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THE SITUATION ROOM
Crisis in Iraq; Interview With Iraqi Ambassador to the United States Lukman Faily; Time to Evacuate Americans from Iraq?; Radical Islamists Race Toward Baghdad
Aired June 13, 2014 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Fighting back.
As Iraqi forces try to make a stand, President Obama says they need help. But he won't put U.S. boots on the ground. What happens to thousands of Americans if terrorists reach the Iraqi capital?
And reign of terror. We're going to show you shocking new images of the group that is so brutal even al Qaeda has disowned them.
I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
And we want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world.
Iraq now under attack from within, a brutal terror group speeding toward the capital, sending civilians and troops fleeing. We have new information that U.S. intelligence saw this coming.
As the Islamists vow to raise their flag over Baghdad, Shiite clerics are now calling for volunteers to defend their holy sites and the capital. Iraq's military is trying to regroup, claiming to have killed dozens of terrorists in airstrikes on a captured base.
President Obama says he's weighing U.S. military options, but won't send in U.S. troops. No such hesitation from Iran, which officials say has already dispatched hundreds of so-called Revolutionary Guards to the fight.
From the Pentagon, to Iraq, our correspondents and analysts are standing by to bring you the kind of coverage that only CNN can deliver.
Let's begin with our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto. He's got the very latest -- Jim.
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, a counterterrorism official tells me that the U.S. intelligence community warned this spring that is was targeting the capital, Baghdad.
In fact, I'm told the intelligence community issued multiple assessments, particularly over the last year, detailing ISIS' growing strength and its ambitions to take territory across Iraq. Those ambitions not a surprise -- what was a surprise was how the Iraqi military melted away and failed to defend vital territory.
SCIUTTO (voice-over): Their victory laps have become daily events, ISIS militants parading through Iraqi cities they have overrun, driving American-supplied Humvees and trucks they have stolen.
With the U.S.-trained Iraqi military quickly being overpowered, today, President Obama said he's now considering options, including military action.
His first step, planning to deploy the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush to the Persian Gulf, a potential platform for air strikes.
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Iraqi forces have been unable to defend certain cities, which has allowed the terrorist to overrun a part of Iraq's territory. And this poses a danger to Iraq and its people. And given the nature of these terrorists, it could pose a threat to eventually American interests as well.
SCIUTTO: Ultimately, President Obama and aides insist that any long- term solution depends on Iraq's Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al- Maliki finally welcoming Sunnis and Kurds into his government. But just seven months ago, when Maliki visited Washington, the president praised him for doing just that.
OBAMA: We were encouraged by the work that Prime Minister al Maliki has done in the past to ensure that all people inside of Iraq -- Sunni, Shia, and Kurd -- feel that they have a voice in their government.
SCIUTTO: Today's reality on the ground is very different. Many Iraqi Sunnis have joined ISIS. Iraqi Kurds seized oil-rich Kirkuk.
And now, Iraqi Shiite clerics are calling on their followers to join the fight, a civil war in the making.
Now a president whose foreign policy has been defined by withdrawing from Iraq and soon from Afghanistan may be forced back in.
KENNETH POLLACK, SENIOR FELLOW IN FOREIGN POLICY STUDIES, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: The way that the administration has handled past situations in this, in particular, the way that it's handled Syria, is not going to be good enough for Iraq. Arguably, it hasn't been good enough for Syria either, and providing marginal amounts of military assistance and maybe some rhetorical support isn't going to change a thing in Iraq.
SCIUTTO: A counterterrorism official tells me that it is clear that ISIS, with only a few thousand fighters, could not have moved as fast as it has without the support of Sunni tribes and Sunni nationalist groups inside Iraq. And, as long as ISIS maintains the support, the intelligence
community believes it's likely to hold the territory it's gained, short, Wolf, of a major counteroffensive by the Iraqi military, and, of course, questions remain as to whether they're capable of carrying that out.
BLITZER: All right, hold on for a moment. Stand by.
While President Obama is ruling out U.S. boots on the ground in Iraq, he has asked his top national security team for a list of options, and the United States will send an aircraft carrier, as we just heard, to the Persian Gulf.
Let's bring in our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr.
Barbara, does the U.S. think the Iraqi military can hold?
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, that was a question the Pentagon was not willing to answer today. The chief spokesman here was asked that twice by reporters and sidestepped it. Can they -- can the military hold? Can the rebel -- this insurgent force make it to Baghdad? Can the Iraqi government defend against these guys taking Baghdad?
There's a lot of concern, Wolf, the forces that are on the move, very difficult to strike. These are very dispersed forces. They have been moving very fast. What to do about it? Already, the U.S. has increased surveillance flights, at the request to the Iraqis. They are considering -- they're very close to making that decision to send the aircraft carrier.
That would at least give them ability to give the president the option for airstrikes if he was to choose it, Wolf.
BLITZER: What are the U.S. military challenges as far as intervention is concerned? I guess one of the key questions, does the U.S. really believe it has a full intelligence picture of what's going on?
STARR: And I think that everyone agrees they do not yet. That's one of the reasons they're running these surveillance and reconnaissance flights, but it's very tough.
Again, you look at the video and it just tells you who these people are. They're widely dispersed. They move in vehicles. They have basically fundamentally small arms. So, if you're going to strike them from the air, you need very specific, granular intelligence, time, date, and place. Who is moving in that vehicle?
And when they move through Iraqi towns and cities, you can't bomb them because you're going to wind up destroying civilian infrastructure and have a great risk of striking Iraqi civilians in cities, towns, and even on the roads right now. So this is a very tough proposition, very tough to target it with U.S. airpower, Wolf.
BLITZER: Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thanks very much. Let's take a closer look now at these terrorists that are so
brutal, even al Qaeda has disavowed some of their actions, which they record on video for everyone to see. And while we won't show you the worst of their videos, what you're about to see is still very disturbing.
CNN's Mohammed Jamjoom is here. He has got more on this part of the story -- Mohammed.
MOHAMMED JAMJOOM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has been waging two wars.
There is the physical war on the ground in Iraq, very disturbing and shocking to the rest of the world, but there's also the propaganda war that they continue to wage. And by the looks of it, it shows no signs of abating any time soon.
JAMJOOM (voice-over): A chilling sight, residents of Mosul, Iraq, cheering on the takeover of their city by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, a terrorist organization so brutal, even al Qaeda has disowned them.
But it's not just portions of the population this group has won over. Far more worrying, they now control an arsenal of weapons left behind when Iraq's army fled the scene. Here, you see a terrifying display, ISIS proudly showing off missiles they promise to use on their march toward Baghdad.
Scary scenes like this are nothing new when it comes to ISIS. The group has perfected propaganda techniques that showcase their strength and brutality, like this recent video over an hour-long highlighting horrific killing sprees in Iraq, deliberately recorded on video, bombings, executions, kidnappings, and worse. This production displays glossy camera work and high-level production techniques, as though ISIS were taking cues from Hollywood films such as "Zero Dark Thirty" and "The Hurt Locker" to maximize the terror.
Analysts say it shows how effective a threat ISIS is becoming.
NADIA OWEIDAT, NEW AMERICA FOUNDATION: There's money behind it. It's not just idiots. These idiots have somebody controlling them and providing them with equipment that is very expensive, you can't just get in a cave.
JAMJOOM: One frightening sequence shows ISIS fighters disguised as Iraqi soldiers setting up fake checkpoints. In another scene, a man is hunted down. After being shot, he pleads for his life. "I'm just a driver" he says, "just a driver." What appears to be the man in an Iraqi uniform is shown, then sheer brutality, a hail of bullets shot into his beck.
And that's not the worst of it. This man was accused of working with the U.S., he and his two sons forced to dig their own graves.
OWEIDAT: What happened to these people to lose their humanity? Their propaganda is the tool, the only tool that can defeat them.
JAMJOOM: Experts say, to judge by this video, the reign of terror shows no signs of abating, which is exactly what ISIS wants, even at the risk of their tactic backfiring.
JAMJOOM: Wolf, every day, ISIS and their supporters, they are tweeting. They're posting pictures. They are posting videos trying to terrorize their opponents.
Analysts say it's very worrying. They believe that this group may be using social media more effectively as a recruitment tool than any other terrorist organization has done so before them -- Wolf.
BLITZER: What a brutal, brutal situation. Mohammed, thanks very much.
Let's get some more now.
Joining us, former Bush speechwriter David Frum. He's co- authored the famous lines about the axis of evil. He's now the senior editor of "The Atlantic." Also joining us, Iraq's Ambassador to the United States Lukman Faily, and chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto is with us as well.
Mr. Ambassador, first to you.
It seemed to me -- you heard the president of the United States today.
LUKMAN FAILY, IRAQI AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED STATES: Yes.
BLITZER: He effectively was lecturing Nouri al-Maliki, your prime minister, saying you have to bring everyone in Iraq together. This can't just be a Shiite-led government. You have got to bring the Sunnis, the Kurds. You got to have some real democracy there.
Is Nouri al-Maliki going to do that?
FAILY: Well, we already have a coalition government. My own foreign minister is a Kurd. The defense minister is a Sunni Arab.
So, we already have that. But what is taking place is not an internal Iraqi dispute. It's more to do with like what your report has said more or less, which is an invasion...
BLITZER: So, why are so many Iraqi Sunnis in the military and elsewhere aligning themselves with this ISIS group?
FAILY: Well, the situation is, this is an international, transnational organization which has worked -- been effective in Syria and now is trying to export that to Iraq. We as Iraqis will not accept that. BLITZER: So, what will Nouri al-Maliki do in the face of this
recommendation from the president? The U.S. is considering military options, but it's not going to do anything unless they get reassurances from your prime minister that he will take the necessary steps.
FAILY: We thank United States for all they have done.
We thank them for all the going efforts and we thank them for ongoing support. In that sense, it's not the issue of the prime minister only. We have a threat to the whole nation, to the country, and we cannot co-exist with ISIL. So, in that case, I think the president does understand the seriousness of the situation and the impact on the geopolitics...
BLITZER: Has your prime minister invited Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops into Iraq right now?
FAILY: No, we have not invited Iranian.
What we are saying is that we have a strategic framework agreement with the United States. It's our partner of choice. We have an agreement in place. There has already been work. We need to work further and we need to intensify in-depth and enrich that relationship.
BLITZER: All right, Mr. Ambassador, I want to bring in David and Jim into this conversation.
But let me play a clip. This is the president of the United States on the South Lawn of the White House today. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're not going to allow ourselves to be dragged back into a situation in which while, we're there, we're keeping a lid on things, and after enormous sacrifices by us, as soon as we're not there, suddenly people end up acting in ways that are not conducive to the long-term stability and prosperity of the country.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: He's referring to the prime minister of Iraq.
FAILY: And the question is what?
BLITZER: And the question is, if the U.S. goes in a little bit, and then leaves, are you just going to go back to what you're doing right now? FAILY: We -- as I said, is, the issue we have is not an internal
issue. The issue we have is an impact of Syria. The issue we have is a threat to the region.
We have asked for some time that we need to be supported. The U.S. has supported us. But what we need now is an immediate threat.
BLITZER: All right, David, what do you think about what's going on?
DAVID FRUM, FORMER SPEECHWRITER FOR FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: The Iraqi government, this Iraqi government, made it clear two years ago they did not want American forces in Iraq. They chose Iran over the United States as their provider of security and their patron.
That was Prime Minister al-Maliki's decision. Today, now he's in trouble, American airpower looks very welcome to him. But, at this point, for the United States to go in, it would be rescuing an Iranian -- an Iranian client. And the question I think Americans need to ask is, OK, maybe. What do we get in return, and not just from Iraq, but also from Iran?
BLITZER: Because you know the president of the United States said before U.S. troops completely withdrew he would keep a few thousand there if they would have immunity from Iraqi prosecution, if there was a status of forces agreement that allowed that to happen, but your prime minister said no.
FAILY: Only a couple of months ago, we had an election 60 percent of the people voted in. The United States and everybody -- U.N. and everybody else says it's a fair election. So we have a democratic process.
Changing the prime minister is not the issue here. The threat is an immediate to the whole country. The political process will be ongoing with the U.S. welfare. We hope that will continue the support, and we also know this threat -- let me repeat that -- the threat is immediate to the region, not just to Iraq. It's not just a -- purely internal Iraqi politics.
BLITZER: Jim, go ahead and weigh in.
SCIUTTO: Well, I think he's exactly right.
There's no question there that this is a regional threat now and this -- and ISIS, frankly, the threat goes beyond the region, because ISIS is the number one magnet for foreign jihadis, U.S. intelligence community warning repeatedly about those jihadis returning home to Europe. And we know there are 50, 60 Americans that have joined the fight as well.
This is an example where, as Americans, whatever the polls show, Americans would like to keep -- to not be involved in this part of the world, but the fact is, we are involved because the threat emanating from there has a direct impact on the U.S. homeland. BLITZER: Do you believe these insurgents, these ISIS terrorists
are going to go after Shiite shrines, whether in Karbala or Najaf or elsewhere, to try to simply explode the entire country?
FAILY: Look, yesterday, they made their first decree in which they said, we will flatten any mausoleum, any Shia shrine and son. They have already made that public.
They have already done it in certain places today. The issue we have now is not the issue of internal politics of Iraq. It's more to do with the threat. Our friend here talked about American being there. We know there are European jihadists there. When they want to go back to the United States, or to France, elsewhere, what are they going to do?
BLITZER: So, what exactly is your government asking President Obama for?
FAILY: We have never asked for American boots on the ground. We have never asked for combat forces.
What we have said is that we need support and strategically in relation to counterterrorism, in relation to civilians.
BLITZER: So, specifically, what do you want?
FAILY: Civilians, in relation to helping us to have some air supremacy, because we need that.
BLITZER: Do you want U.S. fighter jets to come in and bomb positions of these ISIS forces in Iraq?
FAILY: As an ambassador, I'm not in a position to highlight the specifics.
This is for the military and for the counterterrorism specialists to deal with. What I'm saying is that the support we have from United States will make the difference. We have United States our strategic partner of choice. We don't have that with Iran. The vacuum is created, will be filled by others.
BLITZER: What do you think, Jim? Do you think the U.S. is going to do what the ambassador wants the U.S. to do?
SCIUTTO: Well, I think the -- and the president made a reference to this, that that help should be and is dependent on Iraq making concessions, political concessions.
I would ask the ambassador. He says that the government is a multiethnic government. And I know that there are some officials, Sunni and Kurds, in senior positions, but the fact is that Sunnis and Kurds do not view the government as inclusive. So my question would be, would Maliki make the government more inclusive, in exchange, in effect, for American help now to fight off this ISIS threat?
FAILY: We just had an election.
The votes have been -- just been ratified now at our supreme courts. And in very, very -- very few weeks, within the few weeks, they will start forming -- the formation of the government. All these lessons have been learned.
Situations are grave. What has to be looked at is, what are the immediate threat to Iraq, to the region, to the geopolitics? Let me give you as one side of that story. Iraq is a major oil producer. If that production is stopped, or if that -- funds from that goes to ISIL and others, imagine how much that destruction will make to the global economy. That's where the issues are.
BLITZER: Jim, I want to put on the screen, I want to show the map of where the various forces are aligned right now inside Iraq and in neighboring Syria. Go ahead and explain.
SCIUTTO: It's important to show, to show our viewers this. I think people are aware that Iraq is multiethnic, but you get a sense, physically, how they're divided up, Shiites largely in the south.
In the southwest, you have a Shiite/Sunni mix as you head out towards Anbar province, and in the northwest, largely Sunni, and then the Kurds, of course, up in the northeast. And this -- we talk about a Sunni corridor here. This has been one reason why ISIS has been able to advance so quickly down towards the capital, because they're coming from Syria up in the north of the screen, the top part of the screen, through those Sunni areas, through Mosul, down to Baji, and over to where Fallujah is.
They have having help from local tribes, local nationalist groups, so the map in effect helping ISIS accomplish its goals.
BLITZER: And, David, you heard John McCain, the senator. He told us that he's lost confidence in Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister of Iraq. And he's a great supporter, a great friend of Iraq.
FRUM: I think that is the wrong focus from an American point of view.
What the United States should be asking for are not internal concessions within Iraq to different power holders. What the United States needs are external concessions from Iraq's main patron, which is, unfortunately, Iran. It is not tenable that American fighter jets will be delivering ordinance to support Iran's security interests.
BLITZER: And you heard John McCain make that exact point. He doesn't want U.S. involvement, if it's only going to help Iran.
FRUM: Iran has to -- if Iran wants -- because, when Maliki speaks, it is Iran that is talking. If Iran wants this help, it has to ask and it has to pay.
BLITZER: Mr. Ambassador?
FAILY: Prime Minister Maliki in the latest election had 700,000 votes. He has over 100 seats within a 300 -- all parliaments.
So he is there representing the democracy of Iraq. The formation of the government may take time. We have an immediate situation. Senator McCain has been strong supporter of Iraq. We want that support to stay. We appreciate the support we're getting. But let me repeat what we have now. We have a grave situation now. We cannot wait until all the politics is discussed. The threat is an immediate threat. That's what...
BLITZER: How vulnerable is Baghdad?
FAILY: I will doubt that -- I will -- I'm somewhat confident about that.
I'm not worried about that specifically. I'm more worried about the Shia shrine being destroyed, which leads to a geopolitical situation. I can -- let me give you one example. Any small impact on Iraq will have an immediate situation in Pakistan, in Afghanistan immediately. So that is the graveness of the situation.
BLITZER: It's a horrible situation right now.
Mr. Ambassador, we hope you will come back next week and help us better appreciate what's going on.
FAILY: My pleasure.
BLITZER: David Frum, thanks to you.
Jim Sciutto, of course, thank you to you as well.
Still ahead: a brutal terrorist group racing towards the Iraqi capital. Is it time for the U.S. to evacuate thousands of Americans in Baghdad right now?
And we will take a closer look at how those battle-hardened extremists have managed to capture city after city on their march to the Iraqi capital.
BLITZER: Islamist extremists battle-hardened in Syria, they have been pushing south in Iraq, vowing to march on Baghdad. Hundreds of thousands have fled their advance and there are now reports of beheadings and mass executions along the way.
Let's get a closer look.
CNN's Tom Foreman is joining us, together with retired Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt.
Explain what's going on, Tom.
TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Wolf.
Let's break it down in terms of the best-case scenario and the worst-case scenario. Let's start with the worst. We have been talking about this area out here being held by these insurgents, Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, as some would say.
And we talk about this area and this quick march through a series of town to about 50 miles outside of Baghdad here. Worst-case scenario, what's happening?
BRIG. GEN. MARK KIMMITT (RET.), FORMER U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND DEPUTY DIRECTOR FOR PLANS AND STRATEGY: Well, worst-case scenario is they continue the march, but they also pick up a significant amount of Sunni support and attack into Baghdad, topple the government.
FOREMAN: That is a huge force multiplier, because we're talking about maybe 800 insurgents, but you add Sunni fighters and what happens?
KIMMITT: There are 10 million, 15 million Sunnis inside the country. So, you can imagine the size of a force they could put together.
FOREMAN: Well, let's talk about now the best-case scenario. We keep talking about this as if this is a continuous area out there.
But you have argued that their force is so small, in fact, it's more like they're holding a bunch of little pockets out here, not all this territory. And that makes a big difference.
KIMMITT: It really does. They're clearing. They're not holding.
So what the Iraqi security forces are doing is, they're setting up defensive positions about 20 miles north of Baghdad, up around Taji, and about 20 miles west of Baghdad, around Abu Ghraib. And that's where they're going to defend with their loyal forces against this continued offensive that's going on.
FOREMAN: So if they're able to do that, then, you believe also that these insurgent forces are really badly extended?
KIMMITT: They are. And then fighting with the Iraqi security forces, hopefully, they will be stopped and the Iraqi security forces can go on the counteroffensive.
FOREMAN: So, a little bit too far away from the supply lines, a little bit too far away from any kind of command, new weapons, things like this.
FOREMAN: All this considered, best case, worst case, what's the most likely case in your mind? KIMMITT: I think the Iraqi security forces will hold outside the
gates of Baghdad, and then, as they have done so many times in the past, the terrorists will then start the terrorism campaign inside, get away from the conventional tactics, get into using VBIEDs, IEDs inside of Baghdad and start running a reign of terror, as we have seen so many times in past.
FOREMAN: And that, Wolf, could turn into a very long, slow grind.
BLITZER: It certainly could. Tom Foreman and General Kimmitt, guys, thanks very much.
As the ruthless ISIS group moves relentlessly toward the Iraqi capital and the massive American Embassy there, what about the fate of thousands of American diplomats, thousands of other American civilians on the scene?
Our foreign affairs reporter, Elise Labott, is taking a closer look into this part of the story.
Elise, what you finding out?
ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad is currently open for business, but the State Department is evaluating minute by minute whether it's time to pull out.
LABOTT (voice-over): With an Islamist insurgent force moving swiftly towards Baghdad, officials say the State Department is preparing fresh plans for evacuating its staff in the event of total collapse.
OBAMA: Our top priority will remain being vigilant against any threats to our personnel serving overseas.
LABOTT: The U.S. has some 5,300 personnel in Iraq, about 2,000 of them Americans at its embassy in Baghdad and consulates in Basra in the south and Irbil in the north. Moving so many people in a war zone will be an extremely difficult task.
Unlike the evacuation of U.S. Embassy in Saigon in 1975, where America negotiated safe passage for 1,200 Americans, here, the U.S. must be able to secure airfields with the U.S. military no longer on the ground and Iraqi forces fleeing as extremists advance. The militants are seizing airfields and have surface-to-air missiles, which can threaten pilots during an evacuation, the largest of its kind, 10 times larger than any other U.S. Embassy in the world.
The American Embassy in Baghdad sits along the Tigris River and it cost U.S. taxpayers nearly $1 billion to build. The fortress was designed to sustain a massive, long-term U.S. presence.
JAMES JEFFREY, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO IRAQ: The embassy is very, very heavily fortified. We have extremely good security personnel, and a lot of them. The embassy is set up to be self- sufficient, and the embassy can take a lot. And it has.
LABOTT: The 104-acre compound is bigger than the Vatican, with 22 buildings, apartments, and even an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Less than 100 Marines along with diplomatic security agents and contractors guard the complex, but that's a far cry from the thousands of troops that once patrolled the secure Green Zone. Officials say for now the Americans will stay put but acknowledge security could deteriorate quickly.
JEFFREY: You do have to consider what would happen if not that the city were overwhelmed by 800, 1,200, 1,500 ISIL, but rather what if they're able to cut all of the roads, lines of communication, lines of supply into the city and essentially besiege it?
LABOTT: And, Wolf, senior State Department officials tell me the embassy has plenty of food and water for employees to hunker down and ride this crisis out, but if the situation starts to deteriorate, the State Department would start with an initial drawdown of nonessential staff on commercial airlines while the airports are still open, and then would only move to a full evacuation if the situation gets really out of hand -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes. I know as you've reported there, that full-scale contingency planning under way right now for that worst-case scenario. Elise Labott at the State Department. Thank you.
Just ahead, as fighting rages, CNN's Arwa Damon, she is now on the ground in Iraq. There she is. We'll go there live.
And President Obama says he won't send U.S. troops back to Iraq, but how deeply could the United State get involved militarily? We'll ask documentary filmmaker Sebastian Junger and our panel of experts. That's all coming up.
BLITZER: The Islamic militants who are moving toward Baghdad began their push in northern Iraq, where they quickly captured the major city of Mosul, a city of nearly 2 million people. The second largest city in Iraq.
The United Nations says it's hearing of mass executions there. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled the area.
Our senior international correspondent, Arwa Damon, who spent years covering the war in Iraq way back in 2003, she's back there now. She's in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil.
Tell our viewers what you're seeing, Arwa, what you're hearing.
ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the latest information we have is that ISIS has managed to capture three towns in the province of Diyala, while the Iraqi air force has bombed, according to Iraqi state television, ISIS positions in the city of Tikrit. There, they're claiming to have killed 70 ISIS militants, but this fighting force most certainly has a lot of experience. And now, thanks to the Iraqi security forces abandoning their positions, plenty of heavy weaponry.
DAMON (voice-over): Captured by ISIS in Mosul as the Iraqi army abandoned its position, row upon row of American-made military hardware. This and much more heavy weaponry and ammunition is at ISIS' disposal as they advance southward.
The province of Diyala, just to north of the Iraqi capital. Video purporting ISIS fighters stomping on the uniforms of Iraqis that fled. "Maliki, your ranks are at our feet," one says.
Also in Diyala province, this. An ISIS military parade. Two trucks filled with missiles. Potentially just an hour away from Baghdad.
As Iraqi security forces melted away with the ISIS advance, a security source tells CNN Iran sent in reinforcements, several units of its elite Republican Guard to support Iraqi government forces.
But as this ISIS fighter boasts, they may have grander plans. "God willing, we will raise our flag in Tehran," he says.
Hundreds of Shia volunteers allegedly heeding calls to join the Iraqi army. Shia militias reactivated under different names. And Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's spokesman also issuing a call to Iraqis to join the fight against ISIS.
But this is much more than a battle between a terrorist organization and a government. ISIS's advance was through predominantly Sunni lands, marching through the north and then moving down toward Baghdad, lands where most of the Sunni population despise Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's polarizing policies, which further alienated the Sunni population.
Iraqis have called for U.S. assistance, something President Obama says he is reviewing.
OBAMA: We can't do it for them, and in the absence of this type of political effort, short-term military action, including any assistance we might provide, won't succeed. So this should be a wake- up call.
DAMON: But it's also a wake-up call for the Americans. They supported Maliki for a second term when he pledged to form an inclusive government, but upon acquiring the position, simply consolidated power around himself, further angering the Sunnis.
DAMON: And, Wolf, ISIS may be in the spotlight right now, but fighting alongside it are other Sunni insurgent groups that were very prominent during the U.S. occupation of Iraq as well as Sunni tribes. Fighting alongside ISIS not because they have subscribe to their ideology or have a desire to establish an Islamic caliphate, but because they do believe this is an existential battle between Sunni and Shia for control over Iraq -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Arwa Damon, be careful over there in Iraq. Arwa Damon. That was an excellent, powerful report.
As terrorists push relentlessly toward Baghdad, President Obama says he won't send American troops back into Iraq, but how deeply could the United States get involved?
Joining us now, Sebastian Junger is a journalist and filmmaker. His new documentary is entitled "Korengal."
Also joining us, Tara Maller of the New American Foundation. And CNN political commentator Reihan Salam. He's a contributing editor at the "National Review."
Sebastian, what should the U.S. be doing right now, if anything, in Iraq?
SEBASTIAN JUNGER, FILMMAKER: Well, that's a complicated question. I've never covered Iraq, but I think a unit like the 173rd Airborne, the guys that I was with in Afghanistan, are pretty well suited to dropping in there and at least carving out a safe area around embassy. But, you know, that's -- I think it really depends on what the Iraqi security forces do.
BLITZER: Tara, you've studied Iraq for a long time. What is Nouri al-Maliki going to do? Because the president basically lectured him today, you've got to take steps before the U.S. gets involved militarily.
TARA MALLER, NEW AMERICAN FOUNDATION: Well, I was listening a little bit earlier, and based on what the ambassador from Iraq was saying, it doesn't look right now like Maliki is jumping into action based on President Obama's remarks. I mean, I think we're going to need to watch over a couple of days. I think the administration is going to have to watch the displacement that's happening, the desertions that are happening, the deaths that are happening. And the division, the sectarian division.
This is all deja vu. We saw this all in 2004, 2005, 2006, and it's quite disheartening that it's what we're seeing again now. And unless Maliki starts moving, I don't know that he's going to move as quickly as Obama would like for the U.S. to lend in some help.
BLITZER: Reihan, what do you think? What do you think Maliki is going to do? Certainly the president put all the pressure on him to do the right thing.
REIHAN SALAM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, the trouble is, you know, what is the right thing? And I think the fundamentally right thing for him to do is to embrace power sharing. When you see the conflict in Iraq, it's been a communal conflict.
Not unlike the conflict we saw in Bosnia in the mid-1990s in which everyone fears minority status. If you're the minority status, it's essentially a death sentence. And that's why you have the Sunni population was somewhat restrained when they saw that American power was restraining Maliki's hand.
And then when you had a diminished and then ultimately no U.S. military presence, there was no force to restrain Maliki, and so there was this deep anxiety.
Arwa mentioned in her report that you have plenty of Sunnis who are not embracing the ideology of ISIS, and yet it's that fear of being a vulnerable minority that is fueling the desertions, and it's fueling this larger chaos. So that's ultimately what Maliki has to do. He needs to move toward power sharing and a genuine authentic inclusive political settlement. And that's going to be very hard for someone who has very little reputation as an inclusive figure.
BLITZER: All right. I want everyone to stand by. We're just starting this conversation. We'll take a quick break.
In a moment, what's the best way out of this crisis? We'll take a look at the various possibilities.
BLITZER: We're back with the journalist and filmmaker Sebastian Junger, also Tara Maller of the New America Foundation, and CNN political commentator, Reihan Salam, contributing editor at "The National Review."
When you think about the history, Sebastian, Shiite tensions with Sunnis and with Kurds, what's been going on in Iraq for hundreds of years, you think there's going to be any solution to this anytime soon?
JUNGER: Well, it seems like Iraq is sort of a -- in some ways a false concept historically. It really was three different areas. Maybe what we're seeing is an expansion of the Shia-Sunni conflict in Syria. It spilled across the border.
You've got basically al Qaeda fighting Hezbollah in Syria, and I think, you know, some people feel we're headed toward a sort of regional Shia-Sunni conflict that ultimately Saudi Arabia against Iran.
BLITZER: A lot of people, Tara, think what's happening in Iraq is going to be a partition into a Kurdish area, a Sunni area, and a Shiite area.
MALLER: Yes, that's one scenario that could play out. If things worsen, nothing happens, could see self-segregating of the populations into areas which are already quite segregated as the country stands right now. I mean, this is not sort of unseen before. We saw that's actually back during the 2004-2006 period, the population started displacing themselves, segregating themselves internally within cities.
So, we could see this again in the country or see military action, strikes that sort of target terror strongholds in perhaps western Iraq and Anbar province, or perhaps the areas where the insurgents, ISIS took hold in Mosul and Tikrit.
So, those are options on the table. Would it have a long sustainable political shift in Iraq? Probably not. Set the group back a little bit? Possibly.
BLITZER: Reihan, do you have any optimism this is going to work out peacefully?
SALAM: I do not. I do think that one thing to pay attention to is what's happening in Iraqi Kurdistan. There are, of course, many Iraqi Kurds who wanted to separate themselves from Iraq for a very long time and I think that this certainly strengthens their hand and think they're going to consolidate their power in the region.
And that's also going to create complications for neighboring states with Kurdish minorities including Turkey, including Iran. So, I think that's something to pay attention to as well.
BLITZER: Looks like it's going to be an ugly, ugly situation. The next few days will be very, very dangerous. We'll watch it together with all of you.
Thanks to all three of you, Sebastian Junger, Tara Maller and Reihan Salam.
We're watching another developing story right now. We're going to Texas where the U.S. Army is talking about Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl's condition.
But first, this "Impact Your World".
CHRIS CUOMO, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): During his eight seasons as host of Discovery Channel's "Dirty Jobs", Mike Rowe learned all about the hard working men and women who are keeping America running. But he found there was a disconnect between unemployment and available jobs.
MIKE ROWE, HOST, "DIRTY JOBS": Everywhere I was going, I saw "Help Wanted" signs, and everybody I talked to said how hard it was to find people who were willing to retool, retrain, learn a truly useful skill and apply it.
Micro Works evolved to shine a light on a lot of jobs that for whatever reason were going unloved, and then we set up a foundation and began to award work ethic scholarships.
It's really, really great to be here.
CUOMO: Rowe travels the country to get his message out. ROWE: This is the biggest STEM event in the country. People
love acronyms. And Science, Technology, Engineering and Math are, in fact, the careers that are going to keep the country competitive. It ought to be STEMS, right? Add another S at the end of it because if you take the skill out of any of those disciplines, then what do you have?
You can't promote careers in STEM at the expense of skill, and you shouldn't promote higher education at the expense of trade schools.
BLITZER: During the night, Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl arrived at a U.S. military hospital in San Antonio, Texas, to continue his recovery from five years as a prisoner of the Taliban. U.S. Army officials finished a briefing on his condition a little while ago.
Let's go to CNN's Martin Savidge. He is on the scene with us.
How did it go, Martin?
MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hello, Wolf.
Yes, U.S. officials say that Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl spent his first day in the United States pretty much just acclimating to his new environment. They say given what he has been through mentally and physically, he is doing as good as you can expect him. But there was one big omission. Where was the family that worked so hard for his freedom?
SAVIDGE (voice-over): In the middle of the night, 28-year-old Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl finally returned to the United States. But in many ways, he is still a long way from home. The prisoner swap for his freedom continues to draw criticism as do allegations he deserted his post in Afghanistan. And there is his personal recovery from the mental and physical duress of five years in Taliban hands.
Among those watching Bergdahl's first moments on American soil was an army general.
MAJ. GEN. JOSEPH DISALVO, U.S. ARMY: He appeared just like any sergeant would when they see a two-star general. A little bit nervous, but he looked good, and he again saluted and had good deportment:
SAVIDGE: The Brooke Army Medical Center specializes in carefully guiding former POWs on the difficult journey back to freedom.
And in a news conference, one of Bergdahl's doctors described his medical condition as stable. COL. RON WOOL, BROOKE ARMY MEDICAL CENTER: Overall, we're
pleased with his physical state. He was able to ambulate and walk into the hospital, and seemed to do so in a functional manner.
SAVIDGE: But doctors gave little insight into Bergdahl's mental state. Nor could they explain a big question mark hanging over his return, why he has not had any contact with his parents, who worked tirelessly for his release. Bob and Jani Bergdahl were not in San Antonio Friday as many expected.
COL. BRADLEY POPPEN, SERE PSYCHOLOGIST: Overall, it was his choice to make that -- to determine when, where and who they want to engage socially. And the family understands that at this point in time.
SAVIDGE: The family released its own statement, saying, quote, "They ask for continued privacy as they concentrate on their son's reintegration."
(on camera): When Sergeant Bergdahl gets done with the medical side of things, he'll come here to Fort Sam Houston, which really only a couple of minutes down the road. But it's a big change. More back to normal life, small steps adjusting to the world he once knew.
At the medical center, one of his caregivers told me all the controversy and criticism surrounding Sergeant Bergdahl stops at the front gate, saying, "It's not our job to judge, but our duty to help a soldier heal."
SAVIDGE: Now, another question that was asked at this press conference is Bowe Bergdahl aware of all of the controversy surrounding his release and surrounding about whether or not he may have left his post. And the answer was, no, he is not. They haven't told him. They will make those news reports available to him at some point. But they didn't say when, Wolf.
BLITZER: And they're not saying how long he might stay there at that military hospital in San Antonio?
SAVIDGE: Right, correct. There is no timeline. They say every prisoner of war when they come back is unique, as were their circumstances. No way to really say you get the indication it could be a while.
BLITZER: But it's your understanding, Martin, that if he wanted to see his parents, they would -- the military would allow that to occur?
SAVIDGE: They would. And, you know, one thing is clear is that the family has been clued in on this the whole time. It's not like this has come as a surprise. And they said at the very beginning, they gave their son as much time as he needed. They're willing to wait. They've waited a long time already. At least they know he is back here in the United States. They'll wait a little longer. BLITZER: Martin Savidge, thanks very much.
That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.
For our North American viewers, "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.