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Libyan Regime Collapsing; Interview With Arizona Senator John McCain; Gadhafi's Son Escapes from Rebels; Rebels Take Libyan Capital

Aired August 22, 2011 - 18:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR, THE SITUATION ROOM: And you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now, breaking news. Rebels now hold 90 percent of Libya's capital. President Obama says the Gadhafi regime is coming to an end. But as celebrations begin in the streets of Tripoli and elsewhere, the fighting rages on. We have correspondents on the ground with the very latest. We will check in live with them.

Republican Senator John McCain says the Obama administration should have been tougher sooner. I will speak with him live this hour. I will ask him why he's critical of the president, despite the success on the ground.

And Moammar Gadhafi now a hunted man. We will take a closer look at his reign of terror, and we will look ahead to the war crimes trials that may, may await him and his inner circle.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. Breaking news, political headlines all straight ahead. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

The breaking news out of Libya, where after 42 years, the regime is collapsing. There are still fierce battles raging, but the rebels now control most of the capital. They have captured three of Moammar Gadhafi's sons, but now we have learned, just learned, one of those sons has actually escaped, and there's no sign of Gadhafi himself.

The Pentagon says it believes he remains inside Libya somewhere. Regardless of Gadhafi's whereabouts, President Obama today said the regime is coming to an end. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Although it's clear that Gadhafi's rule is over, he still has the opportunity to reduce further bloodshed by explicitly relinquishing power to the people of Libya.

As we move forward from this pivotal phase, the opposition should continue to take important steps to bring about a transition that is peaceful, inclusive and just.

True justice will not come from reprisals and violence. It will come from reconciliation and a Libya that allows its citizens to determine their own destiny.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: As the chaos swirls around them, thousands of foreign nationals have asked for help in leaving Libya. One boat has left Benghazi and is due in Tripoli to start evacuating foreigners.

CNN's Sara Sidner been with the rebels in their desperate fight to take control of the capital and they celebrate their successes on a moment-by-moment basis. Sara spent the day in Tripoli. She is joining us now from the nearby city of Zawiyah.

Sara, set the scene for us. It's been a historic, dramatic day, but this war, civil war, I should call it, is not yet over.

SARA SIDNER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It's not yet over, and I was just pausing for a moment because we think we hear planes, which can only mean one thing, that if we do hear planes, which is what it sounds like, it has to be NATO because of the no-fly zone and we're wondering what kind of action might be taken tonight.

It gives us pause. We're hearing lots of blasts and gunfire again and oddly it doesn't sound like the same kind of celebratory fire that we were used to hearing. Sometimes, you can start to tell the difference between a firefight and just celebrating. So we're not quite sure actually what is going on down near the edge of Zawiyah.

BLITZER: It looks like we have -- unfortunately, we have lost our connection. We're going to try to reconnect with Sara. She's joining us from Zawiyah.

Let's see if we can get her back. I think she's coming back.

Sara, can you hear me?

SIDNER: OK.

So basically what we were hearing in the square today was a lot of gunfire, and I think that for a lot of reasons, there are also reporters that are in a particular hotel. They are also hearing blasts and booms, but I do want to caution while you hear some of these what sound like these massive blasts that do not belong in a city, we were watching them blow off these huge bits of ammunition from cannons even in celebration, and so it's hard sometimes to tell whether or not there's an actual major battle going on or whether or not you have a small fight with small-arms fire and then celebrations going on in another part of the city.

We're hearing a lot of gunfire again here in Zawiyah, and, again, very difficult to tell sometimes if there hasn't been some movement. There are going to be areas where, for example, some people who support Gadhafi or those who were fighting for Gadhafi have made themselves look like perhaps civilians or found a place for themselves and then start fighting back. It's just very hard to tell.

And that's what happens at urban warfare. You just never know what's around the corner, so it's still very tense in the city, although, earlier in the day, when we first rolled into the city, it was very smooth sailing, with the rebels going everywhere, waving their flags. They were shooting their guns in the air. There were some families that were beginning to come out and cheer on the rebels, seemed very jubilant, very excited, people very happy, saying Libya is free. Libya is free. No more Moammar Gadhafi.

But then as the night falls, it starts to feel a little bit different because you're not quite sure exactly what it is you're going to be dealing with in the dead of night -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Amazing when you think about these rebels. They were basically a ragtag army, and now they are about to control Tripoli and the rest of Libya, for that matter, Sara.

You know, the ambassador of the opposition, the Libyan Transitional Council, here in Washington, Ambassador Aujali, he was just here, and he told us that one of Gadhafi's sons, Mohammed, has actually in his words been hijacked or escaped.

How is that possible? You're with those rebels all the time. How is it possible that one of Gadhafi's sons who was arrested in their control all of a sudden escapes?

SIDNER: It's not hugely surprising, to be perfectly honest with you, Wolf. There's a time in which groups of people are having to come together. That time is now, but there is, of course, going to be dissension. There is, of course, going to be questions about how well prepared they are to deal with things such as an arrest of a very high-profile person.

You don't know who that person's contacts are, who may have had some loyalties towards him or Moammar Gadhafi, for that matter, so this is going to show some of the cracks that exist in the National Transitional Council and in the judiciary system that is still quite shaky, if you will, because they are still fighting a real battle here.

They do not have full control of Tripoli, and you cannot say that they have full control of every single city in Libya, and there are things that are going to be shaky, and that is one of the big questions, that if and when Moammar Gadhafi is found, if he is detained or if he is killed or if he is found to have left the country, then what? Then what happens? Then who runs this country? Then who takes over and tries to create a sense of rule and order in this country?

A very difficult thing to do, and the National Transitional Council has its job cut out for it, Wolf.

BLITZER: Sara, we will get back to you. Stand by.

Sara Sidner doing heroic work for us in Libya right now.

But let's bring in our national security reporter Fran Townsend. She serves on both the CIA and Homeland Security external advisory boards. She has had experience dealing with the Gadhafi regimes. She visited high-ranking Libyan officials at the invitation of the Libyan government not that long ago.

This is amazing what's going on right now. Is there an insurgency potentially that's in the works?

FRANCES TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR: I think there is, Wolf. You know, one of the interesting things is as the forces around Gadhafi have slowly begun to disintegrate and allowed the rebels into Tripoli, what you worry about is these forces will take off their uniforms and live to fight another day, much as what we saw in Iraq.

And so I think the potential for that is question quite dangerous for the Transitional National Council, and one of the things that the U.S. and Western European allies will have to help them as they begin to try and form a government.

BLITZER: Because it's amazing to me that one of the sons of Moammar Gadhafi, Mohammed Gadhafi is taken prisoner and then he escapes.

I spoke with the ambassador, the Libyan ambassador who represents the opposition, the rebels, here in THE SITUATION ROOM. Let me play a little clip.

TOWNSEND: Sure.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ALI SULEIMAN AUJALI, LIBYAN AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED STATES: Mohammed, he was captured yesterday, was arrested yesterday. And then, when they want to take him somewhere else for his protection, Mr. Abdul-Jalil (ph), he interfered and tell, well, let him stay where he is, according to his request. But I do understand...

BLITZER: So he's escaped?

AUJALI: I do understand that he escaped today.

BLITZER: He did escape today?

AUJALI: He did escape.

BLITZER: How is that possible? I mean, the son of Moammar Gadhafi. I understand Saadi is under your control. Saif al-Islam is under your control. But Mohammed escapes after he's arrested by the forces?

AUJALI: Well, Mohammed, he is the less aggressive among his friends -- among his brothers.

BLITZER: So they let him escape?

AUJALI: And then, Mr. Abdul-Jalil (ph), he wants to deal with him this way, because Mohammed, he is the first son of Gadhafi from a different woman, not from the same woman -- from the same wife now Gadhafi has. And then they want to show the world that this is the TNC, how they are dealing with Gadhafi's sons.

BLITZER: So they let him go?

AUJALI: They don't let him go. He had been hijacked by some -- by maybe Gadhafi's forces.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Well, I don't know what that means, he's been hijacked by Gadhafi's forces, but what does that say to you that they arrested a guy, the son of Gadhafi, and now he's free?

TOWNSEND: Right. Well, it certainly sounds from the ambassador's interview, Wolf, that they made a decision. There was a conscious decision to permit him without a fight to leave the control of the rebels.

And this really goes to, is there a cohesive command-and-control structure? Are these decisions made by a central political authority within the TNC? And it's not at all clear. Some of these decisions are clearly being made ad hoc. And that's going to be a challenge for the TNC as they move forward and try to form a government.

BLITZER: Because it's not a well-organized opposition. There are not the institutions as existed let's say in Egypt, for example, to deal with a transition after Mubarak.

TOWNSEND: That's right, and, you know, there's Gadhafi, Moammar Gadhafi, to blame for that. There are no civil institutions, and there's no experience and history with civil institutions in Libya for the last more than 40 years, because of Gadhafi not permitting them.

And so this is a real challenge to organize themselves, for there to be internal communications so that policy decisions, political decisions of this nature can be taken at the most senior level.

BLITZER: And it's hard to believe, but there are a lot of people in Libya who are still, after all is said and done, loyal to Gadhafi.

TOWNSEND: It's not clear what's holding them together, Wolf. We have heard a lot of rumor about mercenaries and individuals being paid by Gadhafi, so it's not clear what the binding force is there, or how long it will hold. I mean, you know, as they get closer to either the capture or killing of Gadhafi, as they move into Tripoli, the question is, will those forces hold? And I suspect eventually they will peel away.

BLITZER: The ambassador also said that they don't know where Gadhafi is, but he suspects he may either be in that presidential compound in Tripoli, or he may be hiding out at a hospital convinced that the NATO allies would never bomb a hospital and that might be a sort of human shield for him.

TOWNSEND: Right. Well, I wouldn't put it past Gadhafi. You could imagine him in a helicopter or a hotel. I worry for the remaining journalists that are there. We have seen the risks that Sara and Matt Chance have taken. It really is a dangerous time there, and as the pressure mounts on Gadhafi and the guards still left around him, desperate men do desperate things and so you really do worry about what actions they will take, like using journalists and hospitals and all those sorts of things as human shields.

BLITZER: Let's get back to this notion of an insurgency along the lines of what happened in Baghdad after the U.S. and its allies went in and got rid of Saddam Hussein, but then a civil war, an insurgency developed, and it went on and on and on. You could potentially see that happening in Libya?

TOWNSEND: I think we have to watch for that. This is a very tribal society. There are some of those tribes still supporting Gadhafi. You have the transnational council, and you have to be very careful to try and bring as many people into this transitional government to avoid such a thing.

It cannot be that those who had supported Gadhafi, even late, feel that they are not wanted and not heard inside the new government. They are going to have to bring them in.

BLITZER: Fran Townsend, thanks very much.

While the world wonders what happened to Moammar Gadhafi, defense experts worry about what's happening with his chemical weapons. Should the U.S. send troops in to secure the weapons?

Plus, Libya's rebels are on the brink of victory. Senator John McCain is standing by live. We will talk to him. He's slamming the Obama administration for not doing more to help the rebels earlier on.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Jack Cafferty is here with "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Here's some great news. U.S. troops may stay in Afghanistan until 2024, 10 years later than when the U.S. has said it would hand over security to Kabul.

The British newspaper "The Daily Telegraph" reports that the U.S. and Afghan governments are close to signing a deal that would allow thousands of U.S. troops to stay in Afghanistan for an additional 10 years. For what? The reason we went there, Osama bin Laden, he's dead.

The U.S. economy collapsing under a mountain of debt. We're either unable or unwilling to fix our own financial problems, so what exactly is the point of dumping additional billions of dollars, not to mention human treasure, into that sandpit, Afghanistan?

According to "The Daily Telegraph," the agreement will allow both military trainers and U.S. special forces, plus airpower, to remain in Afghanistan until at least 2024. Top officials for both governments reportedly say they want to sign this pact before December. No surprise Afghanistan's neighbors, Iran, Pakistan none too happy about the news, the prospect of American troops staying for at least another decade.

It's also likely the Taliban would reject such a deal. They have said all along that foreign troops have to leave before they will negotiate with Hamid Karzai's government. Meanwhile, U.S. troops have already begun withdrawing from Afghanistan to meet the 2014 deadline. Earlier this summer, President Obama announced that the 33,000 additional surge forces would all be home by next fall, just in time for the election.

Back then, Mr. Obama said that it's time to focus on nation-building here at home. There's an idea. Once the surge forces withdraw from Afghanistan, that would leave about 70,000 U.S. troops.

So here's the question. U.S. troops may stay in Afghanistan until 2024. What exactly is the point?

Go to CNN.com/caffertyfile. Post a comment on my blog. Go to our post on THE SITUATION ROOM's Facebook page.

Lined up like Germany or Japan or those places, Korea -- 50 years later, we're still there.

BLITZER: Yes. And they want to keep troops in Iraq after the end of this year. They are all supposed to be out, too, but now they are now negotiating, trying to negotiate a deal with Iraqis to keep U.S. troops in Iraq as well.

CAFFERTY: We should put troops everywhere. Just -- let's just put troops everywhere, everywhere.

BLITZER: Thank you.

With his regime about to collapse, the hunt is on for Moammar Gadhafi, and there are now fresh concerns about his stash of chemical weapons.

Our Pentagon correspondent Chris Lawrence has been tracking this part of the story for us.

What's going on here, Chris?

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, we have learned that U.S. and NATO officials have been talking to National Transitional Council officials for several weeks now about Libya's stockpiles of mustard gas.

Look, NATO was instrumental in helping the rebels fight their way into Tripoli, but now there are serious questions about how far NATO will go to help secure those chemical weapons.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LAWRENCE (voice-over): The Pentagon has released new numbers that show U.S. air attacks on Gadhafi targets nearly doubled over the past 12 days. And as the rebels captured territory and Gadhafi fighters pulled back towards the capital, it isolated the regime's leadership. NATO was able to focus on Tripoli and began to destroy Moammar Gadhafi's command-and-control.

BRIGADIER GENERAL JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS (RET.), U.S. ARMY: They would not be anywhere close to where they are without NATO's support.

LAWRENCE: Pentagon officials believe Gadhafi is still in Libya and say his forces fired a Scud missile Monday near the city of Sirte.

PAUL WOLFOWITZ, former U.S. DEPUTY DEFENSE SECRETARY: He's not acting like someone who is preparing to give up, in which case I suppose we could see a fairly bloody end to this.

LAWRENCE: Former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz says he is concerned about the stockpiles of weapons left behind.

WOLFOWITZ: They may even include mustard gas and some other particularly noxious stuff.

LAWRENCE: In fact, the Arms Control Association estimates Libya has 10 tons of the deadly blister agent. A NATO official says they have used satellites, drones and other aircraft to keep an eye on Libya's weapons of mass destruction. They have also asked rebel leaders to keep track of it, but Pentagon officials insist there will be no American troops involved on Libya's soil.

MARKS: I'm very concerned with the United States stating with so much certainty that they are not going to put boots on the ground.

LAWRENCE: Retired General James "Spider" Marks says even though Libya gave up its nuclear program, the intelligence behind it is still dangerous.

MARKS: The smart technical brains I would imagine are still in place, and what side are they on? Where do their loyalties lie?

LAWRENCE: Marks and Wolfowitz say the U.S. cannot step back too far.

WOLFOWITZ: I don't know what boots on the ground means, but if it means no combat troops, that's great. If it means no assistance to Libyans to secure mustard gas, it's not a good idea.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

LAWRENCE: Yes, the NATO official says that U.S. intelligence officials and also other countries' officials have been in Libya for the past several weeks, helping some of the rebels secure those weapons storage sites. One U.S. official says he hopes that those items do not get out of the control of the National Transitional Council -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I know U.S. officials are very worried about that scenario. All right. Thanks very much, Chris Lawrence at the Pentagon.

All right, here's something you don't see every day. A television anchorwoman, she pulled out a gun on the air and vowed to kill or die for Moammar Gadhafi. We're going to tell you what happened to this Libyan television anchor.

And he has actually met with Moammar Gadhafi. We will be speaking with Senator John McCain. He's standing by live to join us. We will ask him what's going on and what happens next. We will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The collapse of the Gadhafi regime playing out right now.

The U.S. government says Libya's rebels control 90 percent of the capital. President Obama says Gadhafi's rule is over. But amid growing jubilation, there is still fierce fighting under way right now in the streets of the capital, Tripoli, and the Libyan leader is nowhere to be found.

The rebels captured three of Gadhafi's sons, but Libya's ambassador to the United States tells us that one has now escaped, saying he was -- quote -- "hijacked" by Gadhafi's forces. And just this weekend, a Libyan state television anchor pulled out a gun on the air and vowed to fight to the death for Moammar Gadhafi. Now she's been captured by rebels. State TV is off the air.

We're watching all of these developments, lots of loose ends unfolding right now, a missing dictator, continuing heavy fighting. The U.S. says the Libyan regime is just about finished.

Let's go to our White House correspondent Dan Lothian. He's covering the president's vacation in Martha's Vineyard right now.

Dan, set the scene for us. The president came out and spoke today.

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, but, Wolf, the White House certainly acknowledging that there's a lot of uncertainty still on the ground there in Libya. Where is Moammar Gadhafi? The White House believes that he is still inside Libya.

But as the president himself pointed out, the situation is still fluid. Nonetheless, a White House aide says that the president's strategy over the last six months has yielded -- quote -- "favorable results."

With the toppling of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi seemingly hours or days away, President Obama all but declared the U.S.-NATO strategy a success.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The Gadhafi regime is coming to an end and the future of Libya is in the hands of its people.

In just six months, the 42-year reign of Moammar Gadhafi has unraveled.

LOTHIAN: The rebels known as the National Transitional Council have the full support of the U.S. government, and while the White House policy against putting boots on the ground remains unchanged, the president vowed to be a friend and partner in the peaceful process to democracy.

OBAMA: We will join with allies and partners to continue the work of safeguarding the people of Libya as remaining regime elements menace parts of the country.

LOTHIAN: While the demise of Gadhafi is being praised by some of the president's critics, his six-month timeline is not.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I grieve a bit because this -- this conflict didn't have to last this long. United States airpower could have shortened this conflict dramatically.

LOTHIAN: President Obama's strongest rebuke came in March when he publicly called on the dictator to go.

OBAMA: He has lost legitimacy with his people.

LOTHIAN: Gadhafi thumbed his nose at the West and its allies, but the White House stuck to a supporting role. Unlike in Iraq, international partners did the heavy lifting.

Steven Cook, a Middle East expert at Council on Foreign Relations, who, like the president, is vacationing on Martha's Vineyard, says the administration's game plan was the best possible strategy in what is a complex situation.

STEVEN COOK, DOUGLAS DILLON FELLOW, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS: President after president has been looking to push Moammar Gadhafi out of office. I think it vindicates the intervention on behalf of the Libyan rebels, and I think the hard part now is going to be helping the Libyans build a new state.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

LOTHIAN: Now, President Obama spoke with British Prime Minister Cameron about working with other allies to build a peaceful transition to democracy. That was also the focus of the president's meeting with his national security team in a conference call this afternoon -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Dan, thanks very much -- Dan Lothian reporting for us.

Senator John McCain, as you just saw, was among the first to call for intervention in Libya. And now that the regime has basically collapsed, Senator McCain says the Obama administration should have been more aggressive. Senator McCain is joining us now, right now.

Senator, thanks very much for coming in.

MCCAIN: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Let me get your quick reaction to the news that we broke here in THE SITUATION ROOM. The Libyan ambassador here in Washington, who represents the rebels, the transitional authority in Libya, he says that one of the sons of Gadhafi, Mohammad Gadhafi, has been hijacked or escaped.

What does that say to you?

MCCAIN: It seems to me that the situation is still rather unsettled and, again, there's two steps forward and one step back. And there's still a lot of work to do, not only militarily, but there will be a great task ahead is, building a democracy in a country that's never known it. And it's going to require a lot of work and a little luck.

BLITZER: Some have suggested that those Gadhafi loyalists, the mercenaries, the troops, the others, they may just take off their uniforms, blend in and start some sort of insurgency along the lines of what we saw in Baghdad after 2003.

Should we be worried about that?

MCCAIN: I think we should be worried about a lot of things, but the fact is, Wolf, that you saw the rapid collapse of the Gadhafi forces. The only thing that was holding him in power was money and fear; and once those are dissipated by military strength, then it's very difficult for anyone to be loyal to Gadhafi, unless they are a blood relative.

So I -- I worry about that. I worry about the different tribes. I worry about the piece that you just had on weapons of mass destruction. I worry about the prisons. I hope we can secure them soon, because there's hundreds, if not thousands, of political prisoners. I hope that we won't see a repeat of what happened in Baghdad: looting of public buildings. I -- I'm -- I think that there's a number of other -- especially, and I appreciate the National Transition Council's message on reconciliation and national unity. There's a lot of bad blood there, and let's hope that the people will restrain themselves and recognize that a bloodbath is not in anyone's interest.

BLITZER: You and Senator Lindsey Graham issued a statement last night, saying it could have happened much more quickly, but the president today, as you just heard say -- the president said, "You know what? In six months they've eliminated a 42-year reign of terror." How much credit does he deserve for this strategy that he put together?

MCCAIN: Well, I think the president deserves credit for stopping Gadhafi when he was at the gates of Benghazi and had vowed to go house to house to kill anyone when opposed him.

But the fact is, if we had used the full weight of American air power, it would have been gone -- over a long time ago, and the fact is that young Libyans were wounded and were killed because of that, quote, "leading from behind."

That's -- I am pleased at the outcome. I'm sure the president will take a lot of credit for it, but the facts on the ground are that it could have been over a lot earlier than it was.

And now let's move forward, try to work together, Republicans and Democrats, without spending federal dollars, because it's not money that they need, in working to help Libya make this transition to Democrat -- democracy and a beacon of freedom.

BLITZER: Well, explain why you believe the U.S. air power would have been more successful than the French and the British, the other NATO air power, because they've launched thousands of sorties, as you well know, over these past several months.

MCCAIN: Wolf, I've seen the sortie count before. I saw it in the Vietnam War. The AC-130, the A-10 and other capabilities that our allies do not have, could have been put into -- into action, and we could have taken out Gadhafi's forces earlier. That's just a military reality.

Our allies are wonderful people. Eight nations out of the 28 in NATO were involved in it. Especially helpful were Qatar and UAE. They deserve great credit. But there's no country in the world that has the unique air power, as well as other power, but particularly air power we could have deployed by deploying U.S. air power into the fight. And it's just fact.

BLITZER: But there -- no American lives have been lost over these six months. That's a significant fact, as well, right?

MCCAIN: Yes, and no allied lives have been lost that I know of. Because this is unique terrain, unique advantage to air power, when you have long stretches that the enemy has to go over unprotected, and the -- and it's -- it's ideal for the use of air power and has been since World War II -- the conflict in World War II. So air power is the key and dominant factor, and our allies, as wonderful as they were, didn't have the capabilities that we have.

By the way, we did supply Predator, and we gave them some additional information. We did help in some way, but not with a full weight of U.S. air power, which is unique in the world.

Look, that's over with. I want to work with the administration and with the TNC and these brave people to move forward, and now meet the challenges, which will be incredibly difficult, but achievable, of building democracy.

BLITZER: Two years ago you actually met with Gadhafi at his ranch. You got to know him a little bit. I -- there's a tweet that's now been widely distributed that you put out at that time, in which you said, "Late evening with Colonel Gadhafi at his ranch in Libya. Interesting meeting with an interesting man."

What were your impressions of him? Specifically, will he give up now, or will he fight to the death?

MCCAIN: I don't know, because there's different -- you can't read somebody after -- know somebody after a brief meeting. I think that, if I had to guess -- and it's a pure guess because I don't know him -- that he would probably fight to the death, but I don't know that for sure.

I do know that he has American blood on his hands because of Pan Am Flight 103. I know he is responsible for other acts of terror in the region, and I think that people who worry about what comes after Gadhafi, I think we would be well served if we make sure that there is not an extremist takeover or hijacking of this revolution, and the ones that I met of the transition council are very fine people.

BLITZER: One final question, Senator, before I let you go. What do you say to those Republicans, including some Republican presidential candidates like Michele Bachmann or Ron Paul, who say the U.S. has no business getting involved in these countries? They have plenty to do here. Just stay away from countries like Libya. What do you say to these Republicans?

MCCAIN: I say that the United States of America is a unique experiment in history. I believe in American exceptionalism. I wasn't for sending ground forces into Libya. It would have been counterproductive, but we are an inspiration to these people. I know because I've looked them in the eyes, and they looked at me. They look to America for inspiration and leadership.

And when they're struggling for freedom under brutal and oppressive dictatorships, if we can help them -- and it's a big "if" from time to time -- then we should go to their assistance and make ourselves and our children and our grandchildren and their children and grandchildren proud.

BLITZER: Senator McCain, thanks for coming in.

MCCAIN: Thank you.

BLITZER: Appreciate it very much. Senator John McCain of Arizona.

Under fire in Libya. There's fighting still going on right now in the Libyan capital, and one of our own correspondents is trapped in a hotel there. His dramatic vantage point. That's coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: This year's first Atlantic hurricane has the U.S. in its sights. Lisa Sylvester is here. She's monitoring that and some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now. What's going on?

LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi there, Wolf.

Well, Hurricane Irene is storming through the Caribbean. It unleashed widespread flooding, landslides, and power outages in Puerto Rico. Now it's moving towards the Dominican Republic and earthquake-ravaged Haiti. Irene could threaten areas between Florida and North Carolina by Friday, but forecasters say it is still too early to say where certain -- for certain where it will hit.

Another bombshell in the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case. Sexual assault charges against the former head of the International Monetary Fund will be dropped. That coming from the lawyer for the hotel housekeeper who accuses Strauss-Kahn of attacking her. Attorney Kenneth Thompson met with the Manhattan district attorney's office ahead of tomorrow's status hearings. He says the D.A. is denying his client justice -- Wolf.

BLITZER: What a story that is, too. All right. Thanks very much.

Desperation setting in for foreign journalists trapped in a hotel in Tripoli right now. Our own Matthew Chance is one of those journalists inside the hotel. We'll speak with him when we come back.

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BLITZER: Moammar Gadhafi is now a hunted man. If and when he's found, the once all-powerful leader could end up before an international war crimes court. But will Libya's rebels try to keep him, instead; try him there in Libya? CNN's Lisa Sylvester is following all of this for us.

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SYLVESTER (voice-over): In the opening days of the conflict, protests. Then violence. Civilians killed. The International Criminal Court at the Hague says Moammar Gadhafi, his son Saif al- Islam Gadhafi, and his chief intelligence officer, Abdullah al-Sanusi, systematically murdered and persecuted civilians. They have been charged with crimes against humanity.

Moammar Gadhafi and al-Sanusi's whereabouts are unknown, but Saif Gadhafi is now in custody of Libyan rebel forces. Talks are under way between the Transitional National Council of Libya and the International Criminal Court to hand Saif Gadhafi over.

(via phone) Do you believe that he will ultimately be transferred, that it's just a matter of time to transfer Saif al-Gadhafi?

FADI EL-ABDALLAH, ICC SPOKESMAN: As I indicated, there are legal obligations that the authority has to cooperate with the ICC, and previously, they had indicated their intention to fully cooperate.

SYLVESTER (voice-over): According to the arrest warrant, Saif Gadhafi exercised control over crucial parts to the state apparatus, including finances and logistics, and had the powers of a de facto prime minister, and that he conceived and orchestrated a plan to deter and quell, by all means, the civilian demonstrations against Gadhafi's regime.

Moammar Gadhafi and Abdullah al-Sanusi are accused of similar crimes. International criminal lawyer Bruce Zagaris says Libyan rebels might want to hold onto them to face charges at home, but there are obstacles, because the Libyan government and the court system are in tatters.

BRUCE ZAGARIS, ATTORNEY: If he is ever arrested, he will likely be turned over. It remains to be seen whether he will allow himself, of course, to be arrested. Libya is required to turn him over. (END VIDEOTAPE)

SYLVESTER: If they are taken into ICC custody and eventually found guilty, they would face decades in prison but not the death penalty. The International Criminal Court says it is investigating more accusations against the regime, including allegations of rape and possible cover-up, and it says it could eventually add more charges -- Wolf.

BLITZER: What a story that is. Thanks very much, Lisa, for that.

Moammar Gadhafi is accused of terrible crimes against his own people. If Libya's rebels find him, what happens after that? Stand by.

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BLITZER: Many Libyans say they feel hope today for the first time in four decades. The man who ruled them with an iron fist, Moammar Gadhafi, is a fugitive. His regime is crumbling. Suzanne Malveaux takes a closer look back at the Libyan leader who Ronald Reagan once called the mad dog of the Middle East.

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SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Since 1969, Moammar Gadhafi has controlled nearly everything in his country: business, media, military, and oil. As he grabbed more power, he expelled American and western gas companies and investors, tortured and assassinated Libyan opposition. By 1980, the U.S. had severed all diplomatic ties.

JIMMY CARTER, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Gadhafi is an irresponsible animal who has no scruples, who has no morals.

MALVEAUX: In the early '80s, tension between the U.S. and Libya intensified.

RONALD REAGAN, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We know that this mad dog of the Middle East has a goal of a world revolution, Muslim fundamentalist revolution, which is targeted on many of his own Arab compatriots.

MALVEAUX: After years of minor skirmishes between U.S. and Libyan aircraft, Gadhafi turned into public enemy No. 1. Bombings in Rome, Vienna, and then a disco in West Berlin frequented by Americans, all linked to Libya. The U.S. retaliates.

REAGAN: At 7 p.m. this evening Eastern Time, air and naval forces of the United States launched a series of strikes against the headquarters, terrorist facilities, and military assets that support Moammar Gadhafi's subversive activities.

MALVEAUX: That attack left 100 Libyan's dead, including Gadhafi's daughter. Some believe, for revenge, Gadhafi responded with a bomb aboard Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, leaving 270 dead.

The U.N. Security Council answered with crippling sanctions.

After years of refusing in 1999, Gadhafi finally relented, handing over the Lockerbie suspects.

Following the September 11 attacks and Iraq war, Gadhafi went even further. Libya took responsibility for the bombing and agreed to compensate the victims' families. The U.N. lifted sanctions. And that same year, Gadhafi abandoned his efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction.

GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Colonel Gadhafi correctly judged that his country would be better off and far more secure without weapons of mass murder.

MALVEAUX: The U.S. eased travel restrictions, and western oil companies returned. The U.S.'s closest ally, Great Britain, took the lead.

TONY BLAIR, FORMER PRIME MINISTER OF THE U.K.: I am conscious of the pain that people who have suffered as a result of terrorist actions in the past must feel, but the world is changing.

MALVEAUX: In September of 2008, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with Gadhafi in Libya, the first such meeting between Libya and a high-ranking U.S. official in over half a century.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: I thought he was serious. He said at one point that it has taken too long, that the lessons of history had to be learned.

MALVEAUX: But the very next year, with Great Britain's corporation, Scotland released one of the Lockerbie bombers on humanitarian grounds, which sparked outrage. Scotland allowed the bomber, who was said to be terminally ill, to go home to Libya to die, but he is still alive today. His release has raised questions about if there was something else at play behind the deal, further complicating the thawing relationship between Libya and the west.

Suzanne Malveaux, CNN, Atlanta.

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BLITZER: And we're just getting this in from Sara Sidner. She's in Zawiya. That's only about 20 or 30 kilometers outside of Tripoli. She says there are now renewed sounds of fighting all around Zawiya. Tracer fighter, anti-aircraft guns are firing sporadically, she says, along with sounds of heavier shelling. Ambulances have begun starting up, racing through the city. NATO warplanes are flying above, she says, intermittently. Jamming equipment occasionally knocks out transmissions. Lots going on in Zawiya right now.

Stay with CNN. We'll update you on what's going on.

Also, Moammar Gadhafi, as you know, he's gone he's gone into hiding. He once rode through the streets of his country in triumph. Now, he's being hunted. The latest on the search, that's coming up on "JOHN KING USA" at the top of the hour for our North American viewers.

And U.S. troops to stay in Afghanistan until 2024? That's Jack's question. You tell him what you think when we come back.

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BLITZER: Right back to Jack with "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, the question this hour is: "U.S. troops may stay in Afghanistan until 2024. What exactly is the point in that?"

Dave in Seattle: "We have 93 percent of the nuclear weapons in the world. Our military budget exceeds the budgets of all other countries combined. In addition, you don't fight terrorists with conventional military tactics. It's all about intel and Special Ops. Obsession with military dominance in foreign countries is exactly what precipitated the end of the British Empire. We need to wise up."

John in Louisiana: "Ron Paul has the right idea. Bring all our troops home from wherever they are: Iraq, Afghanistan, Korea, Germany, Japan, et cetera. Enough is enough. We are not the world's police force."

Scott writes, "Keep an embassy in Afghanistan with 100 people, an Embassy Guard of 500 Marines, a drone base with 1,000 armed drones and 400 drone jockeys, and 9,000 emergency military in Kabul. That's about 10,000 troops. This will allow us to bring 96,000 personnel home at a taxpayer savings of $96 billion a year. Collectively, the group left behind can smash the crap out of any terrorist that moves, with the assistance of the regular Afghan police, of course."

Rick in Detroit writes, "The reason for our extended stay in Afghanistan is so we can continue to test drive our high-tech play toys like the Predator drone."

Rob on Facebook: "It's good question, Jack. What is the point? We went in to get bin Laden. Then we left that mission to go to Iraq. Then we found bin Laden in Pakistan. Of course, this is several thousand American lives later and over 100,000 Iraqi lives later. The point is there is no point. Just another attempt to spread the U.S. military machine further across the globe."

Ash in Sacramento, California: "No point. Look back over American history and count one of the number of times there's been a point to warfare. Stopping Hitler, of course. Stopping communist threat in Vietnam, probably not. Looking the other way as a corrupt regime in Afghanistan with little motivation to grow a backbone grows rich while our soldiers die there? Sometimes the question is the answer."

You want to read more on this, go to my blog: CNN.com/Cafferty File or through our post on THE SITUATION ROOM's Facebook page.

Not a lot of support for that idea leaving troops there to 2024.

BLITZER: Do you know what it's costing U.S. taxpayers right now to keep 100,000 troops in Afghanistan? CAFFERTY: Something in the neighborhood of a billion dollars a month, isn't it?

BLITZER: No, $2 billion a week; $120 billion a year. That's what it's costing U.S. taxpayers to keep 100,000 troops.

CAFFERTY: So why are we doing this, then?

BLITZER: We'll discuss tomorrow, Jack. We're out of town. Thanks very much.

CAFFERTY: Sorry.

BLITZER: I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. For our international viewer, "WORLD REPORT" is next. In North America, "JOHN KING USA" starts right now.