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Obama Says No U.S. Troops Going to Iraq; U.S. Considering Air Strikes in Iraq; Wake-up Call for Iraq

Aired June 13, 2014 - 13:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


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WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting from Washington. We welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. This is a CNN special report, Iraq in crisis. The situation in Iraq is quickly deteriorating as Al Qaeda inspired militants move closer to Baghdad. There are now reports of roadside beheadings of Iraqi soldiers and police.

Also, hundreds of thousands have been forced to flee as those forces make their brutal push in eastern Iraq. It's a situation being closely watched by the White House as the Obama administration considers various options to help the Iraqi government. Just a little while ago, President Obama said this about potential U.S. military involvement in Iraq.

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BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We will not be sending U.S. troops back into combat in Iraq, but I have asked my national security team to prepare a range of other options that could help support Iraq security forces, and I'll be reviewing those options in the days ahead. I do want to be clear, though, this is not solely or even primarily a military challenge. Over the past decade, American troops have made extraordinary sacrifices to get Iraqis an opportunity to claim their own future.

Unfortunately, Iraqi's leaders have been unable to overcome too often the mistrust and sectarian differences that have long been simmering there. And that's create d vulnerabilities within the Iraqi government as well as their security forces. So, any action that we may take to provide assistance to Iraqi security forces has to be joined by a serious and sincere effort by Iraq's leaders to set aside sectarian differences, to promote stability, and account for the legitimate interests of all of Iraq's communities, and to continue to build the capacity of an effective security force. 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.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Joining us now, our Chief White House Correspondent Jim Acosta; our Chief International Correspondent Christiane Amanpour, she's in London; and our Senior International Correspondent Arwa Damon, she's in Irbil, Iraq, that's the northern part of the country.

Jim, the president says he's considering various options, not sending in U.S. troops. But what exactly is on the table, based on all the information we're hearing?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the information that we're hearing is that the president is considering air strikes either through U.S. warplanes or drone strikes.

But as you heard the president say, he wants his national security team over the next several days to draw up these options and that this decision is not going to come overnight, it's going to take a few days. He wants to send a message to the Iraqis that they need it get their act together. He wants the government prime minister, Nuri al Maliki, to start making some concessions to start unifying that country because as the president said, he doesn't want to throw good money after bad in Iraqi, noting that those security forces are basically melting away in the face of those militant fighters with ISIS.

But at the same time, Wolf, I thought what was very striking, very interesting is that the president, we don't see this very much on the south lawn of the White House, taking questions before hopping on Marine One with Mrs. Obama. At one point, he was asked whether he feels reluctant to get involved in Iraq. And the president said, this is something that he wants to think about very carefully.

But when I went to a senior administration official and asked about that, asked whether or not the president was showing some apprehension there or whether or not this was really a case where the president wanting some planning from his national security team, this official said to me, no, this is about planning.

And so, at this point, it appears this White House, this administration, this president is moving toward some sort of military action in the coming days. They just don't know what it is, at this point -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, the President clearly saying, Christiane, let me let you weigh in, he doesn't want the United States, in his words, dragged into a situation in Iraq. And it's all up to Nuri al Maliki, in effect. He's saying right now, you get the job done, show us you're sincere and then maybe we'll help you out militarily. But if you don't do that, the United States is not going to get involved. That was the basic bottom line message he was sending directly to Baghdad, at least from my perspective. Christiane, what do you think?

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, here's the thing, obviously, they're desperate to get some kind of political unity and political functionality in Iraq. Because it's true, part of this problem has been the lack of ability of Nuri al Maliki to unite the country. Former Iraqi prime minister, Ayad Allawi, told me yesterday -- and I was nearly gob smacked by this. I asked him why these two divisions melted away and dropped their equipment and fled, 30,000 people in the face of 800 militants. And he told me because they had nothing to fight for. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. But apparently they have nothing to fight for. They don't believe in their government and these ISIS people have been able to overrun a key economic and major hub there of Mosul and challenging other cities.

So, the political is very important. Actually, Ayad Allawi is going over there now. He's on his way to try to see whether he can use his unique abilities to try to craft some kind of unity leadership. That's one thing.

The other thing is that the United States, the White House, the president's national security staff severely underestimated the readiness of the Iraqis once they pulled out in December of 2011. They underestimated, they did not expect this kind of trouble to brew in the intervening years. And yet we've been reporting for years the catastrophe of these constant suicide bombs, people dying, people being killed, this bloody mess that's been in Iraq ever since the U.S. has pulled out. That plus leaving the Syria mess to fester. Because what has happened is ISIS came from Iraq into Syria, got strong, went back into Iraq.

And this is what they're doing. And they want to join that part of Syria and Iraq into a caliphate. So, top commanders are telling me that you'll never be able to fix Iraq if you don't somehow stand up an army of the moderate opposition in Syria now and try to pacify that country. So, that's where those are linked.

And then, of course, you have this issue of Afghanistan. Very soon on a time table, the U.S. forces will be out of Afghanistan. And people are saying, hang on, you told us that the Iraqi forces were up and fine when you left Iraq. Now, you're saying the same thing about Afghanistan. Are we going to see that place tumble into disarray like we're seeing Iraq? So, it's very, very linked and it's very, very dangerous and poses severe strategic threat to the United States of America.

BLITZER: It certainly does. Christiane, hold on. Arwa Damon is in northern Iraq for us. You know, seeing these Iraqi troops in Mosul and elsewhere by the 10s of thousands simply taking off their uniforms, giving up their weapons, running away, in effect, sort of reminded me, Arwa, you were there, Christiane was there, when U.S. troops went from Kuwait into Iraq in March and April of 2003, the so- called elite Republic guard unit, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi troops supposedly loyal to Saddam Hussein, they didn't fight either. They just gave up. They ran away. They said they're not going to die for Saddam Hussein and the U.S. moved quickly from Kuwait into Baghdad. And then, we know what happened after that. But, Arwa, what's going on with these Iraqi troops? Why are they so disloyal to Nuri al Maliki and his Shiite led government?

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we also have to look at the areas where these troops were operating and that is mostly in something of a Sunni beltway where they don't perhaps necessarily feel as if they have the need or the desire to want to fight for a government that, frankly, very few people, amongst the Sunni population, feel the need to want it di to die for, to say the least. But also, the Iraqi security forces might not necessarily feel, especially those that are operating in those Sunni areas, that they have the support that they need from Baghdad.

As the ISIS fighters have been advancing towards Baghdad, hitting areas like Diyala which is just to the north of the capital. They have been encountering more resistance, not necessarily from the Iraqi security forces but also from fighters that Iran has been sending over as well, several units with the special revolutionary guard to try to bolster the Iraqi security forces.

Now, the forces that are based in Baghdad itself, those are forces that do tend to be, by and large, incredibly loyal to Nuri al Maliki. So, it's highly unlikely, in the event that should the Sunni insurgency, the ISIS fighters, make their way to the capital, they're going to come across that same kind of scenario.

To add to what also is being discussed, Nuri al Maliki is a man whom the U.S. banked on for a second term despite numerous advice and warnings from various Sunni and Kurdish leaders who predicted that he would end up being, as some have been calling him, a Shia dictator and that his actions would further aggravate the situation here. Back then, he did make the U.S. to try to garner U.S. support certain promises and pledges that he would be establishing a nationalistic, all inclusive government, when, in fact, he did just the opposite and consolidated power around himself, in part, creating the situation that we have right now.

So, if America is going to be gambling on this man, once again, who has been going back on his word throughout Iraq's recent history since he's been in power, then they're going to have to be very careful and make sure that they have another pressure point that they can apply to him and on his government --Wolf.

BLITZER: Christiane, one of the deep concerns, I've heard this from officials here in Washington and the president himself mentioned it as he was getting ready to board Marine One, is a fear that these insurgents, these Islamist Insurgents, these ISIS terrorists will go after Shia shrines in Iraq, whether in Karbala or elsewhere. Now, we see Iranian elite Republican guard troops. They've move in to try to help deal with potentially this problem, other problems as well. Just tell our viewers briefly, what would happen if these ISIS terrorists blew up a Shiite shrine in Karbala or elsewhere?

AMANPOUR: Well, Wolf, we saw something like that back in 2005 and 2006 when Samarra, the main mosque there, this historic golden dome, was attacked by Islamic militants. And that set off two years of vicious civil war, sectarian war between Sunnis and Shiites, and eventually led to President Bush doubling down at the urging and the advice of General Petraeus and General Kien (ph), the surge. It worked. They've beat back these people but it was also political thing. They got these Sunni tribes onboard as well. And then, you know, things got a little bit better and then the troops were pulled out and the U.S. has no more leverage there.

So, if, indeed, this becomes an attack on various shrines, that will be very bloody. It's not -- I'm not sure that that's what's going to happen. What most people are telling me is, including U.S. commanders and Iraqi officials and Iraqi former government officials, they feel that what this is about is the dismemberment of Iraq, the Kurds taking Kurdistan and keeping it, and part of Kure Cook, obviously. The terrorists taking this very strategic western part of Iraq and the Maliki government or whoever it is, the Shiite mass from Baghdad on down to the south. And most of the shrines are in the south. You've got Karbala and the Jaff (ph), all those big Shiite shrines. So, that is the real danger here.

And it has all sorts of implications. If you cut up and break up Iraq, it has sectarian implications, it's had implications with all the actors around, not only Iran but others, Turkey. I mean, it is going to be an all mighty mess, including economic --major economic implications because of where the oil is and all those roots and production, et cetera. So, this is a major, major problem. And it is not isolated to Iraq. This is why we have to understand the connection. The connection is vital. First of all, the connection being in Syria where all these people have, for the last three years, been able to fight and do their dastardly, you know, business there, wanting to have this (INAUDIBLE) fate. And now, this stunning takeover of Mosil and the attempt to take others has taken everybody by surprise.

BLITZER: Yes, it certainly has. All right, Christiane, Arwa, Jim Acosta, guys, thanks very much. Coming up, much more of our special report, the crisis in Iraq. Is the U.S. going back to war in Iraq to stop these so-called ISIS terrorists? Just what would potential air strikes look like? We'll get a closer look. That's coming up.

Plus, President Obama says military action alone won't solve the crisis. Our own Gloria Borger, she'll join us to discuss the president's dilemma.

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BLITZER: Welcome back to our special report, "Crisis in Iraq." I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting from Washington. Once again, we want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world.

The president has been meeting with his top national security advisers. The White House has just released this official photo from the Oval Office earlier today. You see the president and the vice president there. You see on the left, you see General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Susan Rice is to the right, the national security advisor. Dennis McDonough, Lisa Monaco, the president's advisor on homeland security. So the president met with them earlier today just before he made that statement in which he ruled out sending U.S. troops to Iraq, but he certainly didn't rule out other military action, possibly including air strikes and drone strikes for that matter. It looks like the United States may, in fact, be seriously studying those options. The Pentagon is planning to move the aircraft carrier, the George H.W. Bush, from the North Arabian Sea into the Persian Gulf in the coming hours. It's all designed to provide the president with options for possible air strikes.

Our Tom Foreman is joining us now.

Tom, what kind of strikes are we talking about because there are various options out there?

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, the president is talking about precise and effective strike. And that gets really tricky in this circumstance. When you start talking about big things like F-18s and aircraft carriers and cruise missiles and B-1 bombers, you're talking about very robust delivers of force that normally go after very robust targets. Things like air fields and command and control structures and supply lines. And there's no indication that ISIS really has any of those things. Just as importantly as our Barbara Starr over at the Pentagon has been pointing out all day, even as they have them, we don't know where they are. The intelligence on the ground about this group is very scattered right now. So what do you do with all this big power if you have no idea where to place it, Wolf?

BLITZER: Well, what about helicopter gun ship, air to ground missiles? They could be effective if you have appropriate targets, albeit one of the problems is these terrorists, they've sort of gone into heavily populated areas and the last thing the U.S. wants to do is kill innocent civilians.

FOREMAN: As you know, Wolf, from your experience there, this is one of the key tactics of groups like this. When you start talking about a group like ISIS, what does it want to do. It wants to be in population centers where they are surrounded by civilians, they're surrounded by sensitive targets, like you mentioned a little while ago, mosques, hospitals, schools, anything like that that are difficult to hit, that's where they're living right now. And again, all of that makes it very hard to bring in big power and hit them. And, by the way, there's still several thousand Americans in the country. So you have to watch out for them, as well, Wolf.

BLITZER: If ISIS is so powerful, so impressive, don't they have certain staging points, supply headquarters, other kind of facilities that potentially could be targeted without fear of innocent civilians getting killed?

FOREMAN: We always have to be careful, as you know. These things can take on mythical portions. ISIS is clearly doing very well right the now, but that does not make it a full on army like we know armies. Nonetheless, even if they're behaving that way in any sort of fashion, one of the concerns is that one of their staging areas would actually over here sort of on the Syrian-Iraq border, which as you can see sort of cuts right through the middle here.

The problem with striking over here is they treat this border as if it doesn't exist. When they're over here on the Syrian side, if U.S. forces were to strike them, while it would serve interest over here, it would also serve the interests in Damascus, of Bashar al Assad, which the U.S. does not want to help. So it becomes very, very sticky, Wolf. And it is not an easy way to get out. This is one more visitation of the problem we have now had for decades, Wolf, using a conventional army to fight an unconventional foe. And that is precisely what ISIS is. BLITZER: That's why the president of the United States says he needs

several days to weigh all of these options out there because he doesn't want to get, in his words, dragged into another conflict in Iraq. All right, Tom Foreman, thanks very much.

And as the president weighs his options, he says military action alone won't fix what's wrong in Iraq. Gloria Borger standing by to join us. We'll talk about the president's response, what it means for his overall foreign policy. Our special report, "Crisis in Iraq," continues right after this.

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BLITZER: Welcome back to our special report, "Crisis in Iraq."

President Obama says he's weighing a range of options right now, but he's also putting pressure on the Iraqi government. At the White House just a little while ago, the president said the crisis is a reality check for Iraq's leaders.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: 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. Iraq's leaders have to demonstrate a willingness to make hard decisions and compromises on behalf of the Iraqi people in order to bring the country together.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger, is here with me. That was a pretty blunt message to Nuri al Maliki, the prime minister of Iraq.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes. Yes.

BLITZER: You know what, we're not going to do anything unless you get your act together.

BORGER: You know, I think they're sick and tired of him, to tell you the honest truth. I think what the president is saying is, look, we've got a lot of leverage here. We have asked you in the past to have more outreach, to have more of a coalition. And what we're saying to you now is, because you didn't do that, this is what is happening on the ground. And don't expect us to bail you out again if you don't do what we ask you to do.

So I think the president also came out and said to the American public, look, hold your horses, these things take a few days to decide what to do. And if he does decide to do something militarily, he said he wants it to be precise and targeted. So I think he also needed to come out there to tell the American public we're working on it, but I'm not going to jump into something until I know exactly what it is I'm getting in to.

BLITZER: Because he knows that it's a lot easier to get involved with the military action than to get out of the military action.

BORGER: Yes. You know - but, you know, Wolf, you really can't overstate exactly what's on the line here for the president. I mean we had such a huge investment in blood and treasure in Iraq. Overwhelming majority of the American public says Iraq wasn't worth it. Now it's as if everybody is living a bad dream and hearing the names of the cities we heard about so much during the Iraq War and the president is walking this really fine line here saying, look, I'm not going to send troops back on the ground, but this is an important region to us.

The Iraqis are responsible for their own security. We spent so much money training these security forces who are running away, right? So the president has to figure out a way to walk that line and say, this is important, this is what we're willing to do. We didn't make our investment for nothing. So we do have leverage here, so hold on.

BLITZER: Yes, he's getting pounds, though, by his critics.

BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: John McCain saying he should fire all of his national security team.

BORGER: Yes.

BLITZER: Bring general Petraeus back in.

BORGER: Well - well, that's -- that's right. And again, it does speak to the president's legacy and the question of whether we should have armed the rebels in Syria, whether a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2016 is the right way to go given what's now going on in Iraq. So there are lots of questions that will no doubt be raised.

But the one fact that remains for this president is that the American public overwhelming does not want to put boots on the ground in Iraq. And he came out and said he has no intention of doing that.

BLITZER: Yes. He made that abundantly clear and he said it's going to take several days to decide what, if anything, he will do. But there's a window now for Nuri al Maliki -

BORGER: There is.

BLITZER: To act or not act.

BORGER: Step up.

BLITZER: And then that will have an impact on what the president decides.

Gloria, thanks very much.

BORGER: Sure.

BLITZER: Up next, as President Obama weighs U.S. options in Iraq, we're learning more about some of the problems that have developed there, the insurgency. What is the insurgency? Who are these political leaders in Baghdad? Why are they not responding to what the U.S. says they need to do? Our special report, "Crisis in Iraq," continues right after this.

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