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The Situation Room

Iraq Crisis Talks Delayed And Clouded By Leak Of Secret And Stunning Memo; Protest Of Bush-Maliki Summit Could Make Matters Worse In Iraq; Two Democrats Publicly Venting Anger At President Bush; U.S. Forces On The Hunt For Al Qaeda All Across The World; Robert Gates Not Necessarily Eye To Eye With Bush On Iraq

Aired November 29, 2006 - 16:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM, where new pictures and information are arriving all the time. Standing by, CNN reporters across the United States and around the world to bring you today's top stories.
Happening now, Iraq crisis talks delayed and clouded by the leak of a secret and stunning memo. It's 11:00 p.m. in Amman, Jordan, where President Bush hopes to strengthen the hand of the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki.

But there's new evidence today of skepticism about al-Maliki within the Bush White House itself.

Also this hour, a protest of the Bush-Maliki summit could make matters worse in Iraq. Lawmakers loyal to the powerful anti-American Shiite cleric suspend their role in the government. It's midnight in Baghdad, the center of political upheaval and unending violence right now.

And two Democrats are publicly venting their anger at President Bush. Senator-Elect Jim Webb of Virginia has a very personal bone to pick with Mr. Bush over Iraq. And Al Gore just may be setting the stage for a presidential campaign comeback.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.


This was supposed to be a promising day for U.S. and Iraqi officials searching for a way out of a bloody and politically damaging war. But several major new developments are dashing hopes and complicating diplomacy right now.

The Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, was a no show at a dinner with President Bush and Jordan's King Abdullah in Amman, Jordan tonight. The administration says Mr. Bush and al-Maliki will meet tomorrow.

It's not clear if the delayed talks are connected to a bombshell back here in the United States. That would be the disclosure of a classified memo from National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley to President Bush. It raises serious questions about whether al-Maliki can reign in sectarian violence and rise above the Sunni-Shia divide. Those divisions on very vivid display today when lawmakers loyal to the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr suspended their involvement in the Iraqi government.

And amid the disappointments, a possible turning point on the horizon. President Bush is only days away from getting recommendations on Iraq from that bipartisan panel now assessing U.S. policy there. A source telling CNN the Iraq Study Group will issue its report next Wednesday.

Jamie McIntyre is standing by at the Pentagon with the latest on U.S. troop movements.

Nic Robertson is in Baghdad.

Ben Wedeman in Amman.

But let's start with CNN's Brian Todd.

He has more on this stunning memo leaked to the "New York Times" earlier today -- Brian.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, just this morning, top White House officials said the president has confidence in Nouri al- Maliki. Privately, this document shows there are very different signals.


TODD (voice-over): A startling inside look -- grave doubts among top White House officials about Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al- Maliki, and his ability to control spiraling violence.

A classified memo from National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley obtained by the "New York Times": "Maliki is either ignorant of what is going on, misrepresenting his intentions or that his capabilities are not yet sufficient to turn his good intentions into action."

If that was Hadley's position a few weeks ago, why does President Bush now signal he'll lean on Maliki for answers when they meet in Jordan?

GEORGE BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: My questions to him will be what do we need to do to succeed? What is your strategy in dealing with the sectarian violence?

TODD: Was the release of this memo a signal to Maliki?

Senior White House officials deny leaking Hadley's document, one official saying this is not helpful.

One columnist agrees.

DAVID IGNATIUS, "WASHINGTON POST" COLUMNIST: It's hard to imagine something that would be more disruptive to a presidential summit meeting than a document like this. But it does state clearly this strategy premised on Prime Minister Maliki isn't working.

TODD: CNN's efforts to reach Maliki's office and members of Iraq's parliament for reaction were unsuccessful. Maliki, who's Shia, has been accused of being too tough on Sunnis and overlooking abuses committed by Shia militants like those led by radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

The document suggests ways he can turn that around. One of them: "Bring his political strategy with Muqtada al-Sadr to closure."

But can he do it?

MAMOUN FANDY, NATIONAL INSTITUTE FOR STRATEGIC STUDIES: I think it is beyond the control of Mr. Maliki. Muqtada al-Sadr is a real player in terms of militias on the ground, as well as his supporters who make the coalition that puts Maliki on top of the government.


TODD: A top White House official tells us: "This is not the president dictating terms and the memo doesn't leave Maliki hanging. It lists several ways the U.S. can help him stabilize Iraq if he's unable to do it himself, like helping him broaden his political base from his tight circle of Shia allies and possibly moving additional U.S. forces into Baghdad" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Brian, stand by.

Ben Wedeman is our man in Amman, Jordan right now -- Ben, the president of the United States was supposed to have dinner with Nouri al-Maliki tonight. There were these threats coming in from Muqtada al-Sadr and his political bloc back in Baghdad.

Guess what?

The dinner not happening. They're supposed to meet tomorrow.

What's the latest you can share with our viewers?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, there seems to be a lot of confusion about this. The official White House program for the visit did not actually mention that there would be any meeting between President Bush and Prime Minister Maliki this evening. The only scheduled event was a -- is a breakfast tomorrow morning and a meeting and a press conference afterward.

But certainly there were expectations that there would be a photo-op, a photo opportunity involving Jordan's King Abdullah, President Bush and al-Maliki. That did not happen and that was a lot of surprise for many people here.

There are many ways to read things into it. Some people here suggesting this is part and parcel of a general discrediting of al- Maliki, which came also from this leaked White House memo.

Jordanian and American officials insisting that's simply not the case, it was just a question of trying to make or find the time -- Wolf.

BLITZER: You've spent a lot of time in the Arab world, Ben. You speak Arabic. This was pretty humiliating for an Arab leader to wake up this morning and to see what Stephen Hadley, the president's national security adviser, is saying about him. Either he's a wimp or he's just a bad guy. But it was not very flattering to this Iraqi prime minister.

WEDEMAN: No, certainly the symbolism, if you add all these things up, is not good. It is not good at all. And, certainly, it spoils many expectations or hopes that President Bush's visit to Jordan, his meetings with Iraqi and Jordanian officials would actually lead to something positive.

They haven't even met yet and already it seems that any expectations that were high are going to be significantly lowered at this point -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Ben, stand by over there in Jordan, because there's a lot more to report from there.

Let's go to the Pentagon.

Jamie McIntyre is our man there -- Jamie, all of this is taking place as you're getting word that the United States is about to deploy thousands of additional troops in Baghdad, move them from relatively secure areas, relatively stable areas, to the firefight that's going on in the Baghdad area.

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SENIOR PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Once again, Wolf, the failure of Iraqi forces to stand up has forced the U.S. to stand in. Top commander, General George Casey, has ordered several battalions to be moved into the Baghdad area, some of them coming from Mosul.

But, significantly, these troops are not coming from the Al Anbar Province, where the U.S. Marines are locked in combat with insurgents, in an insurgent stronghold. The chairman of the joint chiefs today poured cold water on a report suggesting the U.S. was considering abandoning Al Anbar Province and moving those troops to Baghdad.

General Peter Pace said that is not on the table -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jamie, the notion of sending, what, three battalions -- that's about 15,000 -- American troops, mostly U.S. Army soldiers, is that right?

MCINTYRE: They're all Army soldiers. It's not 15,000. It's somewhere between 1,500, 2,000, perhaps a little bit more. It could be as many as 5,000 when you add everything up.

But it is basically to plug the gap they have in Baghdad from the failure of Iraqi brigades to report for duty. Many of them refuse to leave their home areas -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Because the fear is -- and certainly the families who are hearing this -- let's say 5,000 troops going from relatively secure areas in Kurdistan in the north, where it's been quiet, relatively speaking, and moving them into Baghdad, they're going to be worried that this is not necessarily going to make a difference, but it's going to increase the potential for U.S. casualties.

MCINTYRE: Well, it's certainly not an unfounded worry. There's no doubt about it. These days, Baghdad is dirty and dangerous duty.

BLITZER: Jamie, thanks very much.

We'll get back to you, as well.

The killing and the chaos in Iraq continuing. Police say six Iraqis died in car bombings and shootings in Baghdad today and another 52 bullet-riddled bodies were found strewn across the capital. It's a very deadly backdrop for a new political turmoil.

Joining us now in Baghdad, our correspondent, Nic Robertson -- Nic, if Muqtada al-Sadr, this radical Shiite cleric, if he really lives up to this threat and bolts his forces from the government of the prime minister, is Nouri al-Maliki's government going to collapse?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: If he was really to do that, Wolf, yes, it would have a very serious impact on it.

Would these ministers be replaced? Would other parliamentarians fill those spots?

It seems unlikely. But what really seems to be happening right now is they're pulling out, Muqtada al-Sadr's bloc is pulling out its participation for the government. The language that they're using really gives them the space to get back into the government, as well.

And Muqtada al-Sadr is being very careful here. He is using his spokesman to get his message out. So he is not putting his name specially on some of these threats and issues so that there's the political space for this government to continue.

And that, perhaps, is the direction it may go in. But, of course, we just don't know that right now -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And to underscore the fragility, the insecurity where you are, in Baghdad, right now, we're getting word from our Pentagon correspondents that the U.S. is about to deploy at least three more brigades of American troops, maybe 15,000 additional U.S. soldiers and Marines in Baghdad, move them in from some more secure areas, perhaps in the north.

Is this likely, though, based on what you see on the ground, to make a real difference?

ROBERTSON: It will make a difference. Certainly whenever we have seen in Iraq, when more troops are moved in to combat insurgents, to combat these militias, they bring a level of security.

How long can they hold it, what happens in the areas that they move out of?

Those are -- those will be concerns of the military as they make this deployment.

But will it solve the issue here?

Look, if you don't solve the insurgency and the militias in Baghdad, then Baghdad just acts as a pump feeding out to other areas -- Baquba; Baritz (ph), just north of Baghdad; other places to the south, where the insurgency and the militias operate.

So to control and stop the insurgency and militias here is militarily critical. And that seems to be why the Pentagon is taking this approach.

But, you move -- what we've seen in the past is as you concentrate troops, you move the insurgents, the militias out of that area, they pick up somewhere else, Wolf. That's what we've seen happen in the past.

BLITZER: Nic Robertson is our man in Baghdad.

Nic, be careful over there.

And we just want to correct, closer to 5,000 troops would be redeployed from other areas of Iraq to the Baghdad area, not 15,000.

Meanwhile, the former Secretary of State Colin Powell now weighing in on the debate over whether the violence in Iraq amounts to a civil war. Powell says if he were heading the State Department right now, he'd recommend that the Bush administration use that term to describe the carnage. Powell's comments coming in Dubai, the latest example of his break with the administration's Iraq policy after publicly backing the 2003 invasion when he was America's top diplomat.

We're going to have much more on Colin Powell's words today in Dubai.

That's coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM in the next hour. You're going to be surprised what else he had to say in the United Arab Emirates.

Jack Cafferty is joining us in New York with "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: So much for that awkward small talk at the dinner table. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq has decided to sit out a meal tonight with President Bush and Jordan's King Abdullah. This was, of course, after a White House memo was leaked questioning al-Maliki's ability to govern what's left of Iraq.

The administration has little confidence in al-Maliki. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley calling him a strong leader, but said he's having trouble figuring out how to do his job.

His job?

He has no job. He doesn't govern anything. Iraq is in the throes of an escalating civil war and the elected government there is powerless to do anything about it. The power in Iraq is in the hands of the militias.

Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr runs the powerful Mahdi Militia. He's threatened to pull his people out of the government if al-Maliki goes ahead with a meeting with President Bush.

So here's the question -- ponder this -- if the Bush administration has no confidence in Nouri al-Maliki, where do we go from here?

E-mail your thoughts to or go to -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack, thank you.

I'll see you soon.

Coming up, Al Gore making the most of the celebrity status.

Is he also laying the groundwork right now for another presidential bid?

The speculation keeps on coming and there are new developments today.

A tangled and angry Webb -- Virginia's Senator-Elect confirms a bitter and personal exchange with President Bush over Iraq.

And up next, a radioactive twist in the death of a former KGB spy. We're going to have a live report from London. There are new developments in this story, as well.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: British Airways says traces of radiation have been found now aboard two jets tested as part of the investigation into the death of a former KGB spy.

CNN's Matthew Chance is joining us now from London.

There is a new development.

What's the latest -- Matthew.

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It is a very new and worrying development, Wolf, in this police investigation into the poisoning of the former Russian agent, Alexander Litvinenko.

British Airways, the British airliner, as well as the British government, have confirmed that three B.A. planes have now been grounded to be tested for traces of radiation. Apparently on two of those aircraft, as you mentioned, already traces of a very toxic radioactive substance have been detected by the forensic teams working on them.

There are some quite staggering statistics involved in all of this. We've spoken to Willie Walsh, the CEO of British Airways, and he said that these three planes, over the past several weeks, since the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko took place, have taken 221 flights. That means that some 33,000 passengers would have traveled on board of them and that all of those people now have to be contacted and possibly tested for the symptoms of radiation sickness, as well, Wolf.

So very serious indeed.

BLITZER: And what -- do we know what the initial symptoms might be that some of these passengers might be worried about right now?

CHANCE: Well, certainly, the people who have been tested so far -- and more than 1,000 have been interviewed and tested for the symptoms of radiation poisoning after this -- are being told to look out for the kind of things that started Alexander Litvinenko's descent into eventual death -- cold sweats, severe vomiting. It feels like an intestinal complaint, but it's very difficult to diagnose and obviously impossible to stop.

At the moment in Britain so far, eight people in total, in addition to Alexander Litvinenko, have been referred to a specialist clinic in the British capital for further radiological tests. But the British government is stressing that this is purely for precautionary measures. They haven't confirmed at this point whether anybody else, apart from Alexander Litvinenko, has been actually contaminated.

BLITZER: All right, let's hope it stays like that.

Thanks, Matthew, very much.

We're going to stay on top of this story, a very worrisome story for a lot of passengers right now.

For the tens of thousands of British Airways travelers who may have flown on the affected aircraft, the airline is posting new details online. This is important information.

Abbi Tatton is standing by with details -- Abbi.

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Yes, Wolf, three aircraft taken out of service, over 200 flights, and they're posted online at The airline is in the process of contacting 33,000 people that might have been passengers on those flights.

Important to note here, they all are to or from London, none of them to or from cities in the United States. This is mostly short haul destinations around Europe, in Spain, Germany, Greece, to and from London.

Interestingly, by our count, about a third of these flights listed from London to Moscow or the other way around.

So go to if you're interested in this information. The airline is contacting passengers right now -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much for that, Abbi.

We're going to stay, as I said, on top of that story.

Meanwhile, right now, U.S. forces are on the hunt for al Qaeda all across the world, from Iraq to Afghanistan to Africa.

Our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, has an exclusive report on the terror hunt in Somalia -- Barbara.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the 1,800 U.S. troops here in the Horn of Africa are mainly conducting humanitarian relief missions. But they are also training militaries out here in Africa. They are conducting anti-terrorism operations. They are looking for piracy and smuggling. They are worried about al Qaeda.


STARR (voice-over): Heavily armed U.S. troops brought CNN to Somalia's northern border region for a firsthand look at the latest flashpoint in Africa and the country the U.S. military says is a growing safe haven for al Qaeda.

Even in this no man's land, security is essential. There is also a tense border dispute here between Somalia and Ethiopia. There is a threat of war.

Rear Admiral Richard Hunt commands 1,800 U.S. troops here in the Horn of Africa.

REAR ADM. RICHARD HUNT, COMMANDER, JOINT TASK FORCE, HORN OF AFRICA: I think the biggest terrorist threat that we have in this area centers on Somalia. And a lot of that has to do with the known al Qaeda operatives that we've had there in the past. It goes back to the '98 bombings in Nairobi, Dar-es-Salaam.

STARR: Hunt's comments are remarkable because the U.S. has had no relations with Somalia since the military pulled out of Mogadishu after the Black Hawk down incident more than a decade ago.

The U.S. troops now in this region are working mainly on humanitarian relief efforts. But there is increasing concern that the radical Islamic militia that rules much of southern Somalia will use its al Qaeda connections to launch new attacks.

This week in Mogadishu, thousands of Somalis gathered in support of the Islamic Courts Union Militia, which is calling for a new Jihad.

HUNT: We are very concerned with the amount of extremism that is starting to be exhibited.

STARR: Hunt has little doubt that the Islamic militia in Somalia is a threat.

HUNT: They, again, espouse global Jihad. They have, we think, we are getting indications that there is a direct al Qaeda relationship with them, providing some of the training and background and resource support.

STARR: Back at the border, it's easy to see there really is no border. This region is why the U.S. military worries so much that al Qaeda terrorists can readily move and plan their next attacks.


STARR: The pile of rocks you see behind me is the border marking Ethiopia. Somalia lies just beyond. When you look around here and you see how remote and rugged it is, you begin to understand why the U.S. is so concerned that terrorists could readily move through this area -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Barbara, thanks very much.

Barbara doing some incredibly excellent exclusive reporting for us in the Horn of Africa.

Still ahead, the president's choice to be Pentagon chief apparently isn't in lockstep with Mr. Bush. We're going to tell you about some new evidence that they don't necessarily see eye-to-eye when it comes to Iraq.

A top Bush aide's doubts about the Iraqi prime minister now made very, very public.

How does the Stephen Hadley memo figure into the president's desperate new search for a solution in Iraq?

All that coming up in our Strategy Session.

We'll be right back.



I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

While President Bush is in Jordan for Iraq crisis talks, there's new evidence back here in Washington that he and his defense secretary nominee are not necessarily on the same page.

At issue, Robert Gates' views on enlisting Iran and Syria in the mission to try to stabilize Iraq.

Let's get some more on that.

We'll talk to our Congressional correspondent, Andrea Koppel -- Andrea, what's the latest? ANDREA KOPPEL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, even as President Bush's plane was touching down in Amman, Jordan today for his summit with Iraq's prime minister, back here in Washington, Robert Gates, the former head of the CIA, was signaling that he and Mr. Bush do not necessarily see eye-to-eye on Iraq.


KOPPEL (voice-over): Robert Gates says he believes the U.S. needs to talk to Iraq's other neighbors, like Iran and Syria. That would be at odds with current U.S. policy.

Gates laid out his position in written testimony obtained by CNN to the Senate Armed Services Committee, which begins his confirmation hearing next week.

On Iran, Gates likens the situation to the cold war era, when even during the worst days, he said, the U.S. maintained a dialogue with the Soviet Union and China.

In the case of Iran, Gates says: "I believe no option that could potentially benefit U.S. policy should be off the table."

He goes on to suggest that "dialogue could be as part of an international conference," an approach Gates believes should also be considered with Syria.

Gates says he agreed with President Bush's decision to invade Iraq in 2003 and while he didn't tip his hand on whether or when to withdraw U.S. troops, Gates warns that leaving Iraq in chaos would have dangerous consequences both in the region and globally for many years to come, an answer that did not seem to satisfy Democrat Carl Levin, the incoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

SEN. CARL LEVIN (D-MI), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: Everyone agrees that we don't want to leave Iraq in chaos. Iraq is in chaos. That's where the difference comes.

The question is how do we increase the chances of ending the chaos that now exists in Iraq?

That's the issue. And I hope that Gates would be open-minded on that issue.


KOPPEL: Now, Levin and Rhode Island's Jack Reed, who is also on the Armed Services Committee, are pushing to begin redeploying U.S. troops in the next four to six months. But both men are saying that the U.S. and Gates, if he is confirmed, Wolf, will need to move even faster to prevent Iraq from spiraling out of control -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Andrea, thank you.

In our Strategy Session, new undercutting of the president's new and urgent Iraq diplomacy. A leaked memo showing his national security adviser has very serious doubts about the Iraqi prime minister. And the former Secretary of State, Colin Powell, now saying if it were up to him, the violence in Iraq would be called a civil war.

Joining us now, CNN political analyst and Democratic strategist Paul Begala, and Republican strategist Mike Murphy.

Thanks, guys, for coming in.

Does this leak of the Stephen Hadley memo, front page of "The New York Times," we have confirmed, very detailed, very specific, have the feeling to you as a deliberate administration leak, designed to help the president right now? Or was this a leak by someone who is not necessarily trying to help the president?

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: You know, I have flip- flopped on that over the day, Wolf.

You know, when I read it at 6:00 in the morning, with my Cheerios, I thought it was a strategy. I thought -- you know, I always want to believe that my country, my president, especially when he's overseas -- and we all pray for him and support him -- that they have a strategy, and that this was a strategy to really push Maliki.

I mean, I remember the last time Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, was in Iraq, she pushed Maliki harder. I thought, well, good. This looks -- you watch it play out today, and you realize, no, that it was an act of deep disloyalty by the leaker, I will say, but, also, it makes the administration look dishonest and incompetent.

Now, the -- we remember when the president went to Baghdad in June, after Zarqawi was killed. He said this of Maliki: "I'm impressed by the strength of your character and your desire to succeed. And I'm impressed by strategy."

Now we know that that wasn't true, that the White House doesn't believe that.

BLITZER: Certainly, Stephen Hadley, who was there a few weeks ago, come back, he wasn't very impressed. He's very nervous.

What kind of feeling does it have to you, Mike?

MIKE MURPHY, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Well, I thought the same thing this morning. I thought, maybe this is some sort of way to put a little pressure on Maliki, because Maliki is caught in a tough situation.

He doesn't really have any power. And, so, he has the title, the responsibility, but he doesn't have power to do much. He's controlled by the Shia warlords, who have the population. So, in the new Iraqi democracy, they have political power. But they're not acting in a way to combine the whole country. So, I thought the White House put a little heat on them.

But watching the -- kind of the speed bumps in the diplomacy today, with the canceled meeting and everything, I think it probably was not a deliberate leak. I think somebody did a disservice to the president.

But the bottom line is not the tactic of leaking. What does the memo say? It says the truth.

BEGALA: Right.

MURPHY: It says there's a real problem between Shia and Sunni, and the Shia-majority government is not addressing that, and the prime minister didn't have power to address the security situation. So, it's a bad day.

BLITZER: It was a pretty well-written, pretty thoughtful memo that Stephen Hadley...

MURPHY: I thought it was very thoughtful.

BLITZER: ... put together.

Let's talk a little bit about another -- this was not a leak, but it was Colin Powell, the former secretary of state, in Dubai today, saying, among other things: "I would call it a civil war. I have been using it, because I like to face the reality."

He's recommending: You know what? It feels look a civil war and smells like a civil war, it's a civil war, and the administration should acknowledge that.

BEGALA: Right.

General Powell, Secretary Powell, has a grasp of the obvious. He was one of the first in our government to say, the situation in Darfur was a genocide. There was a great, remember, semantic debate about whether the genocide in Darfur was, in fact, to be called genocide. Secretary Powell spoke out then, and he spoke the truth.

It is another example of where our government's communication strategy is perhaps at odds with its real strategy. And this creates a credibility gap. If the president was to simply give a speech, and read Stephen Hadley's memo, I think people not like it, but they would respect it. They would say, well, at least he's dealing with reality.

Instead, he keeps giving us this happy horse manure in his public performances. And, later, we find out that's he's not telling the truth. That's what killing this president with the public right now.

MURPHY: You know, I'm kind of -- I'm kind of grumpy about this civil war thing, because I think it's a silly issue. It's a semantic question of whether or not a big sectarian war has now crossed the line to a civil war.

It's very close. You can argue either side of that. But I think it's kind of wasted energy to fight over terms. The problem is, the election's now over. So, I think partisanship ought to be over, especially in foreign policy. And if -- there's no way to fight a partisan war. So, I think the president now has to cede a little bit power to the Democrats, which will be very hard for him to do. And the Democrats have to switch from campaign mode, of little fights like this, over terminology, into a big solution, where we can unify the country, because our national interest is now at stake.

BLITZER: Let's talk a little real, hard politics. You guys are good at that, the best in the business.

Al Gore, you remember him, the former vice president of the United States, has a new interview in "GQ" magazine. Among other thing, he says this. He says: "This administration has been, by far, the most incompetent, inept, and with more moral cowardice and obsequiousness to their wealthy contributors, and obliviousness to the public interest of any administration in modern history, and probably in the entire history of the country."

This comes as, you know, people close to Al Gore are suggesting to me, you know what? He is seriously thinking of running again. I don't know if he will or he won't.

But what do you think? It sounds like he's setting the stage for it.

BEGALA: Oh, yes.

I mean, I -- we should get out the breaking news banner, run it across the bottom the screen -- breaking news: Gore doesn't like Bush. But that's music to the ears of core Democrats, the kind of people who are going to determine who the nominee of my party will be.

And, so, I can only say, God bless Al Gore, whether he runs or not. Who knows. If he does run, I think there's a -- there is an opening for someone who is anti-Washington and anti-war. Most of the major Democrats who are thinking about running supported the war. Al Gore did not. Neither did Barack Obama. Those are the two major Democrats who are thinking about running for president who didn't support the war.

So, yes, I think there's a real option.

I'm also wondering, though, what -- Barack Obama was in "GQ," and now Al Gore. And they talked to my friend Rahm Emanuel. He's going to be in there.


BEGALA: Murphy and I are never in "GQ."


BLITZER: Wait. If you wait long enough, both of you...


BLITZER: What do you think?

BEGALA: They don't put the little fat guys in "GQ." They just put the...

BLITZER: What do you think of Al Gore's latest maneuverings?

MURPHY: I read it today, and read all those adjectives packed into that punch. And I thought, boy, I will have to put him down as undecided.


MURPHY: You know, I'm shocked, shocked there's attacking in the Democratic Party.

I think -- I don't know if he's going to run or not. That feels like he's going to run. And I will make the irresponsible prediction, because I'm a Republican, and I don't know anything about Democrats. If he runs, he's the nominee.

I think he is the one guy in their field who is big enough in a Democratic primary to take Hillary Clinton. He's the other heavyweight. And, if he runs, I think he's serious in the primaries as a heart attack. And this sure look looks campaign talk to me.

BLITZER: Well, you -- the last word.


BLITZER: Do you think, if he runs, he's got it?

BEGALA: He doesn't have it. They don't give these things away. But, you know, Hillary doesn't have it either. And Obama doesn't have it. And Tom Vilsack, the governor of Iowa, doesn't have it.

I want lots of people out there. It's good for us.


BEGALA: ... talking about...

BLITZER: And guess what? You are going to get a lot of people running.

BEGALA: And, if he keeps talking like this, he is going to have a huge national following.

BLITZER: We will leave it right there.

Guys, thanks very much for coming in.

MURPHY: Thank you.

BLITZER: We're going to have a lot more on Al Gore. That's coming up. Is he campaigning for an Oscar or another shot at the White House? We are going to look into the former vice president's interview in "GQ" and what's going on right now.

Plus: a war of words over Iraq, pitting a Democratic senator- elect against the president. It's getting bitter and it's getting personal. We will share the details with you.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: A Democratic senator-elect makes no bones about his anger at President Bush over the war in Iraq. It's a very personal thing for Virginia's Jim Webb. His son is serving in the war. And that contributed to an ice-cold exchange between Webb and Mr. Bush. And that's now being made public.

Let's turn to our senior political analyst, Bill Schneider -- Bill.

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Wolf, former House Speaker Sam Rayburn used to tell new members of Congress -- quote -- "Around here, you have got to go along to get along."

Well, try telling that to Virginia's new senator.



SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Jim Webb became a Democrat and ran for the Senate for one big reason, Iraq.

JIM WEBB (D), VIRGINIA SENATOR-ELECT: I was an early voice warning against the implications of invading and occupying Iraq.

SCHNEIDER: Webb has special credibility on Iraq. He was a military officer who served in Vietnam, a former secretary of the Navy under President Reagan, and he has a son serving in Iraq.


SCHNEIDER: He wore his son's old combat boots during the campaign.

WEBB: I have tremendous admiration for my son and for everyone else who is serving there. But they need to be led properly.

SCHNEIDER: Webb took on President Bush directly.

WEBB: But the key word is leadership, which has been a scarce commodity among this administration and its followers.

SCHNEIDER: President Bush saw Webb at a White House reception for new members of Congress this month.

The freshman senator had this exchange with the president, which he confirmed to "The Washington Post." "How's your boy?" Bush asked.

"I would like to get them out of Iraq, Mr. President," Webb replied.

"That's not what I asked you," Bush said. "How's your boy?"

"That's between me and my boy, Mr. President," Webb said.

The White House incident is causing a lot of tut-tutting in Washington. A Democratic Senate staffer told "The Post": "I think Webb is going to be a total pain. He's going to do things his own way."

Shock, horror. Webb reassures his colleagues.

WEBB: I have spent four years as a committee counsel in the Congress. I know how the process works.

SCHNEIDER: Webb's confrontation is a striking contrast to the pictures of Democrats meeting with President Bush and pledging cooperation and bipartisan.

It's also not the way things usually get done in Washington. But it is what a lot of people voted for.


SCHNEIDER: Webb did not run as a typical politician. And it doesn't look like he's about to change, now that he's gotten elected -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, thanks very much.

No one should be surprised about that. That's clearly his M.O.

And, as we have been reporting, a leaked memo shows that top Bush administration officials are questioning whether Iraq's prime minister can actually run the country.

Now Jack Cafferty is asking you for ideas on where we go from here.

Then: Potential candidates are gearing up for the 2008 presidential race. The Republican field, though, just got a little bit smaller. We are going to tell you who just announced that he won't be running.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: On our "Political Radar" this Wednesday: Count Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist out of the 2008 race for the White House.

The Republican announced today he will pass on a presidential campaign, because he wants to take what he calls a sabbatical from public life. The move effectively his political career -- career, at least for the time being, since Frist is retiring from the U.S. Senate as well.

Another top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee is getting passed over for the chairmanship. Democratic staff aides say California Congresswoman Jane Harman has been dropped from consideration for the post by the incoming House speaker, Nancy Pelosi. Pelosi also nixed Congressman Alcee Hastings for the job. She now reportedly is searching for a compromise among various candidates, including Congressman Silvestre Reyes of Texas.

And, remember, for all the latest political news at any time, check out our Political Ticker,

Fears of widespread midterm election problems didn't come to fruition, but a new report giving us some insight into what did go wrong and what needs to be done to make sure every vote counts in the 2008 presidential election.

Our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton, standing by with details -- Abbi.

TATTON: Wolf, the nonpartisan site, established after the problems in 2000, reports that voters around the country experienced difficulties on Election Day, from voter I.D. issues in Missouri, long lines in Colorado, to problems vote -- with voting machines in Indiana.

But there is good news, as well, in this report, the few close races in -- there were few close races in which problems affected the outcome, although the report spends time on one notable exception, Florida's 13th Congressional District -- the seat vacated by Katherine Harris, where more than 18,000 Sarasota County citizens have no vote registered.

Why? That's not known at this point. The touch-screen machines that were used don't produce a paper trail. State officials are currently conducting an audit. Now, the Republican, Vern Buchanan, has been certified the winner. Democrat Christine Jennings is contesting, and asking for a revote. All of this is being followed closely by the watchdog group Common Cause. They're warning of a meltdown of elections ahead. And they have started a Web site, -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I still don't understand. You can get a paper trail every time you use a -- a credit card. You can't get a paper trail when you're voting. We will continue to stay on top of this story.

Thank you, Abbi, for that.

Up next: Iran's president writes to the American people, saying they should seek truth and justice. We are going to tell you what he wants Americans to do.

Plus: Is he in? Is he out? Is he somewhere in between? We're going to tell you what's happening right now in the Al Gore presidential campaign guessing game.

Stay with us. We will be right back.


BLITZER: There she is, Carol Costello. She's joining us with some other important stories making news.

Hi, Carol.


Hello to all of you.

Iran's president is heaping praise on the American people. In what's being called a letter to the American people, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad calls Americans truth-loving and justice-seeking, and says they share many values with Iranians. He urges citizens of the U.S. to reverse what he says are the many foreign policy mistakes of the Bush administration.

Zain Verjee will have a full report on the five-page statement in our next hour.

A new draft report from the European Union says, European countries obstructed an investigation into a U.S. program to transport terror suspects to secret prisons. The probes were launched after media reports claimed the CIA had set up such prisons in Poland and Romania. The lawmaker who wrote the report now says all E.U. nations knew about the prisons and the so-called rendition program.

The Justice Department will apologize and pay $2 million to an Oregon lawyer wrongly accused of being involved in the Madrid train bombings two-and-a-half years ago. Brandon Mayfield was arrested, after an FBI fingerprint analysis wrongly concluded that his prints had been found in a van used by the bombers. Mayfield, a Muslim convert, charged that he was the victim of religious profiling.

That's a look at the headlines right now -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Carol, thanks very much.

Let's check back with Jack with "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: The question this hour is: If the Bush administration has lost confidence in Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, where do we go from here?

John writes from Philadelphia: "There's only one direction to go in, and that's out. Without an Iraqi government willing to take control of the security situation and rein in the militias, the U.S. mission of stabilizing that country will be impossible, no matter how long we stay there."

Phil in Providence, Florida: "Find a way to have the Iraq elected government ask the U.S. to leave, and then honor that request." Bill in Michigan: "The Bush administration is finally starting to recognize failure. But they're going to blame everyone but themselves. Just watch the finger, and stay tuned."

Sam in Nebraska: "Forget al-Maliki. He's history. The real problem is the unintended consequence of providing a blueprint for how easy it is to defeat a modern army and bring down an established state to the billions who have witnessed this debacle on satellite TV and the Internet."

John writes from San Francisco: "Well, let's just 'stay the course.' That has worked pretty well these last three years."

And Anthony in New York: "You're doing a heck a job, Mally" -- Wolf.


BLITZER: It's funny, if it weren't so serious, Jack.


BLITZER: Thanks very much. See you in a few minutes.

Still to come: a delicate and deadly diplomatic dance in Iraq happening right now. Can President Bush find a way out, despite new setbacks? I will ask a top adviser to the secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice. That's coming up in our next hour.

Also, Congressman Charlie Rangel, and "An Inconvenient Truth" -- Democrats aren't quite sure whether Al Gore still has presidential ambitions. But they do know he's getting an awful lot of attention. We will tell you what the latest is.

Stay with us.


BLITZER: Americans have been seeing an awful lot of Al Gore lately on the big screen, the small screen, and on magazine covers. But will they see him on the campaign trail in 2008?

CNN's Allan Chernoff is following the Gore guessing game for us.

What's the latest, Allan?

ALLAN CHERNOFF, CNN SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, Al Gore is scheduled to be in Los Angeles this evening, appearing on "The Tonight Show," and being honored at a dinner as one of "GQ" magazine's men of the year.

The former vice president wants this to be an Al Gore Christmas. He's promoting the DVD release of his movie "An Inconvenient Truth." But there's speculation that Mr. Gore has much more than merely than holiday stocking stuffing in mind, that, in the back of his mind, perhaps he would like to make another run for the White House. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CHERNOFF (voice-over): A very hip Al Gore posing on "GQ" magazine's Web site, across from Lindsay Lohan.

Gore, one of "GQ"'s men of the year, bashes President Bush in the magazine with some of his harshest criticism: "Dammit, whatever happened to the concept of accountability for catastrophic failure? This administration has been, by far, the most incompetent, inept, and with more moral cowardice, and obsequiousness to their wealthy contributors, and obliviousness to the public interest of any administration in modern history, and probably in the entire history of the country!"

Gore friends and former advisers say the tough tone does not indicate he's preparing to run for president.

ELAINE KAMARCK, FORMER SENIOR ADVISER TO FORMER VICE PRESIDENT AL GORE: He's not running for president. I think he would love to have an Academy Award for the best documentary, but I don't think that's the same as running for president.

CHERNOFF: Gore denied plans to run on CNN's "SHOWBIZ TONIGHT."


AL GORE, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I have no intention of being a candidate again.


CHERNOFF: And he repeated that denial in the "GQ" interview: I don't plan to run. And I don't expect to run. I appreciate that people think enough of me still to ask that question. It's true that I haven't, uh, gotten to the point where I am willing to completely rule it out for all time."


CHERNOFF: Gore's spokesperson told CNN, the former vice president had made it clear that he has no intention of running, and that his focus in on global warming, not the presidency.

But a key player in Democratic presidential politics points out that Al Gore can actually do far better right now in gaining popularity by staying away from politics, and really focusing on being a movie star -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Allan, thanks very much.