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Deadly Sixth Day for Israel and Hamas; Seeking Resolution in 2009; Aspen Bomb Threat; Your Money in 2009; The Job Hunt Continues

Aired January 01, 2009 - 11:00   ET


TONY HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: It is Thursday, January 1, 2009. And here are the top stories we're following this New Year's day, on CNN.
2009 begins in disaster in Bangkok, and a CNN iReporter is there. Dozens die in a fire and stampede at a New Year's party. A momentous day in Iraq. The government takes control of the heart of Baghdad, a symbol of the country's new sovereignty. The economic meltdown and the reality of a college education. Will today's high-schoolers pay the price? Another report in my series Class in Session.

Good morning, everyone. I'm Tony Harris and you are in the CNN NEWSROOM.

On the first day of 2009, a bloody sixth day of Israeli air strikes across Gaza -- a fierce response to Palestinians rockets fired into Israel.

These pictures out of Gaza Just hours ago, bombs going off, rescue operations going on.

Dead and wounded being pulled from the rubble of a building demolished in an Israeli missile strike. A Hamas military leader and members of his family among 10 reported killed today. His home in a Palestinian refugee camp hit. It is now a scene of absolute devastation.

Gaza, as you know, is one of the most densely populated places in the world. It's about 30 miles, long 10 miles wide wedged between the Mediterranean Sea and Israel.

We are seeing Israeli planes firing one missile after another today -- the Jewish state vowing to continue its bombardment until Hamas militants stop firing markets into Southern Israel.

Four Israelis have been killed in the rocket attacks. Palestinians report more than 400 people killed so far in the Israeli attacks -- most of them militants, but many women and children also among the dead.

Watching the assault, our Ben Wedeman, on the Israel/Gaza border.


BEN WEDEMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Company Throughout Thursday afternoon, Israel unleashed an intense aerial bombardment of Northern Gaza, hitting a variety of targets. The most dramatic was the hit on the home of Nizar Rayyan, a senior member of Hamas's military wing. In that hit, it appears from the pictures we've seen from there that children were among the 10 people -- at least 10 people killed at that strike, according to Palestinian medical sources.

Other targets throughout Northern Gaza were hit. According to the Israeli Army, at least, some of those targets were houses that were being used to store weaponry.

This Israeli onslaught may be the preclude to the long-awaited ground offensive.

I'm Ben Wedeman reporting from the border between Gaza and Israel.


HARRIS: Now, the U.N. Security Council is struggling to reach a resolution to stop the fighting in Gaza.

CNN's senior United Nations correspondent, Richard Roth, reports.


RICHARD ROTH, SENIOR UNITED NATIONS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Ambassadors rushed in for a rare New Year's Eve emergency session, as Israel and Hamas failed to accept earlier calls by the Security Council for a cease-fire.

Arab delegates had vowed to ratchet up diplomatic pressure if Israel didn't stop its assault. They introduced a new resolution condemning Israel's military attacks and calling on Israel to immediately stop the assault on the civilian population of Gaza.

RIYAD MANSOUR, PALESTINIAN ENVOY TO U.N. (THROUGH TRANSLATOR) We believe that this Council must adopt a binding resolution that would condemn the crimes committed by Israel and stop the military aggression and provide protection for the Palestinians and lift the siege.

ROTH: Speaking next, Israel insisted it had no other choice but to go after Hamas in force.

GABRIELA SHALEV, ISRAELI AMBASSADOR TO U.N.: Israel cannot and will not allow its citizens to be sitting ducks for terrorist attacks. Israel will continue to take all necessary measures to protect its citizens and stop terrorism.

ROTH: To win approval of the resolution, Arab diplomats must carefully calibrate the level of toughness on Israel in order to avoid a veto from Western powers.

JOHN SAWYERS, BRITISH AMBASSADOR TO U.N.: Any resolution by the Council will need to have support across the entire Council. And to achieve that, it will need to reflect the responsibilities of all the parties.

ROTH: But there is great anger among the Arab public, which may give little leeway for compromise.


I am appealing to this Council to adopt a quick and binding measure so that we do not add another Srebrenitza or a Rwanda to our history of this Council.

ROTH: So another Middle East deadlock looms.

ZALMAY KHALILZAD, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO U.N.: This resolution, as currently circulated by Libya, is not balanced and, therefore, as it is currently drafted, it is not acceptable to the United States.

ROTH: A vote on the proposed Arab resolution will not happen for at least several days -- not until the arrival of a high level delegation of Arab ministers designed to put pressure on countries seen as giving Israel more breathing space to attack Gaza.

Richard Roth, CNN, the United Nations.


HARRIS: In Thailand, a new year's celebration turns deadly, as a Bangkok nightclub goes up in flames. Police say a fire and resulting stampede left 58 people dead in the upscale nightclub. Another 100 are hurt. The fire started near a stage where fireworks were being used as part of a band's performance. A witness tells CNN some people apparently thought the fire was part of the performance.

The majority of the dead are from Thailand. Police say most of the deaths were from smoke inhalation or from being trampled in the rush to get out.

And this is from one of our CNN I-Reporters. Manik Sethisuwan shot this video as firefighters and ambulances were arriving to battle the nightclub fire. Manik says he was at a nearby club when he saw all of the commotion and began filming.

Your money, your job, your life -- it is issue number one front and center in this new year -- staying afloat financially. That's next.




HARRIS: We've been telling you -- at least trying to keep you posted on the diplomatic efforts to bring some kind of a truce, cease- fire, whatever it's termed, to the fight that's going on right now in Gaza.

A live picture now of Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni now, who is taking questions from reporters just minutes after her meeting with the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy. The French president, as you know, is asking for a 48-hour cease- fire, a truce -- in part to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza, but as a prelude to continued talks to bring about a more sustainable peace agreement, a cease-fire in that region.

We are going to turn around some of the sound from this -- this press conference. And we'll bring it to you in just a couple of moments right here in THE NEWSROOM.

But right now let's get you to Gaza right now.

"New York Times" correspondent Taghreed El-Khodary is back with us. She was with us, as you'll recall, yesterday.

And it's good to see you again.

Thanks for your time again.

As we recap this story, obviously, an Israeli missile struck the home of a top Hamas military commander. If you can tell us who he was and how important he was to Hamas and the significance of him being taken out by the IDF.

TAGHREED EL-KHODARY, "NEW YORK TIMES": Nizar Rayyan, 48, was very important in Hamas, especially in the military wing of Hamas. For him, he wanted to stay home. He knew he is a target -- a big target, a big number in Israel to -- and Israel will be delighted now that they killed him. But he decided to die. And when I asked many Kassam guys today, what do you think -- that he risked his life, he knew he was wanted.

Why did he stay with his family -- with his wife and kids?

Why did he do that?

And they said that he always wanted to die as a martyr. Last time I interviewed him, he showed me his dissertation. He did his Ph.D. In Sudan and it was about martyrdom. And he collected all the Prophet Muhammad's sayings in regards to this topic.

The thing is, he is very important for the Kassam, especially in the north area. And it will be a loss.

But the question is, Israel killed a leader -- a Kassam leader -- during the second intifada. But it was not the end of Hamas after the second intifada, Hamas won the election.

And for many Kassam guys, this guy decided to die as a martyr. He didn't want to evacuate his house out of fear.

You can hear the bombing right now. Israel is striking again. We don't know when, but just now I heard an explosion. And that's why I have...

HARRIS: No, no. I understand. And, again, if you feel unsafe, just -- just leave. You're encouraged to do that. There have been several other Israeli...

EL-KHODARY: In regard...

HARRIS: No, go ahead.

EL-KHODARY: No in regard, also, to the Kassam guy who was killed today, Nizar Rayyan, he was again evacuating his house. And many times, Israel is certain to bomb many other houses.

And what did he do?

He employed all the Kassam members and he went and he stationed on the roof. For him, someone -- a friend of his says, for him, it could be a surrender -- a failure.


EL-KHODARY: It's a matter of principle to die in your house and to die as a martyr. This is the culture among the Kassam guys here.

HARRIS: I see.

EL-KHODARY: So for them, it may be strengthening them. And for Israel, he is someone that they killed and it's a target, but it's not the end of the military wing of Kassam.

HARRIS: All right. I have one more quick question that I want to put to you. There have been several other Israeli air strikes on this particular refugee camp, as we're seeing the pictures now. If you would, describe that camp and why the Israelis consider this a legitimate target, despite the fact that women and children are obviously living there.

EL-KHODARY: Israel -- last night, what did they hit?

They strike the parliament -- people's place. They also strike -- they bombed the ministry of justice, which is adjacent to the minister of education. The minister of education is completely now destroyed, too. And many institutions -- the specific infrastructure is completely destroyed.

These are not Hamas targets. And the mood today when I spoke to many people, what do you think?

They say, after six days, it's now becoming clear that this is war against the people against the people -- against the citizens of Gaza. It's not war against Hamas, because Israel is targeting civic infrastructure...

HARRIS: I understand...

EL-KHODARY: When it comes to the refugee camp, Jabalya, it's in the north. They fire rockets from the north toward Israel. And the Kassam succeeded in firing rockets toward Israel. But many kids are killed when Israel retaliates, when Israel decides to bomb a house of a military guy...

HARRIS: I understand...

EL-KHODARY: the Kassam...

HARRIS: Let me ask

EL-KHODARY: ...the...

HARRIS: Let me ask a very...

EL-KHODARY: ...and his house is adjacent to many civilians.


But let me ask a very simple question that requires, in this case, a simple answer.

Are Hamas rockets being fired from within the walls of this refugee camp, yes or no?

EL-KHODARY: Yes, they do. Yes.


EL-KHODARY: And I asked one of the senior leaders, why do you fire the rockets from residential neighborhood?

Why do you fire rockets from women?

And this is the answer -- no other choice. Gaza is the size of Detroit. And 1.5 million live here where there are no places for them to fire from them but from among the population. So...


EL-KHODARY: ...this is the frustration. And it's a challenge and they are taking it.

HARRIS: "New York Times" correspondent Taghreed el-Khodary with us again.

And we appreciate your time.

Thank you so much for your reporting.

And, again, as always, stay safe.

Moments ago, we mentioned that the Israeli foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, has been meeting with the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy. And after that meeting a short time ago, answering some questions from correspondents.

Let's have you have a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) TZIPI LIVNI, ISRAELI FOREIGN MINISTER: We decided to change the equation in which they believe that they can target and kill Israeli civilians without any kind of retaliation or answer from Israel. And the equation was changed in the last few days, in which Israel attacked Gaza Strip.

In this operation, Israel distinguished the war against terror -- against Hamas members -- from the civil population in Gaza Strip. And in doing so, we keep the humanitarian situation in Gaza Strip completely as it should be. The crossings are open more than it used to be before the military operation.


HARRIS: And at least from -- from that moment, we don't have the answer to the critical question that was put to the foreign minister by the French president, Sarkozy, as to whether or not Israel was ready to accept some kind of cease-fire to allow more humanitarian aid into Gaza and as kind of a prelude to more and continued talks on some kind of sustainable cease-fire.

And we will continue to check the transcripts and that press opportunity there to see if there was answer to that direct question.

Moving on now, Aspen, Colorado getting back to normal this morning. Part of downtown Aspen was evacuated yesterday after two suspicious packages were sent to a couple of banks.

And here's the strange twist -- the 71-year-old suspect wanted in the incident found dead earlier today.

Our Alina Cho is in Aspen.

She joins us now on the phone -- Alina, good to talk to you.

Do police know or have an idea of any motive for this?

ALINA CHO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: No. I mean, Tony that's, really, the big question. And that's the question everybody was asking around town yesterday and last night.


CHO: No word on a motive. In fact, you know, remember, we're a couple hours back here. I just woke up about an hour ago to find the notes from people at CNN asking me about this. And, truly, it was a surreal situation, I have to tell you.

It all started around 2:30 p.m. Local time here in Aspen. I was coming back from skiing, I would say, sometime in the 4:00 neighborhood, jumped in the shower. I'm staying at a condo here right in town.

I got a phone call and essentially it was an automated message that said this is a mandatory evacuation -- leave immediately. And that's not something you want to ignore. HARRIS: Right.

CHO: I jumped out of the shower, got dressed, left. I was with some friends. We got in the car. We started driving out of Aspen proper. And I immediately called the sheriff's office and started asking questions.

At the time, what I was told I was that there were two suspicious packages -- boxes left with notes at two banks, as you mentioned a minute ago. And that was about it. And that certain areas of town were being cleared out. What we've come to learn is that it was a 16-block radius.

Now, a lot of people were also wondering what was in those notes.


CHO: They aren't talking about that. I asked. I said on the record, off the record, can you tell me?

No was the answer, only that it is a credible threat.

Now, you know, what is also interesting about all of this is that when we finally made our way back into town -- I would say an hour after that -- there were a lot of people who did not know what was going on. There were parts of Aspen that were evacuated. There were other parts -- hotels, buildings, other condominiums -- totally left untouched.

And so when we were walking around, there were a lot of people, frankly, who did not know what was going on but for the fire...


CHO: ...and police lights and personnel that responded to the situation.

But I would say we probably got back to the condo at around 9:00 p.m. Local time. Before that, we had heard that a lot of New Year's Eve parties were canceled. And, remember, this is a resort community that attracts a lot of people during this time of year.

HARRIS: That's right.

CHO: Businesses make a lot of money this time of year. And so the businesses really lost out in this situation, Tony.

HARRIS: OK. And I believe we're going to get, Alina, some kind of an update next hour. We will certainly monitor that situation and maybe bring it in live for the folks at home so that we can get an update on this story.

Alina Cho for us.

Alina, appreciate it.

Thank you.

CHO: My pleasure.

HARRIS: The economy depends on your income and your money and your job. And, well, your job is issue number one. How to find and keep a job in the new year -- that's next.


HARRIS: Issue number one -- the economy. You will hear it a lot during the new year. For 2008, bah humbug, indeed. It looks like retail sales over the holidays will be a real stinker. The research firm Shopper Track says it expects final sales to be down 2.3 percent. That would be a record for the November through December sales period.

Another group, the International Council of Shopping Centers, predicts a sea change ahead for retailers in 2009. It predicts 3,100 stores could close nationwide by July.

Wall Street certainly gave us whiplash and left us wounded in 2008. And here are a few of the low lights. The Dow Jones Industrial Average lost 4488 points. That is a 34 percent decline -- the worst since the height of the Great Depression in 1931.

Investors watched $7 trillion vanish from portfolios in 2008. The year's biggest loser on the Dow, not including the three stocks kicked off the index -- oh, yes -- how about General Motors, down 87 percent.

The Dow winners of 2008 -- out of 30 stocks, there were just two. Wal-Mart gained 18 percent, McDonald's 5 percent.

Our Christine Romans is here -- Christine, was it a better year for the S&P?

As you remind us, it is, after all, a broader index than the Dow Industrials.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CO-HOST, "YOUR MONEY": Tony, it was terrible for everything.


ROMANS: Let's be honest. It was really terrible. I mean the Nasdaq was down some 40 percent. The S&P was down more than 30 percent.

I mean, at the beginning of the year, who could have predict -- whoever did predict it, made a lot of money, frankly.

HARRIS: Yes. That's true. That's true.

ROMANS: But it was really a terrible year. But it's in the history books, thank God. And let's look ahead to 2009, which is...

HARRIS: Let's do that. ROMANS: ...which is now. And what I'm hearing mostly from people, Tony, is that, you know, stocks never go straight up. But they're hoping -- hoping it's the -- it's the beginning of the process of a long and painful recovery.

Sam Stovall over at Standard & Poor's says it's going to be like that line on Charlie Brown's shirt -- you know, like this.


ROMANS: I mean you could actually be retesting the lows that we saw in the S&P from back in November. So it could be some more painful losses. But it also could be that as company earnings start to at least stabilize, that there will be some good days in the stock market, too. And by the end of the year, there are some people hoping that it will actually be higher.

But this is going to be another year, Tony, almost everybody tells me, where you are not wanting to take risks with your money or your job -- that we're going to see another two million homes foreclosed on, most likely. We're going to see the jobless rate almost certainly continue to rise. That's going to translate into hundreds of thousands of more job loss.

But something that could be an opportunity for people in 2009 -- mortgage rates are falling. They are at a 37-year low right now. A year ago, they were at 6 percent -- above 6 percent. This week, they're at 5.1 percent.

And, Tony, on a fixed rate, 15-year loan...


ROMANS: If you've got good credit and 20 percent down, I mean that's already down in the fours.

Rates are down 1-1/3 percentage points since October. That translates, according to, you know, Fannie Mae's calculations from where we've come from last October, if you -- the difference between a loan taken out then and today...


ROMANS: about $173 a month -- or refinancing, for example.

So you're seeing some refinancing activity that puts money in people's pockets. That gets used in the economy, presumably -- or it goes into savings if people are really, really freaked out.

HARRIS: Right.

ROMANS: And there might be some opportunity maybe in the spring, maybe in the summer for -- for first time homebuyers.

If that's the trigger for an economic recovery, no one knows for sure. But 2009, it will be different than 2008. But it's -- it could be tough sledding again this year.

HARRIS: And to take advantage of those rates that you just talked about you, A, need a great credit score. And you also need some cash on hand, huh?

ROMANS: You know, we're back to the way it used to be in the mortgage -- and let's be honest...

HARRIS: That's a great point.

ROMANS: There are some people who are complaining. But not everybody can get those loans.


ROMANS: Well you know what?

Not everybody can get those loans. And if not everybody was getting the loans before, then we would not have this humongous problem that we have today. So...

HARRIS: I think that's a great point -- a great point to make.

ROMANS: Yes. So, yes, it's harder to get a loan.


ROMANS: Maybe it should be harder to get a loan. That -- that's life.

HARRIS: Forget about the jumbo loans right now. Those are, I guess, are even tougher to come by now.

ROMANS: Right. We're -- these are -- the loans I'm talking about here and the survey that Fannie does...


ROMANS: That's -- that's 20 percent down, good credit in a market that's a regular market. The markets that are $625,000 and above, I'm not sure what those rates are looking like right now.



All right, Christine.

Good to see you.


HARRIS: Happy New Year!


ROMANS: You, too.

HARRIS: You know, with so many folks looking for work, it is really, really competitive out there right now.

And here to help with your job hunt in '09 and to help you keep the job you have -- just as important -- John Challenger, CEO of the Global Outplacement Consultancy Group, Challenger Gray & Christmas.

John, good to see you again.

Thanks for your time.


Happy new year, Tony.

HARRIS: Yes, happy new year.

You know, let's start with how to find a job. And, unfortunately, so many people are out there looking for jobs right now. And every time we have this discussion, this one important word seems to come up -- and that is networking.

You have to do it, don't you?

CHALLENGER: Well, it's certainly a person to person process. And you can't do it sitting in front of a computer. Of course. You know, people work together. It's your friends and your family and your relationships that really count. So you always have to be building those.

HARRIS: So you're talking about joining social networking sites, perhaps, as a way of networking with folks and getting your story out and hearing the stories of others.

CHALLENGER: A good resolution to make this year -- join some of these social networking sites like -- especially the business oriented ones like LinkedIn and Facebook, which is becoming more popular, and Plaxo and ExecuNet. Make sure that what you have up there is strong. Don't have it be your personal life. Go in and edit that.

HARRIS: Got you.

CHALLENGER: And then get involved.

HARRIS: And you also say -- speaking of getting involved, get involved with community service groups. Describe those and the benefits of getting involved with that kind of an organization.

CHALLENGER: It's so important during a -- you know, a time when you're out of work and you've got a lot of time on your hands to be out there engaged in your community. So it's a great time to pick a charity or a community organization you care about, as a lot of people stay involved. So you meet a lot of people to go out and do something good. But also, it will help your job search.

HARRIS: And the benefits of joining professional and trade groups and organizations -- I think that's pretty obvious.

CHALLENGER: Yes. And this is a must for both people who are in work and out of work. Join those organizations now. In many ways, you identify more today with your professional colleagues or your industry colleagues than even your particular company, because you move companies throughout your life. So get involved in these now and start going to the meetings, going to the programs, very important.

HARRIS: Talk to us about the strategy of meeting 10 new people in your field. I like it.

CHALLENGER: Well, yeah, here is a great way to say, all right, I'm going to spend the next month or two. I'm going to identify 10 interesting people that I can get to in my field, especially those who are wired and connected -- and certainly if you can figure that out, even better. And then go out and have coffee with them. Call them up and ask if you can get together, get their for advice. Most people are going to say yes.

HARRIS: I want to talk to this group as well. With so much of this economic downturn out of our control right now, what can we do to increase our chances of keeping our jobs? Where would you start, John?

CHALLENGER: One of the most important things is to become an expert in a particular area, that there isn't really a backup somewhere else in the company, so if they think about making a lay-off and they go through the people and they say, well, if we were to let him or her go, there would be a big gap, we'd have nobody who can do this.

HARRIS: And you say align yourself with your company goals. This is a good one, too.

CHALLENGER: Well sure, you've got to be out there waving the company flag. You can't be kind of unhappy with the way things are going. Say a company has bought your company and you're part of the acquired company. A lot of times it's easy to get off track, kind of out of sync, and so understand what the company's goals are and then work to support those and to get aligned with them. That will help you, when they say here is a person we ought to keep because he or she fits in.

HARRIS: And John, this feels a little bit more political than I'm comfortable with. But I think it does probably make a lot of sense in these times. You tell us to meet your boss's boss.

CHALLENGER: Well, it doesn't mean you should be out there trying to curry favor with people. But again, your boss is just as vulnerable to being laid off as you are.

HARRIS: Good point.

CHALLENGER: And so knowing your boss's boss, making sure he or she feels comfortable with you, knows what you've accomplished, is just a good insurance policy.

HARRIS: I like it. John, good to see you. And happy New Year. Great advice as always.

CHALLENGER: The same to you, Tony, thank you.

HARRIS: You can always click on to get advice and answers. Check out our special report, "America's Money Crisis," again that's at

Our series, "Class in Session." The next generation looks ahead to college.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Every senior in this room.

HARRIS: Every senior in this room.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We want to go to Georgetown.


HARRIS: And how to pay for it during these difficult economic times.


HARRIS: The United States turned over control of a key piece of real estate to Iraq today, Baghdad's Green Zone, six square miles, heavily guarded, home to the Iraqi government and the U.S. military. Foreign affairs correspondent Jill Dougherty is live with us from Baghdad. And Jill, good to see you.

The new security agreement governing U.S. troops in Iraq obviously takes effect today. And on this day, the handover of the Green Zone to the Iraqis, is this handover being viewed in Iraq by Iraqis as a significant development?

JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: It definitely is, Tony. In fact, the prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki is suggesting that it become a national holiday. What they're focusing on is really the issue that, remember the debate in the United States really has been when will this handover take place? When will U.S. forces be able to hand over to the Iraqis?

And this is really the first step in that process. There is a symbolic part of it. And we were at that ceremony today in the Green Zone where the U.S. forces officially handed over responsibility to the Iraqis in the Green Zone for security.

But there's also something beyond that symbol. It's really the legal part of it. Because after all, the new security agreement between the United States and Iraq goes into effect as of today, January 1st, and that governs the behavior and the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq up until the time they are scheduled to leave, which will be three years from now.

So at that ceremony, after it was over, we talked with Major General David Perkins. He explained how on the ground in the Green Zone, this will work.


DAVID PERKINS, MAJOR GENERAL: We will continue to partner with them, but the Iraqis will be in the lead. When you come up to a check point, the Iraqis will check your identification, they will make the decision if you come in or go out. We will continue to be there to provide some technical capability, to provide some mentoring. But you will see less and less American forces and more and more Iraqi forces. And they have the majority of the responsibility for making those key decisions which determines the security of their capital.


DOUGHERTY: So there were three other important events today in the Green Zone, also. The former palace of Saddam Hussein where the United States had its embassy and where we had soldiers is being turned over, was turned over to the Iraqis.

Now the Americans will be moving to the new U.S. embassy that was built there in another part of the Green Zone. Also, they turned over two landing zones for helicopters in the Green Zone to the Iraqis. And then finally down in the south where the British forces are in Basra, they turned over the Basra airport to the Iraqis.

So as I said, Tony, this is the beginning and you're going to see more and more of this.

HARRIS: Jill Dougherty for us in Baghdad. It does feel like a significant day. Jill, appreciate it, thank you.

President Bush heads back to the White House today. He and the first lady have been spending the holidays at their ranch near Crawford, Texas. They're expected back at the White House late this afternoon.

And say good-bye, Hawaii. President-elect Barack Obama, his wife and two daughters also wrapping up their holiday vacation. They're heading back to Chicago. And later this weekend, the family will check into one of those Washington pretty ritzy high-end hotels. As you are probably aware, the family moves into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue January 20th.

The president-elect may soon be deciding how to deal with a long- time thorn in Washington's side. That's Cuba. He says it's time for a new strategy. One of the first things he wants to change is the restriction on Cuban Americans sending money back to Cuba.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT-ELECT: It's time to let Cuban American money make their families less dependent on the Castro regime. That is a commitment that I'm making right here.

(END VIDEO CLIP) HARRIS: Well, that commitment coming as Cuba celebrates a big anniversary today. And 50 years ago today, Fidel Castro proclaimed victory over national forces and set up a communist government. The U.S. responded with a trade embargo. Now the question is, will the president-elect be faced with changing Washington's stand on Cuba? Here is CNN's Morgan Neill.


MORGAN NEILL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The U.S. trade embargo started in the early 1960s, aimed to topple the revolutionary government of Fidel Castro. Instead, the system he and his brother have led is on the verge of out lasting its 10th U.S. president. And the embargo has kept U.S. influence in Cuba at a minimum while others make inroads. The old Soviet embassy has been busy lately as Russia rebuilds ties with its Cold War ally. China is sending thousands of students to learn Spanish at schools like this one, part of its overall push to secure raw materials throughout the region. And Venezuela has maybe the closest relation of all with Cuba, built on a firm foundation of oil from Caracas traded for doctors from Havana. Why does it matter? Some analysts say what the U.S. does here will be felt throughout the region.

JULIA SWIG, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS: If the United States were to begin to open up a new chapter toward Havana, this would be widely applauded by Latin America and globally, and it would give a boost to the Obama's administration claim that it represents turning over a new leaf in beginning to recover Americans standing globally. Cuba is very symbolic of that opportunity.

NEILL: That was clear at a recent summit in Brazil where President Raul Castro was embraced by Latin American leaders who urged an end to the U.S. embargo. There are signs the time might be right for some kind of opening. First, President Raul Castro, then his ailing brother, former President Fidel Castro, both said they would be open to a meeting with the U.S. president-elect. While few expect to see an end to the embargo anytime soon, President-elect Obama has indicated he favors loser restrictions on family travel and money sent back to the island.

Morgan Neill, CNN, Havana.


HARRIS: Maryland's River Road that turned into a flash flood reopens today. We brought you these dramatic rescues live in the NEWSROOM last week. As an explosive water main stranded motorists for hours, officials say construction crews have been working around the clock to complete the job. Total cost of the project, $1.3 million.

What do you say we get a check of the weather across the country right now? There he is, Reynolds Wolf in the Severe Weather Center. Reynolds, what are you watching today?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) HARRIS: You can do it at the mall or in church. You can do it in your bathroom, even outdoors. Where am I going with this? But oh, you cannot text behind the wheel in California starting tomorrow. Can't even read a text. The new law calls for a 20 buck fine for the first offense. Is it today? OK. Today, it goes into effect. The fine jacks up to about $50 after that.

It's been a while since I've been in the classroom. Boy, are young people smart these days. They told me about their worries when it comes to the economy and their college education. That's next.


HARRIS: What year is it? OK. We thought it would be fun to ask on New Year's, 93 percent of you told our CNN/Opinion Research pollsters, you call the new year 2009. A scant 27 percent say 20 09. You know, things are getting a little dicier next year. More than a quarter of you say you will call next year 20 10 rather than 2010.

No matter what you call it, 2009 is going to be a tough year for young people entering into college. I headed back to class to hear what high schoolers are saying about their future.


DEMARIUS, STUDENT: I can strongly attest to the fact that not having money makes you a lot more creative. This country I think is going to get really creative.

HARRIS: Because we have to?

DEMARIUS: We have to.

TAYLOR, STUDENT: Two things are going to happen. One, teenagers are going to start caring more. Two, adults around the world are going to realize that we messed up. I was born in this year which sets me up to be where I am now. But our parents made these decisions. And our leaders, our past leaders made these decisions. And it's not me blaming them, it's me taking what they've done and saying I'm going to fix it later. And every teenager in the world who is going to have to fix it later is going to finally say, I'm going to help fix it.

HARRIS: How many of you are concerned about your education choices moving forward? You finish up high school, perhaps you had a vision of where you'd like to attend college and how many of you are running into the reality now that...

Really? Really? That your first choice may not be the choice any longer?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Every senior in this room.

HARRIS: Every senior in the room.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I used to want to go to Georgetown. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I used to want to go out of state.

LAUREN, STUDENT: I've liked New York University for a while. And my sister wants to go to a really expensive college as well. And for my kind of laughs when we talk about it. She's like, well, you know, scholarships are kind of hard to get.

MICHAEL, STUDENT: What had become a college education in this country was just also another example of American profligate spending. Because like, you look at people who would go to these expensive schools that were way beyond their means and leave with $50,000 worth of debt. And I mean, that's not sustainable.

BEN, STUDENT: I know a guy that went to Harvard and still 40 years later, even with the higher skilled job that he got from that, he's still paying off his college debt.

HARRIS: Anyone else rethinking college choices because of these difficult economic times?




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She's standing in her ground.

TAYLOR: I refuse. I mean, I'm not going to give up the opportunity to attend a prestigious college where I know I want to get this really good education because I can't afford it. I'm going to do everything in my power to do every other alternative to make sure I can good to that school.

I'm sorry, I've wanted to go an ivy league school since I was like 7. And I know that times are different. That doesn't change my aspirations later. I'm going to do whatever it takes. I'll write as many college essays, I will do whatever I have to do to get the education. You know?


HARRIS: Boy, oh, boy, has a good group, really optimistic young people. We love that, but check out their views on war and terrorism.


MICHAEL BARLOW, STUDENT: When I think about Afghanistan, the war in Afghanistan, I think of bold people that had the audacity to steal our airplanes, threaten lives of Americans, run them into American assets and cause chaos across the American country. And once you do that, you deserve what's coming to you.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Whatever -- STEPHANIE STYLES, STUDENT: You're trying to say that it's necessary to go bomb another country just because they, what, quote/unquote messed with us? That doesn't just give you automatic justification to do whatever you want to another country. Violence, point black, it's wrong.


HARRIS: Hot talk. I'm telling you. Hot talk. You can hear my entire interview about terrorism and war with these young people, tomorrow, noon Eastern. Plus tune in when "Class is in Session." Again, that's tomorrow, noon Eastern.

A Russia professor predicts the imminent breakup of the United States? It's in the next hour of the CNN NEWSROOM.


HARRIS: You might expect a young man you're about to meet to have his face buried in a video game today. Instead, he is worried about Darfur. Violence in that region of Sudan has killed 300,000 and displaced millions. Here's CNN's Betty Nguyen.


SPENCER BRODSKY, RAISING MONEY FOR DARFUR: The women in Darfur, venturing out of their compounds, and as they leave, they're at risk for physical violence and for robbery, and it's not safe at all. It's very dangerous.

BETTY NGUYEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It's that threat of violence that triggered something in 17-year-old Spencer Brodsky. Driven by lessons learned in school and the need to give back, this Maryland teen has made it his mission to help the women of Sudan's Darfur region, and he's doing it by raising money to buy fuel- efficient stoves. The stoves burn 75 percent less firewood, which in turn limits the amount of time women have to go in search of wood in the desert.

BRODSKY: Many of them venture up to seven hours. That's when they're put in harm's way, when they're in remote areas of Sudan in northern Africa getting little bits of fuel wood just to make one day's worth of food.

NGUYEN: Spencer is working with CHF International, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving economic conditions of people around the world. Nyla Mohamed (ph) heads the stoves project and has seen firsthand the difference they make.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: These women are so grateful for this initiative and actually thankful for the American people who are so passionate. These women know that their is help out there.

NGUYEN: Together, CHF and Spencer Brodsky want to continue to raise awareness across America and around the world. At a cost of $30 each, Spencer raised enough money to buy 420 stoves. Many of them are already in the hands of Sudanese women, who are making good use of them, providing even more incentive for young Spencer.

BRODSKY: It makes me feel that I have to get even more stoves for these women, that it is so necessary and so imperative to their livelihood. That their lives are at such risk as it is, this is their food and this is just one way to make a difference, just a stove.

NGUYEN: Spencer says he was taught as an early age about the power of one, that one person can make a difference. He hopes to inspire others to donate, especially during this holiday season.

BRODSKY: When you believe in something so great, it really drives you, and I believe in this cause. I really do.

NGUYEN: Betty Nguyen, CNN.


HARRIS: And can you learn more about Spencer's project and contribute, if you'd like. Log on to and impact your world.