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Interview With State Department Spokeswoman Marie Harf; Iraq in Crisis

Aired June 25, 2014 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now: defending Baghdad. CNN is with Iraqi troops as they try to stave off ISIS militants closing in on the capital. Can the Iraqi army halt the terrorist onslaught?

Life under ISIS -- an exclusive look at the drastic and sometimes deadly changes the militants are bringing to the Iraqi towns they have seized. What do ordinary Iraqis have to do to survive?

Rejected. Iraq's prime minister shuts the door on the idea of an emergency government. Was the Secretary of State John Kerry's mission to Baghdad this week a foreign policy flop?

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

The worst fears of many appear to be coming true, with new evidence the crisis in Iraq is evolving into a broader regional conflict. Iraqi officials say Syrian warplanes, Syrian warplanes carried out a cross-border attack on Iraqi towns, killing at least 57 Iraqi civilians, men, women and children in Iraq and injuring scores of others. This YouTube video allegedly shows victims' bodies being removed in a town near the Iraqi-Syrian border on the Iraqi side.

CNN cannot independently confirm the authenticity of this video. At the same time, a U.S. official tells CNN Iran -- yes, Iran -- is flying surveillance drones over Iraq right now. And amid all of this, ISIS militants are moving closer and closer to Baghdad. That's the capital of Iraq.

Our correspondents are covering all angles of the crisis on the ground in Iraq, as well as here in Washington.

Let's begin with our senior international correspondent, Nic Robertson. He's joining us from Baghdad.

Nic, tell our viewers what you're seeing.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, over the last few weeks, the Iraqi army has had losses all over the country. Now the government says it is strategically withdrawing, retrenching and refocusing and finally after a lot of pushing we got permission to go out with them to what they are saying is the front lines to get a look-see. They are not as tough as you might expect.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) ROBERTSON (voice-over): War is drawing closer to the Iraqi capital. But this aging tank is what's helping defend it. These soldiers and the rest of Al Anbar province are just 35 kilometers, 22 miles, from the center of Baghdad.

After all their American training and the billions of U.S. dollars in equipment, it's them and their Soviet T-54 tank that are now lined up to stop ISIS' advance.

(on camera): That tank round that landed just by the trees on the horizon there, you can see the smoke rising right now. We're told there were snipers in the house there. That's how close ISIS is to the army front lines, just a few hundred meters.

(voice-over): The army brought us here to a tiny Sunni village to show us a recent battlefield gain. They say they chased ISIS out five days ago. This is the tank commander, a Shia from south of Baghdad.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The fight here is good. So, the terrorists cannot fight with us because they lose, they lose the battle with us, because they are chicken, chicken.

ROBERTSON (on camera): They're chicken?


ROBERTSON: But in the north of the country, the army was the chicken.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, no, no. The army is strong.

ROBERTSON: In the north of the country, some of the soldiers ran away, left their weapons. Are you afraid -- you're the commander. Are you afraid you might turn around?




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... in this country.

ROBERTSON (voice-over): The soldiers dance for us, singing an anti- ISIS song, part bravado, part lead your offensive. Following a catastrophic collapse in the west, and Mosul in the north, they want to change their loser's image.

"I can't say anything about Mosul. It's not my responsibility," the colonel in charge tells me. "What happened there will not happen in Baghdad. It will not happen here."

The battle here lasted five hours, we are told, 32 ISIS killed, they say, three dead on the Iraqi side, on the storefronts in the now deserted Sunni village, fresh Shia graffiti. Even their rusting tank carries a Shia flag. The colonel in charge insists this is not a sectarian war. I asked if he wants U.S. airstrikes.

(on camera): Strikes, and do you want the U.S. military advisers that are here? Can they help you?

(voice-over): His answer is simple. "It's not up to me, but my opinion, yes, I want the strikes."

He may well do. Outside of this village, we see very few soldiers. And he left his expensive American Abrams tanks back at base to defend that should the need arise.


ROBERTSON: We were driving around those fields for quite awhile heading towards that front line. And the closer we got, the troops are really scattered.

You get the idea, if the ISIS fighters had an idea about the back lanes there, they could penetrate the holes, never mind the heavy armor that's lined up there. It's a lot more porous than you imagine, Wolf.

BLITZER: Very disturbing. All right, Nic, thanks very much.

Iraqis in cities across the north and the west of the country now find themselves living under ISIS rule. And for many of them, it's a very frightening and potentially deadly situation.

Our senior international correspondent, Arwa Damon, joining us from Irbil in Northern Iraq right now.

What are you finding out there, Arwa?

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: ... understanding of what life under ISIS is like because of the strict regulations that the group has been enforcing in these various areas. But video was smuggled out to us from Mosul that gives us an idea of what residents there are going through.


DAMON (voice-over): Crammed on top of a vehicle in the middle of an ISIS parade in Mosul, the children shout "bakia" (ph). Too young to understand the implications of the single word, which translates to mean "here to stay."

It's the required response, as seen in this horrific video to the statement "Islamic state." The prisoners, Iraqi border guards, later executed, accused of being Shia and working with the Maliki government.

ISIS seems to be on a two-tiered campaign, releasing multiple videos with terrifying images of the fate of those who dare defy them, but also trying to depict themselves as forgiving protectors of the people. This video was posted to YouTube by the Islamic State in Nineveh, which urges people who stood against ISIS to repent.

"And even those that killed from our people, we will form a relationship with that person, if that person goes back to his relationship with God," the masked man states, later seen embracing, piston in hand, those who allegedly did.

ISIS banned journalists and unauthorized filming, but this video shot in secret and exclusively provided to CNN shows one of the mosques where people can repent, later given a piece of paper, as seen in this man's hand, which clears them.

ISIS is also distributing much-needed cooking gas to families, even selling it at a cheaper price than the Iraqi government used to. In a nation where the day-to-day basics are such a necessity for survival, acts like this do garner goodwill.

But ISIS is also implementing its harsh interpretation of Islamic law, obligatory prayers for all and banning women from movement outside their home without a male guardian.


DAMON: And, Wolf, we just also received more video that is of what was Mosul's entertainment district. This is a street that is lined with restaurants. It has an amusement park. Normally, it would be packed with families, but now, under ISIS, it has been transformed into one of the areas where they conduct their public preachings.

And it is crawling with gunmen. We spoke to two men from Mosul who remember that area as being a place where they used to celebrate. It's filled with joyful memories for them. And for them to see images of it like this, they say it pains them in a way they cannot even begin to describe -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Heartbreaking stories. Arwa, thanks very much, Arwa Damon in Irbil, Northern Iraq.

Still ahead: Iraq's sectarian scenes are unraveling. And they could be dividing the country actually into three. Would that end this increasingly deadly conflict?

Plus, a huge blow to U.S. efforts to contain the crisis in Iraq, the prime minister of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki, rejecting calls for an emergency government of national unity. Was John Kerry's Baghdad mission a failure? I will ask the State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf. She's here walking into THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

Marie, welcome.



BLITZER: It's a real potential for policy disaster for the United States, the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, now rejecting calls for an emergency government, calling it -- quote -- "a coup," a coup against Iraq's constitution.

This comes just days after the secretary of state, John Kerry, pressed Nouri al-Maliki to reach out to Sunnis, to Kurds, everyone in Iraq to form a new coalition.

I will talk about that with John Kerry's deputy spokeswoman, Marie Harf. She's here in THE SITUATION ROOM. We will discuss in just a moment.

But, first, CNN's Brian Todd is also here with a closer look at what some say may be the best way out of this crisis, simply splitting Iraq in three.

Brian, tell us what this is all about.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this is about dividing, separating Iraq into Shia, Sunni and Kurdish regions, all responsible for their own destiny. Some argue that will make this place more violent. Others say we're already there. Why devote more blood and treasure trying to hold it all together?


TODD (voice-over): On the ground, a convulsing spiral of violence. ISIS militants overrun crucial Iraqi territory, a sectarian war unfolding.

Now some influential voices are reviving an idea floated in the early stages of the Iraq war and at the height of the insurgency, when U.S. troops were being killed every day. Stop trying to hold Iraq together.

PETER GALBRAITH, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR: The United States should not be in the business of trying to put together a country that has broken up.

TODD: Former Ambassador Peter Galbraith, now an adviser to Iraqi Kurdish leaders, advocates dividing Iraq into three sections, split along religious and ethnic lines, a Shia region in the southeast shown here in blue, a Sunni region in the north and west shown in orange, and a Kurdish region in the northeast in yellow.

It's close to how Iraq is divided right now. Each region would be self-governing.

GALBRAITH: You might have the possibility that the local folks, the Iraqis would be able to take control of their own destiny.

TODD: But a central government in Baghdad would still enforce the borders, control foreign policy, divide up oil revenues between the three groups. Galbraith argues the Kurds already have a strong government supported by oil money.

GALBRAITH: It has its own military, the Peshmerga. And when ISIS approached the Peshmerga, the Peshmerga made clear that they were going to resist. ISIS didn't attack. TODD: In 2006, Joe Biden was one of the strongest backers of the idea

to divide Iraq.

JOSEPH BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You have got to give these three sectors, Shia, Sunni and Kurds, breathing room so their main purpose is not to try to kill one another.

TODD: How does he feel now? Contacted by CNN, the vice president's office wouldn't comment. The Obama administration says they are all on the same page.

JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: We have an interest in a government that can unite Iraqis.

TODD: Some experts feel dividing Iraq into three would not end the fighting.

COL. PETER MANSOOR (RET.), U.S. ARMY: The boundaries between the Sunni areas of Iraq and the Shia areas of Iraq would have constant fighting and bloodshed. So, I think a three-state solution is actually a recipe for instability, not a recipe to solve this crisis.


TODD: Plus, Colonel Peter Mansoor says to enforce these borders and then to ensure that Sunnis and Shias in Iraq will not kill each other, you would need a peacekeeping force. He argues there is not a peacekeeping force big enough to do that job and he says who would sign up for it, Wolf?

BLITZER: Brian Todd, thanks very much for that perspective.

Let's dig a little bit deeper here.

Joining us here in THE SITUATION ROOM, the deputy spokeswoman over at the State Department, Marie Harf.

Thanks so much, Marie, for coming in.

HARF: Sure.

BLITZER: All right, so you believe -- do you believe that dividing Iraq, as Joe Biden recommended when he was a senator in 2006, into three parts is potentially a good idea?

HARF: We really don't, Wolf.

Our position has been very consistent across the administration, that the strongest Iraq is a unified Iraq. And all of Iraq's leaders, from the Kurds, the Shia, and the Sunni, have said they are committed to forming an inclusive government that includes all parts of Iraq. And that's certainly what we're still focused on.

BLITZER: So was Joe Biden wrong in -- I know he's the vice president of the United States. It's probably awkward for you to acknowledge it. You it sounds like if the State Department thinks that Iraq should not be partitioned into three, it believes, the administration believes he was wrong.

HARF: Well, the whole administration believes that Iraq should remain unified from the top on down.

I can guarantee that we're all on the same page on that. And I know there's different opinions out there about what should happen, but we have been very clear again that a strong Iraq needs to be unified, needs to be led by a central government that includes all of Iraq's parties.

BLITZER: As you know, the secretary of state makes a dangerous visit to Baghdad, risks his life to go there in secrecy, can't even tell the world he's going there, it's so dangerous.

HARF: Yes.

BLITZER: He meets with Nouri al-Maliki. He says you have got to form a new government. You got to have an inclusive government of national unity. Nouri al-Maliki today goes on national television and says not going to happen, rebuffing what the secretary of state, speaking for the American government, appealed to him to do. Your reaction?

HARF: Well, I think there was actually some confusion about what Prime Minister Maliki said.

He rejected this notion of an extraconstitutional emergency government. Actually, what he said today was that he supports the formation of an inclusive government under Iraq's constitutional process, which is exactly the commitment he made to the secretary, which is exactly the commitment we were asking him to make. So, I think there was a little confusion about what he was saying.


BLITZER: But you admit there's an emergency under way right now.

HARF: Absolutely.

BLITZER: This is not a normal situation where you can just get a bunch of political parties together and form a coalition. You have an emergency.

HARF: Absolutely.

BLITZER: The country is on fire. People are dying. Baghdad is in trouble right now. They got to do something. And he seems to be living in a different world.

HARF: Well, not at all.

Look, we believe there has to be a government formed very quickly, absolutely, because, as you said, it's an emergency. But we believe the process that needs to happen under is the constitutional process that all of the different parties have bought into. He certainly today, when he spoke, talked about his commitment to that and that's the commitment he made to the secretary.

But, to be very clear, I think we're going to see in the coming days whether all of Iraq's leaders are committed to this, because that's exactly what needs to happen.

BLITZER: Do you believe, speaking for the State Department, it's time for Nouri al-Maliki to step down?

HARF: It's not for us to decide who is going to be prime minister of Iraq. It's for the Iraqis to decide.

They had an election. It's a process they have in place, again, this constitutional process, to choose their new prime minister. And really it's up for them to decide. But whoever that is, whoever that is, it needs to be someone who will govern inclusively, which we haven't seen, quite frankly, over the past few years.

BLITZER: The Syrian air force now attacking ISIS positions inside Iraq, the Iranians sending drones over, arming elements to go over after these ISIS terrorists inside Iraq, is that good?

HARF: Well, let's be clear, Wolf.

The solution to Iraq's security problems is not the Assad regime and it's not militias backed by other countries. What it is...

BLITZER: Backed by Iran, you mean.

HARF: Backed by any other country.

And what we have said countries in the region need to do, any country, including Iran, need to play constructive roles in promoting a government that's inclusive.

BLITZER: Is Iran doing that?

HARF: Well, that's certainly what we have called on them to do. I think we still have some questions, quite frankly, about what Iran is doing.

BLITZER: What are your questions?

HARF: Well, exactly what they are doing there.

But, again, Iraq's problems need to be solved first and foremost by Iraq's political leaders stepping up and by Iraq's army stepping up. We're going to help it do that. But this is a problem Iraqis themselves, not any other country, including the United States, can fix.

BLITZER: Marie Harf, thanks very much for coming in.

HARF: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: We're counting on you. We're counting on everyone to -- this is a horrible, horrible crisis that's under way right now.

HARF: It is. And that's why the secretary was eager to go there and have these conversations on the ground, because it's so crucial.

BLITZER: Well, let's if Nouri al-Maliki does anything. I'm worried that he won't. But we will see if he does anything positive. Thanks very much.

HARF: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Just ahead, there's fresh fallout from that bite seen around the world. We have details of new developments in a World Cup controversy. Our own Rachel Nichols is standing by live.


BLITZER: New developments in the shocking World Cup controversy.

CNN's Rachel Nichols is joining us.

Rachel, this bizarre incident, the Uruguayan player allegedly biting an Italian player. We're hearing now there could be some serious repercussions. Explain what's going on.

RACHEL NICHOLS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, FIFA launched an investigation into this.

The disciplinary committee is taking a look at it. In fact, just an hour ago was the deadline for Luis Suarez to submit his defense from this act. And from what's been leaking out in dribs and drabs, I have to tell you, Wolf, it's not very convincing to me.

First, he told a Spanish-language newspaper that the defender's soldier ran into his teeth. This is kind of like telling, hey, officer, the light post, it just ran into my car. Right? Not very compelling.

And then the Uruguayan Federation, some of their officials have told some other newspapers that they are submitting that the photos of the bite marks, the ones you're seeing right now, were Photoshopped, again, not very convincing. And, remember, the FIFA disciplinary committee can look at this player's past incidents.

This is the third time, Wolf, that he's been accused of biting an opponent. His nickname is the cannibal. I'm not sure that's going to give you a fair trial.

BLITZER: Yes, I suspect there's some smoke there. If there's a lot of smoke, there might be some fire.

All right, let's talk a little bit about the big game tomorrow, USA- Germany, obviously a lot on the line. A little trash talking going on between the German mission to the United Nations, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Here's from the German mission a tweet, Ambassador Braun getting ready for the big match, Germany-USA. "Shall we go through the rules again, Ambassador Power?" Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., then responding: "Hey, Germany U.N., care to wager a case of Brooklyn Brewery beer that team USA wins on Thursday? #Ibelievethatwecanwin."

Give us a preview of the big game tomorrow.

NICHOLS: Well, Germany is one of the elite teams in the tournament. They are a high-scoring, aggressive team, except -- here's the thing. Both Germany and the U.S. can advance if they draw.

So if it's a 0-0 tie, both teams move on. That means what you would normally expect, an aggressive high-scoring, possibly, game, instead, don't be surprised if you see a 0-0 or 1-1 game while both teams basically just try to protect what they have and move on to the next round. Of course, the only exception is if one team finds itself behind, expect a scramble.

And, remember, the United States, they are without Jozy Altidore, their prime scorer. So this is going to be another test for them, especially coming off that last match. They played in the Amazon jungle. They are on a day less rest than Germany, but they believe that they can win. And, frankly, Wolf, they don't even really have to. They just have to tie. They can even lose the match and still advance.

BLITZER: It sounds so strange to hear people suggesting they just want to play for a tie. Those of us who follow American sports, we never want to see a tie. This is -- but in soccer, it is different.

NICHOLS: Absolutely. And the fact that they can lose and move on is, it's just what part of round-robin play is about. It's because they have accomplished enough in their first couple games that they cannot have the best result in this game and still move on.

I think of all the different scenarios -- and, trust me, there are a lot of them -- there's a 75 percent chance that they will move on from this game into the next round, so, certainly, what a lot of American fans are hoping for. And it's just a reminder that even if things look bleak at some point during the match, don't clutch your chest. Don't worry too much, no tears, because even if they lose, there's still a good chance they will advance. We will have to see what happens.

BLITZER: We will see what happens tomorrow. Rachel, we will check back with you. Thank you very much.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. Please be sure to join us in "THE SITUATION " Monday through Friday. Watch us live. DVR the show so you won't miss a moment. I'm Wolf Blitzer in "THE SITUATION ROOM." Now let's step into the CROSSFIRE with S.E. Cupp.