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American Morning

Escalating Sectarian Violence in Iraq; Trouble in Moussaoui Trial

Aired March 14, 2006 - 07:00   ET


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everybody. I'm Soledad O'Brien.

Escalating sectarian violence in Iraq. Dozens of bodies discovered just today, more than 100 found since Sunday. We'll have a live report for you. This as fewer and fewer Americans now support the war in Iraq. And the president's approval rating sinks to a new low. We'll look at all of these numbers coming up.

S. O'BRIEN: There is trouble in the Moussaoui trial. The possibility of the feds getting the death penalty is sort of hanging by a thread now.

And personal details are coming out in the "Da Vinci Code" trial. Dan Brown is on the stand denying that he stole the premise for his bestseller.

M. O'BRIEN: And Texas burning. A Rhode Island-size swathe of the Lone Star State now charred. Forecast is not so good. A live report ahead on this AMERICAN MORNING.

Dozens of bodies have been found in Iraq. In fact, more than 70 over the past 30 hours as what appears to be increasing sectarian violence escalates in that country. This on the day after President Bush began a series of speeches trying to win over the American public, the war at home, if you will.

President Bush says he sees signs of a hopeful future in Iraq. Many Americans, though, apparently do not share that vision. The latest public opinion poll offers a new low for the president.

CNN White House correspondent Suzanne Malveaux at the White House with more.

Good morning, Suzanne.


Today, President Bush is traveling to upstate New York. that is where he is selling his Medicare prescription drug program. A lot of seniors find the options confusing, and even administrators find some of this a bureaucrat nightmare, political nightmare. It is very clear that President Bush's agenda is not yet gaining traction. The latest CNN/"USA Today"/Gallup poll bearing that out, to 36 saying they approve of how Mr. Bush is doing his job. Sixty percent say they disapprove, and that number, of course, has a lot to do with what is happening on the ground in Iraq. Thirty-two percent say he has a clear plan for Iraq; 67 percent say that he does not.

Now this PR campaign, this series of campaigns, are meant, as the administration says, to give Americans a fuller picture, and of course, Miles, to try to change those numbers, turn those numbers around -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Suzanne, let's shift gears here a little bit. The numbers on the economy appear good. Andy Serwer is just saying the jobs report came out and that seemed to offer some good news for the White House. That doesn't seem to be helping though, does it?

MALVEAUX: Well, you know, it's very interesting. It's the only good news in this report, in this poll, showing that close to 60 percent really feel very good about the economy. That is what the White House is trying to push. But you look at the numbers here,. and that is really not what most people are focusing on. If you look at it when asked what will Mr. Bush be remembered for, 64 percent of the people say Iraq. That is higher than the war on terrorism. That's higher than Katrina, tax cuts, Supreme Court picks. That is something that the president, the administration very much aware of, that Iraq is going to establish his legacy -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: All right, thank you very much, Suzanne Malveaux.

And without further ado, let's go to Iraq. CNN's Nic Robertson is there, where the death toll is striking no less than 71 bodies discovered in the past 30 hours or so, as what appears to be sectarian violence increases.

Nic, what can you tell us?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SR. INTL. CORRESPONDENT: Well, Miles, this morning, 15 bodies were discovered in the back of a pickup truck in the western side of Baghdad in a Sunni neighborhood. Police say that those bodies appear to have been strangled. On the other side of the city, in the east of the city, in a Shia neighborhood, 14 bodies there discovered in a shallow grave. Police say they were shot in their heads, their hands were bound, they'd been blindfolded and there were signs of torture. Another two bodies discovered in the south of the city. They had been shot in the head. Police say 40 bodies discovered in total yesterday.

The indications are -- police won't say this -- but the indications are that these are sectarian killings, that this is part of an ongoing wave of sectarian violence. You talk to some people here in Baghdad, they talk in their neighborhoods, mixed neighborhoods of tit-for-tat killings -- Sunni one day, Shia the next day, Sunni one day. That's the perception in this city at the moment, Miles. These killings, these bodies that are showing up in these large numbers now, these are sectarian killings -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Nic Robertson in Baghdad, thank you very much -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: The government's effort to have confessed terrorist conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui executed may suffered a death blow, with words that government lawyers have coached some of the witnesses.

CNN's Jeanne Meserve is live outside the courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia.

Jeanne, good morning.


Today a very angry judge today will be trying to determine exactly how much damage has been done and whether it requires, as the defense suggests, that the death penalty should be thrown out.


MESERVE (voice-over): Judge Leonie Brinkema called it a blatant, egregious violation of her court order prohibiting witnesses from following trial proceedings. An attorney for the Transportation Security Administration, Carla Martin, provided seven current and former aviation officials slated to take the stand later in the trial with transcripts of opening statements and witness testimony. She also sent them e-mails, saying the prosecution's opening statement has, quote, "big gaps that the defense can exploit," and has, quote, "created a credibility gap that the defense can drive a truck through."

Judge Brinkema will meet the witnesses to gauge whether their testimony has been tainted, as she tries to determine the remedy, which could include throwing out the death penalty, limiting the witnesses' testimony or excluding it altogether.

ANDREW MCBRIDE, FMR. FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: If it is coaching and they've really been tainted, she must exclude them. She cannot allow them to testify. I think that may be the end of the government's case.

MESERVE: These witnesses were expected to testify if Moussaoui had told investigators in August of 2001 about al Qaeda's intention to fly planes into buildings, aviation security would of been tightened, the 9/11 plot potentially foiled. They are key to the government's case for the death penalty in this, the only case connected to the September 11th attacks.

ALBERTO GONZALES, ATTY. GENERAL: I'm not going to speculate on what the judge may or may not do. Given where we are in the state of the trial, it would be inappropriate for me to comment at all.

MESERVE: A 9/11 family member who was in the courtroom was shaken even at the possibility that a technicality might keep Moussaoui from being sentenced to death.

EDDIE BRACKEN, 9/11 FAMILY MEMBER: I was, you know, like dumbfounded. My jaw dropped. (END VIDEOTAPE)

MESERVE: If the judge throws out the death penalty, Moussaoui would still receive life in prison, because he has pled guilty to terrorism conspiracy. Yesterday in the courtroom, he smiled through the proceedings yesterday, and as he left the room, said, "The show must go on" -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: And it will, but who knows in what way, shape or form, right?

Jeanne Meserve for us this morning. Jeanne, thank you.

Coming up at the bottom of the hour, we're going to talk to senior legal analyst Jeff Toobin. He'll will weigh in on this case -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: In the Texas Panhandle this morning, they are wondering what the day will bring as wildfires continue to rage. So far 11 are dead, nearly 700,000 acres burned. That's an area almost the size of Rhode Island.

CNN's Ed Lavandera is in -- near Groom, Texas in Gray County.

Ed, what can you tell us about the situation there?

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Miles, as the sun will come up here this morning, you'll be able to see just how much charred land is behind me here. For as far as you can see, when you drive around the Texas Panhandle, you can see that the charred remnants of what these wildfires have left behind. As you mentioned, almost 700,000 acres have burned here. It's hard to kind of wrap your head around a number so large. We drove about a hundred miles yesterday, and everywhere we looked, everywhere we drove, there were signs of just how quickly and how fast-moving these wildfires had spread across the Texas Panhandle.

And of course this has been a deadly outbreak of wildfires. Now 11 people confirmed dead in fire-related incidents that have happened here in the last two days. In the last incident, where north of where we are in a town near Miami, Texas, there were four people found near a car. Authorities believe at this point that they perhaps were trying to outrun one of the wildfires and were caught up in that, so 11 people killed.

The crews are continuing to work the scenes overnight. There were more fires. Many of these fires not even 50 percent contained at this point. A lot of these fires have died down and are able to pick up very quickly, and these are fast-moving fires, and authorities say people need to be alert -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Ed, is there enough manpower on the ground there to fight the fires? Do they need help?

LAVANDERA: I think they are bringing in some help. WE were in one area north of where we are today, yesterday where there were some firefighters brought in from Oklahoma to come help, and you see that in many places. So widespread and so rural, many of these places, that a lot of these firefighters are volunteer firefighters, and we understand they're getting help from the state and also from surrounding fire departments that aren't battling blazes of their own.

M. O'BRIEN: Thank you, Ed Lavandera in the Texas Panhandle this morning.


S. O'BRIEN: Ahead this morning, we're going to meet a woman. She's a bartender. And, wow, what quick thinking she used really, plus the keg room she used to, in order to save more than a dozen people when that powerful tornado struck.

M. O'BRIEN: I'm not sure if that's in the emergency handbook. When the tornado comes, run for the keg room.

S. O'BRIEN: Well, she did it, and it worked. We'll tell you that story ahead.

M. O'BRIEN: We'll you about the Enron trial as well. Star witness Andy Fastow is done for now, testifying against his former bosses. What did he do for the government's case?

S. O'BRIEN: Then a little bit later this morning, in a city that has certainly has seen its share of gruesome murders, what do you think makes this story of this graduate student stand out in the hearts and minds of New Yorkers? The details are just horrifying. We've got this story just ahead on AMERICAN MORNING.


S. O'BRIEN: The government's star witness in the Enron criminal trial has wrapped up his testimony. The question now is, just how much damage did he do?

Chris Huntington has the very latest for us from Houston.


CHRIS HUNTINGTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (on camera): Andrew Fastow's dramatic and often contentious testimony wrapped up yesterday. Four days on the witness stand. Three of it under cross-examination. The defense tried to undercut his credibility, forcing him to repeatedly admit he had lied to Enron executives and shareholders, and stolen millions of dollars from the company.

But Fastow held firm, insisting that Jeff Skilling and Ken Lay oversaw a culture of corruption at Enron that deceived investors about the nature of the company's finances. Fastow was the highest profile witness in the trial so far, but the case against Skilling and Lay does not rest solely on his testimony. In weeks to come, we will hear from other high-profile witnesses, including the whistle-blower Sherron Watkins.

Chris Huntington, CNN, Houston.




S. O'BRIEN: Ahead this morning, the case against confessed terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui hanging by a thread now. Ahead we're going to talk to senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin about the alleged prosecutorial misconduct.

First, though, we're going meet a hero of the storm truly, a heroine really, a bartender who used a bathroom, and a keg room and was able to save more than a dozen people.

Stay with us. You're watching AMERICAN MORNING.


M. O'BRIEN: When those wild storms blew through the Midwest the other night, many people were caught off guard. March might come in like a lion, but it generally is not prime tornado time. But in the Barrelhead Pub in Springfield, Illinois, some quick thinking by the bartender, a mad dash to the keg room, apparently saved the day.

Joining us now is the bartender Tracy Suter from inside what remains of the Barrelhead bar, or pub, I should say, in Illinois.

Tracy, good to have you with us. And we're glad you're hear to tell this tale, first of all.

Take us back to Sunday night. What was going on in the bar? It seemed like just a heavy rainstorm, didn't it?

TRACY SUTER, TORNADO SURVIVOR: That was it. It was really just a thunderstorm, and a lot of lightning, a lot of rain. That was about it. So typical night, typical stormy night.

M. O'BRIEN: Typical night. People in there warming themselves, having a good time at the pub.

And I think we just lost Tracy. She just froze up there. We're going to try to reconnect with her and we'll get back -- well, there she is. Tracy, can you hear me?

SUTER: Yes, I can.

M. O'BRIEN: All right, you froze up for a moment, so I'm going to re-ask the question. How did you find out that things were turning from a bad rainstorm into something much worse?

SUTER: Well, I think the first clue was when the doors started opening up with all of the wind and the rain started coming in. Once the pressure dropped, we lost a window on the west side of the dining room. Once that blew out, I think everyone had a pretty good idea that it was getting bad. So we all took off.

M. O'BRIEN: All right, the doors blew open and the windows broke. That would be a clue to me that something bad was happening. Were you pretty frightened at that point?

SUTER: Well, sure, sure, there was definite panic, but I think we were just, you know, running and thinking it was just wind. I really think, especially for me, I just thought it was wind and rain, and that was it. I don't think anyone really thought what happened was really happening at the time.

M. O'BRIEN: Did you know there was -- was there a tornado watch, warning, any sort of indication? Did you have the TV on, that kind of thing?

SUTER: Sure, sure. The sirens started going off. They went off for about 15 minutes. When that happened, we turned the jukebox off, we turned the Weather Channel on, and paid attention to that. But other than that, it was a typical -- sirens go off a lot. We just never really think it's going to happen to us, and we just watched out the window, so...

M. O'BRIEN: All right, so when all this happened, and you knew it became more serious, did you immediately think of what to do? Had you thought about this before? Had you made any sort of plans for what happens if there is a tornado?

SUTER: It's been discussed before. I've been here for about seven years now, and we've always been told the safest part of the building, believe it or not, is the keg cooler, as well as the female bathroom, so we just kind of split ourselves up. The employees, most of the employees, went to the keg room, and myself and the customers made our way to the girls bathroom.

M. O'BRIEN: How many people in each room?

SUTER: There was about 20 of us, roughly 20 of us, probably seven or eight employees. Most of the cooks and the other bartender went into the keg cooler, and then myself and the customers pretty much threw ourselves into the women's bathroom and just huddled in there.

M. O'BRIEN: And what did you all experience once you get in those rooms? Was it pretty terrifying?

SUTER: Yes, a lot of wind. You know, it pretty much sounded like there was a train coming through the building is how you can describe it. A lot of glass being thrown around. I thought it was most of the mirrors that we had hanging on the walls and the windows that were getting blown around. That's about it. A little more shocked to come out and see the roof was missing, but I don't know, pretty unreal.

M. O'BRIEN: Did you feel, once you were in the ladies bathroom, and once the others were in the keg room, did you feel as if you were safe? SUTER: Yes, I guess so. I mean, everyone was pretty scared. Everyone held on pretty tight. I know the guys in the keg room couldn't even get the door shut, so they were holding on to that for dear life. And the guys -- the men that were in the girls bathroom with us were standing up against the door holding that shut. Other than that, you know, we felt fine. I think when we came out of the restroom and the keg cooler, it was more like making sure that the live wires weren't a problem. We did have a gas leak at the time, so then it was just trying to make our way outside the building to somewhere else safe.

M. O'BRIEN: All right, so once you got out, it wasn't as if it was a situation where everybody -- it was drinks on the house? You got out there as quickly as you could?

SUTER: Oh, no, no, no. No, we didn't want to be in here anymore. We had had our fun. So we made our way out to the street. We found there was some police officers and neighbors that helped us out in case -- we really weren't sure if the storm was over or not, and seeing that the roof was gone and really no place safe to go, we made sure we found our way to some neighbors.

M. O'BRIEN: Tracy, you know, I think we all wonder how we would react in a situation like that. You probably did beforehand. You acted in a very cool, calm, collected way, and you might have saved some lives. How do you feel about that this morning?

SUTER: I don't know. I don't -- I think it was a group effort. The customers were great. The employees were great. You know, we just all came together and, I don't know, made our way. So we're all safe, and that's all that matters.

M. O'BRIEN: Congratulations. Who knew that the keg cooler would be the place to go.

SUTER: I know.

M. O'BRIEN: We wish you well as you try to pick up the pieces in Illinois.

SUTER: Thank you. All right, thanks.

M. O'BRIEN: Tracy Suter in Jerome (ph), Illinois. Thanks for being with us.

Still to come on the program, a judge threatens to declare a mistrial in the case against Zacarias Moussaoui. Up next, senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin will explain what prosecutors are accused of doing.

And then what is it about the murder of a young grad student that has New Yorkers and, for that matter, the world taking notice?

AMERICAN MORNING's Kelly Wallace looking at this case for us. Stay with us for more AMERICAN MORNING.