Michael Ware


NR: Presidential news conference

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TONY HARRIS: President Bush about to head to the podium. Mounting questions topping the list.

New developments out of Iraq, nagging questions about Iran and increasingly hostile turf on Capitol Hill.

HEIDI COLLINS: We are covering all the angles this morning with the best political team in television. You see them there: at the White House, Elaine Quijano in Washington, Andrea Koppel, Barbara Starr is at the Pentagon, and Michael Ware joining us now from Baghdad.

HARRIS: And let's take you to Baghdad now and Michael Ware.

And, Michael, a couple of things with you. First of all, Barbara Starr is expecting to hear from the president, according to her sources, that the president is going to back away from the most explosive charges from this administration over the weekend, that being that Iran, is at the highest level of the government, is involved in supplying these EFPs to Iraqi insurgents.

Now, if you would, paint a broader context of this story based on your reporting from as far back as two years ago.

MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, essentially, what we're talking about here is if this is, in fact, the case and President Bush does pull back from the rhetorical brink, then what he'll be doing is betraying not only the reality on the ground as American forces here see it, but also the body of knowledge that American intelligence currently possesses.

Essentially, what has been happening here in the war in Iraq since the invasion is that the Iranian armed forces and the regime in Tehran were primed and ready to take advantage of the vacuum that the removal of Saddam would create.

Now, to do this, they had many tools at their disposal. For decades they have been fighting Saddam, giving shelter to hundreds and thousands of Shia Iraqis.

Now, from this ex-pat community they formed military brigades. They formed surveillance networks, reconnaissance teams, assassination networks, sabotage crews. When the Brits and the Americans advanced, removed Saddam, these teams were put to work. They seized political power. They seized ground in the south.

We have seen them take the central government, essentially, to now there's a point where Tehran has more sway with the government, an ally of the U.S. here in Baghdad, than Washington does.

So this is something that clearly has been plaguing the U.S. mission and obviously something has happened since this briefing and the president wants to back away, if we're what we're being told is correct.

HARRIS: Okay, and Michael, you have spent as much time there as anyone covering this war. Why would the president want to back away now, if that is, in fact, what happens? And we'll find out shortly in this news conference.

Why would the president want to back away from claims, from a case it has been building for quite some time now?

WARE: Well, it's very, very hard to say. I mean, it's just a matter of pure speculation. Either the administration may feel that what it was seeking has been achieved. They have sought undertaking or some kind of assurance that they've pursued.

Who knows? Perhaps they feel that they don't want to escalate this campaign of rhetoric and accusation that's been underway for some time.

It's anyone's guess. But what's clear is that U.S. intelligence knows that the Iranian special forces and intelligence community has been waging a shadow proxy war against not only American interests in this country, but against American soldiers.

American soldiers have been dying as a result of the training, assistance and financing of Iranian special forces.

There's a lot at stake here. There's diplomatic levels, military levels, economic levels. Goodness knows which way the president can take this.

HARRIS: Michael, appreciate that insight. We'll ask you to stand by. We will talk to you, of course, again after the president's news conference.


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DON LEMON: Now to Iraq. He's blamed for some of the worst sectarian violence in Iraq. Now comes word that radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr may not be in Iraq any more.

CNN's Michael Ware has that story for us.


MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Has one of the most powerful men in Iraq fled the country? And if he has, does it matter?

According to U.S. military intelligence, the powerful anti-American rebel cleric Muqtada al Sadr has left Iraq for neighboring Iran. According to White House sources, it is said that he is fleeing an American crackdown on his formidable Mahdi Army militia, which in many ways dominates the streets of the capital of Baghdad and is behind many of the sectarian killings.

Muqtada also heads a powerful political faction in the burgeoning Iraqi Parliament that put the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki into power. Muqtada's political party and his militia both insist the cleric remains in the country. However, he has yet to make an appearance.

Even if he has left Iraq, the question remains whether he would still be able to maintain command and control both over his political and military factions or whether it would break apart into rogue elements.

Either way, observers here on the ground suggest if he has left Iraq for fear of his security, it is not in the face of an American offensive, but most likely in the face of internal factional fighting.

Michael Ware, CNN, Baghdad.