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THE SITUATION ROOM

Muqtada al Sadr in Tehran, Officials Report; General Pace Cautious About Tehran-Iraq Link, House of Representatives Debates Non- Binding Resolution

Aired February 13, 2007 - 19:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news we're following, a startling exit from Iraq by a powerful anti-American force. Details are just coming in. This is a story with enormous ramifications for the U.S. military mission in Iraq. We're going to bring you the latest in a moment.
Also, America's top general appears at odds with the Bush administration. At issue, is the Iranian government arming insurgents in Iraq? You'll want to hear the tough questions that prompted a cold stare over at the White House.

Also this hour, the threat of nuclear war -- would Israel attack Iran to keep it from getting the bomb? Tonight we'll map out a chilling scenario.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We begin with breaking news out of Iraq. Muqtada al-Sadr, the powerful anti-America Shiite cleric has now left the country for Iran. Our senior Pentagon correspondent, Jamie McIntyre, is standing by, but let's go to our White House correspondent, Suzanne Malveaux. She's getting the latest information.

Suzanne, this is a story with enormous ramifications, as I said, given the forces Muqtada al-Sadr controls in Iraq, what are you learning?

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well absolutely, Wolf. This is very significant. I have spoken with two senior administration officials this evening who have confirmed that Muqtada al-Sadr, this powerful Shiite, anti-American Shiite, the cleric, left Iraq two to three weeks ago or so and headed straight for Tehran, Iran.

That's where they still believe he is now and they say this is extremely significant. The reason why, first and foremost, they say that there are some signs that perhaps the Mehdi Army, some extremists within his own group, are fracturing and that there are some divisions that have taken place, which would weaken Sadr as well as the Mehdi Army.

The second thing, of course, here is that it has been very difficult for Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to crack down on these militias, particularly those from Sadr's group. He's been reluctant to do so in the past, although there have been signs that he has gotten tougher on that group.

With Sadr out of the picture, this may mean of course that he has less to worry about. The other cautionary note here, Wolf, is that perhaps Nuri al-Maliki has more to worry about. Those extremist elements that have divided, that have fractured from Sadr, but senior administration officials do believe it's a significant development here, that perhaps in light of this anticipated military surge, that Sadr left out of fear for his own safety, and that may happen with other leaders as well -- Wolf.

BLITZER: This is a guy who has been wanted by the U.S. military almost from the beginning of the U.S.-led invasion. The first commanding general, Ricardo Sanchez said Muqtada al-Sadr had American blood on his hands. He ordered his Mehdi Army to kill Americans.

He was wanted, in fact, dead or alive, although that lately has changed as he's formed a political alliance with the current prime minister of Iraq, Nuri al-Maliki. My immediate suspicion, Suzanne, was that as soon as I heard he had fled to Iran, he clearly feared the U.S. now is going to get tough with him, either arrest him or kill him.

MALVEAUX: Well you're absolutely right, Wolf. Because senior administration officials I have spoken to say that is right. That he in fact is fearing for his life, for his safety. That he's anticipating this military surge, this crackdown, if you will, on the militias and so he essentially took off.

That this is a very good development because even before this military surge has really come to fruition, there's already some results here that perhaps they are intimidating Sadr, this very powerful leader. And as you said, Wolf, really Maliki's very power depends on Sadr, depends on those that are in the parliament, depends on the party that put him there, depends on those royalties with fellow Shiites.

There's a real close relationship, a tie between these two, and perhaps seeing Sadr in Iran, out of fear, leaving the country, it makes Maliki -- clears the way for him to become a much more powerful figure within his own government -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Stand by Suzanne. I want to bring in our senior Pentagon correspondent Jamie McIntyre. Jamie, you're watching all of this and you're looking at the implications, what it means for the U.S. military. What goes through your mind?

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SR. PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well Wolf it's clearly significant, but the question is what is the significance. You know you might point out that although Muqtada al-Sadr has left Iraq, according to these reports, he could also come back. And the U.S. military has been anticipating all along that as a result of this Baghdad security plan, that the likely response from some of the elements that they considered troublesome, including Muqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi Army, would be to simply lie low for a time, perhaps months, perhaps even more than that time. So it's not clear at all how much al-Sadr's leaving diminishes his influence. Is he still running part of his organization from Iran? Is he planning to come back? Is he planning to stay? Just stay out of the country for a while until he sees how things shake out? Clearly, he was concerned about, you would think, what was going to happen with this crackdown.

And don't forget, this was led by Iraqi troops, Iraqi government troops who are not totally under the control of the United States and may not even have shown as much discipline. So it could have been a factor there, but at this point, I think it's really difficult to say exactly how this is going to shake out and what it's going to mean long term for security in Baghdad.

BLITZER: And as we welcome our international viewers watching us on CNN International to follow this breaking news, I just want to recap right now, Muqtada al-Sadr, CNN has confirmed, has fled Iraq for Iran, unclear why. About two, three weeks ago, Suzanne Malveaux, that's the information you're getting from your sources?

MALVEAUX: Well that's right. Senior administration officials say it was within that timeframe, two or three weeks ago, that that is when he decided he would flee Iraq and go to Iran. And as you know of course much has been made over the last couple of months or so about the president's new plan, this surge of military in the region of Iraqi forces as well as U.S. forces.

The president and other senior administration officials talking about the progress they have seen those Iraqi brigades arriving in Baghdad. That they are positioning and making their way over to begin this military effort, so they believe that this is in response to that surge -- that anticipated surge.

BLITZER: Jamie McIntyre, the suggestion would be that the U.S. military about to get tough with the Mehdi Army, the Shiite militia controlled by Muqtada al-Sadr. But is the Iraqi army under the control of the prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, who has political ties to Muqtada al-Sadr, is the Iraqi army ready to do the same, go into Sadr City, go into those areas that the Mehdi Army controls and get tough with this force?

MCINTYRE: Well that was the big question, Wolf, as this new security plan kicked off, just how much commitment there was there. We saw some signs that the Iraqi government was willing to get tough. They did round up some people who are aligned with Muqtada al-Sadr and take them into custody. And it may have been the case that al-Sadr himself began to feel the heat and begin to think that maybe they were closing in on him.

You know there was a big question because Nuri al-Maliki's entire ruling power there really sort of rested on having some kind of relationship with Muqtada al-Sadr. So there's a big question about to what extent he would really be able to go after him. And again, it's hard to read too much into this without knowing all of the facts going on behind his motivation, but it would seem to be an indication that the al-Maliki government is carrying through its threat to tackle all forces in Baghdad that would threaten security.

BLITZER: It does come at a time when the U.S. relationship with Iran, Jamie, is already complex and fraught with danger. If he has sanctuary in Iran some place at a time when U.S. military officials are accusing Iran of sending in very sophisticated explosives to kill Americans that further potentially could exacerbate this tension.

MCINTYRE: Well you know sanctuary might be too strong a word in this case. We don't know really what his status is in Iran. And again, it's possible that at some future point he might want to come back. But you're right; the tensions with Iran are pretty high. And at this point, it makes it -- this is another situation where because we're not clear if this will be a net positive or a net detriment to the effort in Baghdad, it's hard to say whether this is something that the U.S. would welcome or not.

BLITZER: All right. Jamie McIntyre, Suzanne Malveaux, both of you stand by. I know you're working your sources on this developing story, the breaking news that we're getting that Muqtada al-Sadr, this anti-American Shiite cleric in Iraq has now fled to Iran. We're also going to be checking in with our Michael Ware. He's in Baghdad. We'll get the latest from there.

Lots of news happening right now -- unclear the ramifications, the implications of precisely what this means, as Jamie McIntyre was suggesting. Let's go to Jack Cafferty. He's in New York.

I'm not exactly clear what it means myself, but I want to learn more about this, Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: I'd like to know how he got out of Baghdad. Wasn't the entire United States military and all of the Iraqi police and security and military forces looking for this guy?

BLITZER: A lot of people were looking for him, but he had an enormous amount of protection from the Iraqi government of Nuri al- Maliki. Remember the guys he controls in the Iraqi parliament were enough...

CAFFERTY: No, I understand.

BLITZER: ... to give Nuri al-Maliki the job.

CAFFERTY: Yes, I just, you know with that many soldiers looking for him, and supposedly our intelligence being above average after four years in the theater over there, you wonder why somebody didn't have a little closer eye on this guy's whereabouts. I guess we'll find out more in the hours and days ahead.

Meantime, back to domestic politics -- the 2008 presidential race already too much, too soon, amen -- the amen is mine. The rest of it is senior White House adviser Karl Rove saying that the election for 2008 is gearing up so early with candidates focusing on tactics and fundraising and publicity that they could well face a backlash from the voters. His remarks came in an interview with "The Politico". He said quote, "I think it's going to mean that people develop a persona earlier and wear out their welcome earlier than they would. I think there's going to come some point this year where people are basically going to say I'm largely disinterested in the contest" -- unquote.

Interesting comments from a man who arguably knows a few things about how to win elections -- Rove notes that in 1998 after George Bush won re-election as Texas governor, he had a quiet and productive period in which to start shaping a message for his White House run. Rove contrasts that to now when the candidates are being forced into the field much earlier.

We're doing some of the forcing, by the way. He also says the candidates will have to spend more time raising money because there's more time to spend money. So the question is this.

What does it mean if Karl Rove thinks the '08 presidential race is gearing up too soon? E-mail your thoughts on that to CaffertyFile@CNN.com or go to CNN.com/CaffertyFile. I think that the media is a little bit complicit in this early burst out of the starting gate, don't you, Wolf?

BLITZER: I think we're -- yes, I agree with you, Jack. I think we're covering it as we should. We have a responsibility to make sure our viewers know what's going on and it's an open race right now, a lot of candidates on the Republican side, a lot of candidates on the Democratic side, and we're doing our job, Jack.

CAFFERTY: There you go.

BLITZER: OK -- Jack Cafferty in New York. He's going to be coming up shortly.

Also coming up, a tense exchange between the White House press secretary and one of our reporters. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Calm down. I know you're excited. Your voice is rising. Your pace is increasing.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm telling you that...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm telling you...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He is saying this. I'm not.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: It involved the question of credibility regarding the Bush administration's explosive claims about Iran. We're going to tell you just what caused that back and forth, and Ed Henry is standing by live.

Also, he's his former boss and still a long-term friend, but will Vice President Dick Cheney take the stand to try to help defend his former chief of staff? There's a surprise development in the CIA leak trial of Lewis "Scooter" Libby and we'll tell you what happened today.

And more on our breaking news that we're following. Muqtada al- Sadr, the top anti-American radical Shiite cleric in Iraq heads to Iran. There are enormous security and political implications. We're going to go to Baghdad and speak with our Michael Ware and get the latest.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're following breaking news here in Washington. Two sources confirming to CNN's Suzanne Malveaux over at the White House that Muqtada al-Sadr, the radical anti-American Shiite leader in Iraq, the leader of the Mehdi Army has fled to Iran, circumstances unknown. The sources telling our Suzanne Malveaux and other news organizations here in the United States that he fled some two to three weeks ago. Let's go to Baghdad. Michael Ware is joining us, our correspondent on the scene.

Michael, give us your sense of what potentially this means. These U.S. sources suggesting Muqtada al-Sadr has fled to neighboring Iran.

MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, it's 3:00 a.m. here in Iraq as this news is breaking. Clearly, it's very difficult to contact anybody. And frankly, what people in Washington are saying often bears little relation to what is really going on here on the ground.

So right now, it's only speculation that Muqtada has left. Has he left? If he did, did he flee, if so, for what reason? We have no idea right now, Wolf. Indeed, we were speaking to Muqtada's office in Najaf just a few days ago. They were certainly saying he was still in Iraq in Najaf.

We have sources close to his party who this evening were saying that they had heard this rumor a couple of days ago. They spoke to Muqtada's people. They were told also that he was here in Iraq, in Najaf. Now you would expect them to tell you this if he's fled, but you would also expect them to tell you this if he's here.

Either way, at the end of the day, what does it really mean? Is he running in flight for fear of the Baghdad security plan? I think that's most unlikely. I don't think Muqtada himself, his personal safety or freedom is really threatened politically or militarily by the Baghdad security plan. Indeed, if he does go to Iraq, does it weaken his power base?

I suspect not. I think it will put stress on it, but Osama bin Laden is in hiding and al Qaeda is still thriving. We see (UNINTELLIGIBLE) the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq on the run constantly. His organization doesn't skip a beat. I suspect that if Muqtada has gone to Iran for whatever reason, for whatever period, we'll not see the end of the Mehdi militia or the Sadr political movement.

BLITZER: In other words, potentially he may have just made a visit, a business visit to Iran along the lines of other Iraqi leaders, Muqtada al-Sadr, the president of Iraq, Jalal Talabani, all of them have at one point or another gone to Teheran for a visit, and it's potentially possible he may have just gone over to check in with Iranian leaders.

WARE: He's done that several times in the past, as I understand. Indeed, he was preparing for a visit to Damascus this week or next week. He's traveled the region just at the end of last year. On the stump, rallying support and reassuring Arab Sunni leaders. I mean this is a man who from time to time travels.

He coordinates with other leaders, and he coordinates with his various sponsors, including those who are in Iran. So is he here, is he not? Has he fled, has he gone of his own volition for what purpose? Totally up in the air. Let's go back and ask the White House and these unnamed sources, come clean, give us the facts.

BLITZER: How important is Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq, Michael?

WARE: Well, Muqtada's a vital element in many, many ways. I mean he's not the most powerful force or the politically or militarily here, but he certainly is someone who is in a position in the middle of such relative strength that he found himself in the driver's seat as king maker, able to propel an otherwise compromised candidate for prime minister into the, you know one of the top jobs in the country, as the chief executive.

He's also got a militia that on the streets, on its own turf, has certainly given the U.S. military as good almost as it's received. Indeed, Sadr City, home to half the population, blindly loyal to this man, Muqtada al-Sadr, remains a place where U.S. forces can only go in guns blazing and tear out the same way. So this is a formidable individual.

He has political forces and militia factions throughout southern Iraq. Now, the Iranians have been putting pressure on him. He hasn't been playing ball with the Americans, and he hasn't entirely played ball with the Iranians. They have been chipping away at his (UNINTELLIGIBLE) so yes he's in a slightly weakened position right now. But right -- honestly, Wolf, everything is on the table in this country in every direction that you look, including Muqtada.

BLITZER: Michael, you were at that briefing over the weekend when military sources -- U.S. military sources in Baghdad suggested that the highest levels of the Iranian government were behind the introduction of these sophisticated munitions that were going into Iraq over the past couple of years, killed about 170 or so American troops.

And now we're hearing from the top U.S. military officer, General Peter Pace, saying he's not convinced that the highest levels of the Iranian government are behind it. He's not sure who is behind it. Are you surprised by this latest twist in this story?

WARE: Well honestly I'm not surprised by anything that comes out of the U.S. military these days, Wolf. I mean you know even when they have a song sheet, often it's -- they're not all on it. I mean let's look at the most recent helicopter crash. They're out there telling us it was a mechanical failure. The next minute, it was shot down. I mean there are so many contradictions in the U.S. message. I mean that's one of its great failings, so no, I'm not surprised. There's a lot of disconnects here.

BLITZER: Michael Ware on the scene for us in Baghdad. Stand by, Michael. We're going to continue to follow this story.

Also coming up right here in THE SITUATION ROOM, that testy exchange in the White House briefing room earlier today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You keep changing what my question is.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, no, I'm trying to clarify your question because I think...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm trying to tell you, I know what my question is.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: CNN's Ed Henry and White House Press Secretary Tony Snow, are the White House and the Pentagon on the same page about Iran?

He's a presidential candidate suspicious of the Bush administration's motives in ratcheting up the pressure on Iran. I'll ask Democratic presidential candidate, Senator Chris Dodd, why he's so skeptical.

And across the Midwest, the weather not just annoying, it's now deadly. Freezing storms are blamed for deaths. We'll tell you where.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: U.S. officials say Muqtada al-Sadr, the radical anti- American Shiite cleric has left Iraq for Iran. We're watching this story -- new details coming in.

In the meantime though let's check in with Carol Costello. She's monitoring all of these other important stories coming in from around the world -- Carol.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: A lot of news about the weather, Wolf. Severe and deadly winter weather stretches from the Midwest to the mid-Atlantic region into New England tonight, explained for this multi-car pile up on Interstate 64 near Afton Mountain, Virginia. As many as 25 vehicles were involved. At least one person seriously hurt here. Officials had to close part of the highway.

Also, dangerous driving conditions in Missouri where heavy snow and winds of up to 30 miles an hour are creating white-out conditions. Dozens of accidents reported across the states. Hundreds of thousands of people have lost power. And if you're flying to St. Louis, well good luck with that. About half of today's flights have been canceled.

It's the first major winter storm of the season for Pennsylvania, too. You're looking at Pittsburgh here. Parts of the state could see as much as two feet of snow. Many schools closed early, so did the state legislature, and hospitals say they are absolutely overloaded with accident victims right now.

And it's slow going or no going at one of the nation's busiest airports. That would be Chicago's O'Hare. Hundreds of flights have been canceled because of the weather, leaving travelers stranded and frustrated. Similar scene on the other side of town at Midway and those cancellations almost have a ripple effect, so if you're flying anywhere tonight or tomorrow, oh please check with your airline before you leave for the airport. And again, good luck -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It's a mess out there. Carol you're filling in for Paula Zahn coming up at the top of the hour. Give us a little something that you have going on at 8:00 p.m. Eastern.

COSTELLO: We're exploring a number of provocative issues, Wolf, for example, one man's push in Washington State. If you're married for three years and if you don't have kids, he wants the marriage to become null and void. Now why would anyone want that? Well the answer may surprise you. I'll have that at 8:00, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Thanks Carol. We'll be watching.

And still ahead here in THE SITUATION ROOM, Democrats call it the beginning of a much needed amount of oversight. Republicans say it's the first sign of retreat. We'll have the latest on the divisive House debate over a resolution opposing a U.S. troop increase in Iraq.

And CNN's own Ed Henry pressuring the White House press secretary for answers on Iran -- are the White House and the Pentagon on the same page about the extent of Iran's influence in Iraq? We're back in 60 seconds.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM. Happening now, breaking news. We're learning that Muqtada al-Sadr left Iraq for Iran. That according to two senior administration officials who also say the powerful anti-American Shiite cleric remains in Tehran. We're watching this story closely.

He's an American who used to live in Houston. Did he really travel from Texas to Africa to fight a jihad for al Qaeda? That's the accusation against Daniel Maldonado. He appeared in a Houston court today to face charges he engaged in that jihad for al Qaeda on behalf of Islamic forces fighting in Somalia.

And why would a gunman randomly open fire in a Utah mall? That's what police are probing. Yesterday's shooting left six people dead, including the 18 year-old gunman. Officials say he was killed in a shootout with police.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in the SITUATION ROOM.

Let's get back to our top story, the powerful anti-American Shiite cleric. Muqtada al Sadr, according to two U.S. officials, has left Iraq and is now in Iran. Just moments ago, though, a spokesman for Muqtada al Sadr and a member of the Iraqi parliament flatly denied that al Sadr has left the country.

Let's go back to our senior Pentagon correspondent Jamie McIntyre.

What are you hearing from your monitoring close, Jamie?

MCINTYRE: Well, according to those administration officials talking to our reporters at the White House, it does appear that Muqtada al Sadr, at least for -- at one point, left Iraq and went to Iran.

It's not clear, I guess, if he's still there. We'll have to see if those statements from his spokesman turn out to be true.

The indications were that Muqtada al Sadr was feeling the pressure and had some concerns about his own safety in the wake of this security crack-down in Baghdad, the so-called surge, and that there may have been splits within his Mehdi Army that would have prompted him to take a leave of absence, as it were, from Baghdad.

But right now, it's very unclear exactly where he is, exactly what his motives were and exactly what the significance will be of him leaving. It could be a positive sign if it shows that the government of Nouri al-Maliki is taking a very even-handed approach to the crackdown in Baghdad.

But it also could indicate that he just wants to lie low and wait until the so-called surge is over.

BLITZER: We knew at one point when Ricardo Sanchez was the U.S. military commander in Iraq, he flatly said Muqtada al Sadr had American blood on his hands and he was wanted dead or alive. He went into hiding. But in recent years, I had suspect position of General Sanchez changed and the U.S. military was not actively searching for Muqtada al Sadr.

MCINTYRE: That's correct, Wolf. He -- you know, many people thought perhaps the U.S. should have moved against al Sadr, but the feeling was that he was part of the political process. And as long as he was a part of that legitimate process and not fostering violence against the U.S. and government forces, that he could remain in his position. That was sort of the threat to him, to make sure that he stayed within the legitimate political process. But they made it clear that if he overstepped those bounds, the U.S. and the Iraqi government were ready to move against him.

BLITZER: All right. Jamie, thanks.

Jamie McIntyre at the Pentagon.

Meanwhile tonight, new reason to question whether the president and his top generals are on the same page about the war in Iraq and about Iran's role in it. The Joint chiefs' Chairman General Peter Pace appears to be disputing the Bush administration's claim that the Iranian government at the highest levels is providing bomb making materials to insurgents in Iraq.

Our Ed Henry confronted the White House Press Secretary Tony Snow with General Pace's comments. Snow downplayed any disconnect between the White House and the military press, but Ed pressed on.

Listen to this exchange.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ED HENRY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You said people were trying to womp (ph) up the fight. With all due respect, it's General Pace's comments, not anyone else's...

TONY SNOW, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: No...

HENRY: Well, he said -- let me say, he said, quote, "It is clear that Iranians are involved and it's clear that materials from Iran are involved. But I would not say by what I know that the Iranian government clearly knows or is complicit."

Are you saying that you, from this podium, know more than the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff?

SNOW: I am telling you -- I'm telling you what the intelligence indicates. And...

HENRY: So, is he not in the loop? I'm just trying to understand why there's a contradiction, where the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs...

SNOW: There's not a contradiction -- Ed, calm down. I know you're excited. Your voice is rising. Your pace is increasing...

HENRY: I'm telling you, he's saying this. I am not.

SNOW: I'm telling you I have talked to him. OK? I've talked since...

HENRY: Well, we'll follow up with him, as well.

SNOW: You better.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: The back-and-forth between Ed Henry and Tony Snow did not stop there. Listen to this. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HENRY: Is it really a question about whether or not you have strong evidence when the Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff seems to be saying something different than the White House, does that raise questions about how solid this evidence is?

SNOW: No, because you've got -- you've got -- you have explosively formed penetrators. He says they exist, correct?

HENRY: I didn't that in this particular quote, but...

SNOW: He said there are weapons...

HENRY: He says that there are projectiles manufactured in Iran.

SNOW: All right. OK, so there's no doubt about that, correct?

HENRY: Right.

SNOW: There are Iranians in Iraq. There's no question about that, correct?

HENRY: Sure.

SNOW: All right, where is the credibility problem? In terms of -- are you saying...

HENRY: ... the Iranian government being behind it. That's not...

SNOW: (INAUDIBLE)

HENRY: Nobody's disputing whether it's manufactured in Iran. That's what you keep changing what my question is...

SNOW: No, I'm trying to clarify your question because I think this is...

HENRY: I don't want you to clarify -- I'm trying to tell you -- I know what my question is.

And, basically, he's saying that he doesn't see evidence that the Iranian government is clearly behind it. That's my -- I've asked that three or four times. You haven't answered it. You are saying the Iranian government is behind it.

SNOW: OK, let me put it this way. I'll say it one more time. The Quds force is part of the Iranian government. The Quds force is behind it -- is associated with it.

HENRY: OK.

SNOW: All right? Thank you.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: And our White House correspondent Ed Henry is here in the SITUATION ROOM.

The Quds force, part of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. But he's clearly suggesting, Tony Snow -- correct me if I'm wrong -- that the highest levels of the Iranian government are behind the shipment of these weapons into Iraq.

HENRY: Well, that is what the military officials said in this briefing in Baghdad over the weekend. As you heard from Michael Ware, that it was high officials. As one of my colleagues in the Press corps said today, you know, in the U.S., a deputy assistant Secretary of Agriculture could make some statement then about anything. The U.S. Press Corps can't, you know, go out and say, "Well, high officials in the U.S. government are declaring this."

No, there are lots of officials in any government, lots of people scattered all around. That does not mean that the highest levels of the Iranian government or the U.S. government are involved in something.

And there was a lot of curiosity about this briefing. And I think that has sparked some of these questions about -- over the weekend, there was an expectation it would an on-camera briefing with the military...

BLITZER: A briefing in Baghdad?

HENRY That's right, with this evidence, presenting it. Then all of a sudden, it became no, it will off-camera. Then it was, well, it will be on background, meaning that their names would not be used.

And that sparked a lot of speculation and questions about, well, do these officials not want to put their necks out there because of what happened in the lead-up to the Iraq war, where officials like Colin Powell went out there before the United Nations and basically said, "We have this evidence about Iraq, WMD, it's rock solid, take it to the bank." And in the end, it was not true.

BLITZER: And I guess General Pace could clarify this matter. He was speaking in Australia. What -- he's in this flight now back to the United States?

HENRY: That's right. He's on the way back, we understand, Tony Snow told me after the briefing. It's like a 20-hour flight. So we're certainly waiting for General Pace to make some comments tomorrow.

I'm told by a senior White House official tonight that the expectation is that General Pace is going to clarify in some way and come along with the White House.

But that raises a whole other question: why is the president's own hand-picked Chairman of the Chiefs saying something different? I mean, was he not in the loop on this? At one point, General Pace told reporters in the last couple of days he did even know this briefing in Baghdad was going forward. As one question I asked Tony Snow, I mean, how in the world did General Pace not know this briefing was going forward? At the very least, it raises questions about exactly why this evidence was presented.

BLITZER: We're going to be speaking tomorrow here in the SITUATION ROOM from Baghdad with the chief U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, Major General William Caldwell. And we'll ask him a lot of these same questions.

Thanks very much, Ed. Good work doing your questioning -- important questioning over at the White House briefing room. Very important questioning that you did, thanks very much.

Still ahead tonight, Congress begins taking up the issue of the war in Iraq. Our Dana Bash, standing by to take a closer look at what's going on in this historic debate.

Plus, my interview with Democratic presidential candidate Senator Chris Dodd. I'll ask him why he says the White House simply can't be trusted when it comes to intelligence on Iran.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Tonight, members of the House debating a symbolic resolution criticizing the president's plan to increase the number of troops in Iraq. Let's go to our congressional correspondent Dana Bash. She's watching all of this unfold -- Dana.

DANA BASH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, what we're seeing on the House floor all day today is some pretty dramatic evidence of the changes that voters demanded in electing a Democratic Congress.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: There's no end in sight. The American people have lost faith in President Bush's course of action in Iraq.

BASH (voice-over): Three days of debate on a symbolic resolution opposing the president's plan to send more than 20,000 additional troops to Iraq.

REP. PATRICK MURPHY (D), PENNSYLVANIA: It's immoral to send young Americans to fight and die in a conflict without a real strategy for success.

BASH: Republicans chastised Democrats for undermining the mission and trying to micromanage the war.

REP. ROY BLUNT (R-MO), MINORITY WHIP: The resolution today is about the exact number of troops. Will the one tomorrow or next week be a vote on which block in Baghdad to target or which car to stop? BASH: What may be most noteworthy is the absence so far of incendiary rhetoric that dominated Iraq debate before November's election. GOP warnings that Democrats want to cut and run are more tempered.

REP. DUNCAN HUNTER (R), CALIFORNIA: And I think it's going to be received by friend and foe alike as the first sound of retreat in the world battle against extremists and terrorists.

BASH: The new GOP minority is treating the debate like a political campaign, setting up a war room to respond to Democratic statements like this.

REP. TOM LANTOS (D), CALIFORNIA: We are not fighting terrorism in Iraq.

BASH: Within minutes, Republicans produced this document, quoting from an al Qaeda's leader's call to expel the Americans from Iraq. GOP leaders know Republicans who vote to support the president's plan will need answers for war-weary constituents.

REP. ADAM PUTNAM (R), FLORIDA: When they go home next week and when they're in front of the Rotary Club and people say, well, I was watching CSPAN and somebody said, even Maliki doesn't support the plan. You can say, that's absolutely not the case.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BASH: Now, the outcome of this debate is not in doubt. A resolution opposing the president's plan to send more troops to Iraq will pass when the House votes on Friday, but there is drama ahead, Wolf, and that is how many Republicans will side with Democrats and vote to defy their party and their president -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Dana, we'll watch this historic debate unfold, together with you.

So does the tough rhetoric from the Bush administration signal a possible move against Iran? Does it sound like the signal sent before the war in Iraq? Key Democrat is getting that deja vu feeling over again, and he's making it part of his campaign for president.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Joining us now from Capitol Hill, Connecticut senator and Democratic presidential candidate, Chris Dodd.

Senator, thanks very much for coming in.

SEN. CHRIS DODD (D), CONNECTICUT: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Do you think it's -- the administration is trying to do now -- set the stage for what it did then, go to war against Iran?

DODD: Well, you know, fool me once, your fault, fool me twice, my fault. When I saw Saturday night unnamed sources are putting out information that the highest levels in Iran were orchestrating the use of these devices that were doing great damage to our men and women in uniform over there, I get a little skeptical about that kind of information, particularly when General Pace says today there's no information whatsoever that this is being orchestrated at the highest levels in Iran.

That sort of drumbeat, putting out information to start to build the case, we've been down that road in the past. We learned just last week from the inspector general at the Pentagon that Doug Feith and others there were cooking the books, making up this stuff to create a case for that resolution that was adopted five years ago.

So I'm not the only one who's a little skeptical about this. So, I hear the administration, but you can't forgive me -- you can't blame me, rather, for being a little uneasy when I hear these drumbeats about Iran.

BLITZER: Here's the president speaking to C-SPAN yesterday, basically saying you and other Democrats are certainly playing politics right now.

Listen to the president.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I guess my reaction to all the noise about, you know, "He wants to go to war" is -- first of all, I don't understand the tactics. And I guess I would say it's political. And on the other hand, I hope that the members of Congress, particularly in the opposition party, understand the great danger of Iran having a nuclear weapon.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: I suspect you agree with the second part of his statement, but you don't agree with the first part?

DODD: Well, who's the unnamed sources on Saturday night putting out information that had to be denied by some of the highest-ranking generals on Tuesday morning? I mean, there's something going on here.

Why are those -- who's putting out that information, saying that this is a decision made at the highest authorities in Iran? I saw those -- those devices back in 2004, three years ago, at a full briefing in Baghdad by our military people. This is not news. We knew they were coming in from Iran. That's a serious problem.

BLITZER: What was news, Senator, was when these briefers in Baghdad -- and our Michael Ware was on the scene when they came out and they said, these devices, these very sophisticated explosive devices, have killed 170 American troops over the past couple of years in Iraq.

That's a lot of dead Americans, if, in fact, the Iranian government is responsible for that. That's huge. DODD: Well, I agree, if that's the case. But General Pace said this morning they have no evidence whatsoever it's coming from the highest ranks of the Iranian government.

That's the point here. We all knew about these problems coming in.

They're serious. They're doing great damage to our troops. We ought to do everything we can to stop it. But the suggestion this is all being orchestrated by the highest levels in Iran, there's no evidence of that, Wolf. That's my concern with this.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Senator Chris Dodd, speaking with me just a little while ago.

Still ahead tonight right here in THE SITUATION ROOM, a case ripe with scandal and Washington intrigue. Two key people involved in it apparently won't -- won't be testifying. There are new developments in the CIA leak case against Lewis "Scooter" Libby.

And is Karl Rove right? The presidential adviser apparently thinks the 2008 presidential race is gearing up way too soon. What do you think? Jack Cafferty with your e-mail. All of that still to come.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's get back to the breaking news this hour. Two U.S. officials saying Muqtada al Sadr, the radical anti-American Shiite cleric, has left Iraq for Iran.

Suzanne Malveaux reported this earlier.

You're getting more information, Suzanne. What's the latest?

MALVEAUX: I just spoke with a senior administration official who says one of the reason they believe Muqtada al Sadr believes that he's being targeted and left out of fear of being attacked is the two recent raids that have happened, one in Little Baghdad, another Sadr City. His top officials now detained, one from the Health Department, the other one from the Interior Department. That is why he has been quite afraid and he thinks that he may be next. These are Iraqi forces in the lead. And they've seen a lot of people, they say, go underground or simply cross the border here in fear that they may be next -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. And a spokesman for Muqtada denying that. But we'll see what's going on.

Suzanne, thank you.

Other stories we're following tonight. There are two people uniquely involved in the case regarding the outing of Valerie Plame Wilson. But guess who will not be taking the stand in the CIA leak trial here in Washington?

Let's get the latest from our Brian Todd. He's following this trial -- Brian.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, wolf, the big announcement from Scooter Libby's defense team this afternoon was that neither Scooter Libby, the defendant, nor his boss -- his former boss Dick Cheney will be testifying on Libby's behalf. That announcement from defense officials -- the defense team today.

We had had indications in previous days, in the past few days that this might be the case. That shoe did drop this afternoon. One of the reasons was that the -- essentially a surrogate defense witness for Libby did a very effective job today. That was John Hannah. He is the current national security adviser for Vice President Cheney. He holds the job that Libby used to hold. He testified that Libby had a bad memory and that Libby's workload was extensive in that summer of 2003 when Libby's accused of essentially managing the message about administration critic Joe Wilson and the covert identity of his wife, CIA operative Valerie Plame.

So, the big news today: Scooter Libby will not testify on his behalf. Vice President Dick Cheney will not testify for Scooter Libby.

BLITZER: All right, Brian. Thanks very much.

Brian will watch this case wrap up in the next few days.

And this just coming into the SITUATION ROOM. We're getting new details about the two embattled John Edwards staffers under pressure from conservatives over their controversial writings before they went to work for Edwards. After one of the staffers announced her resignation last night, we're just now learning the other Edwards staffer has also left under fire.

Abbi Tatton is watching this story for us -- Abbi.

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, now Melissa McEwan just a few hours ago, a consultant with the Edwards campaign, has announced her resignation, writing on her blog, "My remaining the focus of sustained of ideological attacks was inevitably making me a liability."

This comes less than 24 hours after the resignation of the blogger a Amanda Marcotte from the campaign, who also announced on our blog site. It was posted on both of their personal blogs that had been the center of attention after Bill Donohue, the president of the Catholic League, labeled them as anti-Christian. A spokesman for the Edwards campaign tonight wouldn't comment on the resignations, but confirmed that they had both happened -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you, Abbi, for that.

Let's find out what's coming up in a few minutes right at the top of the hour. Our Carol Costello, filling in for Paula tonight. What's on tap, Carol?

COSTELLO: Hi, Wolf.

Among the stories we're bringing out into the open tonight, college level intolerance. There's a disturbing increase of white students dressing up as black stereotypes and worse.

Plus, a Washington man's push for a law giving childless couples three years to have babies or their marriages will be declared null and void. It's a real eye-opener, why he's doing this.

It's out in the open at the top of the hour.

Back to you, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. We'll be watching.

Carol, thanks very much.

Carol Costello, filling in for Paula tonight.

Up ahead right here in the SITUATION ROOM, is the 2008 presidential race gearing up way too soon? You'll want to hear what Jack Cafferty has to say and what your e-mails are saying.

We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's check in with Jack once again for the "Cafferty File" -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: Wolf, the question this hour is what does it mean if Karl Rove thinks the 2008 presidential race is gearing up too soon?

R.T. in Fort Worth, Texas: "For once, Karl Rove and I are in agreement. It's way too early to start running for president. And I have to listen to it for way too many months."

Bobby, San Clemente, California: "What does it mean if Brother Karl thinks it's too early? It means it's probably too late for the GOP."

David in Athens, Texas: "Karl Rove doesn't have a horse in the 2008 race. What he think is irrelevant."

Lillian in Oregon: "Karl Rove is right on target. For the last week, I've been changing channels when the campaigners come on the screen. It's way too soon. And if I see Hillary Clinton one more time, I'm going to be sick."

Carol in Coulterville, California: "He's scared. I love it."

Ben in Fletcher, North Carolina: "Jack, our choices really need to be right this time. There's a lot of wrong that needs to be undone. The more the candidates are exposed to the public, the better we get to know them. A two-year campaign is great for that."

Burt in Sun Lakes, Arizona: "The heck with the 2008 election, I want to know who's running in 2012."

And Kevin in Toronto: "Of course, it's too early. But Anna Nicole Smith dies again, what else will the SITUATION ROOM have to report on until the election?"

Oh, Kevin.

If you didn't see your e-mail here, you can go to CNN.com/caffertyfile, where you can read more of these online -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We could report as we did tonight, a lot about what's happening with Muqtada al Sadr. Did he flee? Did he leave Iraq? Did he go to Iran? Obviously, a story with significant ramifications.

CAFFERTY: I wonder what we'll know when the sun comes up tomorrow. It was interesting Michael Ware says that so far those are unnamed sources in Washington and that people that he knows on the ground in Iraq aren't saying anything about Muqtada al Sadr having gone anywhere. So, somebody's right and somebody's not, and maybe we'll find out tomorrow.

BLITZER: We'll see if this guy shows up at a parade Sadr City tomorrow or if he shows up in Tehran. We'll be watching the story very closely, Jack, together with you.

Thanks very much.

CAFFERTY: You got it.

BLITZER: See you tomorrow, Jack Cafferty.

He's here together with us in the SITUATION ROOM weekdays 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. Eastern. We're back for another hour at 7:00 p.m. Eastern.

Thanks for watching.

Up next, "PAULA ZAHN NOW". Carol Costello, standing by in New York -- Carol.

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