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LIVE FROM THE HEADLINES

Afghanistan Situation Deteriorating?; 'Saddam' Tape Surfaces

Aired September 1, 2003 - 20:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: The situation in Afghanistan may be taking a turn for the worse. Suspected Taliban fighters today ambushed two Afghan patrols, killing at least eight Afghan soldiers, this just a day after two U.S. soldiers were killed in a gun battle in Afghanistan.
Our chief international correspondent, Christiane Amanpour, just returned from Afghanistan. She's joining us now live from London.

Christiane, is it my impression that the situation in Afghanistan is going from bad to worse?

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, certainly in parts of the country, Wolf, for instance, the south and the east, where there have been over the last few weeks many, many engagements between these so-called neo-Talibans and Afghan government forces.

There, the situation is going from bad to worse. It perhaps was a coincidence, but when we were there just a couple of weeks ago, it was in fact the bloodiest and most violent time in Afghanistan since the U.S. toppled the Taliban back in November of 2001. And, of course, it wasn't meant to be this way. This war on terror was meant to have put the Taliban on the run and denied them sanctuary and al Qaeda elements as well.

But they are coming back. And according to senior U.S. military officials in Afghanistan, they're coming back in the hundreds, with a view to disrupting either the U.S.-backed central government of Afghanistan and indeed U.S. forces there.

BLITZER: Spoke with a lot of U.S. military personnel, coalition forces. How concerned are they that the Taliban may be making a comeback?

AMANPOUR: Well, they are concerned, because, as I say, this was not meant to be happening two years on in this, the first test of the Bush administration's war on terror.

What appears to be going on, according to senior U.S. military officials there, is that they are regrouping in the hundreds in various areas. American and Afghan officials believe that the biggest provocation is coming across the border from Pakistan with the support and backing of some in the Pakistani establishment, that they're coming over to harass, to destabilize, to disrupt either Afghan or U.S. operations and other aid operations in mostly the south and the east. And this is becoming, of course, of great concern, because there has been a very slow move towards reconstruction over the last couple of years. And there has also been no visible international security put beyond Kabul, in other words, into the hinterlands and into the provinces. And this, according to U.S. military officials there, is contributing to disaffection, to providing fertile ground for these neo-Taliban types and al Qaeda remnants to come back and take advantage of some of the disaffection in parts of the country.

BLITZER: Christiane, by almost all accounts, president Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan is considered a decent man, wants to see some sort of democracy emerge. But his critics point out, he's basically the mayor of Kabul, if that. How much authority, control, does he really have?

AMANPOUR: Well, I think he has quite a lot of broad acceptance by the people.

In terms of pure raw power, he does not yet have a national army. The U.S. is helping to try to get that up and running. They had hoped to have 70,000 within the first few years of the war in Afghanistan. But they only have 5,000 now. There is no effective Afghan police force right now, although, again, the international community is hoping to get a decent police force up and running.

And the international peacekeepers are not deployed beyond the capital of Kabul. This is because the United States, up until now, has refused to support the deployment, the further deployment, of these international peacekeepers. But because President Karzai is an important figure and because hopes for the future of Afghanistan, to a large extent, rest on him, the Bush administration is about to announce about $1 billion in emergency aid to go to Afghanistan to help with emergency reconstruction and also with -- to try to infuse some life into speeding up the building of the national army, this in order to help President Karzai gain the confidence of the people and particularly because he faces the first elections in Afghanistan in June of next year.

But the fact of the matter is that because reconstruction has been so slow, the international community has been so slow to give the funds that they promised -- and, indeed, those funds were not enough anyway -- and because the security situation has been minimal, if you like, there are these problems that need to be addressed rather rapidly, Wolf.

BLITZER: Christiane Amanpour reporting for us from London -- thanks, Christiane, very much. And you can hear more of Christiane's investigative reporting on the war on terror in Afghanistan. Christiane will join Paula Zahn next week for a series of special reports from the region. You'll want to watch that here, of course, on CNN.

Now to another hot spot, namely Iraq. The governor of Najaf says police are holding five suspects in connection with that deadly car bombing outside a mosque there on Friday. The governor says the suspects are Iraqis linked to Saddam Hussein. But a new audiotape statement said to be from Saddam Hussein himself denies responsibility for the attack. U.S. officials say they're checking its authenticity.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SADDAM HUSSEIN, FORMER IRAQI LEADER (through translator): Many of you may have heard the snakes hissing, the servants of the invaders, occupiers, infidels, and how they have managed to accuse the followers of Saddam Hussein of responsibility for the attack on al-Hakim without any evidence. They rush to accuse before investigating. They did that to divert attention from the real culprits.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: So who is to blame?

I'm joined now from our Washington bureau by the former U.S. ambassador in Iraq, Joseph Wilson.

Ambassador, thanks once again for joining us.

Let's put on the screen some of those suspected potentially as the culprits, those responsible for the Najaf attack. Let's take a look at this, Baath Party loyalists among -- Saddam loyalists, to be specific, fundamentalist Sunni Muslims, rival Shiite factions, anti- American so-called jihadists and al Qaeda, of course.

What is your sense right now?

JOSEPH WILSON, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO IRAQ: Well, I think the first thing -- the first question you ask yourself is, who stands to benefit from this and what is the potential outcome?

And it seems to me that one of the desired outcomes for those who perpetrated this crime would be to get the Shia involved in this insurrection against the United States, so it is not all the dead- enders, the Sunni triangle, etcetera. So that would suggest to me it would be either Baath loyalists, Saddam loyalists, Sunni factions and that crowd.

And then, secondly, you look for those who would have the organizational skills and the abilities to do such an attack. And you come up with the same list of suspects, it seems to me. Now, it could be al Qaeda. I just -- it is hard for me to see how al Qaeda could be in Iraq and operational this quickly, given that we have found little evidence of prewar operational ties between the two groups.

So I would think that it was more than likely somebody from within Iraq, Baath loyalists, Saddam loyalists, people like that.

BLITZER: Would you suspect that the same people responsible for this bombing in Najaf were responsible for, for example, a few weeks ago, the Jordanian Embassy bombing in Baghdad or the U.N. headquarters compound in Baghdad, because all of them involved car bombings, even though some of the triggers were apparently different?

WILSON: Well, I think that's right. And I think the people who are out there looking at this would look for the signatures on the three different -- three bombings. It strikes me that the -- that the U.N. bombing and the Najaf bombing were somewhat different from the Jordanian bombing, because they were pretty precise. They had a specific target in mind, it looks to me. But it is entirely possible that all three were related.

BLITZER: Very interesting, the Saddam Hussein tapes, supposedly, today. We don't know if it's authentic. We probably will know that within a few days, based on intelligence analysis.

But why would Saddam Hussein issue this kind of denial at this point, if in fact that was his voice?

WILSON: Well, first of all, I think to have to assume that it is him. Even if it is not him, those in the Arab world are going to believe it is him. And, therefore, it is him.

And, secondly, I think that they would be issuing the denial so as to try and sew some confusion in the minds of the Shia, who obviously are reacting very negatively to this and are lashing out at the Americans for not having provided adequate security, so the extent to which he can continue to foment that agitation and get the Shia more viscerally anti-American and more willing to become part of an insurrection, rather than biding their time.

BLITZER: How concerned are you, Ambassador Wilson, that the 140,000 U.S. military men and women right now in Iraq could find themselves in the midst not only of a tinderbox, but a civil war between, let's say, Shia fundamentalists and Sunni loyalists to Saddam Hussein?

WILSON: Well, I've always believed that it was an oversimplification on the part of Mr. Wolfowitz and others to suggest that the south was pacified.

I've always thought that what you had in the south was a tactical cease-fire between the Shia and the United States that was valid only so long as the Shia were able to consolidate power in the towns and the villages. And you see that in the -- in Najaf, for example, the local police, the Iraqi police had in fact -- were operational. And that cease-fire would have lasted only so long as it was to the advantage of the Shia and so long as the United States were out rounding up and killing Sunni, who were, at end of the day, the big losers in this war and in this invasion.

So I've always believed that, at some point, the Shia, even the moderates, like Hakim and his people, would see fit to move against the United States in order to assert themselves politically as the predominant political actor in the country.

BLITZER: Ambassador Joe Wilson, thanks very much for joining us.

WILSON: Nice to be with you, Wolf.

BLITZER: The string of bombings in Iraq hasn't slowed the search for Saddam's loyalists.

CNN's Jason Bellini spent some time with the so-called Task Force 21 as it hunted down Iraq's most wanted.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JASON BELLINI, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This is the house of No. 146 on the coalition's so-called blacklist of the former regime's most wanted. And these, the soldiers from the U.S. 4th Infantry Division, 3rd Brigade, tasked with capturing him.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Just a routine now.

BELLINI: The Army believes the 55-year-old man on the right was a general in Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard, No. 146 crossed off the list.

But Sergeant Joshua Wakefield, 24, just back from another mission accomplished, isn't certain what the mission accomplished accomplished, whether this or any of the raids he's been on will help stop the daily attacks on coalition forces.

SGT. JOSHUA WAKEFIELD, U.S. ARMY: Personally, I really don't know that. I would like to say yes or no. But to me, the biggest thing is not even that they don't like Americans. It is that they don't want us to be here on their own turf.

BELLINI (on camera): And so Wakefield believes, even after they capture or kill everyone on the list, including the biggest fish of them all, Saddam Hussein, U.S. soldiers still won't be safe here.

WAKEFIELD: I don't ever foresee it ever -- the attacks stopping, like ever, until we actually just move out of Iraq.

BELLINI (voice-over): So far, raids, often like this one, have killed or captured 40 of the 52 most wanted Iraqis and many lesser- known individuals, like No. 146.

MAJ. STAN MURPHY, U.S. ARMY: We still have some former regime supporters that are out there who are still trying to incite some of the populace to continue resisting the coalition efforts.

WAKEFIELD: We did name our squad Task Force 21. That's just kind of something that we made up just to kind of motivate our squad when we do some.

BELLINI: Some on Task force 21 are true believers in the cause, while others admit, they question the point of the U.S. being in Iraq.

WAKEFIELD: In my opinion, we don't think there is really no point. But now that I'm over here, I do have a reason to fight, because my buddy next to me needs my help.

BELLINI: For now, for Wakefield, the point is getting home.

WAKEFIELD: This is me and my wife at my parents' house. BELLINI: Safely to his wife and family, after Task Force 21 has knocked down more doors and knocked off more names from the list.

Jason Bellini, CNN, Tikrit, Iraq.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

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