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Bush Meets with Abdul Aziz al-Hakim; California Firefighters Battle Out-of-Control Blaze; Authorities Investigate E. coli Outbreak in New Jersey; Pfizer Ends Development of Cholesterol Drug

Aired December 04, 2006 - 14:55   ET


DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: We want to go to the White House right now. Pardon our interruption for that. We want to go to the White House now. The president meeting with the Shiite leader -- Shia leader this morning.
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This is a man whose family suffered unbelievable violence at the hands of the dictator, Saddam Hussein. He lost nearly 60 family members. And yet, rather than being bitter, he's involved with helping the new government succeed.

We talked about a lot of important issues. I appreciate so very much his eminence's commitment to a unity government. I assured him the United States supports his work and the work of the prime minister to unify the country.

Part of unifying Iraq is for the elected leaders and society leaders to reject the extremists that are trying to stop the advance of this young democracy. I appreciated very much his eminence's strong position against the murder of innocent life.

We talked about the need to give the government of Iraq more capability as quickly as possible, so that the elected government of Iraq can do that which the Iraqi people want, which is to secure their country from the extremists and murderers.

I told his eminence that I was proud of the courage of the Iraqi people. I told him that we're not satisfied with the pace of progress in Iraq. And that we want to continue to work with the sovereign government of Iraq to accomplish our mutual objectives, which is a free country that govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself, a free country which will serve as an ally in the war against the extremists and radicals and terrorists.

So your eminence, welcome back. Thank you for the very constructive conversation we had.

ABDUL AZIZ AL-HAKIM, SHIITE LEADER (through translator): In the name of God, the merciful, the passionate, and blessing upon Prophet Mohamed and his purified family and his loyal companions.

My meeting with President Bush today emerges from our shared commitment to continued dialogue and consultation among us. And also on the basis our conviction that the Iraqi issue is a mutual interest. It's an issue that requires coordination between the two sides in a way that can serve both of us, politically and from a security point of view and economic point of view, as well.

Therefore, our conversation today focused on ways to advance the work of the Iraqi government, the elected government, as well as to advance the whole situation in Iraq and move it forward.

Also, we have discussed ways, in order to provide all the necessities that the Iraqi armed forces will need, in terms of armament and in terms of trainings, in order to be in a position to assume the security of Iraq (ph).

The Iraqi situation has been subjected to a great deal of defamation, and the true picture is not being presented, in order to show a dark side of what's happening in Iraq.

We see the attempts to defame and distort the situation in Iraq, not taking into consideration the democratic steps that that country has taken: writing the constitution and establishing a state that depends heavily on the constitution; that it is unified and that it is strong.

There are attempts to show the sectarian strife in an attempt to weaken the position in Iraq.

The U.S. interest, the Iraqi interest, the regional interest, they are all linked. Therefore, it is very important when we deal with this issue, we look at the interests of the Iraqi people. If we don't, this whole issue could backfire and could harm the interests of the region, the United States and Iraq as well.

Therefore, we believe that the Iraqi issue should be solved by the Iraqis, with the help of friends everywhere. But we reject any attempts to have a regional or international role in solving the Iraqi issue. We cannot bypass the political process. Iraq should be in a position to solve Iraqi problems.

We welcome any effort that could enhance the democratic reality in Iraq and protect the constitutional role of that state.

We have gone a long way to establish a democratic and pluralistic society in Iraq.

We have given a great deal of sacrifice toward achieving that objective.

We cherish all the sacrifices that took place for the liberation and the freedom of Iraq -- sacrifices by the Iraqi people as well as friendly nations and, on top of that list, sacrifices by the Americans.

We have now an elected government in Iraq -- a government that is so determined to combat both violence and terror, a government that strongly believes in the unity of that government and of that country and the society; a government that deals and will deal with all the sources of terrorisms, regardless where they come from.

We will work very hard and seek all forms of cooperation, at the international level and the regional level, in order to defeat terrorism that is trying to use Iraq as a base in order to sabotage the future of that nation.

Thank you very much, Mr. President, for allowing me this opportunity to meet with you. I would like to take this opportunity, also, to thank the American people and their sympathy toward Iraq, those who helped Iraq to get rid of a brutal dictatorship and to enjoy freedom and liberty.

BUSH: Thank you, sir.

Thank you, all.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you, all.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thanks, everybody.

LEMON: That was a meeting this morning with the president and Abdul-Aziz Al-Hakim, the Shiite leader of one of the largest bloc -- the largest bloc in Iraq's parliament, talking there -- the president, of course, saying that he would continue to work towards sovereignty in Iraq, and the leader there saying, probably, the most interesting thing -- and we are going to bring in Suzanne Malveaux to -- to talk about this.

But the most interesting thing, at least that I saw, Suzanne, is that -- is that the leader said that the problems should be solved by Iraqis, right...


LEMON: ... with the help of friends, and they reject anything else.

MALVEAUX: You know, Don, that's absolutely right. That is the one nugget to take away from his statement that he made. He said that the Iraqis' problems will be solved by the Iraqis.

He also rejected what he said would be some sort of regional role. And what is he talking about, essentially, is trying to downplay the role of Iran -- a lot of concern that Iran is influencing what happens in Iraq, specifically dealing with the Shiite population, supporting those insurgents, the sectarian violence.

And, so, he was trying to send a signal here, reassuring the Bush administration: Look, I have close ties with Iran. The Badr Brigade was trained, as well as provided with weapons from Iran, but that those ties are the kinds of ties that are going to be positive for that country, that they are not going to allow the Iranian regime, Ahmadinejad, to interfere with the Iraqi going forward in an independent fashion -- Don.

LEMON: All right.

And, you know, he just met with al-Maliki last week, and -- and this. The significance of these two meetings, do you think, Suzanne? MALVEAUX: Well, this is all a part of the Bush's administration outreach to top Iraqi officials. It's interesting, because Hakim, arguably, is more powerful than the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al- Maliki, who he met with last week. There is a lot of question over whether or not the Bush administration is trying to prop up Hakim, perhaps support him, at the cost of Maliki, because, you know, a lot of discussion that Maliki just is not strong enough, that he is still a very weak leader.

But Bush administration officials reject that. At the very least, what you're seeing here is the Bush administration trying to prop up both of these leaders, because they realize that Maliki also needs the support of Hakim, as well, if he is going to be successful.

LEMON: Suzanne Malveaux, at the White House, thank you.

MALVEAUX: Mmm-hmm.

BETTY NGUYEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: In other news, intense heat, erratic winds, and out-of-control wildfires burning just north of Los Angeles.

Look at these live pictures. Actually, these aren't live, I don't believe. They were taken overnight -- firefighters determined to get a handle on this fire.

CNN's Thelma Gutierrez joins us now from Moorpark, California, with the latest on the fire situation there.

Obviously, Thelma, the winds are still whipping.

THELMA GUTIERREZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Betty, I can tell you, the winds are certainly blowing. There's no question about that.

However, the good news, according to the California Department of Forestry, is that there have been no planned evacuations today. And, so far, no homes are being threatened by the fire. Now, the winds have died down. They're about 20 miles an hour, sustained, right now, a far cry from what they were like last night.

We were talking about 70-mile-an-hour wind gusts that were kicking up through this area, sending a wall of flames through Moorpark, charging 10,000 acres, taking everything in its path. Now, five homes were completely burned to the ground. Five structures were lost. Right now, there are 1,500 firefighters here from across the strait -- the state -- trying to put out some of the hot spots.

Firefighters say, because of the high winds, the unpredictable nature of the winds, they have actually been hopscotching all over the place through the night, just trying to keep up with the flames.


BATTALION CHIEF RICK LYNSKEY, MONTEBELLO, CALIFORNIA, FIRE DEPARTMENT: Last night, the thing that probably made it the most dramatic is, we were all over the place. I have never moved to so many different areas so quickly as we did last night, because it was, I mean, probably 40-, 50-mile-an-hour gusts.

And the fire was just moving through subdivisions, and, boom, we would be off to another area. And everybody was moving real quick last night, because of the fire and the wind.


GUTIERREZ: Now, the area where I'm standing right now is an 82- acre organic recycling facility. This is an area where they take tree trimmings, manure, and green waste, and then turn it into soil amendments for landscaping and gardening.

This whole area was completely destroyed. Just to give you an idea of how ferocious the fire was, this smoldering pile of ashes that you see right before you was, just 12 hours, this wood pile that you see to my right, which is 10 feet tall. That's what it was like just 12 hours ago.

The business owner told us that, when he came out last , trying to save his business, that the fire was so hot and burned so fast, that it literally sucked the oxygen right out of the air, forcing all the workers to retreat. They had to let the whole business go.

Now, Betty, the fire is still under investigation. Firefighters say that it began in two spots, just five hours apart, several miles away. They're not going as far to say that it is arson, anything like that. They do say it is a little bit suspicious, though, fire beginning at 2:00 in the morning, another one at 7:00 in the morning, several miles apart -- back to you.

NGUYEN: Well, the main thing right now is to get it under control. And, obviously, that investigation will continue.

Thelma Gutierrez, thank you for that.

LEMON: Icy cold and still in the dark. It's taking a while for Missouri and Illinois to thaw out from Thursday's ice storm. Hundreds of thousands of people are still waiting for the lights to come back on. Utility repairmen say the going is slow, because the ice -- the icy temperatures are freezing their tools.

National Guardsmen are going door to door, checking on those who have chosen to stay in their homes, rather than go to the Red Cross shelters. At least 19 people have died since the -- that storm blew through.

We want to tell our viewers we're awaiting a press conference from the governor of Missouri, Matt Blunt, to talk about how that state is dealing with the recovery efforts for people who are still without power, and may not be able to get back into their homes, or even out of their homes.

Let's check in now with our Rob Marciano, because Illinois and Missouri not the only places dealing with this deep freeze -- Rob.

ROB MARCIANO, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Yes, it's pretty -- it's like three-quarters of the country. It's unbelievable how cold it is in such a vast area. And it has been ongoing for almost a week now.

Here are some of the record lows that -- from Sunday morning, but certainly impressive: Chanute, Kansas, five degrees; Rolla, Missouri, seven degrees; Joplin, Missouri, 10 degrees; Tulsa, Oklahoma, 14 degrees.

And it hasn't warmed up a whole lot since. These are current temperatures, so, beginning to get over the freezing mark in places like Kansas City and Saint Louis. So, that is helping the cause. And temperatures will continue to moderate as we go through tomorrow, especially, and then again on Wednesday.

But there's another shot of cold air in Canada that is going to make its way south towards the latter part of the week. So, keep that in mind, as you start to see temperatures rising today and tomorrow.

All right, a couple of issues -- no big storms. We had a coastal storm off the New England coastline. Now it's moving into Atlantic Canada. And we have got critical fire danger across parts of the Florida Panhandle, and, of course, Southern California -- these Santa Ana winds blowing today. They will blow less tomorrow, but still critical, because relative humidities are going to be extremely low tomorrow, and temperatures will still be warm.

We will try to get onshore flow -- onshore winds on Wednesday and Thursday to try to at least get the humidity levels up a little bit higher -- meanwhile, eastern two-thirds of the country still chilly tomorrow, but warmer than today.

Today's highs, in Memphis, 54, so you get out of -- out of the 40s in Memphis and Atlanta. It will be 43 degrees in Kansas City. So, we're starting to see the temperatures moderate. But it is bitterly cold, well below average for temperatures for almost three- quarters of the country, Don.

It will be a slow warmup, and then another punch of cold air coming down Friday, Saturday, and Sunday for the eastern two-thirds of the country.

LEMON: Yes, not...

MARCIANO: Winter is -- is here.

LEMON: ... not warm, but warmer, and that is a little bit of good news...

MARCIANO: That helps.

LEMON: ... if you're dealing with that.

And, again, we want to remind our viewers -- viewers that the governor of Missouri, Matt Blunt, is going to hold a press conference shortly to talk about -- Rob and everyone, talk how these folks in Missouri are dealing with the recovery here. We look forward to that, because it can certainly help the folks out there who are dealing with this. NGUYEN: No doubt.

Well, right now, we want to get you straight to the NEWSROOM and T.J. Holmes with the details on a developing story.

Last check, T.J., we have been talking about this accident between a charter bus and an 18-wheeler. And the drive was stuck in that bus. What do you know so far?

T.J. HOLMES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, we got the news that at least we know the driver is out.

The firefighters that we're seeing, these pictures we were monitoring -- and you can see they had cut that bus up pretty good, and were trying to get -- make their way in there. We didn't realize, when we first saw the pictures, that -- that, in fact, someone was trapped in there, the driver. But he was trapped.

And we have been monitoring this for some time now. We do know the driver is out. What we do not know is the condition of that driver. We do know the bus driver was taken to a hospital, but don't know what kind of condition, what kind of shape he might be in. Again, this is a charter bus on I-20, some several miles west of Atlanta, in the Douglasville area, if you do know that area -- but, good news as well, no other passengers were on that bus. That is a good sign.

But we're hoping, really hoping, to be able to bring you more news, possibly some good news about the condition of that driver. But we do know the driver is out -- just trying to find out what kind of shape he might be in right now -- guys.

NGUYEN: Well, that is bit of relief, because, when you saw the firefighters in there...


NGUYEN: ... trying to get him out of that trapped position, good to know that he is indeed alive.


HOLMES: Scary scene.

NGUYEN: ... we will find out more about his condition.

HOLMES: Scary pictures, yes.

NGUYEN: Oh, yes, definitely. Thank you, T.J.

HOLMES: Yes, Betty.

LEMON: It is a prank that probably dates back to the Stone Age, but have you ever heard of someone being shot for throwing eggs? Now a 14-year-old is dead, and Ohio police want answers -- the latest on a shocking case right here in the CNN NEWSROOM. NGUYEN: Plus: signs that Senator Hillary Clinton has begun the process for a 2008 bid to return to the White House. We will tell you all about that.


LEMON: A family heads home from vacation, and is not seen again. Now police across Oregon are trying to find the Kim family of San Francisco. They were last seen on November 25, leaving an Oregon restaurant. James Kim, a senior editor at the technology Web site CNET, and his wife, Kati, and their two small daughters never showed up at a hotel where they had reservations. The last person known to have seen them says they headed out on a hard-to-drive coastal road in snowy and rainy weather.

NGUYEN: Well, this story is really going to have you scratching your head: a 14-year-old shot after a silly prank, found in an alley dead from a single gunshot wound.

It happened in Columbus, Ohio, early Saturday morning. And police say the driver of an SUV stopped after someone threw an egg at the vehicle. The three boys on the street, well, they ran. One of them told police he heard six shots after the man chased Danny Crawford down an alley.

Officers found the SUV later. They're still looking for the driver.

Questions in North Carolina over whether a popular video game led to the death of a college student. Eighteen-year-old Peyton Strickland was killed Friday night in Wilmington. The sheriff says Strickland and his friend were accused of beating a man and taking his two new PlayStation 3 game units. Officers went to the pair's apartment with search and arrest warrants for Strickland and the roommate.

The roommate says Strickland was shot shortly after going to open the door, possibly still holding a game controller in his hand. Strickland's dog was also killed. The state bureau of investigation and a local DA are trying to find out exactly what happened.

LEMON: Are police too quick to draw their guns on some suspects? Well, that's a question being asked by the Reverend Al Sharpton. He was in Atlanta over the weekend, questioning the shooting death of an elderly woman by police narcotics officers serving a search warrant at her home.

Sharpton says it's time for Congress to get involved and look at police use of drug informants and no-knock warrants.


AL SHARPTON, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: They will have to answer what they did, when they did, why they did, before a body of the United States Congress, who has to protect the public.


LEMON: Sharpton wants full federal investigations of the Atlanta shooting, as well as a fatal shooting of an unarmed man in New York on his wedding day.

And the woman left at the altar by that shooting speaks out in an executive interview tonight, only on CNN. Hear from her and the Reverend Al Sharpton on "LARRY KING LIVE," at 9:00 p.m. Eastern.

NGUYEN: Well, it looks like New York Senator Hillary Clinton is one step closer to running for president in 2008. According to a senior Clinton adviser, she is talking about it, privately, with prominent New York Democrats. And another source tells CNN, the senator is interviewing prospective campaign staff.

Senator Clinton currently leads in polls of possible Democratic candidates. She was reelected to a six-year Senate term in a landslide last month.

Another candidate hopes there is room for one more in that growing pool of presidential hopefuls. Republican Sam Brownback has formed a presidential exploratory committee. The Kansas senator opposes abortion, and says he will make issues of life part of his campaign. Brownback also wants to focus his run for the White House on fiscal restraint and tax reform.

LEMON: Will he speak truth to the powerful? That is the question. Or is a yes-man? Divided opinions about the defense secretary nominee -- ahead in the CNN NEWSROOM.

NGUYEN: On the case of an E. coli outbreak -- this New Jersey fast-food restaurant at the center of that investigation.

We have the story, right here in the NEWSROOM.


LEMON: New Jersey mystery: How and where did the victims of an E. coli outbreak become infected? "The Star-Ledger" of Newark reports 19 confirmed cases. Eleven victims ate at this Taco Bell restaurant in South Plainfield.

Now, the company has temporarily closed the outlet. The county health department inspected the business just last week. It passed. And test results on restaurant workers could come in today.

NGUYEN: The most promising drug in Pfizer's pipeline turns out to be one of its biggest failures.

Susan Lisovicz it at the New York Stock Exchange with details on this.

This is big news, Susan.

SUSAN LISOVICZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Big news. You know, this -- this is a drug, Betty, that had been in development for 14 years, involved 15,000 patients, at a cost of $800 million.

Now Pfizer is halting development of this drug, torcetrapib, which was designed to raise levels of so-called good cholesterol in patients. A late-stage trial showed a greater-than-expected amount of deaths and heart problems in patients taking it -- the news, of course, a big blow to Pfizer. It had been counting on the drug to boost its stagnant sales, which have been hurt by the expiration of some of its key drug patents.

And there are more to come. Pfizer's Lipitor, the world's best- selling drug, loses patent protection as early as 2010. Its sales came in at more than $12 billion last year. So, this is one of the successors to it -- Betty.

NGUYEN: Well, what does this mean for Pfizer now?

LISOVICZ: Well, it's just terrible news, because, you know, you measure the health of a pharmaceutical company, not only by what it's got out on the market, but what it's got in the pipeline.

Pfizer is now under each more pressure to cut costs. The company is expected to unveil its plan to become more streamlined early next year. Just last week, it said it plans to slash 2,200 sales jobs. And analysts say more layoffs will likely be part of that turnaround problem. So, there has -- program, rather -- so, there is a big, understandably big, reaction on Wall Street today -- Pfizer shares off their lows, but still down 11.5 percent on the news.

Stock, overall, however, are rallying, thanks to some big mergers in the banking and tech sectors, a drop in oil prices, and a rebound in the dollar.

Checking the numbers, the Dow Jones industrials up 86 points, or about three-quarters-of-a-percent. The Nasdaq composite is up 36 points, or 1.5 percent.

And taking a quick look at one of those deals, Bank of New York is buying Mellon Financial for $16.5 billion, combining two of the most storied names in American finance. Bank of New York is the nation's oldest bank, founded in 1784 by none other than Alexander Hamilton, who, of course, went on to become the nation's first treasury secretary.

Mellon Financial, meanwhile, was founded in 1869 by the Mellon family of financiers and philanthropists. And now they are getting together.

And that's the latest from Wall Street. I will be back in about 30 minutes with a wrap-up of the trading day.

CNN NEWSROOM continues in a moment.


NGUYEN: We want to take you live now to St. Louis, Missouri, where the governor there, Matt Blunt, is speaking with residents about the situation with this wintery mix that has put thousands in a situation of no power at this hour.

Take a listen.

GOV. MATTHEW BLUNT, (R) MISSOURI: ... set up throughout the region. They'll be --- it'll be open at least through the night. And we'll see what the utilization is tonight and then make an informed decision for the future.

We have had -- we've had a very good response to the storm, but because of the magnitude of the storm, we've already had ten deaths because of this storm, five traffic-related deaths, two from fire, one just because of illnesses caused by the cold and, then two from carbon monoxide poisoning.

And this is something I'd like to talk about a little bit. We have a number of people that are trying to use portable heating systems. If you're going to do that, please ensure that it's a good unit, that it's been checked, that it's a safe unit to use. Also recognize that you need good ventilation if you're going to use a portable heating system, like a kerosene powered heater or something of that nature.

So we've already had two carbon monoxide related deaths. We've had 17 people in St. Louis County alone sent to the emergency room because of carbon monoxide poisoning, just 16 in Washington County alone. So many people are trying to use these units to provide themselves with some warmth. If they're going to do that, again, ensure it's a good unit and that you have very adequate ventilation.

I mentioned state agencies' response and I think it has been impressive. And I want to commend the state agencies and the Missouri National Guard for what they've done thus far.

We've also, though, been heavily augmented in a very compassionate and powerful way by a number of wonderful charities. Now, I wouldn't want to try and list all of the charities that have stepped up. And there's so many individual churches that have done different things.

But, of course, you're all familiar with the United Way and the Salvation Army and the Red Cross, very important charitable organizations that, time after time, step up to meet the needs of their fellow Missourians.

I was reminded that this is actually their fundraising season, so as you're seeing those great organizations out there responding in a very powerful way, this would be a good time to give back in the spirit of Christmas giving. So think about them and what they're doing right now and the fact that it is diminishing and depleting their resources and they're going to need help as they prepare for 2007.

Plus, we had a great business community response. And, again, I'm not going to try to list every business because I'd leave some out. Just one example would be Anheuser-Busch providing a lot of bottled water in addition to what the states have procured. So we've had a great compassionate, I think Missouri-oriented response to this very terrible storm. We've had solid leadership at the local level throughout the region and certainly here, Mayor Slay has been a strong leader. Also in St. Louis County my friend Charlie Dooley (ph), has done I think a very good job of managing their response to this and trying to quickly dig out from the storm and manage any crises that might emerge.

So I'd like to ask Charlie to offer some words, and then we'll be happy to try and answer some questions -- Charlie.

CHARLEY DOOLEY, ST. LOUIS COUNTY: Thank you, governor.

NGUYEN: You've been listening to Governor Matt Blunt talking to residents there about the storm that has just knocked out power to thousands. If you'd like to continue watching that live news conference there, you can always go to CNN Pipeline.

But in the meantime, as you head, ten people have died so far in the state of Missouri. Some 300,000 between Illinois and Missouri are still without power, four days running.

Let's get the latest on this storm with CNN's Rob Marciano.


LEMON: Now let's talk about the weather out west. It's fierce and it's erratic everywhere you look. Walls of flame or smoke, the wildfire northwest of Los Angeles are being -- has being -- been burning, rather, since yesterday, nearly 10,000 acres so far. At least five homes have burned to the ground.

With winds gusting at 30 miles an hour, many people have grabbed what they could and they fled. Others have chosen to stay and try to save their homes.

No one's sure how it started. One thing is certain: as long as the Santa Ana winds keep kicking up, the wildfire just north of Los Angeles will keep burning.

Hundreds of firefighters are on the frontlines. So are CNN news crews. Take a look at this.

TED ROWLANDS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It's more like covering a hurricane than it is a wildfire because of the debris in the air. And our photographer has goggles on and I've had glasses on for most of the day because when the wind does pick up, it brings all of the debris.

And it's very difficult for firefighters, as you can imagine, and for the chopper pilots that are negotiating these winds as well. But they're up there and that really is the main line of defense for these firefighters.

Because of these winds, the flames have delivered embers to different areas. And that's been the problem all day for firefighters figuring out where to concentrate their efforts and how to best contain these fires and how best to protect property.

Over 400 acres have already burned. Hundreds of firefighters from around the region are working. And we've seen fire engines rolling with their lights on throughout the day and evening here, going to different hot spots as people call in and these embers -- you can just see these embers as we've been standing here blowing across and off of this fire. And the same thing is happening at different regions here in Moorpark, which is just outside of Los Angeles.


ROWLANDS: Firefighters tell us that up to 3,000 homes could be in danger from this fire. Hundreds of families have already evacuated but hundreds more have decided to stay and try to fight this fire. We've seen them up on the hill behind their homes with their water hoses trying to help firefighters save their homes. So far, they have been doing a pretty good job of it, but five homes have been completely destroyed by this fire.

And the firefighters are telling us they can only hope that the winds at least die down at some point to allow them to perhaps get a foothold on trying to beat back this fire.


NGUYEN: A little glimpse there of our correspondents on the front lines.

Now, in an unrelated story, they are paying tribute to a fallen firefighter. Hundreds of police and fellow firefighters from across the southeast gathered to honor the memory and the spirit of Steven Solomon (ph), seen right there.

The 33 year-old Atlanta fireman died days after being critically burned fighting a fire in a vacant house Thanksgiving night. He signed on with the Atlanta Fire Department just four months ago after nearly six years with the one in Macon, Georgia. That's where his funeral is being held and where he will be buried.

LEMON: Going nowhere and giving notice. U.N. Ambassador John Bolton reads the writing on the wall and steps down from his post before an incoming Democratic majority does the job for him.

Who won't miss him? And who might replace him? That's later on in the NEWSROOM.

NGUYEN: Well, you call it classroom warfare. Where should your kids go to school? The Supreme Court revisits the tricky issue of affirmative action and business of bussing. We're on board with the legal and political angles. That's ahead, right here in the NEWSROOM.


LEMON: Should race play a factor in where kids go to school? The U.S. Supreme Court is once again wrestling with that issue today. As demonstrators gathered outside the high court, the justices looked at how two school systems use affirmative action to achieve racial balance.

Now parents are challenging affirmative action programs in Louisville, Kentucky and in Seattle. They question whether the system are using an acceptable way to create diverse student body -- a diverse student body, or if they set up illegal racial quotas. Here's an exchange between the justices and Seattle attorney Harry Korrell.


RUTH BADER GINSBURG, SUPREME COURT JUSTICE: You say you can't use a racial means, but can you have a racial objective? That is, you want to achieve balance in the schools.

HARRY KORRELL, LAWYER: Justice Ginsburg, our position is that that is prohibited by the Constitution absent past discrimination...

ANTONIN SCALIA, SUPREME COURT JUSTICE: You would object then to magnet schools? You would object to any system that is designed to try to cause people voluntarily to go into a system that is more racially mixed?

KORRELL: Justice Scalia, our objection to Seattle program is that it is not a race neutral method.


LEMON: You can hear the questions and the answers from today's Supreme Court session on CNN's pipeline available through

NGUYEN: He is one of the highest ranking temps in the Bush Administration and now John Bolton's job is all but gone. Bolton is resigning as U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. effective when the current session of Congress ends in just weeks.

President Bush appointed Bolton in 2005 when Congress was on a summer break and he was never confirmed and his new nomination is stalled in the Senate. With Democrats set to take control of Congress in January, well, hopes for confirmation faded even further. The White House says President Bush reluctantly accepts Bolton's resignation.

Location: Washington. Topic: the Middle East. British Prime Minister Tony Blair meets with President Bush at the White House Thursday. The two will talk about Iraq and Afghanistan and the nuclear standoff with Iran. Blair has been President Bush's closest ally in the Iraq war. A day before their meeting the bipartisan Iraq Study Group is set to release its report on the course of the war.

LEMON: Robert Gates' judgment day is tomorrow when the Senate holds confirmation hearings on his nomination as defense secretary. Confirmation is expected, but Gates can expect tough questions on both Iraq and controversies of past administrations. A look now at the man who would succeed Donald Rumsfeld.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) ANNOUNCER: Tough-minded. A realist. Soft-spoken. The antithesis of Donald Rumsfeld. That's Robert Gates. Over two decades, the 63-year-old Gates rose through the ranks of the CIA, ultimately serving as director for the first President Bush. Along the way, he took detours to serve on the National Security Council under Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter.

He was a member of the Iraq Study Group which releases its recommendations on Iraq policy later this week. His glowing resume, however, isn't without blemishes. Nominated to be CIA director by President Reagan, he withdrew from consideration, amid concerns he had not been honest about the Iran-Contra affair.

Nominated again in 1991, Gates was confirmed after facing tough questions over allegations that he slanted intelligence reports to suit President Reagan's hard-lined stance toward the Soviet Union. And he was again grilled on what he knew about Iran-Contra.

Critics accused him of lying when he said he wasn't aware of the arms-for-hostages scheme. His defense? He was busy learning a new job, as the illegal activity was playing out. What little Gates has said about the Iraq war is somewhat at odds with the Bush Administration. He said the U.S. should talk with Iran, and that the nation spy agencies misled Mr. Bush on whether Iraq had weapons of mass destructions.

Gates also said a U.S. president should never order a preemptive military strike without what he termed unambiguous intelligence.


LEMON: And we will follow those confirmation hearings on Robert Gates tomorrow right here in the CNN NEWSROOM.

NGUYEN: Naming Iran in destabilizing Iraq. An exclusive interview with the top U.S. military commander in the Middle East, that's ahead right here in the NEWSROOM.

LEMON: We know what killed a former Russian spy. Now Scotland Yard travels to Moscow on the trail of who done it and why. Espionage junkies stay right here where you are, the NEWSROOM is right on the case.


LEMON: Iran's involvement in Iraq -- it's key to the ongoing militia violence, according to America's top military commander in the Middle East. CNN's Barbara Starr has an exclusive interview with General John Abizaid.


BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): As the Shia and Sunni killings across Baghdad reach new levels, General John Abizaid, the top commander for U.S. military forces in the Middle East, says Iraqi/Shia militias are being directly trained and financed by the government of Iran, something the Iranian government has denied.

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID, COMMANDER, U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND: It's clear that money is coming in through their intelligence services, training is probably being conducted inside Iran through various surrogates and proxies. Iranian equipment is finding its way into the hands of Shia extremist groups. It's hard to believe that that's not a matter of policy from the Iranian government.

STARR: CNN has been the only network traveling with Abizaid. In this exclusive interview, he leaves no doubt about the involvement of Iran in the Iraqi militias that U.S. troops are fighting.

ABIZAID: It's also clear to me that Iranian Revolutionary Guard could force intelligence personnel are operating within the country and operating in a way that does not support stability for the current legitimately elected government of Iraq.

STARR: For Abizaid, this trip into the combat zone comes at a time when the Washington political wars dominate the news. But he is determined to stay out of that fray. This trip has focused on talking to commanders, trying to get a sense of whether they think Iraqi forces will remain loyal to the new government. There is continuing concern about police units in Baghdad.

ABIZAID: But as you heard today in some of the conversations with our various commanders, some of them are very concerned about certain police locations being badly infiltrated and certain units within the national police not doing their job the way that they should be.

STARR: Abizaid avoids using the words civil war, but his meaning is clear.

ABIZAID: Yes, I think the concerns about it spinning into a broader conflict are still there.

STARR (on camera): Military commanders here believe Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki will be able to maintain control of the Iraqi army and security forces, which is critical to avoiding all-out civil war.

But commanders also say this country is in a period of crucial instability and any reduction in U.S. combat forces still could be months away. Barbara Starr, CNN, Baghdad.


NGUYEN: Well an Egyptian government source say police have arrested a group of terror suspects, one of them an American. The others were Europeans and Arabs. They're accused of plotting attacks in the Middle East, including Iraq, and the source says the suspects had ties to international terror groups. They were said to be in Egypt under the pretense of studying Arabic and Islamic law.

LEMON: A short time ago, British police announced they are checking two more sites in London for traces of radiation following the death of a former Russian spy, even they expand their murder probe to Moscow. British police have headed east. They want to interview several men who met with Alexander Litvinenko in London the day he fell ill. Litvinenko was poisoned by the radioactive isotope Polonium-210. And in a death bed letter, he accuses Russian President Vladimir Putin of orchestrating the hit.

This morning a Litvinenko family spokesperson gave an unusual best cast/worst case scenario.


ALEX GOLDFARB, LITVINENKO FAMILY SPOKESMAN: I believe that it is the secret services of Russia who only had access to this kind of highly controlled nuclear material. If it's not, it's even more scary because this kind of stuff can be very easily used as a dirty bomb and much more toxic than Anthrax, for example.


LEMON: Well the Kremlin has denied any involvement in Litvinenko's death and says the case is damaging relations with Britain.

NGUYEN: The closing bell and a wrap of the action on Wall Street, that's straight ahead. Don't go anywhere.


LEMON: Time to check in with CNN's Wolf Blitzer.

NGUYEN: That's right, he is standing by in "THE SITUATION ROOM" to tell us what is coming up at the top of the hour. Hi there, Wolf.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, guys, thanks very much. The private and the public divide. Has the Bush administration been telling us one thing about Iraq while saying something very different in private? We're going to take a closer look at some leaked memos.

Plus, Afghanistan deteriorating right now as well. We're going to take you to the frontlines with a dramatic firefight with the Taliban.

Also, Barack Obama. Could he throw a wrench in Hillary Clinton's plan for 2008? And Jeb Bush in his brother's shadow. But does he have his own plans to come right here to Washington? All that coming up in "THE SITUATION ROOM" in a few minutes. Back to you guys.

NGUYEN: Looking forward to it, thank you, Wolf.

LEMON: More late nights are in store to talk show host David Letterman. CBS signed the one-time weather man to keep him talking at least until 2010, that's one year past the planned retirement of NBC rival Jay Leno. The deal is expected to net Letterman, get this. more than $30 million a year.

NGUYEN: The thought of it. LEMON: He says he's thrilled. Of course, he's thrilled, because at his age, you really don't want to have to learn a new commute. That's what he said.

NGUYEN: Well, you know, that's what half of you make, Don? I mean, what are you talking about?

LEMON: $30 million, I don't know how he can survive on that, Susan.

NGUYEN: And he's got a baby. I really don't know how they are making end's meet.