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Fight for Iraq; Eric Cantor Loses; World Cup Set to Begin

Aired June 11, 2014 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: The survival of a country where thousands of Americans fought and died may now be in danger.

Plus, the House majority leader, Eric Cantor, speaking out about his jaw-dropping primary defeat and what it means for his party. Now we will hear from the professor and the political newcomer who ousted him.

And a security crackdown in Brazil just hours before the opening match of the World Cup. We're following the fears, as well as the rabid fans who can't wait for the start of the games.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Right now, hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing for their lives, as some of the most feared terrorists in the world capture yet another major city in Iraq. Even government troops, they're on the run. They're withdrawing from territory seized by an Islamist group that even al Qaeda views as too ruthless.

Iraq's future is now at risk along with the legacy of America's long and costly war there.

Let's get the latest from our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto -- Jim.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: You know, Wolf, during the U.S. invasion of Iraq, I was in Mosul, in Tikrit, these other northern cities, as they fell to U.S. forces.

And to see them now fall into the hands of Islamic militants, just alarming. ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, is considered too brutal even for al Qaeda, and now this group controls large parts both of Syria and Iraq.


SCIUTTO (voice-over): This is Iraq, 11 years after the U.S. invasions, three years after the U.S. withdrawal, and now in a state of crisis.

After capturing Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, Islamic militants are boldly pushing on, taking over Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, the oil refining town of Baji, and nearing the capital, Baghdad. Iraqi security forces following years of training and billions of

dollars in weaponry from the U.S. have melted away, leaving checkpoints unmanned and stripping themselves of their uniforms, their American-supplied Humvees, claim militant Web sites, now in the hands of al Qaeda-tied terrorists.

Today, Iraq's foreign minister said his country's very survival is at stake.

HOSHYAR ZEBARI, IRAQI FOREIGN MINISTER: I hope this incident really will lead all Iraqi leaders to come together to face this serious, mortal threat to the country.

SCIUTTO: U.S. officials say there are early signs of Iraqi Kurds coming together with government forces to respond to the attacks, and today National Security Adviser Susan Rice said the U.S. will provide support under its strategic framework agreement with Iraq.

SUSAN RICE, U.S. NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: We must do more to strengthen our partner's capacity to defeat the terrorist threat on their home turf by providing them the necessary training, equipment, and support.

SCIUTTO: Former U.S. Ambassador to Baghdad Jim Jeffrey, says Washington must urgently do more including providing air support to attack the militants.

JAMES JEFFREY, FORMER U.S. DEPUTY CHIEF OF MISSION: This is no longer a messy situation. This is a catastrophe for the people of Iraq, for American policy and for the entire region. This is an extremely dangerous situation. It appears that no force can stop these people.


SCIUTTO: U.S. help for now has been limited to training and arms sales, including F-16 and Apache helicopters, both recently approved, but not yet delivered, things that would certainly be very useful in pushing back ISIS advances.

I asked the White House and Pentagon today about how the U.S. will respond with the situation deteriorating rapidly. Here's what NSC spokesperson Bernadette Meehan told me. She said: "We have expedited shipments of military equipment since the beginning of the year and expanded our training programs both inside Iraq and in Jordan."

Speaking to officials, they say that are now considering other options. They won't say what those options are, but you get a sense that they're watching the situation extremely closely. They're very concerned.

BLITZER: Yes, these cities are falling, Fallujah, Tikrit, as you point out, Mosul, a city of two million people. Half-a-million people have now fled.

And Nouri al-Maliki, the Shiite leader, the prime minister of Iraq, he is suggesting that Iraqi Sunni soldiers, they're taking off their uniforms. He says there's a conspiracy and they are fleeing.

SCIUTTO: Well, it's a damning charge. U.S. officials say there's no evidence of a conspiracy specifically, but here's the thing. The Iraqi military was meant to be a unifying force for Iraq to bring together the Kurds in the north, the Shias in the South, the Sunnis in the west, to be something of an identity for the country.

So far, that hasn't borne out. There are, though, some positive signs now. You hear Shiites in the south promising forces to respond. The Kurds working with the Iraqi military, the question is, are they up to the task? So far, it doesn't look like they are up to it.

BLITZER: Jim, hold on for a moment.

I want to bring in Bobby Ghosh. He's the editor, "TIME International," a former Baghdad bureau chief. He knows the subject well.

Here's the key question right now. It's a question I never thought we'd be asking, at least at this point. Is Baghdad next? How vulnerable is the capital of Iraq, given these other cities that have now been taken by -- taken over by these al Qaeda-affiliated Islamist terrorists?

BOBBY GHOSH, DEPUTY INTERNATIONAL EDITOR, "TIME": Wolf, logic suggests that Baghdad should be the safest place in Iraq. That is where the elite Iraqi troops, if there is such a thing exists anymore, that's where the elite Iraqi troops are positioned.

However, if you had told me a week ago that Mosul would have fallen, I might have told you pretty much the same thing, that a city that big cannot possibly fall to a fairly small group of terrorists. So the big question is will those soldiers surrounding Baghdad, will they stand and fight?

If they do, then with only 8,000 or 9,000 men, the ISIS is stretched quite thin across the length of Iraq. And they should quite easily be repulsed. But if the Iraqi soldiers don't stand and fight, then any city can be taken.

BLITZER: Well, the soldiers, the Iraqi soldiers, Bobby, in Mosul, they didn't stand and fight. They took off their uniforms. They left.


BLITZER: These forces, these insurgents, whatever you want to call them, they came in. They took over the city. They took over the banks. There are reports that they have already ransacked those banks to a tune of about a half-a-billion dollars, and all of that U.S. military equipment that American troops left behind now in the hands of these guys. What's going on?

GHOSH: Well, the Mosul is the most shocking of all, because, among other things, Mosul has an illustrious history as a city that has provided many of Iraq's military commanders over the decades.

And Mosul, people of Mosul take pride in that military leadership history. So, it is especially damning when a city like that falls. In Baghdad, what Maliki and some other Shiite leaders seem to be trying to do, in addition to having their military, they're trying to raise Shiite militias.

That was not the case in the north, which tends to be mostly Kurdish and Sunni. If the Shiite militias can stand alongside the Iraqi military and hold back the terror -- the ISIS advance, then Baghdad has a chance, but it is a pretty damning thing when the prime minister of the country feels it necessary for you to call -- necessary to call on private militias to stand up and protect the capital.

BLITZER: It sounds to me, Jim, and you have been studying this, it looks like they're going back to the bad old days in Iraq of a civil war, maybe like in Syria, where you got the Sunnis on one side, the Shiites on another side.

We had hoped, of course, that that was over with, but it looks like they're getting back into that.

SCIUTTO: Yes. And that's the worry.

You have Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia cleric, offering to reconvene, in effect, the army, if you remember from the mid-2000s. If that's the secret to solving this problem here, that's a real problem that you're reverting to these -- as Bobby said, these ethnic militias.

And also bigger picture as well -- this shows the limit of the train- and-equip strategy of the Obama administration that you have seen in Iraq, you have seen it in Libya, in Mali, and other places, where you have trained up those troops and those troops often haven't been up to the task of pushing back Islamic forces, and that of course is a cautionary trial as the U.S. plans to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, because training and equipping Afghan forces a key part of stability going forward.

BLITZER: Back in 2003, Bobby, the president, President George W. Bush, he was upbeat looking to Iraq's future. Listen to what he said.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: A liberated Iraq can show the power of freedom to transform that vital region by bringing hope and progress into the lives of millions.

America's interests and security and America's belief in liberty both lead in the same direction, to a free and peaceful Iraq.



BLITZER: That was certainly the hope, Bobby. I remember when I was in Fallujah, in Mosul, back in 2005, even then, I was there with General Abizaid, the central commander. There were a lot of concerns at the time that this was not necessarily going to work out as so many had hoped.

GHOSH: Yes, I was in Baghdad and watching -- watching that speech on television with a number of Iraqi friends and colleagues. And there was a brief moment for maybe the summer of 2003 when that hope existed, but it was then put out very quickly by some very poor decisions by the Bush administration and then beyond that after the American withdrawal by a series of incredibly poor decisions by Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister.

And so there are no Iraqis left, I'm pretty sure, who are holding on to that hope anymore.

BLITZER: Yes. So, those hopes have clearly faded.

Bobby Ghosh, Jim Sciutto, guys, thanks very much. We will stay on top of this story, because the stakes clearly are enormous.

Still ahead, Congressman Eric Cantor on his shocking primary defeat and his next move. Plus, we will meet the man who toppled the second most powerful Republican in the House of Representatives.

And we're also going live to Brazil for the latest on the preparations for the World Cup. Fans there are eagerly awaiting the opening match that begins just hours from now.



REP. ERIC CANTOR (R-VA), HOUSE MAJORITY LEADER: Now, while I intend to serve out my term as a member of Congress in the Seventh District of Virginia, effective July 31, I will be stepping down as majority leader. It is with great humility that I do so, knowing the tremendous honor it has been to hold this position.


BLITZER: The number two Republican in the House of Representatives, Eric Cantor, revealing his next move just hours after his jaw-dropping primary defeat that's likely to be a game changer here in Washington.

One of Cantor's colleagues says this huge new loss for the GOP establishment is sending shivers down the spines of lot of Republicans out there. Even the man who toppled Cantor says he's shocked that he actually won.

Our senior Washington correspondent, Joe Johns, is in Richmond, Virginia, where this election has stunned almost everyone, shall we say.

What is going on? What is the latest, Joe?

JOE JOHNS, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we're outside his headquarters here in a strip mall in the Richmond area. He had a lot of help from an incumbent who was seen as disconnected

from his district, but Dave Brat, for his part, did push big Tea Party issues, including amnesty, including immigration. It all worked out for him in something like a perfect storm.


JOHN (voice-over): Dave Brat was such a long shot, even he did not think he could beat the House majority leader.

DAVE BRAT (R), VIRGINIA CONGRESSIONAL CANDIDATE: This is the happiest moment obviously of my life.

JOHNS: Brat raised just over $200,000 for his campaign, nearly the same amount Eric Cantor's campaign spent at steak houses, according to "The New York Times." He was as unprepared for victory as he was for the tough questions. Here is how he responded when asked about arming the Syrian rebels.

BRAT: I thought we were just going to chat today about the celebratory aspects.

JOHNS: It was an inauspicious welcome to national politics for a college economics professor who has never held office. He teaches at Randolph-Macon College, the same school where his Democrat opponent is on the faculty. Jack Trammell will face him in the November election.

And though Brat claimed allegiance to Tea Party ideals, he did not attract financial support from any of the major Tea Party groups.

Political writer Jeff Schapiro of "The Richmond Times-Dispatch."

JEFF SCHAPIRO, "THE RICHMOND TIMES-DISPATCH": Sometimes, ideas are bigger than dollars. Also, in thinly attended primaries, fewer votes make for bigger surprises.

JOHNS: What may have helped Brat most was Cantor himself, whose disconnect from the district led to his downfall.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I honestly wasn't very impressed.

JOHNS (on camera): Why not?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A little too extremist, a little too close-minded.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's kind of a lose-lose situation. I'm happy that Cantor lost. I'm not sure how happy I am about the guy that won.


JOHNS: It's on to the general election now. This is a strong Republican district. It's pretty clear they have traded in one of the most powerful Republicans in Congress for a member who is likely to be on the backbench of the House of Representatives -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Joe Johns in Richmond, Virginia, for us, thanks. Let's bring in our chief national correspondent, John King. He's the

anchor of CNN's "INSIDE POLITICS," and our political commentator, Ryan Lizza of "The New Yorker" magazine.

So does this mean nothing is going to get done in Washington for the rest of this year? What do you think?


The Republicans now are going to have this leadership election, and fairly or unfairly, Eric Cantor was viewed and Dave Brat campaigned against him as somebody who wanted to be a governing conservative, someone who was open to a modest deal with the president on immigration, someone who was defending the banks and, you know, Wall Street here.

And so if you're a politician, you're cautious anyway. If you're a Republican, now you're nervous. You're going to have a new leadership that will be more conservative than the current Republican leadership. And they believe the message from this election is, you know, don't do business with President Obama. Could that change in a month or two? Maybe. But, as of tonight, no.

BLITZER: So is the Republican establishment the big loser here in this race in Virginia?

RYAN LIZZA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Yes, no doubt about it.

I mean, you know, I spent a lot of today just listening to this guy's stump speech.


BLITZER: Dave Brat?

LIZZA: Yes, Dave Brat, and seeing, what did he really campaign on? Because a lot of the conversation has been about immigration. At the end of the campaign, there's no doubt that that sort of was the issue that crystallized in the race.

But he spent the spring talking about government collusion with big business. He tried -- he tied Eric Cantor to Wall Street. He tied Eric Cantor to corporate interests and lobbyists in Washington. In some ways, he sounded almost like Elizabeth Warren on the left.

So he ran this very populist, you know, conservative campaign against big business. And this more than I think immigration even is becoming the big fault line in the Republican Party. There's a rise in this anti-Wall Street sentiment. And even when he talked about immigration, he talked about it not as an anti-immigrants proposition, but as something that was a boon to big business, that big business was just going into Washington and lobbying for a cheap supply of labor.

That's how he framed everything in that campaign.

BLITZER: Well, he is an economics professor, so he sees it from that economic -- economic standpoint.

LIZZA: Absolutely.

BLITZER: Here's what Eric Cantor said about what maybe should be his successor. Listen to this.


CANTOR: I don't know who it is that will actually be running. I can tell you that if my dear friend and colleague Kevin McCarthy does decide to run, I think he'd make an outstanding majority leader. And I will be backing him with my full support.


BLITZER: So what do you make of -- some people say that's a kiss of death right now.

KING: McCarthy probably wishes he would say that publicly and not privately, even though they're good friends.

Look, the Tea Party leadership, which let's be clear -- the national Tea Party groups had nothing to do with happened on the ground in Virginia's Seventh Congressional District.

BLITZER: Even they didn't think this was doable.

KING: This was totally indigenous to the district back home and to Dave Brat's campaign.

However, they now see an opportunity. Remember, Mitch McConnell and John Boehner hope to get through this campaign, they hoped to end this campaign by crushing, in Mitch McConnell's word, all these Tea Party challengers, and then interesting the Tea, Party sit down, shut up, you're loud, but you can't win elections.

They just won a big election. They just won a big election. So, they don't like Kevin McCarthy. They don't want anyone from the existing Republican leadership to get this powerful job. They majority leader schedules the House floor, sets the calendar agenda. They don't trust John Boehner. They don't want his number two to be a John Boehner ally and confidant at the moment.

So, that could hurt Kevin McCarthy.

LIZZA: One problem Kevin McCarthy has is he is from California, and there's this whole movement among conservatives in the House right now that say we need someone in the House leadership who's from a red state.

Now, of course, if Kevin McCarthy gets elected, he's from a conservative district. But he's from California. John Boehner is from Ohio. They want someone from a Southern or...


BLITZER: But Hensarling in Texas, he's -- his name is out there.

LIZZA: Exactly.

BLITZER: So, you think there could be a nice little fight going on?

LIZZA: Oh, no doubt about it. And this will -- McCarthy is trapped now. This will turn into establishment vs. Tea Party, no matter what McCarthy does. That's the box.

BLITZER: The chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Buck McKeon, in the last hour told me he wants McCarthy all the way.

KING: Well, the establishment guy -- he's a chairman, and that means he's most likely a Boehner ally.

Those who have been in a long time -- those who have been associated with the leadership, that's why they're scheduling the election for just a week from Friday. They want to get this over quickly, because those who have leadership positions are already recognized.

He's the whip, Kevin McCarthy, right now. He counts the votes. He's made a few mistakes counting votes, mind you. But he's more organized than anybody else. But you have Jeb Hensarling. You have Pete Sessions. You have some other conservatives.

The question is, do the conservatives sort of box each other out, not get enough votes in that process, or do they quickly realize, you know, you have a better chance than him and unite around one? That's what we will see over the next several days.

BLITZER: Did he make, Dave Brat, a big issue of Eric Cantor, saying that the so-called dreamers, the kids who were brought here by their parents illegally, they should have some sort of legal status? Was that a big issue for Dave Brat?

LIZZA: Seems like it was a huge issue. It was a big issue on talk radio, because, remember, he didn't have super PACs. He had talk radio.

Right, he didn't money. Brat did not have money, but he had Mark Levin and Laura Ingraham and a few other conservative talk radio hosts that really championed him at the end and seem to have sort of powered some of those voters to the polls over the weekend.

So, absolutely, this issue with what's going on, on the border seems to have really broken through over the weekend.


BLITZER: And this other notion that he supposedly was too arrogant for his district.

KING: Well, look, you can sell unpopular positions if you're connected and you have a bond with voters in your district.

Lindsey Graham just won last night in a race where he -- people thought he early on -- he would be a Tea Party target. He still says he's for comprehensive immigration reform that has either legal status or citizenship.


LIZZA: Sponsored the bill in the Senate, wrote it.

KING: Never came close to being beat.

Eric Cantor was sitting in a Starbucks with lobbyists. This -- if you're -- listen, Al Gore would be president if he went home to Tennessee. Joe Lieberman lost a primary back home. Eric Cantor says he went home a lot. He clearly wasn't listening and he clearly wasn't getting in the local newspapers and local talk radio at the ribbon cuttings. A good politician goes home, not only goes home, but gets in the play.

BLITZER: All right.

LIZZA: There's something very tragic about it, because Cantor has tried to sort of ride this tiger of the Tea Party, embracing it, separating it, and it finally overthrew him.

BLITZER: Yes. All right, Ryan, John, guys, thanks very much.

Just ahead, the World Cup kickoff. With just hours to go, fans are in a frenzy. But is Brazil ready?


BLITZER: It's certainly one of the biggest sporting events on the planet, the World Cup. And it's about to begin. Officials in Brazil are scrambling to get everything ready for tomorrow's opening match amid concerns about delays, protests, maybe even some possible violence.

CNN's Fred Pleitgen is joining us from Rio right now.

So, how does it look, Fred?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It looks very good. The atmosphere is just absolutely amazing, Wolf.

The past couple of days that we have been here -- and we are, of course, right on the Copacabana, the most famous beach here in Rio. You can see people come in from all over the world. A lot of Americans, also, people from Argentina, people from Uruguay, people all over Europe have been coming in here.

But you're absolutely right. The big question is, is Brazil prepared for this World Cup? And there, I would say it is actually still somewhat of a work in progress. (INAUDIBLE) we can still see construction. There's some (INAUDIBLE)

BLITZER: All right, unfortunately, we're losing some audio from Fred Pleitgen. We're going to check back with him obviously tomorrow. This is a huge, huge sporting event, the World Cup. We will have full coverage.

Clearly -- hopefully, everyone in Brazil, in Rio, Sao Paulo, elsewhere in Brazil, they are ready for what is about to happen over the next several, several days.

That's it for me. Remember, you can always follow us on Twitter. Go ahead and tweet me @WolfBlitzer. You can certainly tweet the show @CNNSITROOM.

Please be sure to join us again tomorrow in THE SITUATION ROOM. You can always watch us live or DVR the show, so you won't miss a moment.

Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in "THE SITUATION ROOM."

Now let's step into the CROSSFIRE with Stephanie Cutter and S.E. Cupp.