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THE SITUATION ROOM

Britain Prepares to Withdraw Troops From Iraq

Aired February 21, 2007 - 17:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Happening now, are two allies at odds?

Britain will soon start pulling out troops from Iraq and that's increasing the pressure on the Bush administration to start bringing American troops home, as well.

Are Iraqis ready to take over from the British? Will Americans have to step in?

I'll ask the U.S. military's chief spokesman in Iraq, who also has disturbing news about another American helicopter blasted and brought down by gunfire and grenades.

And we know he can jump, but how high might Charles Barkley go in another contest?

The former king of basketball hoping to dominate in the political arena. And he's throwing elbows against Democrats, Republicans. That interview coming up.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

In Iraq, is the coalition of the willing wilting?

As the Bush administration beefs up its troop presence in Iraq, today Britain announced it's pulling back. About 1,600 British troops will soon be pulled out completely and in the near -- in the southern Iraqi city of Basra. Other troop withdrawals expected to follow.

And today, the British prime minister used some explicit words to explain why what's happening in Basra cannot yet happen in Baghdad.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TONY BLAIR, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: It is the capital of Iraq. Its strategic importance is fundamental. There has been an orgy of terrorism unleashed upon it in order to crush any possibility of it functioning. It doesn't much matter if elsewhere in Iraq, not least in Basra, change is happening. If Baghdad cannot be secured, the future of the country is in peril.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Meanwhile, there are fears that if violence flares up when British troops leave the southern part of the country, American troops might have to pick up the slack.

Our Suzanne Malveaux is over at the White House.

But let's begin our coverage this hour with CNN's Robin Oakley in London -- Robin.

ROBIN OAKLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, for Tony Blair, the aftermath of the Iraq War has been a nightmare. But at least he was able to come to British parliamentarians today and announce reductions in the British forces in Iraq from 7,100 down to 5,500.

Mr. Blair also spelled our how the role of British troops remaining in Iraq would change.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BLAIR: The British forces that remain in Iraq will have the following tasks -- training and support to Iraqi forces, securing the Iraq-Iran border, securing supply routes, and, above all, the ability to conduct operations against extremist groups and be there in support of the Iraqi Army when called upon.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OAKLEY: Mr. Blair insisted there had been no reduction in the combat capacity of British troops remaining in Iraq. And he said that they would remain in Iraq in 2008 as militarily necessary.

Mr. Blair, a prime minister keen to focus on other aspects of his political legacy, like Northern Ireland and the Middle East peace process, feels he's taken a symbolic step forward with the announcement of British troop reductions.

But other politicians are suspicious that his move owes as much to forthcoming rounds of elections in Britain as it does to the strategic situation on the ground in Iraq -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Robin Oakley in London for us.

Britain and the Bush administration are touting this move as a success story. But others suggest it's a setback, a serious setback.

Let's go to our White House correspondent, Suzanne Malveaux.

She has more -- Suzanne.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, there are some people here who see this as the Brits' version of Baker-Hamilton, the Iraq Study Group plan that really allows security to consolidate those bases, as well as draw down some other troops. In other words, a big success here.

But it is far from certain, Wolf, whether or not the American people are going to see it that way.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

MALVEAUX (voice-over): The coalition of the willing is leaving -- 1,500 British troops pulling out of Basra, all 460 Danish soldiers leaving, too, and maybe 50 Lithuanians.

The numbers are small, but the potential impact is big.

MAJ. GEN. DON SHEPPERD (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: It is not good news for the American forces there that are going to have to pick up the load or turn it over to Iraqi forces.

MALVEAUX: On the political side, it's a blow to President Bush, who has repeatedly said setting timetables for withdrawing troops would only embolden the terrorists.

While Mr. Bush is trying to convince the American people the war is worth it, the perception is his closest allies have concluded otherwise.

DAVID GERGEN, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL ADVISER: Britain is starting to go its own way now and will leave President Bush more isolated. It will increase the pressure on President Bush here in the United States.

MALVEAUX: Top administration officials are trying to soften the political blow by making the case that the security situation in Basra and other parts of southern Iraq has improved so much, these coalition forces are no longer needed. But American troops, who make up 90 percent of the multinational force, are still necessary to bring security to the rest of the country.

DICK CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I want you to know that the American people will not support a policy of retreat.

MALVEAUX: Now, the Bush administration is under even more pressure to answer the question -- when will our own troops be coming home?

It's a question they still can't answer.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, SECRETARY OF STATE: The deployment of the American forces is in an area in which the circumstances are somewhat different, more complicated.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

MALVEAUX: And Bush administration officials are very much aware of the political realities that British Prime Minister Tony Blair faces, that it's an unpopular war, that the prime minister also unpopular, as well.

And, Wolf, that is something that officials say President Bush has accepted as judgments regarding himself -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Suzanne, thank you.

And as Prime Minister Blair noted today, Britain had over 40,000 troops in Iraq when the war began back in 2003. Some two years later, that number was dramatically reduced, leaving about 9,000 British troops in Iraq in 2005. And again, there are currently about 7,100 British troops in Iraq.

Meanwhile, 132 British troops have died in Iraq since the war began, with 29 of them dying last year alone.

They were wounded when they fought for their country, but you might not believe where some Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans are being sent to heal right now.

There are new developments regarding those truly alarming conditions at what's supposed to be the Army's top medical facility.

Our senior Pentagon correspondent, Jamie McIntyre, has more -- Jamie.

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SENIOR PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the Pentagon's response to those embarrassing revelations about conditions at Walter Reed outpatient facilities is being met with a strategy of

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

MAJ. GEN. GEORGE WEIGHTMAN, U.S. ARMY: I know this -- this is...

MCINTYRE (voice-over): The two star general in charge tells CNN if anyone is looking for someone to blame for the substandard housing at Walter Reed, they can blame him.

WEIGHTMAN: You know, I accept full responsibility for that, Jamie, in that we have -- we are aware of those issues now.

MCINTYRE: Major General George Weightman began his morning with a town hall meeting with staff and parents to explain what's being done to improve outpatient facilities, such as the now notorious Building 18, which is plagued by mold, mice, leaks and peeling paint.

Then, the general sat down with CNN.

(on camera): General Cody, the Army secretary, Francis Harvey, said they didn't know about this. It's right outside the gate.

How could that be?

WEIGHTMAN: They did not know about the building...

MCINTYRE: They didn't know about...

WEIGHTMAN: ... or the condition of the building?

MCINTYRE: ... the condition of the building, yes.

WEIGHTMAN: Yes. MCINTYRE: And you live right across from that building.

WEIGHTMAN: Right.

MCINTYRE: And you were unaware of it?

WEIGHTMAN: Yes, I was unaware because I did not -- I had not seen evidence of that through either surveys that we had made with the chain of command or talking with the soldiers that were there.

MCINTYRE: If Francis Harvey says this is a leadership problem and you're the top commander here, how much of this fall -- responsibility falls on you?

WEIGHTMAN: Jamie, 100 percent of it falls on me. I'm responsible for everything that does happen or does not happen here at Walter Reed. And it was obviously a failure on my part to reach down and touch those soldiers and find out directly from them.

MCINTYRE: Do you understand the outrage that people felt when they began to hear about what was going on in some of these buildings?

WEIGHTMAN: Oh, I absolutely do. And I -- I felt that same outrage because we take our care for wounded warriors very seriously here.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

MCINTYRE: The Army is putting some more senior commanders in charge of some of those facilities. But they also say this is not a money problem, it's a failure of leadership up and down the chain of command to make the quality of life of wounded soldiers the top priority it should be -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jamie, thanks.

A good report.

Let's hope there are some changes there and changes quickly.

Jack Cafferty is off today.

Up ahead, a basketball legend exploring the world of politics.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHARLES BARKLEY: I think a lot of politicians are corrupt and it's about time we put some people in there who are going to look out for the majority of the people instead of the rich people.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: I'll ask the former NBA All Star, Charles Barkley, about his own political ambitions. You're going to want to see this interview. Also, an exclusive interview with the secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice. She speaks candidly to our own Zain Verjee about talks with Iran and whether the U.S. is weighing military action.

And another U.S. helicopter apparently downed by enemy fire in Iraq. I'll get the latest from the top U.S. military spokesman there.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We have a CNN exclusive for you.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice saying the U.S. will be happy to talk to Iran, but under one major condition. It's a critical condition.

Our State Department correspondent, Zain Verjee, got some details in an exclusive interview she did with the secretary earlier today in Berlin.

Zain joining us now live from Berlin -- Zain, update our viewers on what she said.

ZAIN VERJEE, CNN STATE DEPARTMENT CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, a message to Iran from the secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice -- come out of the cold.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

VERJEE (voice-over): Softening on another member of the so- called axis of evil -- Iran. Condoleezza Rice offered Iran an olive branch -- take us up on talks, any time, any place. But stop enriching uranium first.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, SECRETARY OF STATE: We can talk about anything. That's an offer that I would renew today. We have, in fact, even under these circumstances, we've cooperated some in Afghanistan and I think that was useful.

So there is a different path.

VERJEE: Rice was referring to Iranian support of the U.S. during the war in Afghanistan.

Since then, relations have gone sour. U.S. warships nearby in the Gulf, the U.S. is going after Iranian agents in Iraq and is now beefing up missile defense shields in Europe in case of Iranian attacks.

(on camera): Is there a danger that in this kind of atmosphere that -- and lack of direct communication, that there could be missteps on either side that could trigger an accidental war?

RICE: Let me just say here, publicly, the United States has no desire for confrontation with Iran. None. VERJEE: This week's U.N. deadline for Iran to quit enriching uranium could ratchet up the war of words and lead to more sanctions. But Iran's president defiantly insists Iran's nuclear program is going ahead full steam.

Rice appeared to be signaling to Iran's leaders, impatient with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, that she hears them.

RICE: The option that we have is to continue to try to convince those who are reasonable in Iran that the course that they're on is destructive.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

VERJEE: But, Wolf, if Iran proceeds with its nuclear program, Secretary Rice says the international community will continue to play hardball -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Zain Verjee, thanks very much.

Zain Verjee on the scene for us in Berlin with the secretary of state.

Carol Costello is joining us now.

There's an incident in Texas, Carol.

What are we picking up?

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, a military chopper has crashed on a golf course in Mansfield, Texas. It's at the Walnut Creek Country Club. Apparently, some high school students were golfing nearby and witnessed this thing come down.

We understand the two pilots got off safely. But there's a red tarp -- there's some sort of tarp covering part of the chopper so we can't tell exactly what kind of military chopper that was. Of course, when we get new information, we'll pass it along. I'm going to keep following this -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you, Carol, very much.

The United States Navy is looking for new ways to appeal to a younger, tech savvy generation that they're hoping -- the YouTube.com generation can actually lend them a hand, as it's being called. The Navy says some clever homemade Web videos could help them make their pitch to potential sailors out there.

Abbi Tatton watching the story -- Abbi.

ABBI TATTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the Navy, now on YouTube, has some official videos, but you'll find some unofficial ones there, also.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM NAVY VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My baby don't mess around...

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TATTON: This is a homemade video by the Sun Kings, a Navy squadron based in California, taped on a recent deployment. It shows some of them working, flying, dancing along to Outcast's "Hey Ya." And this is not their only contribution to the site. They have a version of the Black Eyed Peas' "Pump It," also, which is even more popular than this one. Between the two of them, they've got approaching one million viewers.

One of them, Vice Admiral Mark Edwards, who pointed this -- the other video out at a recent conference as an example of how tech savvy their younger personnel can be.

But it's not just those personnel who are contributing to the site. The Navy has its own official page now on YouTube with their own official videos, hoping to reach out to potential recruits.

But they're recognizing the power of these user generated ones, as well, putting a link on their site to these. A spokesman saying that they provide a behind the scenes peek and they're happy to take advantage of them -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you for that, Abbi.

We'll get back to you shortly, as well.

Coming up, we'll have more on the controversial British troop draw down in Iraq. We're going to take you to Basra, the base of U.K. forces, for a reality check of the situation on the ground.

Plus, Hollywood -- the front line in a growing battle between the presidential campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. We'll have details of this increasingly sharp war of words.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's check back with Carol Costello for a closer look at some other important stories making news right now -- Carol.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, a major shake-up in Italian politics. Premier Romano Prodi has tendered his resignation after only nine months in office. He quit following defections within his leftist coalition to back a motion in support of Italy's participation in the NATO-led Afghanistan mission, among other things.

In Miami, one of the world's smallest preemies has finally gone home. At birth last October, Amillia Sonja Taylor weighed less than 10 ounces. Today, she tips the scales at four-and-a-half pounds and according to a hospital spokeswoman, she is thriving.

In tonight's Bottom Line, makers of drugs to treat Attention Deficit Disorder are being encouraged to alert patients to possible cardiovascular and psychiatric risks. The Food and Drug Administration says it told the drug makers to develop patient friendly guidelines that explain the risks and hand them out with the medicines.

On Wall Street today, the Dow Jones Industrial Average lost nearly 50 points. Worries about inflation cut into recent gains, which concluded with a record high close on Tuesday, and that is the Bottom Line.

Back to you -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Carol, see you in a few minutes.

Coming up, a basketball great is throwing elbows in the court of politics.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHARLES BARKLEY: I think the Republicans have took the country in a terrible situation. And let's get one thing straight about the last elections. The Democrats did not win. They won because the other team wasn't any good.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Charles Barkley -- he has little love for either party.

Will he channel that frustration into a run for political office?

I'll go one-on-one with the Hall of Famer.

And the constitutional allows for U.S. citizens to vote.

But should that also be a right given to non-citizens?

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now, President Bush facing new pressure on Iraq as Britain announces plans to bring home some of its troops. The administration putting a positive spin on the news, saying it's a sign of progress. Others say it's a sign the president's coalition is cracking.

Also, while some British soldiers will be coming home, the third in line to the country's throne will soon find out if he'll be going to Iraq. Britain's defense secretary will announce tomorrow whether Prince Harry's regiment will be deployed.

And a key endorsement in the race for the White House. Former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle now saying he supports Barack Obama for president in 2008, a race Daschle himself once considered entering, before he lost his Senate seat back in 2004.

I'm Wolf Blitzer and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

The British are leaving, but will American troops have to replace them?

More now on our top story -- Britain's announcement it will pull about 1,600 of its troops from Iraq starting soon. They're based in Basra.

Can that be a model for what many hope Baghdad will become?

CNN's Arwa Damon is in the Iraqi capital -- Arwa.

ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this draw down of British troops will be hailed by many as being a sign of success that the Iraqi security forces can finally take control and responsibility on their own.

But what troops are facing in southern Iraq is drastically different than anything they face in the rest of the country.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

DAMON (voice-over): Compared to the rest of the country, southern Iraq is relatively calm, less plagued by the sectarian violence and spectacular Al Qaeda In Iraq attacks so common elsewhere. Most of Britain's 7,000 troops are clustered in the south, around Basra.

JON ALTERMAN, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: Basra is much more stable than Baghdad, where the American troops are. Their feeling, also, is that you can't win a civil war and you certainly can't win a civil war as an outsider.

DAMON: What does exist here is a war of a different nature. Here, it's a power struggle between Shia factions, many of them supported by Iran. And in the past, when British troops have moved on or shifted position, the power struggle fully manifested itself in the streets.

Take, for example, Al Amarah, close by the Iranian border. Last summer, British troops based there dispersed into the desert after their main base came under a barrage of mortar fire, handing the city over to the Iraqis. It took less than two months for clashes to break out between the militia-controlled Iraq police and gunmen loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Iraqi security forces eventually restored calm, described by the British military as being a delicate balance.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's a balance of militias and there's a balance of politics going on.

DAMON: And that balance was also aggravated by the presence of British troops. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We were a constant reminder of everything that the locals had decided was bad about the British.

DAMON: The Iraqi population here has increasingly decided there is a lot bad about the British. And now, with the British pullout looming, there is concern that handing control of southern Iraq over to the largely militia dominated Iraqi security forces might open the door wider to Iranian influence.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

DAMON: A power vacuum filled by Iran or by Iranian backed militias may not necessarily mean more violence in the south, but it could create a gateway to transport fighters and Iranian weapons to other parts of the country -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Arwa, thank you very much.

Arwa Damon in Baghdad for us.

Meanwhile, some are wondering if this move by Britain is really the wisest option.

And joining us now from Baghdad, the chief spokesman of the Multi-National Forces in Iraq, Major General William Caldwell, U.S. Army.

General Caldwell, thanks very much for coming in.

A lot of focus of attention on the British decision to start withdrawing some of its troops from Iraq, from the southern part of the country. Was there ever any consideration for the British troops instead of leaving Iraq, coming up north to help the U.S. and the Iraqi forces in the Baghdad area or in the Al Anbar province, where they're really needed?

MAJ. GEN. WILLIAM CALDWELL, SPOKESMAN, MULTINATIONAL FORCE, IRAQ: Wolf, the British forces, just like us, have been thoroughly committed from the beginning. I mean, they're steadfast partners, been working hard. And as they've looked at their mission down there in Basra and they see they can draw the force levels down by about 1,500 over this year, it makes logical sense to do that.

BLITZER: But why not move those 1,500 up North? Because you can obviously use the help.

CALDWELL: Well, Wolf, I think it's like all of the forces that have been over here. You know, you go back and you look at the force levels, what forces they have available, and it makes sense for the British forces at this point in time to draw down their force levels here as they continue to commit themselves both here and in Afghanistan, supporting the efforts in both places.

BLITZER: How worried are you, though, that there could be a security vacuum created in the south right now with the British pulling out, the Danes pulling out, others leaving that area, that there could be Shiite-versus-Shiite fighting that erupts?

CALDWELL: Well, Wolf, the good thing about down in the Basra area is the British can continue to turn over that greater control of the Iraqi forces down there. They're going to go from about 7,200 in country down to about 5,500. So there's still going to be a very robust presence that can handle any situation down there.

BLITZER: And what if they can't? Would the U.S. have to go down there? Or would the British come back?

CALDWELL: Well, Wolf, that's a lot of conjecture, but obviously, you know, we would both work very closely and determine what's the most logical solution to handle something. But we would not be moving forward if we didn't feel the conditions were right to set the Iraqi security forces and greater control like we are. So everybody feels very comfortable with what's going on and are very optimistic about the future down in that location.

BLITZER: Tell us the latest information you're getting on this helicopter that made what's call a hard landing west of Baghdad today. A U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter.

CALDWELL: Well, Wolf, we initially reported as making the hard landing. Indications are now -- again, it's preliminary, but the indications are now that it was brought down by small arms fire and RPGs, rocket-propelled grenades. It did land safely, all nine occupants were transferred to another helicopter, and the helicopter currently is secured and they're assessing the damage to that helicopter.

BLITZER: And this bolsters this notion that the insurgents are getting better in shooting down helicopters. Is there evidence they've improved their techniques, they've intensified their efforts?

CALDWELL: Wolf, there's no question they're intensify their efforts. And, you know, obviously there's captured (ph) documents to talk about that. But it's very clear that they realize that's a sensational kind of event. If they can take down a helicopter, they are working at it very hard.

We're adjusting our tactics and our techniques in response to that, and today, though, we did make a hard landing because of small arms fire that the helicopter took.

BLITZER: What about this tanker truck that was exploded this week with poison gas ensuing? Is this a new technique that the terrorists are using now to wreak havoc in the Baghdad area?

CALDWELL: Well, Wolf, it's a technique we've seen them attempt to do before with not much success. This is the first time they've been able to actually explode one of these and get the fumes going.

You know, it affects your upper respiratory and your eyes, but it's not normally lethal, but it's very much of an irritant. And they were very effective in their attack in using that up in Taji.

BLITZER: Is it still your assumption that Muqtada al-Sadr, the radical anti-American Shiite leader, is still in Iran?

CALDWELL: Well, as we said, he's clearly not in Iraq, and has not been for some time. And all indications are is that he is currently located in Iran.

BLITZER: What about the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Ayyub al-Masri? The Iraqi Interior Ministry insisting he was wounded in a battle the other day. What does the U.S. military know about this?

CALDWELL: Well, Wolf, we were not involved in that engagement. We've been tracking it closely. We have no reason to believe that the reporting perhaps is not correct. But unfortunately, you know, they did not kill or capture him in that raid. But obviously we continue to pursue him very vigorously, as do the Iraqi security forces, and we'll keep up that pace.

BLITZER: Major General Caldwell, thanks very much for coming in.

We want to take a closer look now at the current force levels in Iraq from a variety of nations. The bulk of the troops, of course, are U.S., 91 percent of the coalition right now. The next largest contingent comes from Britain, making up just five percent of the force level.

After that, all of the other countries combined make up only four percent of the troops in Iraq -- Australia, Poland, Romania, for example, just over 500 troops. Sixteen other nations all together have about 500 troops -- under 500 troops, also, as well.

Up ahead, the first full-scale battle between the top two Democratic presidential contenders. We're going to show you why the Clinton and Obama campaigns are exchanging some heated comments and the role one Hollywood powerbroker is playing.

Plus, allowing non-citizens to vote? A controversial proposal that some call a naked power grab.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: A very controversial proposal moving forward in New York City right now that would extend the right to vote to millions of non-citizens.

Let's go back to Carol Costello in New York. She's following this story -- Carol.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I know what many of viewers are thinking, this isn't exactly the greatest climate to try to grab immigrants. Perhaps the most important right of any U.S. citizen, the right to vote. But that's not stopping one New York City lawmaker.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COSTELLO (voice over): Imagine, 10 million green card holders suddenly able to cast a ballot for mayor, for the U.S. Congress, for president of the United States. The catch, none of them would be U.S. citizens but legal immigrants living in the United States. It's New York City councilman Charles Barron's big dream.

CHARLES BARRON (D), NEW YORK CITY COUNCIL: Everybody's an immigrant. So why not? Why not allow everybody that's paying taxes, can die in the war, why not let them participate in electing their representatives?

COSTELLO: Right now, Barron is taking his fight to New York City Hall, introducing a bill that would allow legal immigrants the right to vote in city elections. Appalling to some who feel it not only cheapens U.S. citizenship, but say it's a political ploy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is a naked power grab by partisan folks who think that these non-citizens are going to vote for more one party than the other, otherwise there would be not no reason not to wait until these people became U.S. citizens.

COSTELLO (on camera): If they really wanted to vote, why not just become a citizen of the United States?

BARRON: They are trying. If it was that simple, they would do it.

COSTELLO (voice over): Simple? No. But that's by design.

According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, it usually takes five years of learning how to become part of the American fabric to become a citizen. Among the rewards, the right to vote.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COSTELLO: Now, the U.S. Constitution makes it a crime for a non- citizen to vote in a federal election -- you know, like for president. But it is not against the Constitution for a non-citizen to vote in local elections. That's up to municipalities. And yes, there is one place non-citizens can vote, and that would be in Tacoma Park, Maryland -- Wolf.

BLITZER: That's a close suburb of Washington, D.C.

Thanks, Carol, very much more that.

Let's check in with Lou Dobbs to see what coming up right at the top of the hour.

Lou, what are you working on?

LOU DOBBS, HOST, "LOU DOBBS TONIGHT": Wolf, we're reporting tonight on the skyrocketing health care costs for middle class Americans. It is now a national crisis, nothing less. And soon, millions more Americans will be unable to afford even the most basic medical care.

That special report coming up at the top of the hour.

Also, the Bush administration aggressively moving ahead to create a North American union without the consent of Congress or voters. We'll have the story on disturbing arrogance on the part of your government.

And new evidence of the tremendous dangers of marijuana. Researchers now say marijuana may cause long-term brain damage and cancer. One of the country's leading authorities on marijuana, Dr. Steven Dewey, of the Brookhaven National Laboratory is among our guests here tonight.

And three of the nation's best political analysts and strategists will also be here to sort out, among other things, the Obama-Hillary feud, I guess we could call it.

We hope you'll be with us at 6:00 p.m. Eastern here on CNN.

Wolf, back to you.

BLITZER: All right, Lou. Thanks very much. We'll be watching closely.

Lou coming up in a few minutes.

Up ahead here in THE SITUATION ROOM, diversity and the race for the White House.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHARLES BARKLEY, FMR. BASKETBALL PLAYER: The next two years America's going to really get a chance to show their true colors if they can look past Barack being black or Senator Clinton being a woman.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: So who is NBA legend Charles Barkley backing? I'm going to ask him in my one-on-one interview. You're going to want to see this.

And coming up in our 7:00 p.m. Eastern hour, a gathering of Democratic White House hopefuls in Nevada overshadowed by the war of words between the two top campaigns. We're going to take you there live.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: "Uncovering America," CNN goes in-depth to report on conflicts and controversies affecting minority groups, including African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Asian-Americans, gays, among others.

Today, the power of the black vote. Our senior political analyst, Bill Schneider, joining us once again from Los Angeles with the story -- Bill.

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: Wolf, it's like an immutable law of American politics -- African-Americans vote Democratic in overwhelming numbers for more than 40 years.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER (voice over): African-Americans are the Democratic Party's base. They vote for the Democrat when nobody else does, like 1972, when blacks voted more than 80 percent for George McGovern, and 1984, when blacks voted more than 90 percent for Walter Mondale.

J.C. WATTS, FMR. GOP CONFERENCE CHAIRMAN: Most black people vote alike, but most black people don't think alike.

SCHNEIDER: That's certainly true. Many African-American are evangelical Christians and embrace conservative social values, but they don't vote Republican. Recently, Republicans have been making a determined outreach to black voters.

President Bush appointed two African-American secretaries of state. Republicans nominated three African-Americans for important statewide offices last year. None of them came close to carrying black voters, which suggests it's not just the perception of racism that drives most black voters away from the Republican Party. There's something else.

Distrust of the federal governments a core issue for Republicans.

RONALD REAGAN, FMR. PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem.

SCHNEIDER: Most blacks do not share that resentment. Why should they? The federal government rescued blacks from slavery in the 1860s and from segregation in the 1960s.

Of course, some blacks do resent over-reliance on the federal government. They're the minority who become Republicans.

WATTS: I think we have to look at new ways of dealing with poverty, new models in education, new models in health care. You know, I think we have to look at new models in retirement security.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER: African-Americans vote their interests, and most blacks see government spending, government regulation, and judicial activism, things most Republicans oppose, as very much in their interests -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you very much.

Bill Schneider reporting for us.

Let's get some more on our "Uncovering America" series and a possible run for office by one of the biggest names in basketball.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And joining us now, the NBA legend, Charles Barkley.

Charles, what's all of this talk about you wanting to be a politician?

CHARLES BARKLEY, FMR. BASKETBALL PLAYER: Well, I want to be a politician. I think I understand how the system works. I think a lot of politicians are corrupt. And it's about time we put some people in there who are going to look out for the majority of the people instead of the rich people.

BLITZER: All right. So when are you going to run for office? What are you eying right now?

BARKLEY: Well I just bought a house before the end of the year in Alabama. You have to live there for seven years. So hopefully in 2014, I can run for governor of Alabama.

BLITZER: Are you a Democrat or a Republican?

BARKLEY: I'm an Independent. I think the Republicans are terrible and the Democrats are not much better. So I'm really an Independent.

BLITZER: But you used to be a Republican. Correct me if I'm wrong.

BARKLEY: I said one time I was rich like a Republican. And I still am, I might add. But I think the Republicans have took the country in a terrible situation.

And let's get one thing straight about the last elections. The Democrats did not win. They won because the other team wasn't any good. They've got to get their act together because this country right now is in serious, serious turmoil.

BLITZER: Charles, a lot of candidates out there who want to be president on the Democratic and Republican side. Who do you like?

BARKLEY: Well, I'm really pulling for Barack Obama, John Edwards and Senator Clinton. I think they're both -- all three of these are great candidates.

I'm really pulling for Barack because I consider him a casual friend of mine. I supported John Edwards last time. I think it would be great if a woman became president of the United States.

And I'm really excited about the next couple years, because you're going to get a chance to see who's racist, who's sexist. And Senator Edwards always talks about the discrepancy between the rich and the poor. And those are really three great things we really need to look at in this country. And I'm really excited about the next two years. BLITZER: All right. I've got to -- I've got to press you, though. You can't vote for all three of them. If you've got to pick one, who do you like the most right now?

BARKLEY: I'm going with Senator Barack Obama. I like him a lot. I respect him. I really -- I really think he'd make a fantastic president.

BLITZER: You think he's -- the American public is ready for an African-American president?

BARKLEY: I do not think they're ready for it. That's why I don't think Senator Clinton can win, either. But that's why I say the next two years, America's going to really get a chance to show their true colors if they can look past Barack being black or Senator Clinton being a woman. America's really going to get a chance to show their true colors.

BLITZER: Do you like any of the Republican candidates, whether Rudy Giuliani or John McCain or any of the others?

BARKLEY: Well, I like senator McCain, because he's a friend from Arizona. But I think senator -- Mr. Giuliani is going to be the front-runner for the Republicans.

BLITZER: If you take a look at the political situation now, the war in Iraq is clearly dominating so much of the political environment. Where do you stand on this conflict?

BARKLEY: You know, Wolf, it's very simple. They said we were going to Iraq to get rid of Saddam Hussein. He had been in prison for a couple of years and now he's dead.

That situation has not gotten better. So it's an easy call for me. We've got get out of Iraq.

I mean, he was in jail for a couple of years. Now he's dead. That situation hasn't gotten better.

So anything the Republicans say about the war in Iraq, it's just bogus. I mean, it's a terrible situation. We've got a lot of innocent kids getting killed over there. And we're never going to be safe over there.

BLITZER: Your bottom line is simply get out?

BARKLEY: We've got to get out.

BLITZER: Charles Barkley, thanks very much for joining us.

BARKLEY: Thanks for having me.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And one day after my interview with Charles Barkley out in Las Vegas, he was in a race of a very different kind at the all- star weekend. The 43-year-old hall-of-famer took on 67-year-old NBA referee Dick Bavetta, racing three and a half full court sprints. Bavetta runs five to eight miles a day and says he thought he could win.

Barkley beat him, though, backpedaling the last 10 yards. He later quipped -- and I'm quoting now -- "I have nothing against old people. I hope to be one someday."

Charles Barkley winning that race.

Up next, a skirmish involving the top Democratic presidential contenders. We're going to show you why the Clinton and Obama campaigns are trading some heated accusations. John King standing by with that.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The gloves are off and the first full-scale battle between the top two Democratic contenders for the White House is on. The camps of Senator Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama engaged in a war of words involving Hollywood money, questions of race, among other things.

Our chief national correspondent, John King, is joining us now from New York.

John, I was pretty surprised at how quickly these two campaigns responded to this interview that the Hollywood mogul, David Geffen, gave Maureen Dowd. It was published today in "New York Times." Neither camp wasted any time taking a snipe at the other.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, very important and very instructive to watch what Senator Clinton did today. Ask her top campaign aides, ask any Democrats around the country what does she need to do early in the campaign, and they will say reintroduce herself.

Her public image is shaped largely by her husband's presidency. More than four in 10 Americans don't believe Hillary Clinton is honest and trustworthy.

Ask them if she is someone who can unite the country, and a majority of Americans say no. She is very much defined by Bill Clinton's presidency. And what David Geffen was talking about was the baggage she might carry and the worries many Democrats have -- not just David Geffen -- that if she is the nominee, that perhaps in the campaign his baggage could overwhelm and outweigh his assets.

So, the Clinton campaign hitting back very hard. They want time to reintroduce Hillary Clinton to the American people, including the Democratic Party in the primaries, but the country at large. And they don't want a protracted discussion about Bill Clinton and the liabilities Bill Clinton could bring to the table right now. So they're very aggressive and essentially daring Barack Obama to say David Geffen shouldn't say this, no one should say this. But Barack Obama didn't do that -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I was speaking to one Obama supporter earlier in the day who said, "You know what? The Hillary campaign must have an underused war room right now in that they decided to respond so quickly."

You remember the '92 campaign. The Clinton-Gore war room was very, very effective in instant reaction.

KING: Yes, hardball politics are not at all unfamiliar to any of those involved, whether it's the candidate, Senator Clinton, or all of those people around her. Many of them veterans of the past Clinton campaigns going back to 1992, when, of course, the character questions came up quite early.

Quite interesting, another thing they're trying to do, Wolf, in the strategy here is Barack Obama right now lives above the fray, if you will. He says he's not a normal politician, doesn't want to engage in the daily back and forth of politics that he thinks is too simplistic, too sloganeering right now.

In trying to get him in to this and in accusing him of the politics of personal destruction, Hillary Clinton is trying to convince the American people, this guy is not the next coming of Bobby Kennedy, as many Democrats say. He's just another politician.

If she can succeed at that, she'll go a long way in keeping Barack Obama behind her in the polls. That's part of that strategy.

BLITZER: Are the Republicans looking at this battle between the two Democratic front-runners and sort of saying, I hope they just keep on fighting amongst themselves?

KING: Sure, the Republicans like to see a good fight among the Democrats. And the Republicans will watch very closely how each candidate and how all the other candidates respond to any campaign flaps, any campaign crises, to study them to see what information might help them down the road.

But look, Bill Clinton went through a very tough Democratic primary in 1992. He became president of the United States. Ronald Reagan went through some tough primaries back in his day, he became president of the United States.

Most people in politics would say, the harder the primary campaign, the stronger the candidate you get out of it. So, sure, the Republicans are watching. But just because the Democratic campaign is getting so tough, so early, doesn't necessarily mean the Republicans will benefit from it down the road.

BLITZER: All right, John. Thanks very much. We've got to leave it there.

Let's go to New York and Lou Dobbs.

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