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THE SITUATION ROOM

Latest American Allegedly Detained in Iran; Pentagon Report on Growing Military Threat Posed by China

Aired May 25, 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:. And to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Happening now, detained in Iran -- a California man not seen or heard from in weeks.

Is this Iranian-American now being held against his will, as tension between Iran and Washington clearly ratcheting up right now?

Also, the family of a U.S. soldier missing in Iraq keeping vigil for their son and now going public with their anguish and a plea for his captors.

And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi leaving the hot spotlights here in Washington for the frigid back country of Greenland. We're going to tell you what's behind her trip.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.

You're in the in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We're getting world right now that Iran is reportedly detaining another Iranian-American. That, according to a group, the group Human Rights Watch. If confirmed, this would be the fifth dual citizen taken into custody, as tensions between Washington and Tehran increase.

CNN's Aneesh Raman is the only U.S. reporter in the Iranian capital right now. He's the only U.S. television reporter, that is.

Aneesh is joining us with the latest -- Aneesh.

ANEESH RAMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, his name is Ali Shakeri, a California businessman, and according to Human Rights Watch, the latest American to go missing in Iran.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

RAMAN (voice-over): In what's become a disturbing trend, at least five Americans are now allegedly being held in Iran.

Robert Levinson, missing since early March, is feared to be in Iranian custody, though the government here denies it.

Journalist Parnaz Azima had her passport taken in January and now cannot leave the country.

Two other Americans, including Kian Tajbakhsh, have reportedly been detained.

And then there is Haleh Esfandiari, recently imprisoned on suspicion of working to undermine the regime.

Few people in Iran will talk to us about her.

But Sadeq Zebakalam, a professor at Tehran University, did.

SADEQ ZEBAKALM, TEHRAN UNIVERSITY: I really can't understand, I cannot visualize, I cannot imagine how on earth she could have been described as someone that was involved in some plot, in some conspiracy against the Islamic state.

RAMAN: Zebakalam, who met Esfandiari twice at academic conferences, says she didn't just like Iran, she loved it. But now in Iran, Esfandiari is being interrogated and is being represented by Nobel Peace Laureate and Iranian human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi, who herself has been jailed in Iran.

SHIRIN EBADI, NOBEL PEACE LAUREATE (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): I have been imprisoned in that cell. so have my two other colleagues who are representing Haleh. This is a small room with cement walls and no windows. There is a fluorescent light that's on 24 hours.

RAMAN: The arrests are, analysts suggest, part of something bigger. It was here in Iraq in January that five Iranians were taken into U.S. military custody. The U.S. calls them nationals and claims they came to foment violence.

Iran, though, says they are diplomats and is demanding their release. The detention of Americans, Zebakalam suggests, is meant to send this message to the U.S.

ZEBAKALM: You haven't charged them, you haven't said what they were against, you haven't done -- you haven't said anything that -- what was the wrong thing that they were doing?

You're saying that you are investigating, you are investigating, you are investigating.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

RAMAN: The U.S. and Iran are set to talk in Iraq next week, but both sides are saying they do not plan to raise this issue -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Aneesh Raman reporting from Tehran for us.

We're going to check back with Aneesh.

China, meanwhile, apparently posing a direct and growing military threat to the region, at least according to some analysts. That warning coming from directly from the Pentagon, complete with examples of Beijing's considerable arsenal of what's being described as increasingly high tech weapons.

Let's go straight our senior Pentagon correspondent, Jamie McIntyre -- give us some of the specifics, Jamie, of the report.

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SENIOR PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, for those who argue that China is a growing threat, this latest Pentagon report provides a ton of ammunition.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

MCINTYRE (voice-over): China's military is transforming from an old style, grind them down army of attrition, to a modern, quick- strike, high tech adversary. One example, China's success in January in knocking its own weather satellite out of low earth orbit, which the Pentagon report concludes poses dangers to human space flight and puts at risk the assets of all space faring nations.

The 2007 report is packed with examples of China's growing military might, including a longer range mobile ICBM, called the DF- 31, which will be ready this year; development of a new Yuan class of nuclear submarines armed with updated ballistic missiles; and fresh intelligence China wants to build its own aircraft carrier.

ROBERT GATES, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: It paints a picture of a -- of a country that is -- has steadily devoted increasing resources to their military that is developing some very sophisticated capabilities.

MCINTYRE: The key question is how does China intend to flex its bigger military muscle?

That's got the Pentagon's top intelligence officer puzzled.

JAMES CLAPPER, UNDER SECRETARY OF DEFENSE FOR INTELLIGENCE: Well, you know, if I knew the answer to that, I think it's -- I think China, my personal opinion, China has -- sees itself as a world power.

MCINTYRE: One thing is clear. The report notes China has deployed its most advanced systems, including more than 900 missiles, directly across from Taiwan, which the U.S. has pledged to defend against invasion.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

MCINTYRE: What all this suggests, says the Pentagon report, is China is content to downplay its capabilities and avoid confrontation for now while it builds its military power for the future.

In other words, Wolf, what's known as keeping your powder dry.

BLITZER: And what about the U.S. missile test that was supposed to be conducted today?

What happened?

MCINTYRE: Well, it failed. that is to say, it failed to take place because the old target missile they were going to try to shoot down didn't get high enough for the interceptor to engage it.

They're going to try and reschedule that test for some time this summer.

BLITZER: All right, thank you very much.

Jamie is at the Pentagon.

Meanwhile, North Korea firing several guided short-range missiles into the Sea of Japan today. The White House, though, downplaying that incident, calling it a routine exercise. The tests come as Pyongyang and Washington are struggling to make progress on the stalled deal to dismantle North Korea's nuclear program.

Let's go to Jack Cafferty in New York for The Cafferty File -- a lot of missile tests going on -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's -- you were just reading my mind.

It's like, can't we all just get along?

It's very discouraging. Everybody is shooting things, firing things, building things. It's just a scary time.

A timeline for the pullout of U.S. troops from Iraq didn't make it into that war funding bill. You probably know that. but the option is still on the table.

President Bush said just yesterday that if Iraq asked our troops to leave the country, they would.

That could actually happen at some point. This month, the majority of the members of the Iraqi parliament signed a petition calling for a vote on the withdrawal of U.S. forces. At the moment, they can't make that happen because prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki's calling the shots and his policy has been to keep U.S. forces in Iraq in order to help stabilize the situation there.

Today, the Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, appeared in public in the city of Kufa for the first time in months. He, too, calling for U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq. Al Sadr's political group has 32 seats in Iraq's 275-member parliament and today's appearance may give new strength to opposition to Nuri Al-Maliki's policy. He's seen by some as being on thin ice anyway -- al-Maliki.

So here's the question -- if Iraq asks U.S. troops to leave, should we just pick up and go?

E-mail us, caffertyfile@cnn.com. Go to caffertyfile@cnn.com -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It's interesting, Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, the top Republican, Jack, in the Senate, couple of weeks ago I interviewed him. He said if they ask the U.S. to leave, he says we're out of there so quickly, he said, we would just leave.

And yesterday the president echoed that. He said it would be a disaster for Iraq, but if the Iraqi government, a sovereign government, asked the U.S. to leave, he said the U.S. would pull out.

CAFFERTY: Well, you know, it might be, eventually, the only -- the only way for President Bush to save face on this thing, that's to get the Iraqi government to ask us to go home. That way, it doesn't look like anybody's admitting defeat, but, rather, that we're bowing to the consensus of this new democracy that we've created in the Middle East.

Right?

BLITZER: A good question for our viewers out there to e-mail you.

CAFFERTY: All right.

BLITZER: Thanks, Jack.

Up ahead, a mother's plea for her soldier son, missing in Iraq now for almost two weeks. We're going to show you her emotional message to his captors.

Also, a fiercely anti-American Iraqi cleric. That's the Muqtada al-Sadr. We just were talking about him. He's back in the spotlight with a fiery new anti-American message.

So why does the U.S. military want to open a dialogue with him?

And the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi heading north, way north. We have details of her trip.

Stay with us.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

COMMERCIAL

BLITZER: Dire warnings of chaos in Iraq issued months before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. We're now learning new details of two intelligence reports that foreshadowed the crisis to come.

Let's go to our Congressional correspondent, Andrea Koppel.

She's joining us with details -- Andrea, what exactly did these reports warn of and who saw them?

ANDREA KOPPEL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, dozens upon dozens of policymakers saw them, Wolf. It was widely circulated throughout the administration. And it included, actually, then the deputy national security adviser, Steven Hadley.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

KOPPEL (voice-over): January, 2003 -- Saddam Hussein is still in power. The Bush administration still two months away from invading Iraq. The U.S. intelligence community sends top secret reports to dozens of policymakers, including key people responsible for briefing President Bush.

The reports include dire warnings about challenges the U.S. could face in post-war Iraq.

John McLaughlin, now a CNN contributor, was then the deputy CIA director who approved the report.

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: It says this is of highly divided society. There will be a lot of score settling. Al Qaeda will have the opportunity to take advantage of any situation that involves chaos and discontent on the part of the Iraqi population.

KOPPEL: The reports also warned a U.S. occupation of Iraq would boost proponents of political Islam and would prompt calls from Islamists to unite against the West.

CNN's Ed Henry asked President Bush about the reports Thursday and why he didn't heed the warnings.

GEORGE BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Ed, going into Iraq, we were warned about a lot of things, some of which happened, some of which didn't happen. And, obviously, I made a decision, as consequential as that, I weighed the risks and rewards of any decision.

KOPPEL: But the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, which unveiled the reports today, said the president's refusal to listen to these warnings had led to tragic consequences, for which the nation is paying a terrible price.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

KOPPEL: Now this report was not unanimously approved by the Senate Intelligence Committee. Ten Democrats supported it -- or eight Democrats plus two Republicans. Five Republicans voted against it, including the top Republican, Missouri's Kit Bond, who accused Democrats of partisanship and failing to present a balanced picture -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Andrea Koppel is watching all of this on Capitol Hill.

Meanwhile, there's no let-up in the U.S. military search for those two remaining soldiers kidnapped by militants in Iraq on May 12th. Thousands of troops maintain their relentless hunt for clues to the whereabouts of Specialists Alex Jimenez and Byron Fouty.

CNN's Arwa Damon is on the screen for us.

She's joining us with more -- Arwa.

ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, these soldiers of the 123 Stryker Battalion are just back from this mission that lasted about 10 hours. Two companies air assaulted into an area about 11 months south of Yusufiya. There, they searched fish farms and found 3,000 pounds worth of explosions and ammunition, much of it buried in 55 gallon drums. This was an intelligence-driven operation.

In a separate intelligence-driven operation, elements from the 4th Battalion 31st Infantry Regiment, along with Iraqi Army soldiers, searched the banks of the Euphrates River some two miles south of where the May 12th attack took place. They detained 22 individuals, bringing them in for further questioning.

The U.S. military is saying that they are continuing to systematically put together the pieces of the puzzle, exactly what happened that morning and where their two still missing soldiers might be -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Arwa Damon on the scene.

She's embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq, in the so-called Triangle of Death, searching for those missing soldiers.

Let's hope they're found safe and sound quickly.

While the search goes on, a world away, the family of specialist Alex Jimenez keeps vigil in hometown, Queens, New York.

Our senior correspondent, Allan Chernoff, is joining us.

He visited with them earlier -- Allan, how is this family holding up?

ALLAN CHERNOFF, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, extremely tough for the family. We can only imagine what it's like to have a child missing in action.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

CHERNOFF (voice-over): The anguish of a mother worried for her son missing in Iraq.

MARIA DURAN, JIMENEZ'S MOTHER: This is terrible. And -- and Alex is a wonderful, wonderful son.

CHERNOFF: Maria Duran's son, 25-year-old Army Specialist Alex Jimenez, has been missing in Iraq since May 12th, his father's birthday. Ramon waited all day for the birthday call that never came.

The Pentagon says Alex's unit was ambushed 20 miles south of Baghdad.

As American forces conduct an intensive search for Alex, his family and friends hold prayer vigils every day.

M. DURAN: I say, god, I put in my son your hands. You have the power. You can do everything.

CHERNOFF: When the body of a third missing soldier was found earlier this week in Iraq, Maria feared it could be her son.

M. DURAN: When I saw the tattoos, I said, god, thanks. It's not him. It's terrible.

CHERNOFF: family and neighbors describe Alex as mentally and physically tough, a man who grew up with the goal of joining the military.

MICHAEL VIAS, JIMENEZ'S NEIGHBOR: He was kind of gung-ho, you know?

CHERNOFF (on camera): He always wanted to be a soldier?

VIAS: Oh, yes.

CHERNOFF (voice-over): If Alex is being held captive, Maria Duran has a message for his kidnappers.

M. DURAN: Don't do anything bad to him. Please, please, save me my son, Alex. I miss you, Alex.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

CHERNOFF: Alex had been scheduled to return home from his second tour of duty in Iraq in August -- Wolf.

BLITZER: So what else is the family doing to try to live through this nightmare, Allan?

CHERNOFF: Well, Wolf, they have lots of support. It's a large family, but they are also quite religious. They really are putting their faith in god -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We're all praying for both of these missing soldiers.

Thanks very much for that, especially this Memorial Day weekend.

We're praying for all the U.S. military personnel serving on the front lines.

Coming up, a bombshell for viewers of "The View." we're going to have details of Rosie O'Donnell's surprise announcement. It just happened.

And will Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama pay a political price for their newest controversial votes on Iraq?

Stay with us.

You're in the in THE SITUATION ROOM.

COMMERCIAL

BLITZER: Our Carol Costello is monitoring the stories incoming to THE SITUATION ROOM right now -- Carol, what do you have?

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Lots to tell you about, Wolf.

The astronaut involved in a love triangle with disgraced fellow astronaut Lisa Nowak is leaving the space program. A Johnson Space Center spokeswoman tells us William Oefelein will leave NASA effective June 1st. Authorities say it was his romantic involvement with fellow astronaut Lisa Nowak that apparently drove her to attack a perceived rival this year. The spokeswoman says Oefelein, a Navy commander, was notified of NASA's decision on Wednesday.

And news affecting your bottom line. Finally, a break in the almost two week streak of record high gas prices. A AAA survey says today's gas prices, on average, were actually down -- .2 of a cent. Yes, have a party. Hardly noticeable this holiday weekend. Average gas prices stand at a hair over $3.22 a gallon. AAA expects more than 32 million people to hit the highways for this weekend's kickoff to the summer travel season.

Also, some less than welcome news today about the sagging U.S. real estate market. The National Association of Realtors says sales of existing home showed greater weakness than expected in April. The annual pace of existing home sales fell 2.6 percent from March. Home prices took a hit, too. The median price of a home sold in April fell $700 from the same month last year.

And more from the bottom line. Wall Street ends the week on a high note. At the close of business today, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was up 66 points, ending the week at 13,507.

The Nasdaq Composite Index climbed 19 points.

The S&P 500 was up 8.

So that's positive -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I guess it's a good way to end the week.

Thanks, Carol, for that.

Are you overwhelmed by e-mail?

Lots of us are.

Experts estimate that people worldwide send -- get this -- 25 billion e-mail messages a day. And that doesn't include junk mail. I get a lot of that, too.

Our internet reporter, Jacki Schechner, is here.

Is there a cure for e-mail overload?

JACKI SCHECHNER, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Well, Wolf, you can do one thing -- you can declare e-mail bankruptcy. That's when you clear out your in box entirely and just start all over again.

Cyber law Professor Lawrence Lessig made this popular back in 2004 and recently two businessmen have blogged about taking the plunge. One of them, Jeff Nolan, says that since he declared e-mail bankruptcy, he makes a lot for phone calls and sends a lot less e- mail. Another strategy you could take is the one that Mobi, the musician, did in September of 2006. He tried to quit e-mailing altogether for a few months, but he wasn't very successful. He checked his e-mail within a couple of days and then was back online within a couple of weeks, although he says he went back on with a little bit more restraint.

Another option is to do what the company U.S. Cellular does. They have a policy called No E-Mail Fridays. And a spokesman today told me that it's been in place for almost two years and it actually increases productivity. It forces employees to rationalize the e-mails that they send.

But all of these strategies do have their detractors. One, professor Eric Clemens of the Wharton School of Business, calls one particular strategy, the e-mail bankruptcy, lazy, theatrical and says it gives off an air of self-importance -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right.

Good advice, I guess, for a lot of people who are overwhelmed -- and a lot of us are.

Thank you.

Coming up, more attacks in Gaza, this time with -- from within Israel. We're going to tell you what's going on.

Also, the militia -- his militia, that is, is being blamed for attacks that have killed American soldiers.

So why does the U.S. want to open a dialogue with a fiercely anti-American cleric?

I'll ask the top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq.

Stay with us.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

COMMERCIAL

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

Happening right now, at least one Palestinian was killed in the latest Israeli air strikes in Gaza. Eight people were also wounded when a vehicle was struck during the assault. Israel says it was in retaliation for Palestinian rocket attacks on its territory earlier in the day. We're watching this story closely.

Further to the north, U.S. military aid has begun arriving in Lebanon. The first of several flights carrying various types of ammunition landed in Beirut today. Officials say the cargo will help the Lebanese armed forces battling an Islamic militant group up in the northern part of Lebanon, near Tripoli. And this spectacular video -- check it out -- comes from I- reporter Patricia Alex, who caught it off eastern Singapore. The water spout lasted about 15 minutes and generated calls from several areas before it hit land and then dissipated.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

He hasn't been seen in public for months -- until now. The fiercely anti-American and influential Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, reappearing at Friday prayers with a message for his followers.

CNN's Paula Hancocks is in Baghdad with details -- Paula.

PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, he's been out of the public eye for some months now, although he's still been a force to be reckoned with behind the scenes. Muqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite cleric, chose Friday prayers today to show that he's still around.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

HANCOCKS (voice-over): Muqtada al-Sadr is back in the public eye and his message hasn't changed -- America, go home.

In his first public appearance in months, the radical Shiite cleric led Friday prayers at Kufa Mosque, near the holy city of Najaf, urging Iraqis to stop fighting each other and unite against what he sees as the common enemy.

MUQTADA AL-SADR, SHIITE CLERIC (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): From time to time, we hear of clashes between ours brothers in the Mahdi Army and the brothers in the Iraqi Army and police. Pay attention. This is an important point.

As far as I know, the occupation is behind this, creating an excuse for it to stay in our beloved Iraq.

So don't give it a reason, please.

HANCOCKS: Sadr is a constant target. The security he travels with, a testament to the level of risk he takes every time he shows his face. The U.S. military claims he's been hiding in Iran since the Baghdad security crackdown kicked off in February. Sadr's aides say differently, that he's been in Iraq all along, just out of sight.

But the question is, why did al-Sadr reappear now? One suggestion is he sees a political vacuum forming in Iraq. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is struggling to keep his coalition together. Add to that, one of Sadr's major rivals, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq, is out of the country, undergoing treatment for cancer in Iran.

Al-Sadr also called for the Iraqi people and not the government to decide when the U.S. troops should leave. He knows from past experience he has the power to pour hundreds of thousands onto the streets.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

HANCOCKS: Al-Sadr could also have picked today to show the Mahdi Army that he is still the boss. Recent sectarian violence in Baghdad has been blamed on certain elements of his militia. But what the U.S. military wants to know is, is he back to stay or will he disappear again?

Wolf?

BLITZER: Paula, thank you. Paula watching this in Baghdad.

So what does the U.S. military make of al-Sadr's surprise reappearance today? And what do commanders plan to do now that he's back in the spotlight? I asked the top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, U.S. Army Major General William Caldwell.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: You want to have a dialogue with Muqtada al-Sadr, is that what you're saying?

MAJ. GEN. WILLIAM CALDWELL, MULTI-NATIONAL FORCE IRAQ: Well, we are hoping that the dialogue we have established with the Shia people here in Iraq that has been going on now for several months that has been proving very positive will continue. And that if he is going to come back, that he is coming back to help facilitate that and enhance that further.

BLITZER: Because at one point, and you well remember this early on, he was a wanted man. He was accused of having ordered the killing of American soldiers in Iraq. But that has changed. I wonder what his status is right now?

CALDWELL: Right now, he is considered like any other Iraqi citizen here in Iraq, and is back in the country, and amongst his people, and we're just hoping that he helps facilitate and continues his open discussion we have had with the Shia and doesn't hinder that.

BLITZER: It's because, when he cries out as he did today, "Death to America," that sounds like someone who is not necessarily willing to have a dialogue with the U.S.

CALDWELL: And, Wolf, that's disappointing when you hear that thing, because everybody here wants to see this country unified and moving forward. All of the Iraqi people do. And when they have somebody that tries to use a position of influence to deter that from occurring, it's just a disappointment for the Iraqi people.

BLITZER: Do you have evidence that Muqtada al-Sadr and his various militias are getting direct aid, military assistance, financial assistance from the government of Iran?

CALDWELL: What we do know, Wolf, is that the Iranian intelligence services, the Quds Force, is, in fact, both training, equipping, and funding Shia extremist groups, extremist elements of JAM here, both in Iraq and also in Iran.

BLITZER: Including Muqtada al-Sadr's militia?

CALDWELL: There are extremist elements within that, rogue elements within JAM that, in fact, are receiving that same kind of funding, training, and equipping.

BLITZER: Was there any effort to prevent him from returning from Iran into Iraq? Or was he free to go across that border?

CALDWELL: There was no attempt on our part to interfere with the movement of Iraqis back and forth across that border.

BLITZER: What can you tell us about the Iranian funding of what's called the secret cells of Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army?

CALDWELL: Well, what we do know is that these secret cells have been receiving a considerable amount of money, I mean, literally in the hundreds of thousands of dollars on a regular basis to fund their efforts both to work the kidnappings, the assassinations, and some mass murders that have gone on here in Iraq.

BLITZER: General Petraeus, the overall commander of the Multi- National Force in Iraq, has suggested that the Sadr special operations forces are getting this direct funding, the direct training from Iranians. Can you elaborate on what's going on?

CALDWELL: Yes. What we do know is that the Quds Force elements, the intelligence services over there in Iran, are, in fact, providing this funding directly to these extremist elements. I mean, they have gone so far and their overall training, Wolf, that they have helped, like the -- a raid that occurred on the governor's position down in Karbala, back in January, we know that they had built a mock facility in Iran. And, in fact, it helped conduct the training and planning over there before they came back and executed that here in Iraq.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: General Caldwell also says he can't say for certain whether al-Sadr himself is personally authorizing his militia's attacks on Iraqi and American targets. We'll watch this story closely.

Muqtada al-Sadr is a young but very influential Shiite cleric believed to have been born around 1973. His father, the Grand Ayatollah Mohammad al-Sadr, was killed by Saddam Hussein's forces back in 1999. The younger al-Sadr was accused in the 2003 murder of a rival moderate cleric, and Iraqi officials put out a warrant for his arrest. And by the year 2004, the U.S. military had its sights set on al-Sadr.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The mission of the U.S. forces is to kill or capture Muqtada al-Sadr.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: The U.S. commander in Iraq at the time, General Sanchez. But the U.S. position since then has changed, in part because of al-Sadr's influence within the Iraqi government. And American commanders now say they hope al-Sadr can facilitate the dialogue between the United States and Iraq's Shia factions. Still, today he called for death to America.

Up ahead, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama on the defensive. Will their votes on Iraq troop funding come back to haunt them? Dana Bash standing by with the story.

And the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, had some travel plans this holiday weekend. So why is she going to Greenland? Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Democratic presidential candidates Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama now on the record voting against the latest Iraq war funding bill, despite earlier pledges they wouldn't vote to cut off funds for U.S. troops. The question now: Will their votes come back to haunt them on the campaign trail? Let's bring in our congressional correspondent Dana Bash.

Dana, what kind of backlash could these two senators potentially face?

DANA BASH, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, they're already being applauded, no surprise, Wolf, from the left. MoveOn.org issued a statement as saying that they were very happy that the senators voted against funding the war. They're already being attacked from the right, Republicans saying that they were irresponsible.

It is that kind of political pickle that made both senators so skittish about saying how they would vote. It also made it so dramatic.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I), VERMONT: The yeas and nays are ordered.

DANA BASH, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Seventeen minutes into the war funding vote, nearly every senator had voted, but no sign of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, the two everyone was waiting for. Finally, Senator Obama entered the chamber.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. Obama? Mr. Obama, no.

BASH: Fifty-nine seconds later, so did Senator Clinton.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mrs. Clinton? Mrs. Clinton, no.

BASH: Both presidential candidates voted against funding the war and, for the first time, stood exactly where many Democratic primary voters want them. Cutting off funding is something both had vowed not to do.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), NEW YORK: I am not prepared to vote to cut funding to American troops.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), ILLINOIS: Democrats aren't interested in playing chicken with the troops, and we're absolutely committed to making sure that the troops have the equipment they need.

BASH: Changing their positions is sure to help in the short term with staunchly anti-war voters both need to win the '08 Democratic nomination. They're hoping it may even help in the general election, since the vast majority of Americans now oppose the war.

ANDREW KOHUT, Pew Research Center: The Democratic candidates now come closer to the way the middle of the country thinks about the war in Iraq than do Republican candidates.

BASH: Potential Republican rivals moved to test that, and it got ugly fast. Mitt Romney issued a statement saying, "Clinton and Obama's vote serve as a glaring example of an unrealistic and inexperienced worldview." John McCain called it "the height of irresponsibility."

Senator Obama fired right back at both, saying, "Romney and McCain clearly believe the course we are on in Iraq is working. I do not." Then, rapid response from McCain, mocking Obama's experience. "Two years in the U.S. Senate certainly entitle him to vote against funding our troops."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BASH: And McCain, who, of course, is a Vietnam veteran, finished off his missive at Obama, saying that Obama spelled flak in flak jacket wrong in his press release. He said, "By the way, Senator Obama, it's F-L-A-K jacket, not F-L-A-C-K jacket."

For the record, Wolf, we looked it up in both Webster's and American Heritage. It apparently can be spelled both ways.

BLITZER: Thank you, Dana, for that, clarifying that point, Dana Bash on the Hill.

Meanwhile, the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, is leading a delegation this weekend to one of the iciest countries on the planet to learn about global warming. CNN's Kathleen Koch is joining us with more on this.

What's the House speaker up to, Kathleen?

KATHLEEN KOCH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, since becoming speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi has been getting increasingly involved in world affairs. Her most recent trip was focused on diplomacy; this one, literally, on saving the planet.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) KOCH (voice-over): When it comes to her congressional holiday recess, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is going from the frying pan into the freezer. Her last holiday break in the Middle East drew heated condemnation for her controversial visit with Syria's president.

Now Pelosi and other House members will be cooing their heels on the ice-covered island of Greenland. First stop for the group: a research station camped out on a massive ice sheet. Their host, a Swiss camp, told us via satellite phone that the lawmakers will get plenty of help dealing with the frigid weather.

KONRAD STEFFEN, DIRECTOR OF CIRES: They do get parkas; they do get (INAUDIBLE) boots, special boots for the snow, and big trousers, certainly big mittens, and big hats.

KOCH: It is so cold, the group could get snowed in on the ice sheet.

STEFFEN: In case of emergency, we are prepared to host them overnight. I will prefer this is not the case, but we have very good food. We have enough expresso to keep them awake.

KOCH: And there will be a dozen sleeping bags on hand in case they doze off. Pelosi's delegation is visiting Greenland to see firsthand the effects of the Earth's rising temperatures on the ice sheets.

BRENDA EKWURZEL, Union of Concerned Scientists: If you want to go and find where global warming, the impacts of global warming are happening on the ground in a dramatic way, a trip to Greenland is certainly at the top of anyone's list.

KOCH: Professor Steffen says his visitors will witness some dramatic scenes.

STEFFEN: The whole region is broken up. It's like a big chaos. Currently, the ice that is dropping into the fjords every day is approximately the volume of fresh water that the city of New York uses over one year.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KOCH: After their visit to Greenland, Pelosi and members of the Select Committee on Global Warming head to Europe to meet with government leaders in London, Germany and Brussels. The trip is laying the groundwork for a major energy bill Pelosi wants to introduce in the House before July 4th -- Wolf?

BLITZER: Kathleen Koch reporting.

Let's get a little bit more now on Greenland. It's the largest non-continental island in the world. The world's largest island by far, Australia. Greenland, which is 80 percent ice-covered, contains 10 percent of the world's total fresh water reserves. And if the entire giant ice sheet that covers Greenland were to melt, scientists say sea levels could rise up to 23 feet. If that worst-case scenario ever happened, hundreds of millions of people around the world would be displaced.

Up ahead, what if the country turned its back on the nation's high school students? It's happening. There's a crisis. It could cost all of us billions of dollars. We're watching this story.

And in our 7:00 p.m. Eastern hour, shocking evidence of Iran's involvement in horrific plots against U.S. troops in Iraq. The U.S. military says it has this evidence, going to share it with us. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Is there an education crisis in the United States? With the growing number of young people turning their backs on school, if there isn't now, there could be, and soon.

And joining us now, our special correspondent, Frank Sesno, for this week's "What If" segment? Frank, what's going on?

FRANK SESNO, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, what if I told you that every 29 seconds in this country, one of our teenagers gives up and drops out of high school? A million kids a year. There's a Web site you can go to now to look at exactly what's happening, district by district, school by school, so we thought we'd do that for the last three presidents who went to public school.

First stop, Arkansas. Hot Springs, that's where Bill Clinton went to school. In his district now, 51.6 percent graduation rate. It means that half the kids, nearly half the kids, are dropping out.

If we go to Dixon, Illinois, that's where Ronald Reagan went to high school, rural community. You see it still is. In that district today, 73.7 percent are actually finishing school, more than a quarter dropping out. Or down to Georgia, where Jimmy Carter went to school, not a very wealthy area, peanut country. Nonetheless, look today, what's happening there, 48.6 percent of the kids are graduating. That means more than half are dropping out.

In America, in 2007...

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SESNO (voice-over): Nationwide, 30 percent of our kids are dropping out of high school. Among minorities, half are falling through the cracks. What if we don't fix this epidemic? We all lose, one estimate, $45 billion a year in lost tax revenues and additional social services and law enforcement costs.

Drop-outs earn less, an average of $9,200 a year less than high school graduates, and they're eight times more likely to end up in jail, far more likely to raise their children in poverty.

Seventeen-year-old Joshua Carter saw it early on. Of the 22 students in his sixth-grade class...

JOSHUA CARTER, STUDENT: Seven or eight are still in school. SESNO: Seven or eight still in, out of 22. We meet Joshua at a Boys and Girls Club in Washington, D.C., a refuge. He's still in school, a high school junior now, thanks to one especially motivational teacher, this place, and his own ambitions.

CARTER: I always wanted to be an engineer.

SESNO: Joshua knows that, in America's failing schools, dreams die fast.

CARTER: I've been teased about going to school. I shrug it off.

SESNO: Surveys show most drop-outs don't shrug it off. They quit because they're bored or fall too far behind. But most regret dropping out and believe they could have finished if classes were more engaging and if they'd had extra help. Those are among the changes school reformers are trying to make.

What if we get it right? We could have a million Joshua Carters every year.

CARTER: I know I'm going to be successful. I know that, whatever I do, my drive and my passion is not going to steer me over to the wrong road.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SESNO: Joshua Carter is an inspiration, Wolf, but in two many places, he's the exception, not the rule.

Back to the math for a minute again. Look at some other cities. Detroit, 21 percent graduation rate; New York, 38.9 percent; Baltimore, 38.5 percent.

But this problem has become a subject of a major national drive. And you can go online and see what's happening, and also check out your own school. Go to silentepidemic.org. Up in the right-hand corner there, you can check your own graduation rate. If you click on that, what will come up is a map you put your town in, your ZIP code, whatever, and you can see how your school is doing year by year, actually, and read a whole bunch of other stuff on what's happening to turn this problem around.

BLITZER: This is a national scandal, and something's got to be done about it.

SESNO: It's an outrage, and it's got to change, because we are losing these kids and, in two many cases, forever.

BLITZER: Frank Sesno, thanks very much.

SESNO: You bet.

BLITZER: And up next, the surprise announcement involving the always-controversial Rosie O'Donnell. Carol Costello standing by with that. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Check back with Carol. She's got a story involving Rosie O'Donnell -- Carol?

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: I certainly do, Wolf. Rosie O'Donnell leaving "The View" immediately in the wake of this on-air blowup with co-host Elizabeth Hasselbeck.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROSIE O'DONNELL, HOST, "THE VIEW": Let me tell you why I don't want to do it, because here's how it gets spun in the media. Rosie, big, fat, lesbian, loud Rosie, attacks innocent, pure, Christian Elisabeth. And I'm not doing it...

(CROSSTALK)

O'DONNELL: ... do you believe I think our troops are terrorists, Elisabeth, yes or no?

HASSELBECK: I don't think...

O'DONNELL: Do you believe that, yes or no?

HASSELBECK: Excuse me, let me speak.

O'DONNELL: You're going to double speak. It's just a yes or a no.

HASSELBECK: I am not a double-speaker, and I don't put suggestions out there that lead people to think things and then not answer my own question.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COSTELLO: It was something, wasn't it? O'Donnell was supposed to stay with "The View" for three more weeks. In a statement just released, O'Donnell says, quote, "I am extremely grateful. It's been an amazing year, and I love all three women" -- Wolf?

BLITZER: Thank you, Carol, for that update.

Like so many young Americans, they've dreamed of growing up to be president, they still do, but what if the White House hopefuls had to choose another career? In the last hour, we heard some Democrats' response to that question asked by the Associated Press. Let's get some Republicans now.

Senator Sam Brownback would be true to his Kansas roots, opting to be a farmer. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani says he'd like to be a sports announcer. Sounds like fun. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee has wilder ambitions. He'd like to play bass guitar on tour with a rock band. He likes Evanescence, I'm told. And Congressman Tom Tancredo of Colorado apparently refuses to imagine any job opportunities than the one he's running for right now, and that would be president of the United States.

Let's go back to Jack Cafferty in New York, who would have been a doctor if he hadn't become a journalist.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: True. And the other thing is, I don't remember the last time I woke up in the morning wondering what Rosie O'Donnell was going to do with the rest of her life.

Our question this hour is: If Iraq asks troops to leave, should we just pack up and go?

Dann in Vancouver, British Columbia, writes, "The president should be praying every day Iraq asks the U.S. troops to leave. It might be the only exit strategy he can realistically hope for before he leaves office and drags the entire Republican Party into oblivion with him."

Mookie in Georgia, "Jack, I think we should assess the situation before we decide to leave, even if Iraq asks us to. If it's not prudent to leave, then we shouldn't. Our own situation in the Middle East rides on Iraq, and concerns of the Iraqi government should not get in the way of our national security."

Khat's Dad in Arkansas: "Yes, and let it be before my daughter has to go back."

Bruce in Indiana: "President Bush has said, if Iraq asks us to leave, we will, absolutely, quotes the president. Has he lied to us yet?"

Tom in Dana Point, California: "If Iraq asks us to leave, our troops shouldn't even take the time to tie their shoelaces."

Jorge, Mission, Texas: "Let me ask you, Jack. If you were not invited to someone's home, stayed there for five years, basically tore the place apart, and they asked you to leave, would you stay?"

Andrea in Toronto: "Of course, they should leave, if asked. But given the amount of money the U.S. government's pouring into Iraq for both the war and to prop up their surrogate government every month within any accountability to the American people, is anyone naive enough to think it's going to happen anytime soon? I think not."

And Rick and Paul in Pennsylvania: "Just slip out the back, Jack. For the new plan, Stan. No WMD, see. Just get our boys free. There must 50 ways to say it's over."

If you didn't see your e-mail here, you can go to CNN.com/CaffertyFile. We post more of them online, along with video clips of "The Cafferty File" -- Wolf?

BLITZER: See you in an hour, Jack.

And to our viewers, remember, we're here in THE SITUATION ROOM weekday afternoons for two hours, from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. Eastern. Then we're back in one hour for another hour at 7:00 p.m. Lots more news coming up tonight. Until then, thanks for watching.

In the meantime, let's go to LOU DOBBS TONIGHT. That starts right now.

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