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Kurdish Fighters Stand Their Ground; The Iranian Government Wants Stable Iraq; Unraveling of Iraq; Options for Iraq

Aired June 16, 2014 - 13:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting from Washington. We want to welcome our visitors from the U.S. and around the world.

This is a CNN special report, Iraq in Crisis. Militants capture more cities as the fighting in Iraq threatens to explode into an all-out civil war. The U.S. now taking steps to protect several thousand American citizens stationed in Iraq while weighing how to respond to the crisis.

Here are some of the latest developments. The terror group ISIS is waging both a military offensive and a propaganda campaign. The group posting images on the Internet of what appears to be militants executing Iraqi security forces. CNN cannot independently confirm the authenticity of the photos. A U.S. amphibious assault ship with 550 Marines on board now moving into the Persian Gulf. The USS Nasuverta (ph) could assist in evacuating America from Iraq if needed.

And Iraqi's military strikes back. The Iraqi Air Force now claiming to have killed more than 200 militants in air raids, that according to Iraqi state television. We're using our resources to cover this story like no other news organization can. Let's begin with three of our CNN reporters. Our Senior International Correspondent Arwa Damon is joining us from Beil (ph) in northern Iraq. Our senior White House Correspondent Jim Acosta has the latest on the Obama administration's response. And our Correspondent Reza Sayah reports from Tehran on Iran's role in this crisis.

Let's begin though with Arwa with the latest on the ground situation in Iraq. Arwa, Kurdish forces in the north, they appear to be standing their own ground against these ISIS militants. What can you tell us about the very latest?

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. Now, the front lines are moving closer to Baghdad with the fight seeming to focus on areas about an hour to the north of the capital. Here in the northern part of the country, there are fairly significant battles underway between Mosul and the Syrian border. But as ISIS was moving throughout this territory launching that massive offensive, there really only was one force that managed to stand up to them and that the Kurdish Peshmerga.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (INAUDIBLE.)

DAMON: So, ISIS is located in those buildings and we can barely see beyond the tree line. Can you see that, Ronj (ph)?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The cars over there on the road?

DAMON: Yes, yes.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Let me see.

DAMON (voice-over): ISIS has a dug in position behind the small dirt berm in the distance, the Peshmerga tell us. And they are ready should ISIS try to advance. We're about a 15-minute drive from the oil rich city of Kirkuk at what was a small Iraqi army outpost reduced to a damaged and burnt out shell after the Peshmerga fought and drove ISIS out. The Iraqi army abandoned this and other positions even before ISIS arrived. But ISIS is continuously testing the Peshmerga's resolve. All along Karcuk's western front.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (translated): They have attacked and we pushed them back, the unit's commander general, Shifofathish Shiwanti (ph), tells us. Up to 200 fighters at times, he says, armed with all the weapons and vehicles the Iraqi Army used to have. At the check point, we try to ask people if they saw ISIS down the road.

DAMON (on camera): (INAUDIBLE.) The first two cars say there is nothing. Hard to tell if people are afraid. Let me ask them. (INAUDIBLE.)

(voice-over): The family in this car says yes, just five minutes away. It was fine. They just asked us for our I.D.s. The family is from Samara, leaving home and everything behind, having heard that Kurkov is, relatively speaking, safe. In part because of the foresight of the local government. Security in the city was never reliant on the Iraqi military.

GOV. NAJMALDIN KARIN, KIRBUK: First of all, the Iraqi Army was given vast areas to control and they were having significant problem even taking care of themselves. And a lot of them were deserving. We just really didn't trust that they could do this.

DAMON: And that was even before the ISIS offensive. The governor knew the city needed better defenses.

(on camera): As terrorists groups are gaining in strengthened capacity, the governor felt the need to further fortify the city ordering this trench dug at the end of 2013. And there are still plans to build a fence, set up border posts and video surveillance.

(voice-over): The city limits are controlled by the Peshmerga, the only force in the north keeping the brutal ISIS onslaught at bay.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(live): Wolf, it's no wonder that so many people across the country are so terrified. This is a nation that has already seen its fair share of violence over the past 10-plus years. Often times described as being unimaginable. But when you talk to people now, Wolf, they will tell you that what they are seeing unfolding and the promise of even more violence to come makes what they've been through seems like it wasn't even all that bad. That's how serious the situation is here -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Incredibly serious. Arwa Damon reporting from northern Iraq in Erbil for us. Arwa, thanks for that report.

The Obama administration is considering air strikes in response to this crisis in Iraq. But in a yahoo news interview, the secretary of state, John Kerry, says that's just one possibility.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: Well, they're not the whole answer but they may well be one of the options that are important to be able to stem the tide and stop the movement of people who are moving around in open convoys and trucks and terrorizing people. I mean, when you have people murdering, assassinating in the -- in these mass massacres, you have to stop that. And you do what you need to do, if need to try to stop it from the air or otherwise.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Jim Acosta is over at the White House. What are you hearing about the next moves potentially from the White House, Jim?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, what we can tell you is that the president was briefed, once again, on the crisis in Iraq by his national security advisor, Susan Rice. And when asked whether this White House is approaching this crisis with the same intensity that we saw last week, and it was very intense, a senior administration official told me, Wolf, that, yes, they are approaching this crisis with the same urgency that they had last week and was doing so all weekend long.

Safe to say, according to one administration official, that the entire national security team for this president has been busy reviewing these options all weekend long and that, from what I understand from talking to senior administration officials, the White House, national security team was really looking at the pros and cons of various options that the president might take a look at. What we don't know, at this point, obviously, is whether or not the president has been presented with a final set of options. That is something that we're waiting to hear from this White House on.

But, Wolf, given what we saw over the weekend with military assets moving into the Persian Gulf, security being upgraded at the U.S. embassy and Baghdad personnel being relocated out of that embassy in Baghdad, even the secretary of state making those diplomatic calls throughout the weekend, it does appear that this White House is making all the necessary moves, taking the necessary steps that would be needed to start moving towards some sort of military response.

But, if course, at this point, we just don't know what, if any, military response there would be, at this point. It sure seemed like there might be something coming on Friday when we saw the president on the south lawn of the White House. But as he said, this was going to take several days. Several days are now passing and it's a new week. We're going to have to see what happens.

We can tell you that the president has just wrapped up a trip to Palm Springs, California and southern California. He is now wheels up on Air Force One heading back towards the White House. The incoming press secretary, Josh Ernest, will be giving a gaggle on that flight, so we're hoping to have some more details, more insights to the president's thinking, the national security team's thinking as they approach this crisis -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Air Force One will land later today, early this evening back here in Washington. All right, Jim Acosta, thank you. Thanks very much.

We've heard conflicting reports of Iran's involvement in this crisis. Now, two senior officials tell CNN the Obama administration is exploring possible direct talks with Iran over the situation. Reza Sayah is in the Iranian capital of Tehran. He's joining us live. Reza, we've got reports that hundreds of Iranian revolutionary guard elite troops, they are already in Iraq right now. Iran's president, I understand, denying that but saying he would consider a request for help from the Iraqi government. So, what's going on? What is the new president, Rohani, want? What's going on there?

REZA SAYAH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, I think President Rohani, the Iranian government, what they want is a stable Iraq. They want to protect the Maliki government. They don't want Baghdad to fall. Now, they also want to beat back ISIS. This rising sudden insurgency in Iraq and it just so happens that's what Washington wants.

Now, the question is, how far is (INAUDIBLE) willing to go? We should point out that the Iranian government vehemently denies that they've sent fighting forces across the border. We do know that there are military officials in Iraq, but we're told that they are only there for military guidance and strategy and training. Could that change? Could the Iranian government send in forces? It is possible if things escalate in Iraq, but President Rohani seemingly downplaying that scenario.

What is also possible, a remarkable U.S. Iranian alliance to push back ISIS. Remember, a similar alliance took place in 2001 when the two countries joined the beat back, the Taliban. Now, there's talk that it could happen again because these two countries who have been bitter rivals for much of 35 years suddenly sharing some very compelling common causes. Obviously, the U.S. has a lot invested in Iraq, a lot of blood in treasure. They don't want the Baghdad government to topple.

And then you look at Iran, a lot of violence, the insurgencies is taking a place right across the border. They don't want the insurgencies to come across the border to Iran. And the, you have the very strong ties between the Shia led government here in Iran and the Shia dominated government in Iraq. Iran doesn't want to lose that. So, you look at this picture. Seemingly, on paper, it would make sense for these two countries to unite and cooperate militarily and politically. It hasn't happened yet but remarkable that the talk is taking place. BLITZER: And there will be discussions in Vienna this week between

top U.S. and Iranian officials over Iran's nuclear program. The question is, will they also discuss Iraq. And we should find out fairly soon on that. Reza Sayah in Iran for us. We'll stay in close touch with you.

Up next, is this the end of Iraq as we know it? Why some are now saying partitioning the country may be the only way to hold off an all-out civil war. What's going on? Stand by. And the chilling words of ISIS leader. As he left U.S. detention back in 2009, quote, "I'll see you in New York." We'll talk to the U.S. Army colonel who was face-to-face with him when he uttered those words. Our special report, The Crisis in Iraq, continues right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

ISIS insurgents, they are now moving across the country. Iraqi forces are fighting back saying they've killed 200 militants so far. But the crisis is threatening to explode into an all-out civil war.

I'm joined here in Washington by our chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto and by our chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour.

Christiane, what are you hearing about this possibility that a hundred years of this basically fake map that was drawn up after World War I could explode and three separate countries could emerge out of Iraq, a Kurdish country, a Shia country, a Sunni country?

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, this is not an optimum scenario, but many leaders in the region who I've been interviewing and many U.S. commanders, former and current, have said that it is really hard to avoid that reality because it looks like that is what's happening in a defacto way. The only problem with that is - or one of the big problems is that part of that partition will be an al Qaeda run state like part of Iraq and Syria. So that is a major, major problem. I have not been so worried about this since 9/11 and even since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.

BLITZER: Really? Now tell us why this is so pressing?

AMANPOUR: And - because this is fundamental. For 10 years or more the United States has been battling to cripple and defeat al Qaeda. And they were doing a pretty good job in Afghanistan and then at the end of the surge in Iraq. And now all of a sudden this is coming back. And if you have to even try to imagine what it might mean, the words of the New York City police commissioner when he said, we are terrified of blow back coming to New York City. That's 12 years after 9/11. And it's because of the Syria war, which has been left to fester, and now all of this stand - you know, stand back and not intervene has manifested itself in Iraq. And it is genuinely terrifying and it doesn't look so much like it will be a sectarian civil war but a partition. BLITZER: Are U.S. officials, and you've been speaking to them, Jim, as

concerned about this crisis as Christiane and so many others are, based on what you're hearing?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely no question. And because you're already seeing the battle lines drawn along the ethnic lines, right? You know, ISIS and its Sunni allies have moved down and taken over the largely Sunni section of the country, extending to Baghdad, west to Anbar province. Then up in the north you have the Kurds already making their own opportunistic strike on Kirkuk (ph), right, expanding their areas. I mean, and Kirkuk, the Kurdish areas, already act almost as an independent state today.

And then you have the battle lines drawn with the Shias at Baghdad and going south from there. You know, the battle lines already reflect those decisions - those divisions, and that's a real problem for the administration going forward. It also presents a dilemma for the administration as to how do they help because if the U.S. helps the Iraqi military -- the Iraqi military in Iraq is seen as a Shia and militia (ph) basically. So if you come in to help them with air strikes, you're seen to be on one side of this battle. And that's why a political agreement is so essential in these early stages to show the Sunnis and Kurds that when the U.S. comes in, if it does in any sort of decisive way, that it is for a unified Iraq and not for one side, even inadvertently, in what is becoming a very ethic battle.

BLITZER: You heard Reza Sayah in Tehran just report the Iranians might be open to actual cooperation with the United States when it comes to Iraq.

AMANPOUR: We wouldn't be (INAUDIBLE) and this is what's (INAUDIBLE) to understand. There are obviously many, many adversarial points between the U.S. and Iraq as we know, but sometimes they have cooperated. For instance, in Afghanistan, around 9/11 and the post 9/11. But, of course, Syria, Iran and the United States are obviously on two completely opposed sides. Iran supports the Saddam - the Bashar Assad regime and is responsible for the Bashar Assad's regime survival right now.

But when you have a situation that threatens the two, the United States and Iran, then perhaps there's some opportunistic, tactical room for some kind of cooperation. But certainly nobody, not the U.S. not the Iraqi people, and not the Iranians want to see Iraq break up. And the big problem right now is how to stop the march of ISIS. Nobody really believes, I don't think anyway, nobody's really said yet that they think ISIS could take a city as huge, as complex and as Shia dominated as Baghdad. But they have - they have really made these lightning fast advances and it's very worrying.

BLITZER: Yes. And is the U.S. going to talk to the Iranians on this? Is there going to be some level of coordination?

SCIUTTO: They've clearly left open this possibility. I was speaking to administration officials this morning about the Iran nuclear talks and they talked about how in that context on the sidelines of the bilaterals that are going on right now in Vienna that the subject of Iraq will likely come up as well. They're clearly open to it, because as Christiane says, this is a case where our interests are aligned to some degree. Neither side wants Iraq to fall into chaos. That said, we have conflict as well because clearly Iran's motive - Iran's closeness is with the Shia side and this battle and that's something that we have to be sensitive to.

BLITZER: Jim Sciutto, Christiane Amanpour, thanks very much.

You ready for tomorrow?

AMANPOUR: Very ready. Hard questions, hard choices. And this will be the subject of the town hall with Hillary Clinton. Lots of people will want to ask her questions, I'm sure, about this deep, deep existential threat to our - to our global security right now.

BLITZER: Christiane's going to host the very important town hall meeting tomorrow here in Washington, 5:00 p.m. Eastern, one hour. We'll be watching, of course, every step of the way, Christiane Amanpour and Hillary Clinton.

AMANPOUR: And the American people who will be chosen to ask a questions.

BLITZER: And people who - people at the museum who will be asking a lot of questions, but you'll be doing a lot of follow-up.

AMANPOUR: Yes.

BLITZER: Thanks very much.

AMANPOUR: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Coming up, the colonel who watched the ISIS leader walk away from U.S. custody. What he thought of the man then and now. When they last met President Obama, he praised (ph) on Iraq's prime minister. Was that a major mistake? I'll talk to two former U.S. ambassadors to Iraq, as well as Former Congresswoman Jane Harmon. Our special report, "Crisis in Iraq," continues after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to our special coverage of the crisis in Iraq. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

With Iraqi security forces failing badly against the al Qaeda inspired ISIS forces, the prime minister, Nuri al Maliki, is looking for volunteers to protect Baghdad. That's his latest move as he waits for the United States to decide if military intervention is coming. Joining us now to discuss the U.S. options and the impact, the former United States ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, the former California Congresswoman Jane Harman, she's now the head of the Wilson Center here in Washington, and from London, the former deputy national security advisor and former U.S. ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey.

To all three of you, thanks very much for coming in. Let me start off by playing a little bit of what the president of the United States said last November when he welcomed - warmly welcomed the prime minister of Iraq, Nuri al Maliki, to the White House.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We were encouraged by the work that the prime minister, 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.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: So he says he was encouraged. That was back in November.

Jane Harman, a lot of observers were saying then, what Tom Freedman wrote in "The New York Times" this weekend, that Nuri al Maliki is a jerk and the president's optimism at that time, what was he thinking?

JANE HARMAN, DIRECTOR AND PRES., WILSON CENTER: I don't know. I don't get it. Just days after U.S. troops left and it's true that Maliki did not approve a SOFA (ph) agreement to keep them there. Maliki arrested a number of prominent Sunni appointed officials. So he's been on a tear to create a Shia dominated state. And it's a tragedy there and now the whole world is paying for that.

BLITZER: Do you believe that all of that optimism we heard since the complete U.S. withdrawal from Iraq at the end of 2011 was justified, that things were moving in the right direction? That Nuri al Maliki was putting the country back together, working with the Kurds, the Shia, the Sunni, that democracy was really at play?

ZALMAY KHALILZAD, FMR. U.S. AMBASSADOR TO IRAQ (2006-2007): Well, during his first term, Nuri Maliki, from 2006 to 2010 did a few very good things. He moved against the militias, he cooperated with our surge forces in terms of dealing with instability and conflict in Sadr City and even in Mosul, that's now under the control of ISIS. But during the second term, I think had the real problem in bringing all Iraqis together and working with them and a withdrawal has created a vacuum that has been filled by regional rivals who have also pulled up Iraq in opposite directions and has increased sectarianism and lack of cooperation among Iraqis.

BLITZER: Well, let me bring Ambassador Jeffrey into this conversation.

Ambassador, you were there at the time of the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. You used to work with Nuri al Maliki very, very closely when you were the U.S. ambassador in Iraq. Was it really ever - ever legitimate to think this guy would do the right thing?

JAMES JEFFREY, FMR. U.S. AMBASSADOR TO IRAQ (2010-2012): Yes, kind of, Wolf, I had the bad Maliki after Zal had the good Maliki. He did get more difficult after the troops withdrew, but we were able to do a fair number of things with them. We were able to cooperate with him on some things. But nonetheless, he's not an instinctive pluralist. The problem, Wolf, is that most of the people around him, on all sides, Kurds, Sunni Arabs, Shia Arabs, really aren't that way either. There wasn't a whole lot to choose from.

BLITZER: So what are you saying? So basically the country is eventually going to be partitioned into three parts, Ambassador Jeffrey?

JEFFREY: No. What I'm saying is it won't be held together by Jeffersonian, liberal rule of law, constitutional considerations, which is what we tried for a decade to do. Massive oil money, American power over the horizon and the fear of falling into a massive civil war, as they've seen in the past, can still hold a country together if we play our cards right. But we're very close to the edge, as Christiane Amanpour just said.

BLITZER: Yes, very close to the edge, if not on the edge already.

I want all three of you to stand by. We're going to have much more of this discussion coming up, including thoughts on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad right now, can it be left behind if ISIS troops break through.

And later, a top Republican senator joins me to explain why he doesn't think President Obama's answers on Iraq are good enough.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)