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THE SITUATION ROOM

Crisis in Iraq; Hillary Clinton Under Fire

Aired June 18, 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 HOST: Happening now, a SITUATION ROOM special report.

Terrorists battling for control of Iraq are targeted on a president U.S. hit list that's under review right now. But there's an ominous new threat against Americans if airstrikes are launched

We have new detail us about the rise of ISIS. That's the brutal terror group that's built up its power and fortune by outdoing al Qaeda and borrowing tactics from the mafia.

And some likely allies are lashing out at Hillary Clinton after her live town hall appearance right here on CNN. We're gauging the fallout from her most controversial answers.

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

This hour, a new threat to attack U.S. embassies worldwide if the United States launches airstrikes in Iraq. President Obama has been holding urgent high-level talks about a possible U.S. military response to terrorist fighters who are pushing closer and closer to Baghdad. Stand by for our in-depth reporting and our analysis, including our team of correspondents covering the fighting and the danger in Iraq right now.

But, first, let's go to our senior international correspondent, Nic Robertson. He's got the very latest in Baghdad -- Nic.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, every day, we hear of another attack launched by ISIS.

It was Baqubah yesterday, Tal Afar the day before, and today in the early hours, they began attack on an important town with a big oil refinery.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ROBERTSON (voice-over): The latest target of ISIS militants, a critical oil refinery in the town of Baiji, 140 miles north of Baghdad.

Police and refinery workers say that despite heavy clashes between militants and security forces, ISIS fighters remain in control of the facility and have set five oil storage units on fire. This could be an especially crippling blow to the government since this refinery produces about 40 percent of Iraq's gas.

But in his weekly address, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, widely blamed for worsening his country's Shia-Sunni divide, insisted government forces will win against the militants.

NOURI AL-MALIKI, IRAQI PRIME MINISTER (through translator): We absorbed the initial shock of the military operations and now we are on the rebound. We will respond and keep the momentum. What happened was a catastrophe, but not every catastrophe is a defeat.

ROBERTSON: Iraq is now formally asking the United States for military help. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff surprised U.S. lawmakers with the news during a Senate hearing.

GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF CHAIRMAN: I suspect -- well, first of all, we have a request from the Iraqi government for airpower.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: You do?

DEMPSEY: We do.

(CROSSTALK)

GRAHAM: Do you think it's in our national security interests to honor that request?

DEMPSEY: It is in our national security to counter ISIL wherever we find them.

ROBERTSON: In fact, CNN has learned the United States is already conducting manned reconnaissance flights over Iraq to collect up-to- the-minute intelligence on ISIS movements and positions.

Military forces say there's a draft list of targets being that's constantly reviewed and revised. The threat of American airstrikes prompted this ominous warning from a militant cleric, calling on jihadists everywhere to be ready to strike American embassies if the U.S. attacks ISIS forces.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ROBERTSON: And one of the questions being asked this evening is, what is the price going to be extracted for the United States to target ISIS inside Iraq?

Certainly, that's a request coming from Prime Minister Nouri al- Maliki. Well, one British paper thinks it has the answer to that question. "The Independent," their reporter Patrick Cockburn with 30 years of experience here in Iraq is saying that the price is that for U.S. airstrikes, Nouri al-Maliki will have to go. That's what that newspaper is saying, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, well, we will see if that happens. Nic Robertson in Baghdad, thank you. Right now, Christians throughout Iraq, they are being terrorized by

ISIS fighters in their brutal battle to create an Islamic state. There are now reports of Christian churches being burned and looted and women have all faced being forced to wear the Islamic veil.

Our senior international correspondent, Arwa Damon, has been talking to Iraqi Christians about the danger they now face.

Arwa, what is the latest on this front?

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the country's Christian minority has long been subjected to all sorts of horrific violence, especially when Iraq's sectarian warfare was raging.

And now those fears are mounting once again.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAMON (voice-over): On a dusty street corner in the Christian enclave of Bartella, Yusuf (ph) and his friends try to pretend that things are normal, that ISIS fighters aren't potentially just moments away from slaughtering them.

"We all have our bags ready. If anything happens, we will leave, he says."

Mosul, the first city to fall to the terrorist group, is right next door.

(on camera): In 2005, there were a series of attacks against churches in Baghdad. And after that, the young men, the youth here decided to band together and form their own civilian defense units. That's been going on pretty much ever since.

But now their efforts have really intensified. They don't want us filming their checkpoints or other measures that they have put into place, especially not with ISIS just a 10-minute drive away.

(voice-over): Most shops are closed. Their owners either fled or don't bother opening. Business is down. Power is out. And not everyone can afford generators.

It's a grim existence in a nation that has already suffered so much.

Umshaka's (ph) brother and sister were killed in an explosion in Baghdad in 2008. Her heart, she says, seres with the pain of the past and fear of the future. "Here is my son. Every day, he pulls a 12- hour guard duty," she tells us. "It hard. It's very hard. If it stays like this, there won't be an Iraqi left in the country."

For most, there's little to do but wait. Outside the church, we meet these women. "It's fine. What are they going to do, kill us?" they tried to joke. "I might be the only girl left here. Everyone will go, but I will stay," 22-year-old Mariana (ph) says. "I won't leave my country." Her mother, Mohasin (ph), remembers the days when they felt they had a future. But the moment there is a glimmer of hope in Iraq, it's stolen.

"I remember coming here when I was this big." Father Ben Hamlalu (ph) proudly points out the new renovations at his church, the granted archways and floor he always wanted to build. "What are we supposed to do?" he wonders. "This is our land, our church that our ancestors built. This evil can't continue. A day will come when people will come to their senses."

A hope, a dream in a country hijacked by violence few can understand.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

DAMON: Wolf, one can barely begin to comprehend the psychological toll that all of this is taking on the population, especially in this case that Christian minority that really feels as if there's no one out there who is going to protect them.

BLITZER: Heartbreaking story indeed for Iraqi Christians and so many other folks. Arwa, thank you.

ISIS terrorists have been gaining ground and power by controlling an army of hard-line fighters and amassing a huge fortune. The group has one-upped al Qaeda in its ruthlessness. It's now borrowed a page from the mafia as well.

Brian Todd has the more on the rise of ISIS.

What are you learning, Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this is a group that al Qaeda pushed away for being too violent. But make no mistake. ISIS is calculating in its tactics and even its savagery.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): To many Westerners, this radical Islamist group known for butchering its way through Iraq came out of nowhere. But the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, ISIS, runs like a corporation, even issuing spreadsheets to tally its bombings, assassinations, cities it's taken over.

One bank robbery alone has reportedly given them operating cash of $430 million. ISIS has been building momentum for years. The group's inspiration for indiscriminate killing comes from the man who formed al Qaeda in Iraq in 2004, Abu Musab al Zarqawi.

JOBY WARRICK, "THE WASHINGTON POST": He was a criminal. He was a thug. He was in jail for prison -- for very -- for all kinds of crimes. Then he gets out, gets religion and creates this organization that al Qaeda ends up being afraid of.

TODD: Zarqawi's death in 2006 left them down and nearly out, but the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 coupled with the war in Syria starting that same year gave ISIS its new name and new life.

WARRICK: But the pressure is off. Suddenly, you see them starting to carry out attacks inside Iraq. Suddenly, you see them with ambitions throughout the region, going into Syria and other places, where could train, where they can recruit without any interference from any Western powers or anyone able to stop them.

TODD: They gathered volunteers and weapons, spent years breaking their senior leaders out of prison. But with only a few thousand fighters in Iraq, how were they able to take Mosul, a city of almost two million?

JESSICA LEWIS, INSTITUTE FOR THE STUDY OF WAR: Intimidating the local security forces through bombs in their homes, by targeting key leaders for assassination, making them a much softer target for the assault that would someday come, which at this point I think we can confirm was a very easy assault.

TODD: Then, to hold Mosul and other cities they have captured, pure mafia tactics.

TARA MALLER, FORMER CIA ANALYST: Extorting money, but also in terms of -- there was a recent bank robbery where they garnered a lot of money. They have been taxing civilians and brutal tactics to sort of get money from civilians.

TODD: A U.S. counterterrorism official tells us successful business owners are shaken down, threatened with death if they don't pay extortion fees. Kidnappings and smuggling are big moneymakers for them.

Even before they captured the entire city of Mosul, this official says ISIS made several million dollars a month there by using those tactics.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: Now, once it captures a city, analyst say ISIS also bends the locals to its will with public floggings, executions, even crucifixions of Christians. But that's also a tactic that may cause local residents to turn on them eventually, Wolf. That could be one of their Achilles' heels.

BLITZER: I know you're speaking to a lot of experts.

TODD: Yes.

BLITZER: What is ISIS' weakness on the battlefield?

TODD: On the actual battlefield, one analyst told us one of the problems is all the different groups of fighters that it has.

It has got militants who have been fighting in the field with them for a while, but it has also got newly released prisoners coming into the fold and they have got foreign fighters also joining them now for the first time. Getting them all on the same page, getting them disciplined is going to be very tough. And that could give them problems when they're fighting Iraqi forces and maybe other forces coming in.

BLITZER: What a brutal terror group it is. All right, Brian, thanks very much.

Still ahead, is the U.S. close to backing up Iraq's military, launching airstrikes against ISIS? A former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers, there you see him. He is standing by, along with CNN's Anderson Cooper, who will join us from Baghdad.

Plus, some critics are accusing Hillary Clinton now of trying to play both sides of an explosive political issue. We will take a closer look at the blowback she's getting after her live appearance right here on CNN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're back with our special report on the terrorists' battle for control of Iraq and the possible U.S. response that's under review right now over at the White House.

We're joined by the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, retired U.s. general Richard Myers. He now serves on the board of directors of defense contractors Northrop Grumman and United Technologies Corporation. Also joining us, CNN's Anderson Cooper. He's joining us live from Baghdad.

Anderson, I understand there were some terrorist bombings in Baghdad not far from where you were today. What did you see? What did you hear? What was going on?

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: There have been.

And of course that's really nothing knew. Yesterday, we had six bombings, one car bomb, five roadside bombs. Yesterday, as many as 12 people were killed, dozens more injured. I haven't gotten a fatality toll today, but again it's just a sign that there are already fighters inside the capital of Baghdad, which just adds to the security concerns of the people here, Wolf.

BLITZER: Stand by for a moment, because i want to get General Myers' thoughts.

The president now reviewing military options. You have got a wealth of experience. A lot of remembered you were one of the advisers that helped President Bush and vice President Cheney -- there's a picture -- back in the summer of 2004. You see Condoleezza Rice. All of you were in Crawford.

Knowing what you know, what you have learned over these years, if the president, the current president, the commander in chief, were to ask you, General Myers, launch airstrikes, don't launch airstrikes, what would you say? GEN. RICHARD MYERS (RET.), FORMER JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF CHAIRMAN:

Well, I think there are a range of military options that are available to the president.

And I'm sure General Dempsey, the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the CENTCOM commander are providing those options to him. They could -- from equipping Iraqi forces, providing advice, intelligence, surveillance and recognizance, providing eyes and ears for the Iraqi forces, up to airstrikes.

Airstrikes would be -- require more coordination with Iraqi forces than we're probably capable of right now. So, that would take some time and planning, because your big fear there is you would strike the wrong target.

But those are all, I think, options that will be presented to the president, maybe -- maybe more. I doubt anybody is considering a boots-on-the-ground option.

BLITZER: Yes. No, the president has clearly ruled that out.

Anderson, you're there on the ground. We know that chairman, the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs, he told Congress today that there is a formal request from the government there, from the prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, for U.S. airstrikes. Are people in Baghdad, where you are, the folks you're talking to, what do they want; what do they want the U.S. to do?

Because it's further complicated by Iran potentially getting involved militarily as well.

COOPER: Well, a lot of people you talk on the street say, look, that Iraqis can defend themselves.

But there are very real concerns about the capabilities of the Iraqi military. The fighting that's going on at the oil refinery up in Baiji right now that's said to be a specialized unit, a counterterrorism unit, which is still holding on to part of that refinery, they have been fighting back.

But other forces maintaining roadblocks in the town of Baiji, apparently, according to local reports, abandoned their post, just as we have seen in Mosul and other places. There are very real concerns about whether the Iraqi military, especially in areas, largely Sunni- dominated areas, whether they are really willing to stand up and fight.

In Mosul, a lot of the reports were it wasn't even defections on the battlefield in the battle. It was before battles had even begun, Iraqi officers and then lower-level Iraqi troops taking off.

Nouri al-Maliki tonight announced on television through his so much they were going to investigate 59 high-level military officers and police officials for abandoning their posts. Potential punishments for those officers would be execution. So it just shows you the kind of concern not only among people here,

but even in the Iraqi government here, about the capabilities of their military.

BLITZER: And that's what's so frustrating to so many of us. And, General Myers, I'm sure it is to you as well.

The U.S. spends billions of dollars training and equipping these Iraqi military personnel, and there's a little sign of some trouble for some terrorists who are coming in. Instead of fighting and going to war and defeating these ISIS terrorists, they take off their uniforms, they throw down their weapons and they run away. How do you explain that?

MYERS: Well, I think the way you explain that -- and, by the way, there are some Iraqi -- if you listened to our chairman, General Dempsey, this -- today in front of Congress, he said and I think everybody believes that there are some Iraqi units that can and will fight.

Clearly, that's not been the case across the board, but I think what the missing element is the connectivity between those troops that are forward-deployed out in Mosul and other places and the political apparatus back in Baghdad. And if you don't have -- if you don't have confidence in your political leadership, then you're probably not going to fight for them.

And I think that's what we're seeing at this point. I think President Maliki bears large responsibility for what's happening and for not making sure that connective tissue between high-level policy-makers in Baghdad and troops on the front line is consistent and connected.

BLITZER: Yes, a lot of people have lost total confidence in the prime minister of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki. They don't think he's ever going to be able to get the job done. Certainly not what the U.S. would like to see. We will see if the president conditions U.S. action on doing the right thing in Baghdad.

General Myers, thanks very much.

Anderson, I know you have got a special report coming up 8:00 p.m. Eastern on "A.C. 360." We will of course tune in for that.

Thanks to both of you for joining us.

Just ahead: Hillary Clinton answered an hour of questions live here on CNN. And now she's under fire for some of those answers, not just from Republicans who are complaining. Stand by.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: A day after Hillary Clinton faced a slew of tough questions right here on CNN, some of her answers are raising new questions that could possibly haunt her run for the presidency in 2016, if she runs.

Let's go to our chief congressional correspondent, Dana Bash -- Dana. DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Hillary Clinton is one of the most polarizing figures in politics. And today's blowback is coming from some Latino groups on the issue of immigration.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BASH (voice-over): It was one of Hillary Clinton's most impassioned and human moments from CNN's town hall on President Obama's policy of aggressively deporting illegal immigrants.

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON, FORMER U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: Children coming home from school to an empty house and nobody can say where their mother or father is, that is just not who we are as Americans.

BASH: But moments later, a starkly different take on an exploding crisis, children crossing the border to the U.S. alone, illegally.

CLINTON: They should be sent back as soon as it can be determined who responsible adults in their families are.

BASH: Immigration advocates say she is speaking out of both sides of her mouth.

LORELLA PRAELI, UNITED WE DREAM: If you want Latinos to stand with you, if you want the immigrant community to see you as a champion on this issue, you're going to have to make some difficult choices and you're going to take a firm position.

BASH (on camera): Her book is "Hard Choices."

PRAELI: Yes. Well, it didn't seem that way yesterday.

BASH (voice-over): Then there's Benghazi, the 2012 attack on the U.S. Consulate that killed four Americans on Clinton's watch as secretary of state. Republicans say she still has a lot of explaining to do, so this was music to GOP ears.

CLINTON: There are still some unanswered questions. It was, after all, the fog of war.

BASH: Republicans, convinced Benghazi is Clinton's Achilles' heel, wasted no time saying she's the one who must answer questions.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R), TEXAS: Secretary Clinton from the beginning has stonewalled on this, rather than acting as a partner getting to the bottom of what happened.

BASH: Clinton was cagey as ever about another White House run.

CLINTON: I'm going to think about all that, but not right now.

BASH: But even the most casual observer could see a candidate here distancing herself from the president, recalling how she urged him to arm Syrian rebels, disagreeing with his decision not to.

CLINTON: We pushed very hard. But, as I say in my book, I believe that Harry Truman was right. The buck stops with the president.

BASH: Outside the town hall, a playful made-for-the-cameras moment.

CLINTON: Thank you, Mr. Squirrel.

BASH: Stopping to give her stalker squirrel, really a Republican intern, a copy of her book.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BASH: Confidence is Clinton's calling card. And a new NBC/"Wall Street Journal" poll shows a majority of Americans think she is prepared to be president.

The downside to being an experienced politician, nearly four in 10 Americans worry about whether Clinton can be trusted -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Dana Bash, thanks very much.

Remember, you can always follow us on Twitter. Tweet me @WolfBlitzer. Tweet the show @CNNSITROOM.

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I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. Now let's step into the CROSSFIRE with Stephanie Cutter and S.E. Cupp.