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American Morning

Battle of Baghdad; Iran Offers Talks; Syrian Threatening to Close Border With Lebanon

Aired August 24, 2006 - 06:30   ET


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Happening this morning, military officials say a new operation to secure Baghdad is paying off. About 12,000 extra U.S. and Iraqi troops have been brought in to help stop sectarian violence there.
BP says it's again cutting production at Alaska's Prudhoe Bay oilfield. This time it's because of a faulty compressor that's used to handle natural gas

And Tropical Storm Debby is becoming better organized. In other words, stronger in the eastern Atlantic. Forecasters say it could become a hurricane in about four days.

Good morning. Welcome back, everybody.

I'm Soledad O'Brien.

TONY HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: And good morning, everyone.

I'm Tony Harris, in for Miles O'Brien.

O'BRIEN: We begin this half-hour with a newly released poll from CNN. The polls asks Americans this: Is the U.S. safer from a terror attack now than it was before 9/11?

Well, less than half of the respondents, 43 percent, said yes. Thirty-two percent said the U.S. is just about as safe as it was before 9/11. Twenty-five percent say the U.S. is less safe.

The majority of those asked, 54 percent say they believe it's likely terrorism would occur in the U.S. within the next several weeks. Forty-four percent say they don't think that's the case. Thirty-seven percent of those polled said they believe the war in Iraq has made the country safer from terror attacks, while 55 percent said, no, they don't think the war's helped.

That poll conducted by Opinion Research Corporation on behalf of CNN.

There's been a spike in the violence in Iraq to tell you about. July was the deadliest month -- deadliest month there for Iraqi civilians in an obvious escalation of sectarian violence that's forcing the U.S. military to tread very carefully around what many are calling a civil war.

CNN Senior Pentagon Correspondent Jamie McIntyre has our story. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SR. PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT (voice over): When it comes to what's been dubbed the "Battle of Baghdad," the Pentagon claims the new infusion of 12,000 additional forces, including several thousand U.S. troops, is turning the tide.

BRIG. GEN. MICHAEL BARBERO, JOINT STAFF DEPUTY DIRECTOR: Over the last five weeks, the number of incidents of sectarian violence have dropped steadily. Over the last three weeks, the number of attacks on infrastructure have dropped.

MCINTYRE: But the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, writing in "The Wall Street Journal," cites a 10 percent jump last month in the already high number of violent incidents in Baghdad and notes of the 2,100 Iraqi deaths there in July, 77 percent were due to sectarian violence. A trend he calls especially troubling.

Still, in a radio interview this week, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld continues to argue it's not a civil war, yet.

DONALD RUMSFELD, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: In terms of could it go into a civil war? Of course, and that's a possibility. But the people who look at it contend that they're not in it and the government of Iraq says they're not in a civil war.

KEN POLLACK, BROOKINGS INST.: There is no question that Iraq is in a state of civil war. Right now, it's in a state of low level or maybe moderate level civil war, but the trend lines are very bad.

Ken Pollack is co-author of a lengthy opinion piece splashed over a full page of Sunday's "Washington Post" that argues, "... the only thing standing between Iraq and a descent into total devastation is 135,000 U.S. troops -- and even they are merely slowing the fall."

POLLACK: The problem for the United States is that so far we've not been willing to do what would be necessary to pull Iraq out of that downward spiral. And, in fact, it may be too late to even consider doing so.

MCINTYRE (on camera): The Pentagon says 90 percent of the sectarian violence is in a 30-mile radius around Baghdad and that 82 percent of violent attacks are confined to four of Iraq's 18 provinces. But are the U.S. and Iraqi government forces winning the Battle of Baghdad? The general briefing at the Pentagon said he is cautiously optimistic but admitted it's too soon to tell.

Jamie McIntyre, CNN, the Pentagon.


HARRIS: To Iran now. And the Bush administration is considering what to do next now that Iran has given an incomplete answer to Security Council demands. The State Department yesterday saying Iran has fallen short of conditions set by the U.N. Security Council.

CNN's Aneesh Raman is the only U.S. network television correspondent in Tehran.

And Aneesh, what's your sense on the ground? What's next in the Iranian strategy?

ANEESH RAMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Tony, the only condition that Iran faces by the end of the month is to suspend its nuclear program. By every indication on the ground, by every official who's spoken, Iran will not do that. It will not meet this deadline.

So why this response, why this lengthy reply? We're getting a better sense of it, and we're getting a better sense of the strategy.

In Iran's call for a new formula, for new negotiations, the purpose of that is to give fodder to countries like Russia and China, who sit on the Security Council and give them reason for pause, give them reasons to say, let's talk again with the Iranians. The Iranians now saying everything can be on the table, let's just start negotiations again.

The reason for that is that when the deadline comes, no immediate action takes place. It's not that on September 1st suddenly sanctions are imposed. When the deadline passes, the U.N. Security Council has to discuss what to do next. And if Russian and China decide, we're going to block sanctions against Iran, it really can't happen.

So Iran is playing for the future right now -- Tony.

HARRIS: So, Aneesh, what is Iran's response to these accusations that that country is actually in real time destabilizing Iraq?

RAMAN: Yes, you know, I had an exclusive interview just a few days ago with the country's chief nuclear negotiator, also the head of the National Security Council here, and I asked him about Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, comments Iran was actively trying to destabilize, as is the Iranian strategy. He turned it on the U.S., said America wants civil war.

He had info the U.S. ambassador met with Sunni insurgents and told them to fight against Iran. But it is a key point here.

Iraq, under Saddam Hussein, was the balancing power to Iran. Saddam is now gone; Iran is the rising force in the region. And as we saw with Hezbollah and Lebanon, and as we are seeing with Shia militias that have close ties to Iran in Iraq, it has influence it spreads well beyond, and it is a country that knows it can fight proxy wars.

And so, Iraq and Iran's influence there is something that has to factor into everything the U.S. does directly with Iran -- Tony.

HARRIS: Aneesh Raman for us in Tehran.

Aneesh, thank you.

O'BRIEN: New tensions in the Middle East to talk about. Syria now threatening to close its border with Lebanon if U.N. peacekeepers are deployed there. The Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, says U.N. deployment would be seen as a "hostile move."

Let's get right to CNN's Anthony Mills. He's in Beirut this morning.

Anthony, good morning.


That would indeed be a significant move. A lot of Lebanon's exports pass across that border. Industry, in particular, is reliant on that border crossing -- on those border crossings for its exports, especially to Arab countries, of course. It's also a lifeline, especially now, under these circumstances, for humanitarian aid coming into the country and also, for example, for gasoline.

Of course, any ship that wants to dock at Lebanese ports, any plane that wants to land at its airport needs Israel approval. That's a time-consuming process, and so the significance of those border crossings can't be underestimated.

Now, having said that, a short while ago I spoke to high-ranking government officials there. And they said, first off, that Syria has absolutely no right to interfere in what they called a Lebanese decision regarding its sovereignty. But they stress that at this stage in the game, there is absolutely no decision on the part of the Lebanese government to deploy international peacekeepers along that border.

There are already thousands of Lebanese army troops who have been deployed, but no international peacekeepers. And they say for the moment, there is no such decision that's going to be taken.

O'BRIEN: Anthony Mills is reporting from Beirut for us.

Anthony, thanks -- Tony.

HARRIS: And happening "In America" now, California police suspected five years ago the man charged in the JonBenet Ramsey murder may have some involvement in the case. Detectives told Colorado authorities in 2001 that John Karr had a fascination with the 6-year- old girl's death. It happened while Karr was under investigation in a child pornography case.

More problems this morning at the nation's largest oilfield in Alaska. Daily production at Prudhoe Bay has been reduced again from 200,000 to 110,000 barrels. A spokesperson for oil giant BP says it's because a compressor failed. It's expected to take several days to fix.

There's a state of emergency in Washington because of wildfires raging all over the state. Nearly 3,000 firefighters are battling the biggest fire, which recently doubled in size to about 120,000 acres.

Meanwhile, a wildfire is burning dangerously close to a Utah community this morning. Flames are scorching the hills above Perry, and some homes were evacuated in Brigham City. For the second time this week, strong storms blew through Tucson, Arizona, toppling trees and leaving thousands without power. Downed power lines fell on top of about a dozen cars, trapping drivers and passengers inside their vehicles.

So, with all that said, let's get another check of the forecast. Chad Myers is in the CNN Center in Atlanta.

Chad, good morning.



O'BRIEN: Thank you, Chad.

MYERS: You're welcome.

O'BRIEN: Still to come this morning, we're talking about defending Japan. The threat posed by North Korean missiles is now forcing Japan to get defensive, with a little help from American patriots.

We'll explain just ahead.

HARRIS: Ford (INAUDIBLE) , forcing the automaker into uncharted territory, which could mean some good news if you're shopping for a new car.

O'BRIEN: And vacation time less and less. Why are more and more people making fewer and fewer plans?

We'll explain just ahead.


O'BRIEN: Here's a look now at stories that CNN correspondents around the world are covering today.



The government here estimates nearly a quarter of a million Iraqis live in camps, all displaced from their homes since February of this year. That number grows daily.

They are Iraq's internally displaced refugees within their own country, forced to flee their homes and their old lives by increasingly deadly sectarian violence. There are 19 camps like the one that we visited, Jakuk (ph), which is 800 people living in an area the size of two soccer fields.

The most striking scene we saw, children sitting, staring into an uncertain future. (END VIDEOTAPE)


STAN GRANT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi. I'm Stan Grant in Beijing.

Well, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez is known for his virulent anti-U.S. comments. Now he is here in China, sitting down with Chinese president Hu Jintao.

On the agenda, oil imports to China. They are booming. By the end of the year, up to 200,000 barrels a day. With China already doing deals with so-called rogue states Iran, Syria and Sudan, could we be seeing the beginning of an anti-U.S. resources coalition?


O'BRIEN: Also this morning, grieving relatives at the crash site of a Russian passenger jet. A hundred and forty people arrived there. At least 125 relatives of those who died in the crash gathered earlier on Thursday. A cross and a memorial were placed in memory of the victims.

And also, a follow-up on the story we told you about yesterday, that plane that was diverted back from Mumbai to the airport in Amsterdam. Well, Dutch police arrested 12 men after the Northwest Airlines plane was escorted back by those two fighter jets. Air marshals on the plane became concerned after several passengers using cell phones began passing them back and forth.

If you want more information on any of these stories or any of our top stories, you can go right to our Web site, -- Tony.

HARRIS: Well, still to come on AMERICAN MORNING, have you taken a vacation yet this summer? Some people are finding, well, they're just too busy to kick back and enjoy some R&R, some time off.

We'll explain what's going here. That's next on AMERICAN MORNING.


O'BRIEN: Happening this morning, BP says it is again cutting production at Alaska's Prudhoe Bay oilfield. This time it's because of a faulty compressor that's used to handle natural gas.

Astronomers will vote today on the new definition of a planet. Pluto is -- little Pluto.

HARRIS: Pluto! Who knew?

O'BRIEN: Oh, it's expected to be demoted to a dwarf planet. That's a step below Earth and several other classical planets.

And a new report out this morning is expected to show a drop in new home sales. Yesterday, a separate report showed sales of previously owned homes were at their lowest level in two and a half years.

HARRIS: Feeling a little tired lately? Chances are it could be, well, that you're not getting enough R&R. Surveys show American workers take fewer vacations than people in nearly all industrial nations. And now they're cutting back even further.

AMERICAN MORNING'S Alina Cho reports.


ALINA CHO, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): John Pepe is always working. He's on this the job by 6:00 a.m. A trader on the New York Stock Exchange by day, a spin class teacher by night. He's also a divorced father of two.

That leaves little time for himself or for a vacation. He only takes two weeks a year, even though he's allowed to take more.

(on camera): Some people might say, you get five weeks, you only take two, you're out of your mind.

JOHN PEPE, SALES TRADER, GYM OWNER: Yes, you could say that, in a good way, though. But a lot has to do with, you know, the cost of traveling today. I mean, a vacation for four is not what it used to be. The cost of gas.

CHO (voice over): In the dog days of August, when many could be relaxing at the beach, 43 percent of Americans, according to a new Gallup poll, have no summer vacation plans.

PEPE: Friends, family, they say I'm completely out of my mind and how long can you keep up this torrid pace and so forth.

CHO: It's gotten so bad, accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers completely shuts down for about two weeks a year. All 29,000 employees have to take a vacation.

The response, overwhelmingly positive.

KYM WARD GAFFNEY, PRICEWATERHOUSECOOPERS: Hey, you're looking at your Blackberry, no messages are coming through. You check your voicemail, kind of anticipating some calls, no calls. You took this breath and you said, "Wow, OK, people are really serious about this."

CHO: A win-win.

BARBARA KRAFT, PRICEWATERHOUSECOOPERS: Folks came back and said, "It's the first time I had guilt-free time away from the firm."

CHO: And the firm says workers come back relaxed and refreshed and better able to handle stress.

But don't tell that to John Pepe. He says any stress he brings home he works off at the gym, which he owns. Another reason he says he can't get away.

PEPE: Would I love the extra time? Absolutely. But right now...

CHO: It's not an option.

Alina Cho, CNN, New York.


O'BRIEN: Ahead this morning, Ford could have a bumpy road ahead. We'll tell you what the car maker is doing and how it could affect what you're driving.

Those stories ahead on AMERICAN MORNING.


O'BRIEN: Welcome back.

A look now at some of the stories we're working on for you this morning.

What to do about Iran's nuclear ambitions? Reaction from the White House on Iran's latest offer.

Sectarian violence is forcing thousands of families into refugee camps. We'll have an exclusive look at one of those Iraqi refugee camps.

A possible breakthrough in stem cell research. We're going to tell you about that.

And Pluto, well, maybe not a planet anymore. A vote today could change its status in a bad way, downgrade it.

And new home sales figures are out. We'll tell you what you need to know if you're thinking about buying or selling.

HARRIS: Say, you looking to buy one of those hot Mustangs? Well, Ford is offering an incentives package that might -- well, might be the ticket.

Jennifer Westhoven is here "Minding Your Business" this morning.

Jennifer, good morning.


Well, this is great if you want to buy a Ford, right?

HARRIS: Right.

WESTHOVEN: But it's not such good news if you're Ford.

HARRIS: Got you.

WESTHOVEN: I mean, why do they have to have these kinds of big sales? HARRIS: It's going to cost more.


Ford, of course -- and Detroit, in general -- General Motors and Ford have both been struggling a lot. On Wall Street, a lot of the traders, economists and investors really demanding that Ford start to show some turnarounds here. They've been talking about the way forward, they've made a lot of cuts, but Ford really has been struggling.

The balance sheet just hasn't been looking much better. Well, now Ford has a program. They need to clear out all those 2006 models to make way for new ones.

They're going to offer zero percent financing. You can pay off your vehicle -- six years you can take to pay it off. But also, Ford is saying they will offer this not just to people with great credit, to people with less than stellar credit, which means Ford could be taking a risk here that, you know, if the economy has some problems they could end up with some defaults on their hands.

But they clearly need to do some selling.


WESTHOVEN: Right. And -- now, Ford isn't just striking deals with consumers. It looks like Ford is also out to strike some deals sort of at the top end here as well.

There have been reports that maybe it's been talking to Carlos Ghosn, the head of Renault about an alliance. And "USA Today" has a story saying that Ford has been considering going private. They're having enough problems there that maybe they want to get Wall Street off their back, the pressures of being a public company.

So that's interesting to watch. Of course, the Ford family still owns about 40 percent of that company. So it is conceivable that that's something they might be able to pull off.

HARRIS: Man, that's -- so they -- either some kind of a merger, some kind of an alliance, or possibly going private.

WESTHOVEN: That's a big -- so big change.

HARRIS: That is huge.

WESTHOVEN: But they really need to do something.


OK, Jennifer. Thank you.

WESTHOVEN: Coming up next?

HARRIS: Sure. WESTHOVEN: "The Washington Post" this morning reports that the Plan B, morning after pill, could be approved for over-the-counter sale as early as today.

O'BRIEN: We were looking at that story last week.



Jennifer, thanks.

O'BRIEN: We'll follow that.

Thanks, Jennifer.

Time for a check of the forecast. Almost 7:00 this morning here on the East Coast.

Hey, Chad. Good morning.

MYERS: Good morning, Soledad.


MYERS: The next hour of AMERICAN MORNING starts right now.

PETER VILES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I'm Peter Viles at the Los Angeles County Jail. John Karr spending his fourth night in custody here. Still no official word on when he'll be going to Colorado.

HARRIS: A possible medical breakthrough. A new technique to grow stem cells without destroying an embryo.

Also, is Pluto a pretend planet? A demotion of a dwarf could change the way we look at our solar system.

O'BRIEN: The housing bubble losing air fast. Slumping sales show a deflation of the market. We're going to talk about that.

Also ahead, this...


SHERYL CROW, SINGER: I have great respect for him and a deep, deep love. And we just -- you know, like I said a thousand times, we're just at different places in our lives.