt Romney narrowly won, edging out Mike Huckabee in the poll of mostly Christian conservative voters. Ron Paul finished third, Fred Thompson fourth. Analysts say it is hard to measure how big a win this is for Romney because it's not clear if these voters truly represent the larger Christian conservative block.

Those are the headlines this hour. Keeping you informed, CNN, the most trusted name in news.

FOREMAN: Here is where we stand in THIS WEEK AT WAR. It's certainly not time to celebrate, but for once, the war in Iraq is looking a little better. In Diyala province, it's hard to tell if the new counter insurgency strategy can stand up to a U.S. troop withdrawal. Care for wounded vets is falling behind, especially for those whose wounds are locked inside. Russia is again acting against U.S. interests as the Kremlin fights for a place on the world stage. And suicide bombs show how Pakistan is balanced on a knife's edge between civility and chaos. That's how things stand.

And here is where we're going to find out what's next. First, to Pakistan where Dan Rivers was there as Benazir Bhutto almost died in a suicide bomb attack. Is she strong enough to control this level of violence? We'll find out. In Baghdad where CNN International anchor Jim Clancy has been watching Diyala province, the battleground where the future of Iraq may be decided. And finally we'll ask veteran Moscow correspondent Jill Daugherty just what kind of game is Vladimir Putin playing. All THIS WEEK AT WAR. After eight years, Benazir Bhutto returned to Pakistan. And in an instant, all the terrible reality of this chaotic nation came crashing in. An explosion within yards of her motorcade left dozens dead, hundreds injured. The former prime minister was unhurt, but what does this bloody reception mean for hopes of a power-sharing arrangement that could restore stability in this crucial nation? With me in Washington, Teresita Schaffer. She's the director of the south Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Kevin Whitelaw, a senior writer with "U.S. News & World Report." And Dan Rivers joins us from Karachi where he was one of the first reporters on the scene of the explosion.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAN RIVERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: At the moment now, there's still a smell of high explosives in the air, really caustic smell in the air and all across this floor here, horrific scenes with body parts and dead bodies still strewn around the area.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

FOREMAN: Dan, the whole world is watching Pakistan right now and wondering what this means. Is the return a triumph and the start of something good or the start of something very bad? What do people in Pakistan think right now?

RIVERS: I think everyone here is very worried about the political situation and what this means for the future of this country. There are lots of rumors swirling around Karachi at the moment that this could be the beginning of a prolonged and violent campaign by the extremists to try and disrupt these elections that are scheduled on January the 15th. It's certainly a very dark day for Pakistani democracy. It's going to be incredibly difficult for Benazir Bhutto to try and campaign in any normal sense during this election period. She seems incredibly resolute and stubborn about this, determined that she will go ahead, for example, with the procession despite the repeated warnings by the authorities here that she should not process in a slow manner, taking hours and hours to go through the streets of Karachi, presenting a very easy target for the terrorists. And from all indications, she seems absolutely determined to press on with her election campaign without any change at all, saying that she is the voice of democracy, that the Pakistan peoples' party is the best chance for a return to full parliamentary democracy in Pakistan.

FOREMAN: Let's take a look at the maps to remind ourselves where this is. Afghanistan, here we obviously have a lot of interest. Pakistan here, Waziristan (ph) the area where we've had so much trouble with the Taliban retreating to and then Karachi down here. Ambassador, why should we be as concerned as the Pakistani people about this?

AMB. TERESITA SCHAFFER, CTR. FOR STRATEGIC & INTL STUDIES: We have to be concerned for different reasons. Pakistan, as you just pointed out, is sitting right next door to Afghanistan which was the refuge for the Taliban. And the risk is that Pakistan could become even more than it is today, a similar refuge and that a meltdown of the government of Pakistan would facilitate this process. The hope had been that Benazir Bhutto's return would pave the way for a smooth transition to a more civilian government. I think there were a number of problems with that assumption, but that's what the hope was and that's what the danger is.

FOREMAN: Kevin, talk to me a little bit about the divisions in this country. Listen, first, to what Benazir Bhutto said after this attack, saying that the real people of Pakistan, the real Muslims, would not do this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BENAZIR BHUTTO, FMR. PAKISTANI PRIME MINISTER: No Muslim can do this. No real Muslim can do it because it is against our religion to kill woman and no real Muslim can do it because it is against our religion to kill women and no real Muslim can do it because it is against our religion to kill innocent people.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

FOREMAN: There are, of course, Kevin, many people who look at her, extremist Muslims, who say you're not a real Muslim because women don't run for office. They don't do these things. Democracy doesn't fit in. What about the division in the society there?

KEVIN WHITELAW, U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT: It's a very complicated society. There a lot of different divisions. Just one of them would be -- would be between the more secular Pakistanis and the more religious ones. She's clearly been a target of the religious extremists for quite a long time. Indeed, you know, she's taken a few steps to try to appease them at various points. She started wearing a head scarf at some point in her political career, thinking that was going to be more acceptable to a broader swath of Pakistani society, but it's a very complicated society. There's tribal complications and there's ethnic complications. You know, she has support in certain parts of the country among the secular, among the elite to a certain degree, but even that' now is being recalled into question given the fact that she's been dealing with and negotiating with President Pervez Musharraf and obviously there's been a lot of unhappiness, a lot of protests about his continuing military rule there.

FOREMAN: Dan, there seems to be a lot of uncertainty about that very notion, this idea that President Musharraf with his military backing would somehow form a coalition with Benazir Bhutto, with her long family history of politics there and some sort of democratic backing. Do people by and large think such an idea can work there?

RIVERS: Well I think everyone here accepts is a pretty uneasy alliance. They're a very odd couple in many respects. They've been bitter political rivals for years and forced together, really, by circumstance and they both get mutual benefit out of it. Benazir on her part gets to come back. She importantly gets her assets back, tens of millions of dollars, it is alleged and also perhaps another run at being prime minister. And, of course, President Musharraf gets much-needed political support when he's positioned as being undermined when he's facing on increased challenge from the militants and from the extremists. And I guess the great hope of the west is that this odd couple represent the best chance we've got to stop Pakistan slipping into something like a Taliban rule where the whole country would end up being ruled by extremists and fanatics.

FOREMAN: Ambassador, is that a good hope, a strong hope now or a tenuous one?

SCHAFFER: Well, I think it was always a problematic hope. I would put it a little bit differently. There are two big issues facing Pakistan today in its internal politics. One is what role is the army going to play? The army has played an oversized role in Pakistani politics for now a couple of decades. And I don't see this particular arrangement easing the army out of power, which is actually a problem. The second, which is a much newer issue, is what will the violent wing of the Islamic extremist movement do? How far will they go in destabilizing not just the government, but the state of Pakistan? And I think that's the real existential issue the Pakistan leadership is facing today.

FOREMAN: Kevin, you have the final word. So in the end, Benazir Bhutto returning. Some people said she shouldn't come back precisely because this sort of thing would happen. Others saying she's got to come back to move forward. Generally good? Generally bad for Pakistan and the U.S. as it moves forward?

WHITELAW: You know, I think when you look at it from the U.S. perspective, there's been a real tendency to focus on Musharraf, especially from the president and other top U.S. officials. It's been a very Musharraf-focused policy. So I think if anything, the return of Benazir Bhutto, I think, might actually help Washington refocus its rhetoric a little bit and -- and focus more on -- on promoting democracy, promoting a transition out of military rule. And I think that might actually have the -- the slight chance of being a positive thing. Beyond that, I think that in the short-term, the chaos obviously is going to -- to be very difficult for Pakistan.

FOREMAN: Thanks so much, Kevin, Teresita, Dan as well for joining us.

Here's the puzzler. What was the cause of the first war in recorded history? Think about that. We'll let you know in just a bit.

But next, the puzzle of Iraq. Is it possible, just possible, that things really are turning around there? First, as always, we want to take time for a THIS WEEK AT WAR remembrance. Staff Sergeant Lilian Clamens was killed last week when insurgents attacked her base in Baghdad. A member of the 834th adjutant general company, Clamens was preparing to return home this weekend to her family in south Florida. Clamens husband and three children were preparing her welcome home dinner when they learned of the attack. Lilian's sister, Dana, spoke about carrying on her memory.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DANA COBBIN, SISTER: I just wanted to see her one last time. She was supposed to come home. I'm going to miss her. I'm going to do everything in my power to let her kids know that she loved them.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

FOREMAN: Our thoughts are with their family. Lilian was 31 years old.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

FOREMAN: Diyala province was a battleground last year. Shiites and Sunnis fought each other when they weren't attacking coalition forces and the capital, Baquba, was called the most dangerous city in Iraq. This week though, military commanders say the violence has dropped dramatically and confirm that the draw down of U.S. troops promised by President Bush will begin with the brigade assigned to Diyala. CNN senior military correspondent Jamie McIntyre is here to explain it to us. Jamie, let's look at the map back here, big difference. This was Anbar province where you had a whole bunch of Sunnis to the west. We go to the east in Diyala, why is it different?

JAMIE McINTYRE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yeah. Diyala province is much more of a test of the whole strategy because it's much more ethnically diverse, 25 different tribes. If you look at the province, how it's split up, it's got a big mix of Sunni, Shia and even Kurds.

FOREMAN: The Kurds are right up here, the Sunni over here and the Shia down here. The mixed colors is where they're together.

McINTYRE: And that provides much more of a test of whether this reconciliation is really going on. They have seen, as the U.S. troops came in in March, a diminution of violence, particularly in this Diyala river valley that goes right through the center of the province here. Baquba, as you said, was back in March considered one of the most dangerous cities. Most of the al Qaeda have been cleared out of there, but a lot of them have moved up here to Muqtadiya (ph) where they're sort of blending into the population. So what we want to see here is whether this short-term trend actually lasts. And the big factor, the big thing that they're looking at, we even have an acronym for that, the CLCs, the concerned local citizens. They claim U.S. commanders, that there are 4,000 Iraqis who have taken an oath to take back their country and they're making a big difference.

FOREMAN: And they're in this area. Plus the big question is also along the border to Iran over here was the big issue in all of our concerns. Let's turn now to continue the conversation, bring in Jim Clancy, anchor of CNN's International "Your World Today" show. He's standing by in our Baghdad bureau. Jim, what is the sense there about Diyala right now?

JIM CLANCY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think that, you know, Jamie outlined it a little bit. 4,000 concerned local citizens, not a lot out of more than a million people living in that province. Nobody, of course, really knows. I think for people that want to understand Iraq and it is -- this province is a good example of that kind of mixed neighborhood. I think Americans in general try to use addition and subtraction when they look at politics. So and so got so many votes. His opponent got so many. How many were thrown out? But that doesn't work here. I think U.S. military commanders have figured it out. It is a mixture of algebra, geometry and physics. Those are the words of Colonel David Sutherland, who's the commanding officer up there and he's trying to put all of this together. The battle is far from won. That's for sure. But he's battling against these various groups and he's winning a lot of local support because people want services. They want their electricity back on. They want their water on. They want to live their lives. That's one of the strongest factors that's affecting all of this. People want peace now. They're willing to reconcile their differences.

FOREMAN: Let's take a look at what we're talking about in Diyala province. There are indeed Sunni, Shia and Kurdish and Turkman (ph) all living in that area, 25 major tribes there. Over 100 sub-tribes and yet there does seem to be as Jim said, Jamie, a real movement among the Iraqis. You can't say this is all what we're doing, but they're doing a lot to say they want to calm this down.

McINTYRE: Although one of the questions is as the U.S. troops leave and that brigade is rotating out, their commanders rotating out of the area, they forged these local relationships with a lot of these people. Now a whole fresh group of U.S. troops is going to come in and they're going to have to take up on some of these relationships and that's a question mark. And I'm told that privately the commander of that Diyala province, the U.S. commander, General Mixon, has his own private doubts about whether the Iraqis are going to be able to maintain this progress as the troop levels go down as the surge ends.

FOREMAN: Jim, the real question in all of this has to do with reconciliation, the question of whether or not Iraqis can agree to get along with each other. Do Iraqis see this new peace in Diyala being driven by them or by the U.S. initiative?

CLANCY: I think they see it being driven by them, facilitated - remember -- by the U.S. Remember, they almost need a referee, somebody there with a whistle and a striped shirt to keep things honest. The concerned local citizens groups are great, but only in the past week up in Baquba, they've had to take down one of the heads of one of these groups along with 16 of his fellow concerned local citizens. Why? They're throwing people in jail. They were extorting money. One of them was even accused of raping a young girl. There's going to be problems. They need somebody to take care of it. Here's where the Iraqi forces, be it the police or army, have to step into that role. That hasn't happened yet and until it does, the U.S. is going to have to be there.

FOREMAN: I want to look at the Diyala province plan very briefly. The general idea is to drive out the extremists, create local citizen militias, encourage reconciliation, improve security and services, new construction funding, strict control of these concerned local citizens and the police forces there. Jamie, you know, only a year ago a list like that, everybody said, yeah, it's a bunch of pipe dreams. What do people think now?

McINTYRE: They see it working. They see that Diyala province is more of a model than the Anbar model because it's more of the problem they're dealing with. But the comparison keeps coming back to the Sisyphus, you know, pushing the rock up the hill. They're pushing it up the hill. They're afraid that as soon as the U.S. begins to draw down, that rock is going to fall back down. That's the big concern.

FOREMAN: Should they be that concerned about it, Jim, or do you think that there is a grassroots movement among the Iraqis to say as you said earlier, we're tired of the violence. We will find a way to deal with this without the U.S. being here?

CLANCY: Remember, even a minority there can upset the whole apple cart. I think Jamie's addressing those kinds of fears that are being voiced by U.S. military commanders. You have a situation here. You have a province where you know weapons are being imported from Iran, some of those explosively-formed projectiles coming in here. They just seized a huge load of those. You have all kinds of other factors, money coming in from al Qaeda. That's going to be another source of friction. There is a long way to go here. But the ordinary people want to live in peace. They even -- some of them want to see their neighbors come back so they can resume what they consider to be a more normal lifestyle. But it's not going to exist without the U.S. military being there, at least for now. Until and unless they can, you know, stand up on their own with their own police forces and try to negotiate some of these pitfalls.

FOREMAN: We've all learned to be cautious, but it does sound like some good news. Thanks so much, Jim and Jamie both. That's how it looks in one part of Iraq. But is the success in Diyala just a fluke? In just a minute, we're going to examine the big picture of the whole country and see what hope there is for Iraq's future now compared to two months ago.

But next, a look at the troops who are fighting this war and the nightmares that they are bringing home. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

FOREMAN: On Monday, 168 members of the Minnesota National Guard returned home to a hero's welcome from friends, family, and the students of a local elementary school. Company B, first combined arms battalion was deployed for 13 months in Iraq, working on joint missions with the Iraqi army and police. The next day, another army was mobilized in Minnesota. 350 psychologists, doctors and nurses attended a conference on the combat-related mental health problems of returning veterans. Two Iraq veterans have committed suicide in Minnesota this year and conference organizers say it's clear that the Veteran's Administration cannot handle this crisis alone. Are we failing to treat the psychological wounds of these battles?

In our Washington studio, Dr. Antonette Zeiss, deputy chief of mental health at the Department of Veterans Affairs and also Mark Benjamin. He's a national correspondent from salon.com and has written extensively on this issue. Mark, let me start with you. Your writing has suggested that we're not doing a good job with this.

MARK BENJAMIN, SALON.COM: We certainly have had our problems as the years have gone by. I've done some reporting at Walter Reed Army Medical Center that would show that some of the treatment, particularly on the army side of the house, Dr. Zeiss, I'm glad to hear, has really fallen short. In other words, soldiers have not -- have had trouble getting access to treatment. They've been over- medicated and the treatment hasn't dealt with some of the serious issues that they seem to need to work out. The other thing I would add is that the real problem on the army side is that there's a problem -- the army has gotten mixed up worrying about how much money they're going to pay people in compensation disability benefits, essentially, and it's gotten really mixed up with the health care. That's the sort of big morass, the technical bureaucracy that the "Washington Post" also wrote about that's the real problem.

FOREMAN: Doctor, that's the real complaint in all this. For average voters out there, people who want to support the troops is that they're getting all sorts of excuses from the bureaucracy about why this is not being done. These are people who were shot at for us. What's the problem?

DR. ANTONETTE ZEISS, DEPT. OF VETERANS AFFAIRS: First of all, I'd like to say that I appreciate you're differentiating between the Department of Veteran's Affairs and the Department of Defense. The issues are quite different in the two arenas and I'm here to talk about the Department of Veteran's Affairs and what we can do for mental health problems of returning veterans.

FOREMAN: Are you doing enough? What are you doing?

ZEISS: We have been planning and gearing up since early in the conflict. We developed a mental health strategic plan in 2004 based on a number of anticipated needs as well as the desire to transform our mental health care to be state-of-the-art. Since then --

FOREMAN: Where are you succeeding and where are you failing?

ZEISS: Well, one of our big successes is that in the last 2 1/2 years, we've hired 3,200 new mental health professionals who are spread throughout the system. We've expanded our mental health both in our medical facilities and in our community-based out-patient clinics. We've have expanded tele-mental health to be able to reach out to those who live more distantly from medical facilities. We have more hiring along the way.

FOREMAN: Let me ask you this. I want you to jump in on this, Mark for a minute. The problem with that, to me, seems to be we knew this war was coming. It seems a little bit late to be saying now we've done a lot of planning. We're getting things in place. We're talking about extraordinary numbers of young people. What are you hearing from the veterans you talk to?

BENJAMIN: One of the things that's really interesting about this issue, it's very complex because we have the Department of Veteran's Affairs, which takes care of veterans, treats them, gives them compensation for their problems and then we have the army that does the same thing. My reporting suggests that where the army has really failed is -- is sadly twice. They've done, in my opinion, some pretty -- pretty poor treatment of the soldiers. And have not been fair in terms of compensating them. The Department of Veteran's Affairs, my reporting which does the same thing again, actually does a very good job both with treatment and with compensation. The problem with the Department of Veterans Affairs is just -- my reporting suggests there's not enough money. There's just not enough doctors and not enough...

FOREMAN: One of the issues seems to be continually here post- traumatic stress disorder, the notion that there are many people because of the nature of this conflict, the constant threat living in every environment where every civilian possibly represents a threat, that many people are suffering from this and will suffer for a long time. What are we doing to help these people, not just today, but 10 years from now and 20 years from now?

ZEISS: Well, I'm glad to talk about post-traumatic stress disorder because you're quite right. It is one of those problems that is a result potentially of being in combat. But I also want to be clear that the Department of Veteran's Affairs has to be responsive to a whole array of mental health problems. Less than half of those who are seeking care from the VA of the returning veterans have a potential or a confirmed diagnosis of PTSD. That's a lot of folks and they're very important to us. I'll tell you a little bit about what we do for them. But we also have to be sure that we're treating the whole array of possible mental health problems and we do.

FOREMAN: One of the things - I want to (INAUDIBLE) here, the president raised, he said on Tuesday basically that the system overall, you keep differentiating and I understand there is a differentiation, but for normal voters out there, in the end is the government serving them? Listen to what the president said about this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Our system for managing this care has fallen behind. It's an old system. It's an antiquated system. It's an outdated system. That needs to be changed.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

FOREMAN: So that's the commander in chief. And he's not differentiating. He's basically saying our medical care for PTSD, for everything else for our soldier is simply not where it ought to be. Is your department truly acting quickly and expeditiously to say you're going to solve this, not three years from now, but now?

ZEISS: Well, I think that's what I was saying before. We started three, four years ago. And we've been actively implementing. We had a very strong mental health system at that time and we've been augmenting it because we knew the needs would grow.

FOREMAN: When will it reach the level it ought to be?

ZEISS: We believe that it is very much providing adequate care currently and it will continue to grow as more and more veterans return and continue to grow as more and more veterans return and continue to need more help. So we have another 900 hires in the pipeline. And in the process of being hired. And there will be more after that. We have the funding to do it, and we have really rich, complex health care system that not only covers mental health and hires mental health professionals, but integrates mental health care into primary care so that people can access it very readily as a component of their overall care, not just their...

TOM FOREMAN, CNN, ANCHOR: The last word to you, Mark. When you do think it will be up to the par that the veterans need or want?

MARK BENJAMIN, SALON.COM: It's going to be a long, long time for it to go up to par and take a lot of work and a lot of money. It's so interesting to hear the president say that I've been reporting on this issue since soon after September 11th. And for years, soldiers have been sitting around places like Walter Reed for months, sometimes years, waiting to get the proper treatment and waiting to get the proper compensation. It's been a disaster for a long time.

FOREMAN: I have the feeling that despite our best hopes we will be talking about this again in the future. Dr., thank you for being here. Thanks so much Mark as well. We appreciate your time.

Up next, it seems as if at least one general thinks that Al Qaeda in Iraq is all but eliminated. But we heard this kind of mission accomplished talk before. But this may be different. Stick around.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TONY HARRIS: Hello, everyone. I'm Tony Harris. Here's what's happening. 90 days and counting for Atlanta. That's how long one of the largest cities in the south has left before it runs out of drinking water. Georgia governor Sonny Perdue has declared a drought emergency. Tonight, he is asking President Bush for help as 85 counties enter the worst drought on record. The governor wants the president to ease federal rules requiring the state to send water downstream to Alabama and Florida.

The toddler tonight everyone is calling a miracle baby. 14- month-old tossed 40 feet by a tornado as the twister ripped apart a Michigan town. Harrowing moments for his parents. All they knew was that the baby's crib was empty. That's a piece of the baby's crib on top of that debris. Not everyone was as lucky as little Blake (Optiman). At least six are dead tonight as a powerful band of storms raged from Washington state to Florida. Those are the headlines this hour. Keeping you informed, CNN, the most trusted name in news.

FOREMAN: On Monday, a headline in the "Washington Post" proclaimed that Al Qaeda in Iraq is crippled. It was roundly criticized for being overly optimistic, but an odd thing happened in Baghdad on Wednesday or actually didn't happen. No car bombs, no mass shootings, no major acts of violence. If there were any wood on this set right now, I would knock on it. But is it just possible that we've turned a corner in Iraq? For real this time. To discuss this dangerous concept in Baghdad, CNN's senior international correspondent, Nic Robertson. And in New York, Leslie Gelb, Pulitzer prize winning reporter, former official of the state and Defense Department and now president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. Nic, let me start with you on the ground there. Is there a sense in Iraq and in Baghdad that in dealing with Al Qaeda, a corner has been turned?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN, SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I think perhaps Baghdad is the hardest place to measure any type of corner in the dynamic in Iraq. You can certainly look at other parts, to the west to Anbar province where Al Qaeda does seem to have been forced out of there. The attacks have gone down significantly. You can look to other areas in Iraq where attacks are down and certainly there does seem to be, if we look at this new alliance of Jihadi groups here, insurgents, some of them were formerly aligned with Al Qaeda and now are striking out on their own in a new political direction announcing a political leadership, which no insurgent group outside of Al Qaeda has done before. It does seem to indicate the insurgents here at least think Al Qaeda is perhaps getting on to a back foot, if you will, Tom.

FOREMAN: There's a couple of important graphics I want to talk about for a moment here. One is a CNN opinion research corporation poll about the impression Americans have about this war right now. Basically what it's showing is that across the board, people think it's getting better or at least not getting worse. That's quite an improvement over earlier in the year. A second graphic I want to look at is the fatalities in Iraq. Combat deaths for U.S. soldiers - Back in May, 120. Now down to 42 combat deaths and 23 of those were non- hostile. Essentially, you're talking about accidents, things like that. This is an extraordinary change, but less, the same question to you. Can this be attributed to Al Qaeda being on the run?

LESLIE GELB, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS: Well, I'm happy to see this data and I'm happy to see the decline in the violence and particularly of the American combat deaths. But I've been involved in insurgencies, civil wars my whole professional career. And I never talk about turn-arounds based on military data. Because all of these wars are really at their core political wars. As our generals have said from day one, there's no such thing as a military victory. You can only have a political victory. So anybody who goes around predicting that corners have been turned, until there are political corners turning, ends up being wrong.

FOREMAN: Nic, I want to get back to you on that very point that Les raised there. One of the issues, it seems to be coming up a lot now, is that there is much more dialogue between the Sunni and Shia leaders, not so much in Baghdad, but out in the countryside where they're saying if their political leadership won't forge deals, maybe they can. Is that a real thing? Is that something we should be looking at more closely?

ROBERTSON: Well, it certainly is something the troops on the ground are very keen to foster. Where they've had the successes in the west of Iraq with Sunni tribal leaders, they're trying to bring about those same successes in some of the mixed areas, and that means bringing together Sunni and Shia tribal leaders who have their own local vested interests at heart to return stability, push out Al Qaeda, and whomever else in those areas, and it's playing on those local needs rather than the sort of national competitiveness of some of the politicians here in Baghdad. So it is, in a way, a necessary step to bring stability to these areas. It's proven successful in some parts of Iraq, but it is an incredibly difficult thing to do, nevertheless.

FOREMAN: And there are so many things still up in play. Nic, look at the map on the wall here. Briefly, we talk about the countryside outside of Baghdad and all the issues. You've recently been up near Turkey where we have the difficulties between the Kurds and the Turks up there. Do you have a sense, Nic that, that is ready to become yet another big hot spot for Iraq or can it just simmer for now?

ROBERTSON: It looks like it's going to simmer for a while. The Kurds we talked to up in the Kurdish region there feel that the Turks are not at a point where they're going to have a serious incursion, of 19 incursions in the past into northern Iraq. Only one has ever happened in winter, so they're strategically at the wrong time of year. The Kurds aren't seeing anything on the border like the Turks are getting ready to close the border to make them think it's going to happen very soon. The overriding image, particularly in the context of what we've been talking about here, the bigger picture in Iraq, the overriding image in the north of Iraq, the Kurdish-controlled area, is one of economic prosperity.

FOREMAN: Les, my question is to what extent can these improvements overall, if you talk about the Kurdish area where you have economic improvements, you talk about some political improvements, some decrease in violence, can all of that help fight what is left of Al Qaeda no matter how big it is there?

GELB: Look, the issue is how much of this civil war and insurgency is really caused by Al Qaeda. The Bush administration has talked about Al Qaeda as if it's the center of things. It's the major part of this insurgency. And it isn't. It's the smallest part of it. The civil war, the wars among the militias and the other groups are the major part of it. And while that, too, has gone down, that is still the major problem we have. We could get rid of Al Qaeda tomorrow, maybe they are suffering mortal blows. But that insurgency and that civil war will continue.

FOREMAN: Les Gelb and Nic Robertson, that's the time we have. Thanks for joining us.

The last time a Russian leader visited Tehran, he was a reluctant U.S. ally, dictatorial and untrustworthy. That was Joseph Stalin back in 1943. So does the same description apply to Vladimir Putin? We'll go into that in just a moment but first let's take time to a final salute to some of those who fell in "This Week at War."

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

FOREMAN: President Bush made it very very clear on Wednesday if Iran gets it hands on nuclear weapons, we could be looking at World War III. This was a strong shot across the bow of Russian President Vladimir Putin who appeared to embrace Iran's nuclear ambitions when he visited Tehran this week. Is Putin still an ally to America? If not, what does Russia really want? To answer these questions, international correspondent Aneesh Raman joins us now from Cairo Egypt, and with me in Washington, former CNN Moscow bureau chief, Jill Dougherty. Jill, let's start off with you. What does Russia want right now?

JILL DOUGHERTY, FORMER CNN MOSCOW BUREAU CHIEF: You know, I think they want the best of both worlds. I think Putin wants to be on the side of the United States when he believes that he should be, when he thinks it's in his interest, but he also wants to play the other side. And he keeps going back and forth. And that's where you get the strange kind of is he with us? Or Is he against us? But number one, his primary motivation is to put Russia back on the map, an influential country one way or the other.

FOREMAN: Aneesh, do the Iranians like this right now when they're rattling sabres at the U.S., too?

ANEESH RAMAN, CNN, MIDDLE EAST CORRESPONDENT: They love it. This is exactly what Iran could have hoped for out of a visit by a Russian president. Here was Putin trying to distance himself with independent clout and thought from the American policy in the middle east, but he was in Iran embracing that, getting a veto yielding member of the U.N. security council to endorse Iran's right to have peaceful civilian nuclear energy. You know, this is international cover credibility for Iran. The main allies that they have coming through there in Tehran tend to be Hezbollah, Hamas, the presidents of Syria, Sudan, for example. So to have the Russian president in Tehran voicing support for Iran and its nuclear programs is a big deal.

FOREMAN: We're going to go to the map in a moment. But first, I want you to listen to what Paula Hancocks reported on Thursday to get a sense of the flavor of all of this.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSINA PRESIDENT (through translator): Until it is done, the Iraqi leadership feeling quite comfortable under the reliable American umbrella will not speed up the development of its own armed forces and law enforcement bodies.

PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN, CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Mr. Putin told viewers he believed Iraq was invaded because of its oil well and the U.S. now has to leave as soon as possible.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

FOREMAN: Energy as Paula (inaudible) is in the middle of all of this. Let's look at the map here. Russia is only a little more than a 100 miles away from Iran at its closest point. They all surround all these nations, the Caspian Sea where there's a lot of talk about oil resources, gas resources. To what extent is that the core of this also? The motion that Russia is getting its economic clout back?

DOUGHERTY: That's definitely part of it. If you look at that map, don't forget, those countries, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, used to be part of the Soviet Union. So who ran the oil, who owned the oil at least in part of the Caspian? It was the Soviet Union. Now they're individual countries. So the big divvying up has to happen. It used to be the Soviet Union and Iran. Now it's five countries. So that's part of the issue that they're talking about.

FOREMAN: And Russia has real investment here in Iran. Zoom in if you would and we'll take a look at the nuclear facilities that they're building down here. The Russians very much would like to see this work. Right in the satellite image, you can see it there on the ground. Aneesh, do you see that Iran really wants to fully embrace this relationship with Russia or Iran wanting to be independent wants to get the benefit but then keep Russia at arm's length.

RAMAN: Yes, it's tricky. You know, this relationship was previously really defined by mutual distrust. And that map that you just showed (Bashir), the plant that Russia is building. It's a great insight into this relationship. Bashir has been delayed multiple times. The contract for it is worth up to $1 billion. Russia says and has said the delays are because Iran isn't paying the bills. Iran has denied that and said Russia is delaying for political reasons. That's sort of an insight into this relationship, a delicate now. Russia doesn't want a rising Iran that's going to complete not just for resource but for power in this part of the world, but at the same time, it uses Iran as it is right now as leverage against the U.S. So for Iran, right now this is a relationship of mutual benefit. But it could go back to one of mutual distrust. It's sort of the underlying current that we've seen up until recent times.

FOREMAN: And Jill, Vladimir Putin was supposed to be leaving office, but we may be dealing with this for quite some time now. He's talking about this political moves that would basically keep him in power. How would that work and will the Russian system tolerate it?

DOUGHERTY: Next March when their presidential elections happen, he is not supposed to, according to the constitution run for a third consecutive term. So, he doesn't. He becomes, instead, the prime minister. And so this powerful position of president that he has made even more powerful now the center of gravity politically shifts from the president to the prime minister. So you could have some person who's not that influential as president, kind of a figurehead as you see with other countries. But the real center of power is the prime minister and it's still Vladimir Putin.

FOREMAN: And we're going to have to leave it at that. Thanks both for being here. We'll keep an eye on the great Russian bear.

Straight ahead, our i-reporter prepares her son's personal thoughts as she prepares for him home leave from Iraq. And of course, our look at the best in combat photographs. Coming up too, you don't want to miss that. Stick with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

FOREMAN: Time for our dispatches segment. Your view of "This Week at War." And this week our i-reporter is Julie (Whiteside) from Indiana. Her son is Specialist Jeffrey Whiteside is in Kuwait right now. Heading home from Iraq where he is serving with the first battalion 26th regiment. His unit has already lost 25 people, 12 were close friends. But Julie reports that Jeff hasn't lost faith in his mission and says that meeting Iraqi children is one of the biggest reasons for him to be there. A week from Monday he will be arriving in Indianapolis for 30 days of home leave, time to see his brother, four sisters, and, of course, his mom. Since 30 days goes fast, they'll pack in his 23rd birthday, Thanksgiving, and Christmas all before he heads back. So happy birthday, cheers, and merry Christmas. We'd like to share your stories from the battlefields to the home front. Just go to CNN.com/thisweekatwar and click on the i-report link. It's really quite easy so give it a try.

In a moment we'll look at the first war ever fought. But first, let's take some time for today's wars and the work of combat photographers bringing the reality home. In the west bank city of Janine, Mohammed (Balas) caught these Palestinian boys, like any boys, playing with new toy guns as they celebrated the end of the holy month of Ramadan. In Puerto Rico, (Brandon Lindsey) was there as the honor guard for Staff Sergeant Ricardo Rodriguez was reflected in the window of the hearse that carried him to his final rest. A Greek Cypriate soldier is the subject of this dramatic image by Petros (Caradijos). The soldier was taking part in a national guard exercise in Larnika. And finally, shock and sorrow on a child's face as he looks into a mini bus where three died from a roadside bomb. (Adil Al Kazali) took this picture on Sunday in eastern Baghdad.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

FOREMAN: The first war in recorded history was a clash between two city states between the Tigress and Euphrates rivers some 4,000 years ago and it was fought over water supplies. If you think this is only ancient history, think again. Just a couple of years ago, a senior official at the World Bank predicted that the next world war wouldn't be fought over ideology, religion or even oil. It would once again be fought over water.

Next week, CNN is presenting a sweeping four-hour documentary on the threats to the earth's environment "Planet in Peril" anchored by our Anderson Cooper, Dr. Sanjay Gupta and "Animal Planet's" Jeff Corwin. We really would like you to watch this. It's not just about saving cuddly little animals, although that's important, of course. It's really about our future. After all, those ancient city states fought that first battle in a land that we now call Iraq.

Turning now to some of the stories that we'll be following in the next "Week at War." Tuesday, Iran's nuclear negotiator will be in Rome to meet with the European Union's foreign policy chief. And Wednesday, NATO defense ministers hold an informal meeting on Afghanistan where the government of Hamid Karzi is facing its toughest year since the 2001 invasion. That's it. Thanks for joining us on "This Week at War." I'm Tom Foreman. We will see you next week. Straight ahead, "Larry King Live."

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