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American Morning

Political Future of Israel Uncertain as Sharon Clings to Life; Pentagon Responds to Increased Violence in Iraq

Aired January 06, 2006 - 08:00   ET


I'm Soledad O'Brien.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is back on the operating table right now. Doctors are performing emergency brain surgery. They're trying to stop the bleeding. We're live in Jerusalem with the very latest on this developing story.


Final words from the Sago mine tragedy. A dying miner send his family one last message. We'll have a live report on that.

The sole survivor of the mine tragedy undergoing a somewhat radical procedure. Doctors trying to desperately save Randy McCloy, Jr.

S. O'BRIEN: And the fight for Iraq -- how long will U.S. troops be part of it? We're going to hear what the top U.S. commander in Iraq thinks, just ahead on AMERICAN MORNING.

M. O'BRIEN: Good morning.

Glad you're with us this morning.

S. O'BRIEN: A lot to get to. We've got developments, really, across the globe today.

Let's start with Israel.

Doctors are trying to keep Prime Minister Ariel Sharon alive. They've rushed him back into surgery. It happened early this morning. Aides went to the hospital immediately. His sons are already there. There has been no official word from the hospital for several hours.

Wolf Blitzer is live in Jerusalem -- Wolf, good morning.

I know you've obviously covered Israeli politics for a very long time.

Let's talk about the big picture impact that Sharon's health and all this uncertainty is now having.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It's a huge, huge question mark that hovers over not only Israel, but the entire region right now because almost certainly, even if Ariel Sharon does recover from this latest surgery, and all indications are he is gravely, gravely ill and has taken a serious turn for the worst even over the past several hours, if you can imagine that.

It's going to raise lots of questions about the political future of Israel. There's elections scheduled for the end of March. The Palestinians have their own elections scheduled for January. And it's unclear who will emerge in the aftermath of Ariel Sharon. There's a lot of political factions here in Israel.

What is absolutely clear is that the United States has enormous interests in this part of the world and what happens between the Israelis and the Palestinians, Soledad, as you and all of our viewers know, could have major ramifications on U.S. policy in this part of the world, including what's happening beyond Israel's borders into Iraq and elsewhere in the region.

S. O'BRIEN: So now the deputy prime minister, Ehud Olmert, is essentially in charge.

What is his relationship, Wolf, like with President Bush?

BLITZER: He was the mayor of Jerusalem for a long time. He's a long time political operative here in Israel. He goes way back in the Likud. But he was one of those who even foreshadowed Sharon's move toward the center. It was Ehud Barak -- excuse me -- Ehud Olmert who first suggested the idea within the Likud that Israel should withdraw its Jewish settlements from Gaza, which was an extremely controversial decision. Sharon eventually signed onto that. And they've been very close.

I'm sure that Ehud Olmert will have a strong relationship with the Bush administration, just as Ariel Sharon did. But, you know, he could be acting prime minister, even prime minister, only temporarily, depending on what happens on March 28, when the next Israeli elections occur.

S. O'BRIEN: Wolf, you've interviewed Ariel Sharon in "THE SITUATION ROOM." You covered him extensively.

Give me a sense of what you think of him as a leader.

BLITZER: He was first and foremost an Israeli patriot, and he was a military man. He rose through the ranks of the Israeli Army going back to Israel's war of independence in 1948 and served as a commanding general in the '56 war, the '67 war, the '73 war. And then he went into politics after he retired from the Israeli military.

And he always saw what was happening here in Israel within that military, strategic, security oriented prism. And he tried to do what he thought was best for Israel.

But he was someone who was willing to change his stance. Remember, Soledad, he was one of the great architects of Israel's settlement policies in the West Bank and Gaza, yet when he determined that those settlements were a hindrance to the peace process, he decided to dismantle them in Gaza and even in small parts of the West Bank. And there was hope he was going to try to advance that peace process now and take steps that he earlier would have rejected.

So he did demonstrate some significant flexibility. And for that, the Bush administration was very grateful.

S. O'BRIEN: Well, he is in very grave condition, as we know. And, of course, everyone in Israel is praying for his recovery, as we've heard reports from Guy Raz today.

Wolf, thanks for the update.

Obviously, the latest from Wolf all day on CNN and then "THE SITUATION ROOM" at 4:00 p.m. and then "PRIME TIME" at 7:00 p.m. Those are Eastern times, of course -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: The terrible bloodshed in Iraq continues. Eight U.S. soldiers and three Marines among 140 killed in a string of attacks Thursday all across that country.

Our Jamie McIntyre joining us from the Pentagon with more -- Jamie, can we connect the dots on all this violence? What is the Pentagon saying about all of this?

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I sat down this morning with General George Casey, the commander of the U.S.-led forces in Iraq, and asked him about this increase in violence. If you count the last two days, about 180 Iraqis killed, almost a dozen U.S. troops, including several more incidents today.

But General Casey insists that this is a spike and it will not result in a change in strategy.


GEN. GEORGE CASEY, COMMANDER, MULTINATIONAL FORCES IN IRAQ: I think what -- we can't let what's happened in the last few days distract us from the progress that's been made over the last year. That's what the terrorists want. And if you think about it, think back to a year ago today. We hadn't even had the first elections. And think about what people were thinking about our ability to do that.

And now in Iraq, the Iraqi people have not only one election, they've had three national polls. And in every one of those events -- the participation of the Iraqis has increased to 70 percent in the last election and the levels of violence have decreased.


MCINTYRE: He's under no pressure from President Bush to reduce the number of U.S. troops in Iraq. He says the next time he'll make a review of that is in the spring, when he'll make a decision about a further draw down. And he says it won't just be based on the level of violence, but also on the ability of the Iraqi forces. And he hopes by the end of the year that 75 percent of the Iraqi battalions will be able to take the lead in operations in their part of the country -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Our senior Pentagon correspondent, Jamie McIntyre.

Thank you very much.

Let's get some headlines in.

Kelly Wallace in for Carol Costello this morning -- good morning, Kelly.

KELLY WALLACE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning again, Miles.

Families of the victims of the West Virginia coal mining accident are preparing to lay their loved ones to rest. At least one memorial has been set up and a touching note has also surfaced, left by one of the men who died.

Martin Toler, Jr. seen in this picture, scribbled a note that said, in part: "Tell all I see them on the other side. I love you."

And we're going to hear from his nephew just ahead. You won't want to miss that.

Meantime, the lone survivor, Randy McCloy, Jr. is at a Pittsburgh hospital, where he's getting specialized oxygen treatment.

And, of course, an investigation into the mining tragedy is ongoing.

Officials in Turkey say a third member of one family has apparently died from bird flu, an 8-year-old -- an 11-year-old girl, excuse me. The girl's brother and sister died earlier this week from the virus. These are the first known human deaths from the strain outside of China and Southeast Asia.

Officials are still testing samples from the sister. The World Health Organization is sending a team to Turkey to investigate.

President Bush heading to Chicago today to talk about his economic plans. The president will visit the Chicago Board of Trade, where he's expected to discuss the boom that he says resulted from his tax cuts. The president will also outline what he thinks needs to be done to prevent an economic slowdown. The speech coming at the end of a week in which the major focus has been on Iraq and the war on terror.

CNN will have live coverage of the president's remarks beginning at 1:00 p.m. Eastern.

And terror suspect Jose Padilla heads to federal court later today after being held without charges for more than three years. He was transferred from the military brig to civilian custody in Miami on Thursday. These are the first images we've seen of Padilla since he was arrested back in May of 2002.

The Bush administration labeled Padilla an enemy combatant and at the time of his arrest, he was accused of plotting to set off a radioactive dirty bomb. But he was never charged with that.

Instead, in November, he was indicted on charges of conspiring to murder U.S. citizens and provide support to terrorists.

To the Forecast Center now.

Chad Myers back on AMERICAN MORNING -- A short week, though, Chad for you, right?

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Yes, it is. That's the best part about taking a long weekend...

WALLACE: That's nice, yes.

MYERS: ... is that the next week is so short.

Good morning, Kelly.

And good morning, everyone.


S. O'BRIEN: Ahead this morning, anger in New Orleans. Have you seen these pictures? Oh, the people there are furious, arguing, as the city tries to tear down homes.

The question is are they hoping that some people, poor people, won't go back in? We're going to take a closer look at that issue this morning.

M. O'BRIEN: Also, the Sago mine tragedy. One of the victims wrote a touching note to his family in his final hours. We'll talk to one of hiss loved ones about it.

S. O'BRIEN: Later this morning, from helping civilians to battling terrorists, our friend, Lieutenant Colonel Denton Knapp has seen it all. We're going to ask him this morning to reflect on his tour of duty in Iraq.

That's ahead on AMERICAN MORNING.

We're back in just a moment.


M. O'BRIEN: Sago mine survivor Randy McCloy, Jr. is clinging to life this morning. He's undergoing a special oxygen treatment right now. He was moved from the hospital in West Virginia to one in Pittsburgh that has a hyperbaric chamber. Doctors hope that by filling this high pressure chamber with oxygen, they can flush the carbon monoxide out of his system.

Soledad spoke to one of his doctors just a little while ago.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) DR. RICHARD SHANNON: He certainly does move and bite down on his endotracheal tube and open his eyes. So I don't believe he's in a coma at this point. But he is being heavily sedated so that we can conduct our tests and we can keep him comfortable as he begins to recover from his injuries.

TAMBRA FLINT, RANDAL MCCLOY'S MOTHER: I'll start discussing things that we do together that I know that he loves and I get a big reaction. He moves around a lot and you can just tell that, you know, he's sensing that I'm there and that I'm talking to him.


M. O'BRIEN: Also in that same interview earlier this morning Randy McCloy's wife Anna told me she considers her time with her husband to be a blessing.

Those oxygen treatments are expected to continue for at least a couple of days.

"See you on the other side," the handwritten words of coal miner Martin Toler in his final hours. Hard words to read, for sure. But perhaps harder for his family if he had not scrawled them on the back of an insurance form.

Martin Toler's nephew, Randy, joining us now from Upshur County, West Virginia, at the site of the accident.

Randy Toler, good to have you with us this morning.

How is the family holding up?

RANDY TOLER, NEPHEW OF DECEASED MINER: Miles, we're trying to support one another and go on.

M. O'BRIEN: There were so many unanswered questions about what happened underground, and there remain many unanswered questions.

But the note -- and this is one of at least a couple of notes we know of -- do they help in some way?

TOLER: They help a lot. It's become probably the most priceless possession our family has.

M. O'BRIEN: He says, essentially, you know, don't worry about me, it's just like going to sleep. And -- because I know it's just tormenting for the families to think that they suffered horribly. And you get from this note that that wasn't necessarily the case.

TOLER: That's right. Of course, that's what I'm told, that carbon monoxide poisoning is a pleasant death. But nevertheless, it's reassuring to have been told that from him.

M. O'BRIEN: Yes, I mean, well, you knew that, but you also didn't know if the explosion might have caused other injuries for people... TOLER: Exactly. And obviously it hasn't been the case.

M. O'BRIEN: Now, I was talking to the family of Randy McCloy just a little while ago and they are convinced that part of the reason Randy is still with us -- not only was he young and healthy, but they firmly believe, perhaps your uncle among them, gave their air supply to him.

Do you believe that to be true?

TOLER: I believe that's a very plausible scenario.

M. O'BRIEN: When you think about that, what kind of emotions does that bring to mind?

TOLER: It just reaffirms who we knew my uncle to be, a selfless individual.

M. O'BRIEN: Yes, you know, the term brotherhood and fraternity is used a lot and it's, in this case, so very real and just the idea of them being there, supporting each other in their final hours.

TOLER: That's right. That's right.

M. O'BRIEN: What do you want to know now? You've been through this incredible emotional roller coaster that we've been telling everybody about and, you know, you've had a little -- put a little distance from that awful night when you had the false hopes and so forth.

What are your thoughts on that now?

TOLER: Well, my thoughts are that the coal company and the management did everything that they could to help us. And our thoughts and prayers are with them, as well, because of the tremendous burden that they bore. It wasn't just one family. It was 13 families that they had to worry and concern themselves with.

And our thoughts and prayers are with them, as well as our governor and our congresswoman, Shelley Moore Capito, and Governor Manchin. They did a tremendous job in comforting us. They were with us nonstop and it's very much appreciated, their efforts. They didn't have to do that.

M. O'BRIEN: It sounds like you don't have a lot of room for anger right now.

Have you forgiven all?

TOLER: There's no point in anger. It serves no purpose. And there wasn't ever any anger on any of our family's part.

M. O'BRIEN: A final thought here.

As time goes on and this investigation unfolds, do you have any deep concerns that there, you know, this is a dangerous business. We all know that.


M. O'BRIEN: But do you have any concern that that mine put your uncle and the others unnecessarily into harm's way?

TOLER: No, sir. I'm not concerned about that because mining is a dangerous industry and I'm sure their safety record is not a lot different from most coal mining. And the nation needs coal for energy. When we turn our heat on and our lights on, it's more or less powered by coal. And it's a necessary fact of life. And we have to have coal.

M. O'BRIEN: Your uncle was a brave man.

TOLER: Yes, he was. Very brave.

M. O'BRIEN: Randy Toler, whose uncle died in the Sago coal mine.

Thanks very much for spending some time with us. And we wish you and your family well.

TOLER: Thank you, Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Soledad?

S. O'BRIEN: Coming up this morning, outrage in the streets of New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward. Some residents say that the city is tearing down homes without asking them first.

Is the city trying to keep poor people from moving back in?

We're going to take a closer look ahead on AMERICAN MORNING.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm not the supervisor. The supervisor approves work.




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... let me tell you what I know...



S. O'BRIEN: Yes, you can see it right there, the little debate going on. Some residents of New Orleans' 9th Ward trying to save their homes. The city, though -- you can see the guys there in those orange jackets -- trying to tear them down. And they say they're doing it without the owners' consent.

That has led to a temporary restraining order and a lawsuit, too.

Attorney Judith Brown represents some of the angry homeowners and she's in Washington this morning.

It's nice to see you, Miss. Brown.

Thanks for talking with us.


Thanks for having me.

S. O'BRIEN: We saw pictures of the residents truly kind of getting into it with some of those construction workers who were trying to rip down those homes.

Can you describe for me what exactly happened?

BROWN: Sure.

Yesterday we got a call during a press conference that there was some demolition going on in the Lower 9th Ward. Our folks, including the community groups and our attorneys, rushed down to the scene and had to actually stand in front of the bulldozers to remind them that there was a court order.

We had a consent judgment, yet the city decided that they would have those bulldozers up and running.

So the people stood in front of the bulldozers and said no, we're not going to have it.

S. O'BRIEN: There was some word that they were going to clear the sidewalks, not necessarily start demolishing people's homes.

Is that inaccurate?

BROWN: Well, that's what we've been told after the fact. But what we have had to do is have community members, residents and community activists, actually patrolling the neighborhoods to make sure that that is not going to happen.

S. O'BRIEN: Tell me about this lawsuit. The lawsuit has been filed.

What exactly do you want?

BROWN: Sure. What we want is an opportunity for people to know that their properties are going to be demolished. We want an opportunity for them to be heard. The constitution requires that if your property is taken by the government, that you have an opportunity to notice and you have an opportunity to be heard. And that's what we want for people.

And we want to make sure that we start right now by saying that residents of New Orleans should have a say in what happens, not only to their property, but to the whole rebuilding process.

S. O'BRIEN: Greg Meffert, who I'm sure you're aware of -- he's an aide to the mayor -- and he's basically the guy in charge of all the demolition. I'm sure you've heard him say listen, we're talking about 120 structures that are very unsafe, you know, practically have already collapsed.

Let's listen to a little bit of what he told Miles the other day.


GREG MEFFERT, NEW ORLEANS CHIEF TECHNOLOGY OFFICER: If your house has come off the slab and gone into a driveway or into a street, which is really all we're talking about with this 120, you know, we have to balance that property owners' notification. Again, they know it's already demolished. We have to balance that with the fact that, you know, this thing is in the streets or it's about to hurt somebody.


S. O'BRIEN: What do you make of his point, it's about to hurt somebody?

BROWN: Well, I mean there's no one living there, so it's not about to hurt somebody. And what we're saying is that the city shouldn't violate the constitution. The constitution requires due process. And either the city is going to be fair and give people notice or they're just going to go in and demolish people's homes.

People have a right to know and an opportunity to be heard and to have a say in what happens to their property.

S. O'BRIEN: Isn't there an argument to be made that before you can really start even sort of psychologically rebuilding, you've got to kind of clean the area out?

I mean we have guests from the Gulf Coast, various regions, who will say it's so depressing to see all this debris and stuff. We can't move on until someone comes and starts helping us move forward.

BROWN: Well, I think that that may be true. But people also want to go back and go through their homes. I mean I talked to a man yesterday whose home -- his home is one of the 117 that they plan to demolish immediately. And he said I want to go back. I want to go through what is there. There are mementos, there are things that are salvageable and I should have an opportunity to do that.

And, in fact, he wrote on his house, "Do not bulldoze," yet the city could care less about notifying him.

And it doesn't take much to notify these people. We've found about 50 of these people. So the city can do it and give people the opportunity to come back and go through their belongings. I mean these people have lost almost everything. And then the city is turning around and deciding we're going to take what is left of what you own.

S. O'BRIEN: How much time do they need for notification? And is it all about notification? They just want to know? It's not a matter of saying no, I don't want my home torn down?

BROWN: Well, it is a matter of notice, but also an opportunity to be heard. I mean some people may want to appeal the decision to have their homes demolished, but we don't know until we give those people notice.

S. O'BRIEN: You had mentioned it's, you think, indicative of a bigger concern, a concern about the future, really.

What do you mean?

BROWN: Well, if you don't have a say in what happens to your home, you sure as heck are not going to have a say with regard to the rebuilding of the city overall. And what we want to make sure is that we're protecting the residents of New Orleans who have been survivors of this hurricane and to make sure that they have a voice in this. And we want to make sure that the city understands that they can't act in bad faith.

What they've done so far is moved our case to federal court so that they can say that we don't have a TRO any longer and that means that they can start bulldozing this weekend.

We're going to protect the people.

S. O'BRIEN: We've had some people say on our air that they think it's because poor black people live in the Lower 9th Ward and, you know, you kind of demolish the homes, you get rid of a bunch of people who are, in many cases, on the state's dole.

Do you think there's a theory to that that you buy into?

BROWN: Yes. Yes. I mean there is major concern that these are the people who have been shut out of the process all along, prior to Katrina. Poor African-American communities have not had a say. And we're going to make sure that they have a say after Katrina.

S. O'BRIEN: Judith Brown is an attorney.

Thanks for talking with us this morning, Miss. Brown.

Appreciate it.

BROWN: Thank you.

M. O'BRIEN: Coming up on the program, you may be in for a surprise when you receive your next credit card bill. Minimum payments are going up. What it means for your budget.

Stay with us for more AMERICAN MORNING.