Week in Review: Iraq, Lebanon, Castro's Health

The week's news highlights include U.S. generals' view that Iraq is headed for civil war; more fighting between Israel and Hezbollah, including a strike on Canna, Lebanon, that killed more than two dozen civilians; Castro's health; and a something-for-everyone bill fails on Capitol Hill.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): General Pace, you said there's a possibility of the situation in Iraq evolving into civil war. Is that correct?

General PETER PACE (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff): I did say that. Yes, sir.

Senator MCCAIN: Did you anticipate this situation a year ago?

Gen. PACE: No, sir.

SIMON: That was U.S. Marine General Peter Pace, the commander of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in an exchange with Senator John McCain on Thursday. He and Army General John Abizaid gave a formal appraisal of the situation in Iraq to the Senate Arms Services Committee. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld was also present at those hearings.

NPR's senior news analyst Dan Schorr joins us.

Hello, Dan.

DANIEL SCHORR reporting:

Hi, Scott.

SIMON: And General Abizaid had told the same Senate panel in March that Iraq was a long way from civil war.

SCHORR: Mm-hmm.

SIMON: Now, he and General Pace are back telling them that the situation is much worse than they thought it would be six months ago.

SCHORR: Of course it is.

SIMON: Is it the situation alone that has changed? Or is the way the administration sees the situation also changed?

SCHORR: Oh, I'm not sure it's the way that the administration sees it. I think it is the way that the military sees it. They're not saying that because they enjoy saying it. They're saying it because they do actually represent the armed forces and they want some consideration for the armed forces. When you hear like Tom Friedman in the New York Times saying people are beginning to think we shouldn't be throwing good American lives after good American lives, we're beginning to see a real change there.

There's a growing sense that where Iraq is headed towards is towards a three-way split with Shiites and Kurds and Sunni Muslims, which could end up as a partition of the country, is what some people are beginning to say.

SIMON: Prime Minister al-Maliki said this week that he thought that Iraqi troops could begin to take over all security operations by the end of the year. And yet there do not seem to be, after this week's testimony, a lot of American office holders saying that U.S. troops will be gone by the end of the year.

SCHORR: That's right. Well, for one thing, you know, they say at least we can protect the capital, Baghdad. And they shifted some troops from other parts of Iraq, so at least they would have in Baghdad a real functioning government. They're not even quite sure of that. There continued to be a great deal of fighting in the capital. More and more people get killed. And there's a question of how long? How far?

SIMON: Fighting and violence continued this week in Lebanon. Hezbollah rockets rained down on northern Israel, progressively deeper into the country. Israeli air strikes continued and ground forces deeper into southern Lebanon. Certainly the event that probably got the most attention was the air strike in the village of Qana, Lebanon...

SCHORR: Yes.

SIMON: ...in which it was determined by the end of the week, 28 people, more than half of them children, died. Israel said that Hezbollah had fired rockets from a position nearby. The governments of Saudi Arabia and Egypt have joined the call for a cease-fire.

SCHORR: Mm-hmm.

SIMON: At first, they had been critical of Hezbollah. Has there been a shift in public opinion in the Arab world?

SCHORR: Well, in the Arab world, of course. The Arab world has solidly lined up behind Hezbollah in a situation like this. As to who else is behind them, we don't know. The United States is trying very hard, through Condoleeza Rice, the Secretary of State, to negotiate some viable truce, some viable cease-fire, meaning one that will not blow up two weeks after you've gone into it. And that makes it very difficult to figure out what next.

The United States and Israeli position is, cease-fire yes, sustainable cease-fire. What does sustainable mean? Sustainable means that it isn't going to simply collapse in the first few weeks. You've got to send a stabilization force to take our place southern Lebanon.

SIMON: Now, Secretary Rice was all set to visit Lebanon then the Qana bombing occurred.

SCHORR: Right.

SIMON: And she was, according to reports, told that she was no longer welcomed in Lebanon. Does the U.S. have leverage?

SCHORR: Yes. The U.S. has leverage, along with Britain. And they're exercising it now with some help from the French, I must say, in trying to get one or maybe two resolutions to be able to change the situation. Incidentally, there's a CNN poll that indicates 59% approval rating for Secretary Rice, as opposed to 40% for the president.

SIMON: In Cuba this week, President Fidel Castro temporarily transferred power to his brother, Raul Castro, who's also the defense minister, after it was announced that Mr. Castro would undergo intestinal surgery.

SCHORR: Mm-hmm.

SIMON: I believe our latest report is that the surgery has taken place. What does this portend at this particular point - this change of leadership?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SCHORR: Beats me. The whole world, including the world of Cuba, wants to know after Castro, what? His brother Raul, who's in charge of the army, who's in charge of intelligence, clearly has a lot of power. No one knows how he'll exercise it. Will the time come for Cuba to try to re-enter the nations of the world? Another CNN poll indicated that two to one Americans want to see resumed relations with Cuba.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

SCHORR: Which is very interesting.

SIMON: Also, you're in some position to know that people can continue to be vigorous and do their jobs until the age of 90, aren't you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SCHORR: More or less, yes.

SIMON: Senate Republicans failed to get the votes they needed to pass a bill that would have combined a cut in the estate tax with an increase in minimum wage...

SCHORR: Right.

SIMON: ...from $5.15 an hour to $7.25 over three years.

SCHORR: Right.

SIMON: Now, this is one of those bills that was put together to have something for everyone.

SCHORR: Exactly.

SIMON: But Democrats overwhelmingly voted against it. What happened?

SCHORR: What happened was that the Democrats are taking a certain risk. They were told you want to get an increase in the minimum wage for your people, then give us what we want for our people, which is a decrease in estate taxes.

Somewhat surprisingly, I guess, the Democrats say no, we're not going to buy it on those terms, and believe they can possibly campaign issue of it by going and saying the reason that you couldn't get an increase in the minimum wage is that they wanted, first of all, to decrease taxes for the very rich. And they think they may have a campaign slogan there. We'll find out.

SIMON: Hmm. This sounds like a naïve question. But sometimes you learn a lot by asking naïve questions. How much congressional legislation is influenced by the onset of elections in November?

SCHORR: You mean what factor of 101 to 100%?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SCHORR: Somewhere in that range. I mean we get our legislation enacted by a Congress which is elected. And when they come up towards election, they do strange things because they think it'd be nice to be elected again. And that accounts - aside for what you'll get from lobbyists - which goes on all the time - you get a special drive saying we got to pass something, or look as though we haven't pass something, for the bad guys on the other side wouldn't let us. Does that help?

SIMON: Yes. I think so. Thank you. You cleared it up nicely. Dan, hot enough for you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: There's an original question. But people have been asking it all over the country this week.

SCHORR: The answer is very simple. Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Thanks very much, Dan Schorr. It takes a senior news analyst to say that?

SCHORR: It takes an anchorperson like you to ask that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

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