TSR: More reaction to the Sheik's death & preparation for the president's speech

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SUZANNE MALVEAUX: As President Bush touts success against enemies in Iraq, a tragedy shows terrorists are still successful in their deadly goals. In Iraq, a key Sunni sheikh was assassinated by a roadside bomb. He had worked with the United States to fight al Qaeda in the Anbar Province and the White House believes Al Qaeda exacted revenge, blaming the group for his death.

President Bush met with the sheikh just 10 days ago, during his Iraq trip.

Our CNN's Michael Ware is in Baghdad -- Michael, the administration is calling it this unfortunate and outrageous act here. This seems to me -- it seems like it would definitely show the administration, however, that it's vulnerable in some ways, that it's dangerous to do business with -- the business of the United States.

MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, this is the situation, Suzanne -- welcome to Iraq. If you trade with the occupier, as the Americans are fairly and squarely seen here, then you are taking certain inherent risks. And that's on the Sunni and Shia divide of this war. I mean, this is why translators who work for the Americans are being executed in their homes.

Now, today's assassination of Sheikh Sattar Abu Reesha -- he was the head of what's known as the Anbar Salvation Council. This is the front that was founded last year by a U.S. Army brigade, harnessing the energy of these small tribes, plucking Sheikh Sattar from obscurity -- I mean he's really not a big player out in Western Iraq -- and using him as the catalyst to bring in the Baathist insurgents, those who commanded Saddam's army and intelligence apparatus, to try and get them to come in, join the fight not only against Al Qaeda, but also to pressure the Maliki government, which is dragging its feet and is against reconciliation and to use them as a hedge against Iran.

Now, no one has claimed responsibility for this afternoon's roadside bomb assassination. It could be inter-factional fighting or it could be a tribal dispute. However, for now, it bears all of the hallmarks of Al Qaeda in Iraq. They have been slaughtering these sheikhs and anyone involved in this program. There's been an endless raft of assassination. They have used car bombs, bus bombs, suicide chest vest bombers, even chlorine gas bombs to strike at these tribes and Sunni insurgents working with the Americans.

Sheikh Sattar was only the cosmetic face, a symbolic figure and his death, though tragic, I do not think, will arrest the momentum that we now see. The Sunni insurgents have the Americans at the negotiating table where they want them. The Americans have the Sunnis helping them with Al Qaeda and with Iran.

I don't think it's in anyone's interests right now to see that roll back. No one's interests, except, perhaps, Tehran -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Well, Michael, what does this mean, though, for the administration?

They keep touting Anbar Province as this model of success here. They've got the U.S. troops working with these local sheikhs here against Al Qaeda.

Is this really a threat to that alliance?

What does this really say about this kind of success?

Is it really -- is it being overstated by the Bush administration?

WARE: No, it's not being overstated. I mean this is something that -- listen, Suzanne, to be honest, the Baathists offered the Bush administration this almost precise deal back in 2003. These guys do not like Al Qaeda. But the enemy of my enemy is my friend. They said, "We hate Al Qaeda. We hate Iran. We used to be allies. We're willing to normalize relations. Bring us into the fold." And the ideologues who were running the occupation back in 2003 refused.

So we've seen four years of bloodletting to get to this point. Now, once the Americans finally came around and accepted the Baathists' offer, it has been a success. It still is. And it will continue to be so. I mean these Sunni insurgents who are now working with America, assassinating Al Qaeda where they sleep, they're not just going to give up all of a sudden.

MALVEAUX: And Michael...

WARE: Sheikh Sattar was not their boss.

MALVEAUX: Put this in a bigger context.

Is this the exception or is this the rule here when you talk about Anbar Province and the progress that's being made?

Because, obviously, it's Sunni against Sunni. There's not Sunni and Shia the way we see in the rest of the country, the sectarian violence.

Can this model be replicated elsewhere?

WARE: No. Well, the model is spreading. We're seeing it now being tinkered with in Diyala Province, just a little bit to the north of the capital here, a much more complex environment, where you have Sunni and Shia and Kurds mixed in. We're also seeing it work, to some greater effect, in other almost purely Sunni provinces.

Now you can't just transplant this model. This is not the Bush administration's key to a golden success. However, the principle, the concept, can be applied. Essentially, this is harnessing Iraqi secular nationalists -- the people the Bush administration abandoned almost four-and-a-half years ago. So to the south, this could still work in Shia areas if they look to the tribes to oust the Islamic parties -- the Shia version of Al Qaeda -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Michael Ware, thank you so much.

Michael Ware in Baghdad.

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WOLF BLITZER: As the president prepares to deliver his important message on Iraq, insurgents had a devastating message of their own today. The White House says it believes al Qaeda in Iraq is to blame for the assassination of a prominent Sunni sheik, who supported the fight against al Qaeda.

It calls the death of Sheik Abdul Sattir Abu Risha an unfortunate and outrageous act. He was targeted in a bombing in Anbar Province 10 days after he took part in a meeting there with President Bush. CNN's Michael Ware has been on the ground in Iraq since the beginning of this war.

All along, he's brought all of us the most direct, the clearest picture of what is really happening on the ground. He is joining us tonight from Baghdad. Michael, let's talk a little bit first of all about the assassination of this sheik. This is a significant development and it does send a powerful message to everyone.

MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It does. I mean this is -- you know, let me say from the outset, Wolf, there has been no claim of responsibility. We can't rule out this is interfactional or intertribal fighting; however, right now the hallmarks do bear the signature of al Qaeda in Iraq. They have been assassinating any sheik, any insurgent leader who is prepared to work with the occupation, the U.S. forces. Sheik Sattir has been the public face of that.

Many people believe this was only an unfortunate matter of time, his tragic assassination. He was killed this afternoon by a bomb planted right outside his house. Now what we see is that he is the cosmetic face. He is what America has plucked from obscurity about a year ago and put forward as this movement, to bring in the Sunni Baath insurgency.

And that has succeeded, not just against al Qaeda, but with the Iraqi government and against Iran. But his death is not going to change anything as sad and as tragic it is. It's a symbolic strike. Yes, it's a real statement, 10 days after shaking hands with President Bush, but I really don't think it's going to arrest the momentum that has been built up behind the Sunni insurgency now aligning with the U.S. forces -- Wolf.

BLITZER: When we listen to you, Michael, as we have over these past four years since this war started, we went through today some of your assessments over these years, your conversations with me here in THE SITUATION ROOM. I want to play a few clips of what you said during this period. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP -- October 26, 2006)

WARE: There was much talk early on in the mission about achieving set numbers for the Iraqi security force, expecting a trained and equipped 300-plus thousand would be able to handle the situation. Well, we're now within a whisper of achieving that number, and the situation remains a disaster.


(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP -- January 25, 2007)

While we see an influx or as the administration calls it a surge of American troops into Baghdad, that's going to change the nature of the battle in the capital. Will it destroy the enemy? No. It may displace the enemy or force them to adapt and change their tactics.


(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP -- July 2, 2007)

General Petraeus is going to have a big mix of conflicting data. He is not going to deliver a miracle. The best he can say is, we see signs it could work, give us more time.


BLITZER: All right. Tonight, the president will say that by next summer, 30,000 U.S. troops will be back home, bringing it down from 160's down to the 130's. What will that do to the insurgency, Michael?

WARE: Not a great deal at all, Wolf. I mean, we're returning to status quo. Let's face facts. I mean, President Bush's address tonight is all about formality, isn't it? I mean, we have heard from General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker. President Bush is going to endorse their recommendations. Simply, this is a return to a situation that any pragmatist before the surge pretty much knew we were going to end up with.

You know, I've said it before, I've said it again. Even if America wants to leave Iraq, I'm sorry folks, it cannot. There actually are consequences to invading this country and upsetting the power balance here in the Middle East and you're now going to have to pay for them. And that's going to involve a significant American presence in this country for the foreseeable future, no matter which way you break it down.

So what we're now hearing is the president endorsing a policy that essentially says, okay, we started with 130,000-odd troops. We surged with 30,000. Let's face facts. The surge wasn't the success it was planned to be. But it did turn out to be a success, there was success in areas that were not expected.

They're now cashing in those chips, capitalizing on that success, and that means that even though they don't have the money or the troops to support the surge anyway, they can at least let it peter out. And return to what we had before. The same before that wasn't containing al Qaeda, that wasn't blocking Iran, and wasn't bringing this country to any kind of stability nor was it stabilizing the region. I don't think that that's going to change, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Michael, stand by. You're going to be with us as we continue to go toward the president's address to the nation tonight -- Michael Ware reporting, as he always does, from Baghdad.

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WOLF BLITZER: CNN's Michael Ware has been on the ground in Iraq since the beginning of the war. All along, he's brought us a direct and clear picture of what's really happening on the ground.

He's joining us once again from Baghdad.

Give us your reaction. When you hear the president making those statements over these past four years, and you have been in Iraq all of this time, what goes through your mind, Michael?

MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's a tough question, Wolf.

The first thing that goes through my mind is that I just know this war is not going anywhere. And this administration has either been fooling itself or it's been fooling the American public, or perhaps a mix of both, from the beginning. The horror is going to continue.

And America has committed itself by the invasion and the astronomical blunders of the first years of this war to a course of action from which, I'm sorry, it can't shy away. This is an al Qaeda blooding ground and training ground, whether you like it or not. It was not before. They might be under pressure, but this is an organization that lives for pressure.

This is now territory of expanded Iranian influence. And this, as Ambassador Crocker and the prime minister of this country himself both accept, is a failed state. You have, according to American intelligence, proxy wars being fought here. And now people want to just walk away? I'm sorry. It doesn't work like that.

And nothing that the president is saying comes as a surprise to me, and all that adds up to me is that the horror will continue -- Wolf.

BLITZER: You have met with these insurgents who are fighting U.S. troops, the Iraqi troops. How are they going to react when they hear that 30,000 American troops will be out by next summer, bringing the number from 160,000-odd down to 130,000-odd number of U.S. troops in Iraq? What will the insurgents do in reaction?

WARE: Wolf, I don't think they will blink an eye. To be honest, like you and I have discussed before, this is merely a return to the status quo. The insurgents know this territory. They know what it's like to have only 130,000 U.S. troops here. They know what it's like to have a crippled, sectarian, corrupt, killing, failing Iraqi security force.

They know what it's like to have a dismal state. They know what it's like to have foreign backers. They know what it's like to be countering Iran, or, if they're Shia militias, working with Iran, against U.S. interests.

This is something they will be most comfortable with, most ready for. And as we have seen time and time and time again, this conflict, like all others, simply transforms, mutates, redefines itself, and the insurgents will just continue doing that until this is over -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Michael Ware, don't leave. We're going to be watching this speech together, and you're going to be here in THE SITUATION ROOM with us.

Michael Ware is our man in Baghdad.