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THE SITUATION ROOM

Residents Return to Devastated Greensburg, Kansas; U.S. Troops Find Torture Chamber in Shiite Stronghold

Aired May 7, 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: Thanks, Lou.
Happening now, a survivor is pulled from the rubble and a town leveled by a killer tornado -- residents returning to look at what's left of their homes, but are soon sent fleeing again.

U.S. troops move into a Shiite stronghold and stumble across a torture chamber. And he had a strategy for Iraq. The Bush administration ignored it. I'll speak with the former head of the U.S. military central command, retired U.S. Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni.

Also, they are doing their best to turn the White House into a palace for the evening. The queen is coming for dinner, and it's a white tie affair. We're going to go there live.

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

Tonight, majesty on a grander scale than ever before at the Bush White House -- a state dinner literally befitting a queen. The president and Mrs. Bush are preparing to welcome Britain's Queen Elizabeth II and her husband Prince Philip. They are the guests of honor for the first ever white-tie dinner hosted by Mr. Bush.

One hundred thirty-four guests will celebrate the queen's six-day trip to the United States and dine on saddle of spring lamb and Dover sole. The guest list is an impressive guest list. And it includes an interesting array of famous and powerful people.

The jockey who won the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, Calvin Borel, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace, the legendary golfer Arnold Palmer. The renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman will perform at the dinner. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell will be there, the former first lady Nancy Reagan, and the president's brother, the former Florida governor, Jeb Bush. All of them will be there.

And we're going to go to the White House and watch it unfold as it does. But there's some other important news we're watching right now, including a story of unbelievable devastation flying over parts of Kansas, showing just how little is left standing in one town after weekend storms. A tornado ripped through Greensburg with a wind speed -- get this -- estimated at 205 miles an hour and with a trail of destruction that went on for 22 miles.

CNN's Don Lemon is in what's left of this town in Greensburg. What's the situation, Don, right now?

DON LEMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, look at this. Can you believe this? Twenty-two miles of this and this tornado, as you said, 1.7 miles wide. That's almost two miles wide. This is the devastation where I've been standing here doing live shots all day, Lou, at a VF -- Wolf, at a VFW Hall. This is the devastation here. American flags strewn about, everything that was inside of this hall strewn about.

And it's the same thing over and over, home after home after home. Ten people are dead here. They found two bodies today. One in a lake and then they found another one amid the debris much like this. And then in all of that when they started letting people back into their homes this morning, there was an ammonia leak from a tanker car that caused people to have to go back out of the town. They had to be evacuated.

The entire east side of the town, where that ammonia was floating over, those people had to be evacuated just as they were going back into their homes. And then also another development, Wolf -- last night, amid this debris, they found a person living. They're not telling us anything about the person, how old they are, what their condition is. But that is some good news in all of this. They found one person.

And then just moments ago, someone from FEMA handed me a list of names of five people that they have confirmed dead. I'm not going to read the names to you, but I'll just tell you about them. One person is a man, 79 years old. They are all from Greensburg. Another man, 51 years old from Greensburg; another man, 48 years old from Greensburg; a woman 77 years old from Greensburg; and then a 57-year- old man. These are the people who lost their lives, at least five of them, amid the devastation here in Greensburg -- Wolf.

BLITZER: What a devastating story. All right, Don, thank you very much.

Monster storms are harrowing and devastating enough, but the governor of Kansas says there's something making matters even worse in her state. And that would be the war in Iraq.

CNN's Brian Todd is watching this part of the story. What about the impact of the war in Iraq on what's happening with the National Guard in Kansas, Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, those units are stretched thin in Kansas and all over the country. And it's mostly a shortage of equipment. In Kansas, Guard officials tell us it doesn't affect so much what they can handle but how fast.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

TODD (voice-over): To recover in Greensburg, tons of debris will have to be cleared away. Some crucial first responders, National Guard units, are being hampered in this effort. And officials say troop strength is not the problem. GOV. KATHLEEN SEBELIUS (D), KANSAS: We're missing front loaders and dump trucks. We're missing back hoes. We're missing bulldozers. We are missing Humvees to move people around. We're missing Blackhawk helicopters that could do aerial surveillance and move heavy and awkward equipment up and down.

TODD: Kansas National Guard officials tell us they now have less than half the equipment allocated to them by the U.S. National Guard Bureau and they've been dealing with the shortfall for years.

MAJ. GEN. TOD BUNTING, KANSAS NATIONAL GUARD: We weren't fully equipped with all the resources we needed before the war started. So that and the fact that we went with a bunch of our forces to Iraq and Afghanistan just further depleted us.

TODD: Kansas is by no means alone. Listen to this finding by a commission reporting on the National Guard's ability to respond to disasters at home.

MAJOR GENERAL ARNOLD PUNARO (RET.), COMMISSION ON NATIONAL GUARD AND RESERVES: The National Guard, for the units that remain here in the continental United States, 88 percent of those units are not ready, due to equipment deficiencies.

TODD: Last month, the top National Guard official admitted the Army branch of his force is -- quote -- "woefully under-equipped", but he also pledged:

LIEUTENANT GEN. H. STEVEN BLUM, U..S NATIONAL GUARD BUREAU: I will deliver and ensure that the adjutants general have the equipment and plans that they need to be able to respond.

TODD: Kansas National Guard officials tell us they can manage this disaster with the equipment they have and the shortage has had no effect on deaths or injuries in Greensburg. But...

BUNTING: If we had another big storm right now, we would be hard- pressed to cover that.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: And they may be hard pressed as we speak. Not only are we in the peak month for tornado season, but storm systems have just caused flash flooding and evacuations in Topeka and Kansas City and National Guard units are being deployed to those areas tonight -- Wolf.

BLITZER: What are they doing there, the National Guard personnel who are in Greensburg right now?

TODD: They are providing security and water and they're helping to remove debris. But Guard officials tell us the state is also hiring outside contractors for some of that equipment. .

BLITZER: And a lot of that equipment they take over to Iraq, the National Guard units from around the country, what happens? It winds up staying there, even after they come home?

TODD: That's right. It does not immediately get sent back. Officials say the equipment these units take with them that's not damaged is left there for the units coming in. They say it simply doesn't make sense for them to ship the same kinds of equipment back and forth. It just costs too much.

BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting for us, thank you.

A little while ago, I spoke with the Kansas governor, Kathleen Sebelius, and asked her about the burden on National Guard units facing both war and national disaster.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: We did some checking with the National Guard bureau, Governor. We found out that in Kansas, you have about 5,500 troops in the National Guard. And, what, almost 800 of them, or so, are deployed in Iraq right now. How much of a factor is that in dealing with this current crisis?

SEBELIUS: We can cope with that. It was about twice as high a year ago. What really is hampering reactions like this and our opportunity to clean up quickly is the equipment shortage. It's something that governors across this country have talked about to the president, to the Department of Defense, really for well over two years and it's happening every place in the country. When a Guard unit is deployed, the equipment goes with them. It doesn't come back, and it isn't replaced.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: The governor of Kansas, Kathleen Sebelius, joining us to discuss what is clearly, clearly a horrendous situation out in her state.

Let's change gears and go back to what we told you about at the top of the story. At this moment, the Queen of England has just arrived at the White House for the state dinner, a white-tie state dinner. There she is, Jack Cafferty. You see Queen Elizabeth II being welcomed by the president and the first lady at the north side of the White House, the north portico -- the queen about to go up those stairs. And she's wearing her crown, Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Well I guess for a formal affair like this, somebody said it was -- this is the first white tie dinner that President Bush has ever hosted at the White House in his six-plus years as president. I wonder how that stacks up against previous chief executives at that address.

BLITZER: White-tie dinners are not very normal. They are usually -- the state dinners are black tie. But there she is. She looks lovely, don't you think?

CAFFERTY: She looks very royal. Yes. Were you invited to this?

BLITZER: No, I missed -- unless that invitation was lost in the mail or something.

CAFFERTY: Yes, no, me either.

BLITZER: Yes.

CAFFERTY: The country is looking at an interesting dilemma as we look toward another election. President Bush's approval ratings are in the toilet -- white-tie dinners aside. They are so low, they could become a drag on the White House candidacy of a Republican. An overwhelming majority of Americans feel that our country is headed in the wrong direction. Read that, the war in Iraq as the major issue there.

Another contributing factor is the rubber stamping of Mr. Bush's policies by the Republican Congress up until last fall's midterm election and virtual absence of any oversight. All of these things would seem to suggest that a Democrat might have a leg up in winning the White House in 2008, but not so fast. The Democratic favorites at this point are Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama -- a woman and a black. Neither of which the U.S. has ever elected president.

A December CNN Opinion Research Corporation poll found 62 percent of those surveyed said the United States is ready for a black president and 60 percent feel the U.S. is ready for a woman president. A piece in today's "Washington Post" examines how ready the U.S. might be to elect a black as president saying this, quote, "Though much has been made about whether Barack Obama is black enough for black voters, perhaps a more relevant question is this: Has the nation's white majority evolved to the point where it can elect a black man as president?", unquote.

So here's the question. When it comes down to it, would American voters elect another Republican president before they would elect a woman or a black? E-mail your thoughts to CaffertyFile@CNN.com or go to CNN.com/CaffertyFile. Barring the emergence of a different front- runner in the Democratic Party, it's an interesting debate, I think -- Wolf.

BLITZER: A very good question, Jack. We'll see how it unfolds. Thank you very much.

We're watching several stories, including this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think they tried to do it on the cheek. They didn't think through what the aftermath would bring.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: He had a plan for Iraq, but the Bush administration threw it out the window. I'll speak about it with retired U.S. Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni, the former commander of the Central Command.

Also, the ailing actor Michael J. Fox appealing to scientists to come up with more creative treatments -- can they help defeat Parkinson's disease?

Plus, the price of gasoline hitting a record high and the summer driving season hasn't even started yet. Is big oil pushing prices up on purpose? We're watching this story, several other important stories.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Gas prices are sky high and it's not even the peak- driving season yet. Energy companies say they are having refinery problems, but a key U.S. senator is very suspicious.

Let's go to CNN's Mary Snow. She's watching the story in New York. What's going on, Mary?

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, gas prices on average have gone up nearly 20 cents in the last two weeks alone. This coincides with a number of recent problems at refineries and it's drawing scrutiny.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW (voice-over): It's a record high in the United States -- consumers now shelling out an average $3.07 a gallon for gas -- the blame, a shortage of supply. New York Democratic Senator Charles Schumer is calling for a government probe into whether that shortage is deliberate.

SEN CHUCK SCHUMER (D), NEW YORK: Are the oil companies cutting back on supply as demand goes up so the price goes up and their profitability goes up? That's the looming question.

SNOW: Schumer is asking why U.S. refineries are only operating at 88 percent capacity and not full capacity. A representative for refineries says, it's not on purpose.

CHARLES DREVNA, NATL PETROCHEMICAL & REFINERS ASSN.: To suggest that a refiner is intentionally limiting production just doesn't pass the economic test.

SNOW: The industry blames disruptions to supply on a number of factors, including refineries still reeling from damage caused two years ago by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. They say there are also maintenance issues at the country's aging refineries, but not enough qualified workers up to the task. An explosion last week caused shutdowns at this Oklahoma refinery. Still, energy analysts say having a dozen refineries in the U.S. and abroad partially shut at this time of year is highly unusual.

MARY NOVAK, GLOBAL INSIGHT ENERGY GROUP: I cannot remember a May where we have had more than one or two refineries out. So this is extraordinarily different than historic norm.

(END VIDEOTAPE) SNOW: So the big question is, what does this mean for the price of gas? Some analysts we spoke with warn that if refineries aren't fully operational by Memorial Day weekend, there could be another 20- cent hike. But that would be a worst-case scenario -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Mary Snow watching the story for us.

Let's take a look at the ride for American motorists as we've watched these gas prices over the past year. Look at this: About a year or so ago at this time, a gallon of regular cost $2.91. The summer driving season peaked last August. It went to $3.04 a gallon. Prices steadily dropped to $2.17. But this year, prices have been jumping from a January low to this week's high of $3.05 posted by the Energy Department. We'll watch that story closely with you.

Party politics is not supposed to play a role in the hiring of career officials, especially over at the U.S. Justice Department. But did the Bush administration play fast and loose with the rules? Let's go to our justice correspondent Kelli Arena.

What are you hearing, Kelli?

KELLI ARENA, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, you are exactly right. You know party politics is not supposed to play a role. And if it has, someone has broken the law. Congressional investigators are looking into new, very serious allegations, Wolf, that that is exactly what happened here.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ARENA (voice-over): Another accusation today that the Bush Justice Department was playing hide the politics in its hiring decisions. Remember, it's illegal to take political affiliation into account when hiring career Justice Department lawyers. But that's exactly what Democrats suspect that Bradley Schlozman, a former top official in the Civil Rights Division did. By asking applicants to hide the fact that they were Republicans so they could be hired without anyone charging that partisan politics was behind the decision.

REP. LINDA SANCHEZ (D), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: If there's one department in this government that should be above political consideration for hiring and firing, that's the Department of Justice.

ARENA: One former DOJ employee, Ty Clevenger, tells CNN that when he applied for a job, Schlozman directed him to edit his resume to remove information identifying him as a Republican. Schlozman didn't return our calls. And the Justice Department says in a statement, political orientation is, quote, "not a criterion solicited or considered in the hiring process."

But this isn't the first allegation of political favoritism at Justice. Monica Goodling, the attorney general's former aide, is being investigated for allegedly seeking out Republican hires. And former DOJ employees say it all points to a far larger problem. JOSEPH RICH, FORMER JUSTICE DEPT. OFFICIAL: The whole hiring process had been changed to put the decision-making in political appointees' hands and that it was clearly was being politicized in that manner.

ARENA: As a result, they allege justice is compromised.

RICHARD UGELOW, FORMER JUSTICE DEPT. LAWYER: You are getting people who have certain political persuasion. That's not healthy for enforcement of the nation's civil rights laws.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ARENA: For its part, the Department of Justice defends its civil rights record. On the criminal front, for example, officials say that prosecutors have a 98 percent conviction rate, which they say is the highest ever -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Kelli Arena, that would be you, thank you very much -- Kelli Arena reporting.

Still ahead tonight here in THE SITUATION ROOM, in France, the nation has a new president. He's the president-elect and get this -- he admires the USA. Will that translate into a better image for the USA across Europe?

A secret torture chamber uncovered by coalition forces in Iraq -- what was it? How many more are there?

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Our Carol Costello is monitoring stories incoming into THE SITUATION ROOM right now. Carol is joining us. What is the latest, Carol?

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: Well let's start right where you are, Wolf, in D.C. It is D.C. scandal, the sequel for defense attorney Preston Burton. A federal judge today ordered Burton to take on the case of reputed D.C. Madam Deborah Jeane Palfrey. Burton says he has no special expertise in handling sex cases but admits to experience with sensitive matters. Burton, you may remember, represented Monica Lewinsky during impeachment proceedings against President Clinton. He also worked for espionage defendants Aldrich Ames of the CIA and Robert Hanssen of the FBI.

No mincing of words today by Michael J. Fox. The actor who has battled Parkinson's disease for more than a decade spoke to scientists and investors at a meeting today in Boston. He appealed for aggressive development of creative treatments for debilitating illnesses like his.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MICHAEL J. FOX, SUFFERS FROM PARKINSON'S DISEASE: I may be luckier than most. I have been reasonable well treated with available drugs for over 15 years. But it is a little frustrating that the best drug we have got is one that's been around for 40 years -- 40 years. But, hey, credit is credit -- credit where credit is due. There are a lot of innovations happening. One that comes to mind is an antidepressant for dogs, which makes things a little easier for me. I mean, my symptoms may not be getting better, but my dog feels better about it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COSTELLO: Still has a sense of humor. Fox quit acting seven years ago because of his symptoms. Last year, his foundation committed $7.5 million across seven grant programs to 16 companies.

And on the wide screen, a new fireworks show by the largest active volcano in Europe. Mount Etna has been spewing lava and registering seismic tremors since yesterday. A gash torn in the side of the mountain is allowing molten lava to flow down its side. So far it's not threatening any inhabited areas. Mount Etna's last major eruption was in 2001. Sure looks beautiful, though, Wolf.

BLITZER: Spectacular pictures, indeed, but you wouldn't want to be anywhere near there -- nice to see them from afar.

COSTELLO: Yes.

BLITZER: Thanks, Carol.

Just ahead, a U.S. Marine Corps general now retired, but he predicted serious problems in Iraq from the very start. His advice, though, was ignored.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I mean, I saw clearly, in my mind, that the military would be stuck with this. There was no organization, true organization.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Now General Anthony Zinni has a dire prediction about what might happen next in Iraq. That interview with General Zinni, that's coming up.

Also, we're going to go back to the pomp and pageantry at the White House. Right now there's a white-tie state dinner honoring Queen Elizabeth II and guess who else is there -- our own Richard Quest.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

Happening now, according to The Associated Press, a special panel has now found that the World Bank president, Paul Wolfowitz, broke the rules when he helped promote and give a pay raise to his girlfriend back in 2005. The AP cites an anonymous source. Reportedly Wolfowitz was given the panel's findings. He's fighting calls for his resignation. We're on top of this story.

Almost one month after a car crash almost killed him, it's back to work for New Jersey's governor. Jon Corzine started work once again today from the governor's mansion. He'll also undergo lots of intensive therapy.

And mothers shield their children's eyes from stray bodies in the streets. The Red Cross says that's just one part of Iraq's dire situation that's only getting worse. Today, the group said it's seeking almost $29 million to try to expand its operations to help thousands of Iraqis cope.

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

Powerful bombings shook the Iraqi cities of Ramadi, Baghdad, Samarra today killing more than two dozen people. Thirteen died in a pair of attacks in Ramadi when two bombs struck separate targets within minutes of each other. Local officials describe those attacks as part of a power struggle between al Qaeda and local clans that have split with the terror network.

Meantime, a gruesome discovery for U.S. troops -- they pushed into a Shiite stronghold in Baghdad this weekend and stumbled upon what is now being described as a torture chamber.

CNN's Hugh Riminton is in the Iraqi capital.

Hugh?

HUGH RIMINTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Iraqi security forces and also the U.S. military have seen evidence of torture activity in the past. But this was a particularly intriguing event. They set out shortly after midnight in Sadr City, the big Shiite slum, to the east of Baghdad.

What they were looking for was what they called a senior Shia extremist. They claimed he had links to Iran.

They inserted themselves into a particular neighborhood. They went into a house. They didn't find him. They went from house to house. On the fourth house, they said, they found evidence of a torture room.

Inside there, there were clear signs, they said, of blood stains. They also found handcuffs, face masks, other instruments that were in there.

Not only that, they found munitions by the hundred. They found more than 150 mortar rounds, for example, stacked up against the wall, plus other evidence of IED-making equipment.

They did not, in the end, find the man they were looking for. And by this stage, they were taking fire from extremists. They returned that fire. They believed they killed eight to 10 armed opponents.

Then they gathered in the experts and they blew up the munitions where they were causing some disquiet among neighbors. There was damage to neighboring houses but as Major General William Caldwell said later, had those explosive in an unstable state gone off, the results for Sadr City would have been horrific.

At the end of the day, they did not find the man they were looking for, but they found plenty of evidence of what he had been up to.

Wolf?

BLITZER: Hugh Riminton in Baghdad for us. Fourteen U.S. troops, by the way, were killed in action over a four-day period. That brings the total U.S. military killed in Iraq over these four years plus to 3,377 American men and women.

More than two dozen Iraqis were killed in bombings today alone. Here is the question. Is the new Iraq strategy really working?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Joining us now is retired U.S. Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni. He's a former head of the U.S. military's Central Command. He's also the author of the important book "The Battle for Peace: A Frontline Vision of America's Power and Purpose". It's out now in paperback.

General Zinni, thanks for coming in.

ANTHONY ZINNI, RETIRED U.S. MARINE CORPS GENERAL: Good to see you, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. A lot of us remember you were the commander of the Central Command. You had a plan, your predecessors throughout the '90s, what it would take to get rid of Saddam Hussein. And then all of a sudden the Bush administration comes in, Rumsfeld becomes defense secretary, and they throw a decade of planning out the window.

Is that right?

ZINNI: That's correct. And I think they tried to do it on the cheap.

They didn't think through what the aftermath would bring. They made some bad decisions on the move. Again, we all know that disbanding the army, de-Baathification, the lack of a real reconstruction plan, brought about all the problems we see now.

BLITZER: Because your plan envisions hundreds of thousands, or maybe a half a million of troops, to actually go in there and get the job done, as opposed to 150,000, or 175,000. Is that right? ZINNI: Right. It was 380,000 to 400,000. We thought we needed that at a minimum to secure the borders, secure the population, ensure that we had control, and law and order was maintained.

BLITZER: How did they get General Tommy Franks, who was a successor of yours as the head of U.S. military command, to go ahead with this new strategy, to do it with a smaller, leaner military?

ZINNI: Well, I'm not sure. I haven't had that conversation with Tommy. I believe that the military was told that the so-called phase four aftermath would be handled by someone else.

Personally, I would not have accepted that. I know from experience that the military gets stuck with those things in reconstruction, and I would have wanted to know what that plan is. But even at that...

BLITZER: But let me just interrupt you for a second.

ZINNI: Sure.

BLITZER: Because at the time, you were out of the active duty in the Marine Corps, in the military.

ZINNI: Right.

BLITZER: But you were very concerned. You warned your friends, this is not a necessarily a good idea.

ZINNI: Right. I mean, I saw clearly in my mind that the military would be stuck with this. There was no organization, you know, true organization, to go in to do the monumental task of reconstruction.

BLITZER: All right. So now the U.S. is there. What do you do now?

Is this strategy, this new strategy that General David Petraeus is trying to implement right now, is that feasible? Does it like it has a chance of working any time soon?

ZINNI: Well, first of all, it's the right man. Dave Petraeus is exceptional, and I think our ambassador there, Ryan Crocker, another exceptional individual. We have the right people on the ground.

I think what we haven't done, though, is we haven't talked about the broader strategic -- or strategy that we need for the region. We need to reconstruct a collective security arrangement that's been destroyed in the region. We need to think through how we would establish a containment strategy, setting the conditions for what our troops would do, what they wouldn't do in here. Even if this current strategy works, either way we're going to fall back in to some containment, but it's foolish to believe we're going to leave.

BLITZER: What would happen if, as a lot of Democrats want right now, by the end of next March, early April, combat forces are out of Iraq?

ZINNI: Well what can happen, this could become a base for extremists. We could have the sectarian violence spill over into the region. Iranian influence could grow, and their hegemonic designs could create a situation that's worse.

BLITZER: So, what you're saying, as bad as the situation is right now, there's plenty of opportunity for it to get a whole lot worse?

ZINNI: Absolutely. Anyone that knows this region knows that.

BLITZER: So, realistically, general -- and you've spent a long time studying that part of the world, the Middle East, the Persian Gulf area -- how long do you believe U.S. combat forces are going have to be deployed to Iraq, at least for the time being? How long do you envisage they'll going to be stuck there?

ZINNI: Well, I think you're going to see a presence. Now, I can see that presence may be moving down, but I think for five to seven years you're going to see a presence.

Now, much of that may be less on the combat troops, more on the advisers, security assistance down the road. Some of it will be troops in the adjoining countries where we have allies to help contain it. And look at the broader strategic requirements in the region.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And General Zinni also told me that one of the reasons the Iraqi military, which now numbers in the hundreds of thousands is still so weak, so incapable, is because the U.S. decided early on to disband the original Iraqi army and it's been an awful struggle, he says, to try to recreate that military.

Still ahead tonight here in THE SITUATION ROOM, how did you feel about President Bush's job performance? We have a brand new poll. It gauges public approval and disapproval. Bill Schneider standing by with that.

And some of his critics call him, and I am quoting now, "an American neoconservative with a French passport."

He was just elected France's next president. So are the French America's friends again? We're watching this story. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Tonight, a new measure of President Bush's political problems. Our brand new CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll shows 38 percent of Americans approve of the way Mr. Bush is doing his job. That's up, by the way, two points from last month.

We averaged together eight of the latest national polls, including a "Newsweek" survey that found the president's approval rating at an all-time low. Get this. Only 28 percent. On average, though, Mr. Bush gets a 35 percent approval rating.

Our new poll also provides some compelling snapshots of the presidential race. Let's bring in our senior political analyst Bill Schneider. He's watching all of this for us. Does it look like the races -- the presidential races of the Democratic and Republican sides are tightening up a bit, Bill?

BILL SCHNEIDER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Wolf, the answer is yes and no.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Republicans are supposed to be the party of orderly succession. Democratic races are often wide-open contests among little known contenders. This time, it's the other way around.

Republicans have 10 -- count them 10 -- declared candidates. But nobody is pulling ahead. The new CNN poll conducted by the Opinion Research Corporation shows a tightening race nationally with Rudy Giuliani and John McCain running neck and neck. Giuliani's lead has been slipping since March when he led McCain by nearly 20 points.

At first, Fred Thompson's show of interest cut into Giuliani's support. They both have celebrity appeal. But things have not improved for Giuliani. His debate performance when he was asked about how he'd feel about repealing Roe versus Wade raised a lot of questions.

RUDY GIULIANI, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It would it be OK to repeal, it would be OK also if a strict constructionist judge viewed it as precedent.

SCHNEIDER: Among Democrats, frontrunner Hillary Clinton is gaining support. Last month she led Barack Obama by eight points. Now she has a 14-point lead. Where are Senator Clinton's gains coming from? Women? Yes. And also liberals.

Last month, Clinton and Obama were just about tied among Democrats who call themselves liberal. Now Clinton has forged 20 points ahead. Her strong position against the Iraq War seems to have convinced liberals she's with them.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON, (D) NY: It is time to sunset the authorization for the war in Iraq. If the president will not bring himself to accept reality, it is time for Congress to bring reality to him.

SCHNEIDER: This time, Democrats are happy with their choices. Thirty eight percent say they are very satisfied with the field. Only 20 percent of Republicans feel that way.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER: There is one constituency where Barack Obama has been growing stronger. That's college educated Democrats. Obama has a strong lead over Senator Clinton in that constituency, which tends to be more independent and reform minded. Wolf?

BLITZER: Bill Schneider with the latest numbers for us. Bill, thank you.

Could freedom fries soon become a very distant memory? The new president-elect of France may be controversial for some at home. But he is certain to find some new friends on this side of the Atlantic.

Let's go to our Carol Costello. She is watching all of this. Are we likely to see a new chapter in U.S.-French relations, Carol?

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Maybe, Wolf. You never know. This new French president admires America's economy, its moxie. And he admires them openly. Refreshing, isn't it? But don't get too excited.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COSTELLO (voice over): Meet new French president Nicolas Sarkozy, a man who won the French election handily, even though his enemies call him an American neo-conservative with a French passport. Some even called him another George Bush.

From a totally American perspective, though, what does it mean? Could it restore the love?

NICOLAS SARKOZY, FRENCH PRESIDENT-ELECT (through translator): I want to call my American friends to tell them that they can trust on our freedom -- rely on our friendship. And the casualties of history have been faced together. France will always be next to them when they need us.

COSTELLO: Encouraging words, but many Americans still have not forgotten how former President Jacques Chirac refused to support the United States when it wanted to invade Iraq. Some became so disillusioned, they took the "French" out of fries.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're now calling them Freedom Fries.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The French are not our friends.

COSTELLO: It's a feeling that has not abated, even though the Iraq War is unpopular now on both sides of the Atlantic. And it's mutual, with many in France making it no secret they do not like President Bush.

TONY EMERSON, "NEWSWEEK INTERNATIONAL": We're definitely at the hate peak in the love/hate cycle with France. And I think -- I can't see that really diminishing seriously until Bush leaves office.

COSTELLO: Still, Sarkozy made it clear he wants good relations with the United States, visiting George Bush in September of 2006, even though back home critics felt it was not the way to get elected president of France.

(END VIDEOTAPE) COSTELLO (on camera): But don't expect Sarkozy to be a French poodle. He's already criticized U.S. policy on global warming and he will likely maintain France's hostility to the U.S. presence in Iraq.

Wolf?

BLITZER: Carol, thank you for that.

Still ahead here tonight in THE SITUATION ROOM, there's a first time for everything. But will the nation elect its first female or African American president? Jack Cafferty with your e-mail.

And a sea of nakedness. Why thousands of people shed their clothing. Jeanne Moos with that story. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Want to go back to the White House right now. The state dinner honoring Queen Elizabeth II. It's going on right now. Richard Quest, our man, covering this big event is joining us with his white tie. First of all, explain the significance of the white tie, Richard, as opposed to the black-tie state dinner.

RICHARD QUEST, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Very simple, Wolf. It's higher up the food chain. In the world of formality, it doesn't get any greater than white tie. It's got the tails, which, as you'll be aware, when you sit down wearing tails, your tails come up. You don't sit on them. It's a very cumbersome affair.

Let's talk about what's been happening at the White House in the last hour or so. The queen has arrived. She was wearing, she is as you can see, wearing a white dress made by Stewart Parvin. The first lady is wearing an aqua ball gown made by Oscar de la Renta.

The queen is wearing the tiara that was given to her by Queen Mary. So it was an extremely important piece.

And the sash with the Order of the Garter, the Garter Stalwart, is what the queen is wearing. They have gone inside, dinner and toasts will begin in the next five or 10 minutes, get underway, and then it will be entertainment after that, Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack Cafferty, like the rest of us, not invited. Jack, you're there.

I'm sure you would have loved to have gone to this dinner and had a chance to -- I don't know what you do with Queen Elizabeth II. You can't really give her a kiss or anything.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: No. Did you see that? There were two of me on that wall. How is that for frightening? Richard, let me ask you a question. It has to do with security down there. How did Mickey Rooney get anywhere near the queen of England.

QUEST: Now, let's talk about that for a moment.

CAFFERTY: Yeah. Let's do.

QUEST: Well, you see, Mickey Rooney was invited to the queen's garden party at the embassy, which as Wolf will know is a magnificent building. Leutian (ph) Mansion.

CAFFERTY: Answer my question. Is Mickey Rooney the best we could do for a celebrity to meet the queen? I mean, he didn't even know the protocol.

QUEST: You are wrong there, Jack. Once again, you've dug your own hole and you've jumped in it. The queen was delighted to meet Mickey Rooney whom she last met at the premier of "National Velvet" in 1944. Even you might remember that, Mr. Cafferty.

CAFFERTY: She probably bought tickets to the Our Gang comedies he was in, too.

BLITZER: Jack. Hold on one second. Richard, Stand by. Jack's got a question he's been asking our viewers. I want him to give our viewers a little bit of the e-mail that's been flowing in.

CAFFERTY: You want to give them these e-mails?

BLITZER: I want you to do it.

CAFFERTY: OK. Fine. When it comes down to it, would American voters elect another Republican president before they'd vote for a woman or a black?

The two leading Democratic contenders, Senator Barack Obama, Senator Hillary Clinton. Polls indicating that the country is not happy with George Bush or the Republicans. But if things don't change, it's potentially a difficult situation.

Barry in El Cajon, California. "Republicans are likely counting on your premise being true, Jack. Each days news of U.S. military deaths is going to make it harder and harder for Republicans to hold the White House while supporting a disastrous foreign and military policy. It isn't going to matter whether the Democratic nominee is green with antenna sticking out of his or her head, which is probably the way Republicans would describe a woman or a black Democratic candidate."

Greg in Lancaster, Texas. "If the Democrats want to lose the White House again, all they have to do is run Obama or Clinton. In spite of what anyone tells you in a poll, when they're in private they will vote their nature. That's what happened to Harold Ford in Tennessee who had the temerity to think that white people would actually make him a senator."

Judith in Miami. I think Obama is too black for the country to vote for him - "I don't think he's too black for the country to vote for him but I do think he's a little too green."

Chris in Houston, "If Americans are unwilling or unable to remove the party which got us into one of the worst foreign policy situations in history from the executive office simply because of prejudice at a black man or a woman than I guess America's fate may be sealed."

Roger in South Lake Tahoe, California. "Probably. I've lived in the South, West, Northeast and I've traveled extensively and find racism not necessarily linked to any region, it exists everywhere. By the way, there is plenty of prejudice against women, too. People will say one thing, then they do another."

Jerry in Ann Arbor, Michigan. "Borrowing from the David Letterman show, a recent poll asked if the USA is ready for a black president or a woman president. Seventeen percent said no. Eighty- two percent of them said, Could one of them start tomorrow?"

And Jerry in Austin, Texas. "Republicans couldn't win the next presidency against Paris Hilton and Barry Bonds."

If you didn't see your e-mail here you can go to cnn.com/caffertyfile where we post more of them online along with video clips of the "Cafferty File." Wolf?

BLITZER: I love our viewers. They are very, very clever. Jack, thanks very much. Thanks to Richard Quest as well. Richard, enjoy the party tonight.

Let's find out what's coming up right at the top of the hour. That means Paula is standing by.

PAULA ZAHN, CNN HOST: Wolf, I'm sure my mother will be thrilled you complemented her. She's one of your viewers that watches you and Jack every night.

BLITZER: I love your mom.

ZAHN: Thanks, Wolf.

Coming up at the top of the hour, you are not going to believe what one of the hottest R&B singers in the country is saying about women in his music and doing on stage. Why isn't he being held to the same standard as Don Imus?

Also, a startling CNN investigation brings horror stories about lethal injection "Out in the Open." Does it matter to you how killers die? That's all coming up at the top of the hour. Got a whole lot more than that, too. So we hope you stick around.

BLITZER: We will. Thank you, Paula, very much.

Up next here in THE SITUATION ROOM, get this. Thousands of people show up naked for a one of a kind photo op. We're going to tell you what's going on. Jeanne Moos with that. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Thousands of people showed their private parts at a public place. It's a massive exhibit that's said to be art. Our Jeanne Moos has this "Moost Unusual" story. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Big, bigger, biggest. It was the mother of all nude photo ops. Crammed into Mexico City's main square were some 18,000 naked bodies. And if you were one of them, well, it was enough to make you -- mucho nervous. And this was after he had his clothes back on.

Atop the ladder, the photographer was treated like a king by his roughly 18,000 naked subjects. But who is counting? Not Spencer Tunick.

SPENCER TUNICK, PHOTOGRAPHER: I don't work with records. I just create shapes and forms with human bodies. It's an abstraction. It's a performance.

MOOS: They linked arms, laid down, bowed down and surrounded a naked guy in a wheelchair. Photographer Spencer Tunick has come a long way. The first time we covered him he was getting arrested in New York the first time we covered him for taking pictures of a naked man named, we kid you not, Michael Wiener. Sprawled over an eight- foot Christmas ball at Rockefeller Center. His naked shoots ...

TUNICK: Come on. Hurry up. Run, run.

MOOS: Kept growing in size. Tunick insisted on stark nakedness.

TUNICK: Hey, you with the purple. What do you have your bag for, man. Come out of the shot.

MOOS: He was always rushing, trying to sneak in a few shots before the police showed up.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He just said if people get naked here, someone is going to get arrested.

MOOS: Tunick went on to shoot nudes from the Nevada desert to the Philadelphia waterfront. In front of the Louvre in Paris. Security sniffed him out with a dog. HBO did a documentary about him. He's used props ranging from grapes to guns to swordfish. Finally, in 2003, he got official permission to shoot 450 naked women in Grand Central Station.

TUNICK: Tonight is a sweet night for me because I'm not going to jail.

MOOS (on camera): And if you ever get the urge to get nude yourself you can go to spencertunick.com and sign up to participate in the next shoot. Note that you'll have to choose the color closest to your skin tone.

(voice-over): At the end of every mass nude shoot everyone yells. Tunick has gone from art outlaw to international acclaim. But whether it is 18,000 in Mexico or a few hundred in New York, clothes aren't the only thing his subjects can't wear.

TUNICK: Don't smile.

MOOS: Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York,

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: That's it for us. Let's go to Paula in New York. Paula?

TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.voxant.com

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