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Interview With Michigan Congressman Mike Rogers; Battle Against ISIS; Vikings Reverse Course, Bar Peterson; Players Association Appeals Rice Suspension; Major Wildfires Burning in California

Aired September 17, 2014 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Airline threat. Officials tell lawmakers al Qaeda is determined to target U.S. flights. Is it a bigger threat to homeland security than ISIS?

Sudden reversal. The Minnesota Vikings announce running back Adrian Peterson won't play this weekend after all in the wake of a child abuse charge, but who made that decision?

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We're following breaking news.

Fresh U.S. airstrikes against ISIS as Iraq's army retakes areas previously held by the terrorists. The U.S. military reports seven attacks destroying ISIS units and vehicles including four strikes near Baghdad. They come as President Obama visited the U.S. military's CENTCOM. That's the headquarters of the war against ISIS.

We're covering the story and more with all of our reporters and guests in key locations.

Our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr begins our coverage.

What's the latest there, Barbara?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it was an important visual optic for President Obama talking to the troops and of course to the American people about what the U.S. military will and will not do in the war against ISIS.


STARR (voice-over): A rousing welcome for the president at Central Command, the military headquarters planning the war against ISIS, and a promise to the troops.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: As your commander in chief, I will not commit you and the rest of our armed forces to fighting another ground war in Iraq. STARR: The president has insisted from the start no U.S. troops

on the ground in combat. The U.S. will have other roles as part of a coalition. But his top military adviser said, if that doesn't work:

GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF CHAIRMAN: If it fails to be true and if there are threats to the United States, then I of course would go back to the president and make a recommendation that may include the use of U.S. military ground forces.

STARR: Administration officials continued to insist ground forces might only be used as advisers in Iraq, if Iraqi forces need them on the front line.

OBAMA: Whether in Iraq or in Syria, these terrorists will learn the same thing that the leaders of al Qaeda already know, we mean what we say. Our reach is long. If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven. We will find you eventually.


STARR: At CENTCOM, Obama was briefed on the bombing of ISIS targets in Iraq and plans to extend the bombing campaign into Syria. If President Obama approves strikes in Syria, the initial bombing could begin in days, two U.S. officials tell CNN. A major challenge, striking ISIS while not inadvertently killing Syrian civilians. ISIS has been moving into towns, making precision strikes very tough.

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: When you're talking about entering a country that is involved in a civil war with many, many sides competing against each other, you better have your act together before you strike.

STARR: ISIS is showing its firepower. The wreckage of a Syrian fighter jet ISIS says it shot down near Raqqa, the terrorist group's stronghold, one of the first places the U.S. may hit.


STARR: Now, President Obama still has to specifically authorize airstrikes against targets in Syria. Once he does that, if he does that, then military commanders will decide when and where to exactly begin the next phase of the war against ISIS -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And knowing his military planners, I assume they already have a bunch of potential targets in Syria, if they get the approval from the president. Barbara, thanks very much.

But is the White House making a mistake by ruling out a combat role for U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq?

Our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, is working this part of the story.

What are you picking up, Jim?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Clearly, the administration is making two distinctions here. They're saying one, this will not be a large ground invasion of Iraq a la the Gulf War in 1991 or the Iraq invasion of 2003. That's one distinction.

Two, they're making a distinction between a combat mission and being in combat. They say U.S. forces there will not have a combat mission, they won't be setting up firing positions, et cetera, but they may indeed be in combat. Josh Earnest saying to you on your broadcast just a short time ago, saying those troops may forward deploy, they may call in airstrikes, they may be advising forward- deployed troops.

For folks like you and me who have covered combat before, you know that you don't have to be filling a combat mission in combat to face danger in combat. These guys will be getting shot at. Whether they violates the spirit of the promise, the pledge the president made to have no combat troops, that's for folks at home to decide. But it's clearly at a minimum caused confusion even among members of his own party.

BLITZER: And the president did get what he wanted, a vote in the House of Representatives, impressive vote authorizing the arming and the training of those moderate Syrian rebels.

SCIUTTO: That's right. It's interesting, as Dana Bash noted on the air, that you had more Democrats voting against it than you had Republicans. A rare expression of bipartisanship, both in the vote for this and the vote against it. And then of course John Boehner taking the rare opportunity to vote himself on something and obviously he wanted to make a political statement.

BLITZER: The president is also continuing, I guess, in a sort of way even though he said the U.S. has unique capabilities, to argue what he said at West Point back in May, that the United States can't be the world's policemen.

SCIUTTO: Well, that's exactly right. He's making two -- again, two distinctions here, saying in this case the U.S. is not acting alone. It has this coalition of the willing that includes partners in the region. So it's not the U.S. working as the world's policemen unilaterally.

That's one point. Also, he makes the point this is not the U.S. in effect just settling Iraq's problems for it, but that the president has identified a risk to U.S. national security, that is ISIS, and therefore by acting here, it's not being the world's policemen, it's being the policemen for America's security interests abroad.

BLITZER: Jim Sciutto, thanks very much.

There are certainly grave concern about ISIS, but it's not necessarily the biggest terror threat facing the United States.

Our justice correspondent, Pamela Brown, is joining us.

Pam, tell us what you're learning. PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, today, U.S.

officials made it clear in a hearing that the biggest threat that ISIS and other terrorist groups pose to the U.S. is not a large sophisticate attack from the terrorist group, but a homegrown violent extremist who single-handedly launch an attack on the U.S.

And officials say right now, ISIS and al Qaeda are competing to be the heir to Osama bin Laden.


BROWN (voice-over): From the battlefield of Syria and Iraq, to the skies over the U.S., officials say the fight to protect Americans is happening on two major fronts between al Qaeda and ISIS.

JEH JOHNSON, U.S. SECRETARY OF HOMELAND SECURITY: These groups are in competition with one another for attention, for fund-raising, for recruitment.

BROWN: Officials say al Qaeda and its affiliates are still intent on targeting U.S. flights.

MATTHEW OLSEN, NATIONAL COUNTERTERRORISM DIRECTOR: Al Qaeda core continues to support attacking the West and for now remains the recognized leader of a global jihadist movement.

BROWN: Al Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula in Yemen is constantly creating easily concealed bombs that could be carried onto a plane according to officials.

OLSEN: Over the past five years, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has sought on three times to take down an airplane bound for the United States.

BROWN: U.S. officials say they're especially concerned about homegrown violent extremists, with hundreds of individuals in the U.S. right now identified as potential lone wolves, vulnerable to the aggressive social media campaign from ISIS urging attacks in America.

OLSEN: It operates the most sophisticated propaganda machine of any terrorist organization. It turns out timely high-quality media and it uses social media to secure a widespread following.

BROWN: Officials worry the most about individuals not affiliated with the terror group, working under the radar online to plot and plan attacks.

JAMES COMEY, FBI DIRECTOR: Someone can do it in their pajamas in their basement and in a way that is very hard way for us to spot from the time they emerge from their basement and maybe kill innocent Americans.

BROWN: Tuesday, this Rochester man was indicted on terrorism charges. He pleaded not guilty, but federal authorities say he wanted to attack returning U.S. soldiers and recruit people to join ISIS. So far the FBI has arrested more than half a dozen Americans allegedly wanting to travel to Syria. Law enforcement forces say there are several open cases on returning fighters, but officials acknowledge it's what they don't know that worries them the most.

OLSEN: We estimate over 100 Americans have traveled to Syria to join with extremist groups. Once in Syria, it's very difficult to discern what happens there.


BROWN: Officials say in response to the terrorism concerns, aviation security has been increased at home and abroad and they're also boosting community relations and raising awareness in communities vulnerable to terrorist recruiting.

And they're also focused on tracking travelers to and from Turkey. But, Wolf, the bottom line that came out in this hearing today is that there is no known imminent threat from ISIS at this point.

BLITZER: At this point, key words there. Pamela Brown, thanks very much.

Let's talk about all of this with the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Republican Congressman Mike Rogers of Michigan.

Mr. Chairman, thanks very much for joining us.

REP. MIKE ROGERS (R-MI), CHAIR, HOUSE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: Wolf, it's great to be here. Thanks.

BLITZER: So is al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, AQAP, as it's called, a bigger threat than ISIS is right now to the U.S. homeland?

ROGERS: It's a more immediate threat.

You can't really say it's a bigger threat. We know there are threat streams that AQAP, the al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, are engaged in this next generation of what they believe is air flight attacks. We saw some disturbing trends. They have reached out to al- Nusra and its affiliates in Syria, which tells you what a cauldron that Syria is.

But we should make no mistake. One of the things the 9/11 Commission said right after when their report came out is that the U.S. intelligence services lacked imagination about putting all the pieces together for somebody getting on an airplane and flying into a building.

You look at what ISIS has. They have time, space. They have money, more money than they know what to do with, really, and they have access to jihadists with Western passports. Doesn't take much imagination to understand what the threat is.

BLITZER: I was sort of surprised to hear the head of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center testify before Congress today saying that al Qaeda right now is trying as best as they can still to attack U.S. commercial aviation. How much of a problem is that?

ROGERS: It's a huge problem.

They have dedicated themselves to do it. Remember, one of the threats that rose up with Awlaki that was killed in the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen, as that he was really focused on this airliner attack. So he did the -- they call it the ink cartridge bomb designed bomb to try to get those on airplanes. Thankfully, that was disrupted.

He's the one that designed, recruited and implemented the individual who got on the airplane to fly to Detroit that was also known as the underwear bomber that was supposed to blow up over the city of Detroit while the plane was landing. He had a fixation on it. And that just goes down the road. His successors also that have same fixation.

The problem is the scientists, if you will, the ones that were working on those kinds of bombs, they're still there and they're still doing it. And we know they're reaching out, saying, hey, we're getting close. We want to be able to do this. That's what concerns us about the al Qaeda attacks.

BLITZER: What do you make of this man from Rochester, New York, a naturalized American city, born in Yemen, now charged, accused of supporting ISIS? The NYPD commissioner, Bill Bratton, warning ISIS would be more into that lone wolf, as they say, model. How much of a concern is there that these isolated homegrown terrorists, if you will, could pose a real threat?

ROGERS: Yes, homegrown but they're radicalized through this global network of social media and other means, including very sophisticated English presentations, Arabic, other -- literally dozens of other languages where they're targeting Westerners, they're targeting Americans, people who have transmitted Yemen or other countries of interest.

They're targeting those individuals and they're targeting with this jihadist extremist message. Our fear is it's going to catch and somebody is going to adopt that message and decide they want to participate in this. That's what our concern is. And I think the FBI director, if I heard earlier, was highlighting that.

This is a very difficult problem. You don't know when that switch is flipped. If you look at the Tsarnaev brothers in Boston, the FBI was on to that particular case, but in all their domestic investigation couldn't find anything that would allow them to be more aggressive with a United States citizen. That's what the challenge is for our local law enforcement and it's a challenge.

BLITZER: Yesterday, the chairman the Joint Chiefs, General Martin Dempsey, left open the door somewhat for the possibility of U.S. combat troops if necessary, might have to make that recommendation to the president. Has there been any recent intelligence assessments that would have caused him, for example, to make that kind of statement in his opening prepared remarks that the U.S. might, down the road, have to use ground combat forces?

ROGERS: Yes. And I always this is a little bit crazy that we try to get into this what is a boot on the ground, what is not a boot on the ground, is it five guys, 100 guys, 200 guys?

This is really the wrong debate. Unfortunately, I think the president confuses this issue when he goes even to CENTCOM today and say I'm not going to get you in a ground war.

Listen, what we need to do is say, we're going to defeat ISIS. That's what we're going to do. We're going to do it together. We're going to bring in these coalition forces. We don't think it's going to need big units, 101st Airborne division, the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. We don't believe that.

But it may require our special capabilities soldiers and intelligence officials going downrange, if you will, to make sure that we are effective in what we're trying to do. And when you confuse that issue, if somebody is downrange and somebody gets hurt, people are going to say, but you told us there was -- this is why this is a problem.

We need to state the objective, we need to kind of lay out a plan to the American people how we're going to do it. Today was a first step. This wasn't the only step, this training of Syrian rebels, who are now fighting both ISIS, Al-Nusra Front, al Qaeda in Syria, oh, and the Assad regime all at the same time.

These are folks that we can work with and train and we think get steered in the right direction.

BLITZER: Let me just challenge you on that point, because a lot of the analysts -- and you're privy to the best U.S. intelligence, Mr. Chairman. A lot of the analysts say the Free Syrian Army, these moderate Syrian groups, they will in fact try to beat back Bashar al- Assad's regime. But that's their main priority. They're not really going after al-Nusra and they're not really going after ISIS in Syria.

ROGERS: There is some of that.

Here is the problem in Syria. You have just about every flavor of terrorist that's been created is there. So you have Hezbollah, you have al-Nusra, al-Sham. You have certainly ISIL. There are other factions and splinter groups. There are groups that have joined with Assad that they don't even like Assad, but they don't like ISIS even more.

It's a very complicated recipe there. There is a group of individuals that the United States is aware of and has certain relationships with that fit the criteria of individuals you would say, this is the kind of group, their thinking -- they understand their challenges. Yes, they want to unseat Assad, but they're very concerned about this rising tide in the east, that given the right circumstances and right training, the right help from Americans -- and that might even mean somebody downrange them be effective, not necessarily in the fight. That is a recipe for success if all of those things happen. So,

I think that is what people are talking about. Yes, you could find any group in there that you would be in shock of that an American would even walk through the camp. But there are individuals there that fit this criteria that can be vetted that we believe that we could get trained and get downrange to effectively start to begin to beat back and defeat ISIL forces that are on the move in Syria.

Remember, that's their nest. That's their logistic hub. That's why it's so important to get them there, as well as Iraq.

BLITZER: I don't know how busy you are up there, if you got votes or anything. I would love you to stick around if you can. We have a major interview coming up. A top Kurdish official is now visiting Washington. He's getting ready to meet with officials in the administration and meet with members of Congress. We are going to speak with him.

Mr. Chairman, if you can stick around, I would love to get your reaction to what we're about to hear.

Stay with us.


BLITZER: We're following the breaking news.

Seven new U.S. airstrikes on ISIS targets in Iraq coming as President Obama vows U.S. troops will not face another ground war in that country. That leaves Iraqi and Kurdish forces to directly take on ISIS. Can they defeat the terrorists on their own since no other countries in the region or from Europe, no NATO allies, not the United States are ready to engage in ground operations against ISIS in Iraq?

Let's talk about that with Fuad Hussein. He's the chief of staff to the president of the Kurdish regional authority, Massoud Barzani.

Mr. Hussein is here in Washington right now.

Thanks so much for joining us.


BLITZER: I'm very worried about what's going on in Iraq. And you obviously live there, Kurdistan, which is part of Iraq.

Do you have confidence that the new Iraqi government, the new prime minister, al-Abadi, will be any better than Nouri al-Maliki, who turned out to be a disaster?

HUSSEIN: The new government must be committed to the constitution of the country, and there must be a partnership in the government. If we will have that, then we are talking about a change.

(CROSSTALK) BLITZER: What if you don't have that? Because a lot of experts

I have spoken to, Iraqi Sunnis, I have spoken to Kurds, some of your fellow Kurds, they are not very confident that Haider al-Abadi is any better than Nouri al-Maliki.

HUSSEIN: Haider al-Abadi is facing a huge problem. Nouri al- Maliki destroyed the country and left it for others. And Haider al- Abadi must be in charge and take care of this situation.

But Haider al-Abadi, alone, he cannot make it. He needs the Kurds to be with him. But at the same time, he must be committed to the constitution and try to solve the problem which has been left or has been created by Maliki.

BLITZER: What if he doesn't?

HUSSEIN: If he will not do that, then that means Iraq is going to a different situation, and I am afraid that it will be difficult to talk about a united Iraq.

BLITZER: What would Kurdistan do?

HUSSEIN: We are going to help him. We're going to be part of this new process in Baghdad.

And we hope that we can reach the results. First, we must work together. And that is the first step, working together, and then trying to solve the problems. The problems has not only to do with Baghdad and the Kurds, but we are now facing the terrorists group ISIS. So we must fight also ISIS and to clear the country from ISIS.

BLITZER: How much time does he have, the new prime minister of Iraq, to prove to you, the Kurds, that he's serious, he wants to unite the country?

HUSSEIN: We need the first step from his side. That is not so difficult.

First step has to do with the fact that the Iraqi government cut our budget, so he must solve that problem. And then trying to have another steps towards solving the problem, which has to do with disputed area with Peshmerga forces, with oil and gas issues. It is up to him to have the first steps. And when he will have the first steps toward solving the problem, of course we will be there. If not, then there will be a different story.

BLITZER: There will be an effort I assume by Kurdistan to break away.

Is it open-ended or are you setting some sort of timeline in which he can prove that he's willing to try to unite Iraq?

HUSSEIN: We're not talking about breaking away. We're talking in the first place about solving the problem.

If he wants to keep Iraq united, then we must be committed to the constitution. And that means to have a federal structure in Iraq. To keep Iraq centralized and under this condition, Iraq will not function. Iraq became a failure state. We must change the situation from a failure state to a functional state.

BLITZER: How much time does he have?

HUSSEIN: I think he's got -- in the first place, we said three months. So if in these three months he will have -- he can solve some issues, then, of course, there will be a chance for him to continue.

BLITZER: And if in the next 90 days, three months, he doesn't get the job done, what will the people of Kurdistan do?

HUSSEIN: If he doesn't do that, then I think we have got various options.

One of the options has to do with a political process, our position within the political process and within the government. We must take that into consideration. And, second, of course, always we are going back to our people to ask our people about the next step.

BLITZER: If he doesn't do anything, and I'm personally not optimistic that he will do anything -- but let's say he doesn't do anything in the next three months. Will Kurdistan leave Iraq?

HUSSEIN: Well, first, we must give him the chance.

BLITZER: Give him the chance. Let's see if he does it, what the U.S. wants, what the Kurds want, the Sunnis want, what everybody wants. Let's see if he does it.

But if he doesn't over the next three months, will Kurdistan, will the people of Kurdistan leave Iraq and create some sort of independent country?

HUSSEIN: If he cannot manage it the next three months or the next six months, then I think Iraq will be a different Iraq. We are not going to decide about the future of Iraq. But if he cannot manage it, then Iraq will be a different Iraq. That means the Sunnis and the Shia, they cannot be together in Iraq.

When they will not be together in Iraq, that means you will have different Iraq.

BLITZER: So there will be basically a Sunni part and a Shiite part of Iraq and there will be, for all practical purposes, an independent Kurdish enclave that will emerge, is that right?

HUSSEIN: Kurdish independence has to do with the vote of the people. And it's the right of self-determination.


BLITZER: You see a vote in Scotland that is about to take place to secede, to leave the United Kingdom. Will there be a vote in Kurdistan to leave Iraq? HUSSEIN: If we reach that stage, we must go back to our people

and have a referendum. And our people will decide about leaving Iraq or not. It is up to Kurdistani people.


BLITZER: So, there would be a vote. Is it three months or six months? Because you just said six months.


HUSSEIN: I mean, you see, the first step that must be taken through six months -- three months. If we see positive steps, then of course he will have the chance and we will continue with him. If he's not going to do anything, then it will be different.

BLITZER: Then it will be different. Then you get -- within the next three months, in other words, within the six-month period, there could be elections, there could be a referendum in Kurdistan to leave Iraq?

HUSSEIN: Then after that, we are going to take steps to decide how are we going to deal with the political process in Baghdad. And when we will decide about that, then we will have the next step, which has to do with the referendum.

BLITZER: Obviously, the pressure is now on this new Iraqi government to do the right thing, to unite the country. We will see if they can do it in the next three months.


HUSSEIN: But the new Iraq government, we are also there.

BLITZER: I know.

HUSSEIN: It's not only Abadi. We are there.


BLITZER: Of course you are. Let's see if they do it. Let's see if Haider al-Abadi is any better than Nouri al-Maliki. We all hope he is.

One final question before I let you go, Mr. Hussein. The huge Iraqi military right now, is it doing anything to help protect the Kurdish people?

HUSSEIN: There is a fact that the Iraqi army collapsed in June when ISIS occupied Mosul.

There are some units of Iraqi army, but most of the time, most of the period they are in Baghdad and other parts of Iraq. So in Kurdish area, the main force and sometimes the only force which is fighting ISIS is Kurdish Peshmerga. Sometimes, some units from Iraqi army are coming there symbolically to be part of... (CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: But they're really not doing again.


BLITZER: That's shocking to me that for 10 years the United States trained 200,000, 300,000 Iraqi military personnel, armed them, spent billions of dollars trying to create an Iraqi military and then in the face of this threat from ISIS, they simply collapsed.

HUSSEIN: Collapsed and all those weapons.


BLITZER: And all those weapons that the United States -- those tanks, armored personnel carriers taken over by ISIS.

HUSSEIN: That's right.

BLITZER: They now control the second largest city of Iraq, Mosul.


BLITZER: And they're threatening Baghdad. The U.S. is bombing ISIS targets around Baghdad, the largest city in Iraq, the capital right now.

Good luck to you. Good luck to all the people of Kurdistan. Mr. Hussein, thanks for coming in.


HUSSEIN: Thank you.

BLITZER: Fuad Hussan is the chief of staff for the president of the Kurdistan region of government. We just heard him say three months for this Iraqi government to do the right thing. Otherwise, Kurdistan might have no choice but to have a referendum and potentially break away from Iraq.

We'll have more on the breaking news. The U.S. military's Central Command reporting seven new air strikes against air strikes, including two northwest of Erbil, the capital of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region.

CNN's Anna Coren is there. Anna, we're going to get to the air strikes in a second, but first, give me your reaction, because you've spent a lot of time with the Peshmerga on the front lines. You've met with all the top Kurdish leaders. We just heard what I see as a direct threat to the new Iraqi government from this top official from Kurdistan: "You have three months to do the right thing."

ANNA COREN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, for sure. We spent time with Dr. Hussan, and he has said just that, three months for Iraq to get their act together and, as you say, you know, provide them with their budgets that haven't been paid since the beginning of the year to divvy up the share of oil and gas revenues.

These are issues and demands that the Kurds need to have met. When we sat down with the Kurdish president, President Barzani, a few days ago, he also said, you know, "We are willing to work with the Iraqi government, but they have to give us what we want if they -- if they expect us to stay with them."

So you know, I know that Dr. Hussein was sort of avoiding the question, but certainly, there is a push here, Wolf -- there is no doubt about it -- for Kurdistan to be its own entity, to break away from Iraq.

Obviously, they know it's important for them to fight ISIS together, to be unified. There's pressure from the United States to stay together. Because obviously, breaking away would cause many regional problems. But without doubt, there is a huge push by the people of Kurdistan to break away.

And you mentioned the Iraqi security forces, they are nowhere to be seen up here, Wolf. Nowhere at all. Yes, they had 200 Iraqi commandos take part in the operation at Mosul then. But other than that, you know, the operation that we're going out with the Peshmerga, embedded with them, it is just the Peshmerga. The Kurdish forces who are on the ground, taking the fight directly to ISIS with the help of those critical U.S. air strikes.

We've heard from U.S. Central Command, Wolf, there have now been 174 U.S. air strikes to date, many of them focused around here, Erbil, which is where ISIS is well and truly giving in.

BLITZER: It's shocking to me that this huge Iraqi military is doing nothing to protect Iraqi citizens -- Kurds are Iraqi citizens -- in the north where you are. Anna, thanks very much.

We're going to talk about all of this coming up. The former commander of U.S. military's Central Command, General Anthony Zinni -- there you see him -- he's standing by live. We'll discuss the breaking news.

Plus, a very different story: the owners of the Minnesota Vikings now say they made a mistake on their handling of the Adrian Peterson child abuse scandal. We have details of how they say they're trying to make it right.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: More now on the breaking news. The U.S. military

Central Command announcing it's conducted more air strikes on ISIS targets in Iraq, not only in the north but around Baghdad, as well.

Let's bring in our CNN chief political analyst, Gloria Borger, along with retired U.S. General Anthony Zinni. He's a former CentCom commander in chief, now on the board of governors in the Middle East Institute. He's also the author of a brand-new, very important book -- I recommend it highly -- entitled, "Before the First Shots Are Fired." There you see the book jacket. Right there.

First of all, let me get your quick reaction. I think I heard of a sort of threat from this Kurdish leader that, if the new government of Baghdad doesn't get its act together in the next three months to do the right thing, vis-a-vis the Sunnis, even to the Kurds, there's going to be a referendum in Kurdistan that could lead to the breakaway of Kurdistan from Iraq. What was your reaction?

GEN. ANTHONY ZINNI (RET.), U.S. ARMY: Well, I think the -- what you're seeing is not only the Kurds, but you would probably see the same reaction from the Sunni provinces also, like Anbar and others.

If the new government in Iraq can't demonstrate they're going to be inclusive, share resources and revenue, give more authority down to the district levels, you're going to see the splitting of Iraq, pretty clearly.

And I think the Kurds probably don't want Iraqi forces protecting them. They'd rather have their own Peshmerga armed and protect themselves. They've been down this road before. And there's very little trust left in Baghdad.

BLITZER: What would that mean for the region if Iraq basically split up into a Kurdish area, a Shiite area and a Sunni area? That's something Joe Biden, the vice president, was talking about a few years ago.

ZINNI: Well, I would hope that, if they can't quite come to agreement to reform Iraq like it was, that maybe they can use a model like the United Arab Emirates, where it's a loose federation. There's some authority within the federal government but a great deal of autonomy down to the -- what will be the Sunni south, the -- excuse me, the Shia south, the Sunni west and the Kurdish north.

It's a big step to go to full autonomy and create a separate state for people like the Kurds, because that could create problems with the Turks and others. Their inability to have access to the sea.

Each of the pieces would have to have sponsorship. Maybe it's the west and Turkey that would work with the Kurds and Iran with the Shia, and maybe the Sunni Arab states with the Sunni region.

But I would rather see Iraq stay together. Unfortunately, we're still suffering from (UNINTELLIGIBLE) agreement, and this is just the legacy from the post-World War I splitting this region into areas that don't make any sense.

BLITZER: Hasn't made sense for a hundred years. The only reason there was any peace and quiet in Iraq, for example, there were brutal dictators that kept everybody cowed.

Gloria, how is the White House handling this uproar that's developed in the past 24 hours?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: What uproar? There is no uproar. BLITZER: That there might be a split between the Pentagon and

the White House when it comes to (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

BORGER: You know, the White House is saying there isn't any difference. That in fact what General Dempsey said was fine, which is that, you know, you leave all options on the table.

But in fact, the president has taken an option off the table, unlike his general. So you know, there is difference between the White House and the military. And I think that this shows it, Wolf.

And no matter how much you try and paper it over, the president uses every opportunity to say, as he did just a few moments ago, Wolf, when he applauded Congress for arming the Syrian rebels, he said there will be no U.S. military personnel in Syria as part of this program, period.

BLITZER: Is the commander in chief, General Zinni, giving the U.S. military what they always want, clarity?

ZINNI: No. You know, listen to the -- what we've heard from the administration. The mission is to degrade and destroy. The president said, "We will lead the effort." The vice president said, "We will follow them to the gates of hell."

And then we hear the president say that -- but we do not have a combat mission in Iraq. That doesn't square. How do you lead, how do you destroy, how do you degrade, how do you follow to the gates of hell, which I assume is in Syria, and then say we don't have a combat mission or a ground combat mission?

And then the parsing as to whether we can find ourselves in combat, but it's not a combat mission. You know, this is very confusing. If we're going to destroy them, you're going to have to fight. If you're going to take ground and protect people and drive them out of an area, you need credible ground forces. Frankly, I don't see that right now.

BORGER: Well, what the White House would say, though, is that you're not going to have American ground forces. You might have Iraqi ground forces. But that's their -- that's what they say when you ask that question.

ZINNI: Well, you've seen the Iraqi ground forces and how they've performed. You've seen the Peshmerga, that are so lightly armed and have insufficient combat capability. You've heard the debates about who the Syrian opposition is, who would get the weapons? Who can we trust? Where might they go?

So if that is the White House's credible ground force, as a military person, I have some questions. Let me put it kindly.

BLITZER: And speaking of the United States, no other country in the region or in Europe, at least, is willing to send combat ground troops to help those Iraqis, those Peshmerga, the Kurds or the Free Syrian Army, the moderate Syrian rebels, either. General Zinni, thanks very much for joining us.

Gloria, thanks to you, as well.

Just ahead, a dramatic turn of events as the Minnesota Vikings succumb to public pressure. We have details in the latest twist in the Adrian Peterson child abuse scandal.

Plus, the extreme danger in the western United States. There are fires and floods. Stay with us.


BLITZER: Surprise, a reversal by the Minnesota Vikings. Team officials now say that running back Adrian Peterson is being -- is being put on the exempt list, barring him from all team activities in the wake of a felony child abuse charge. The team initially said Peterson would be allowed to practice and play, a decision the owners now call a mistake.

But some teammates are siding with Peterson.


CAPTAIN MUNNERLYN, MINNESOTA VIKINGS: I don't think it's fair at all. He should be able to play. He hasn't been convicted of nothing.

Growing up, that was nothing, man. My mom, she always whipped me up and things like that. That's just -- in my culture, that's how I was raised. That's how my mom raised her kids. Look at me now, you know, I'm in the NFL.


BLITZER: Let's get some more now from CNN's Rachel Nichols, the host of "UNGUARDED WITH RACHEL NICHOLS", is joining us, along with our anchor, Don Lemon, and our CNN senior legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin.

What happened here, Rachel?

RACHEL NICHOLS, CNN HOST, "UNGUARDED WITH RACHEL NICHOLS": Well, what happened is enough people got upset that the Vikings were backed into a corner. Look, you had sponsors dropping out or threatening the NFL to drop out. You had the governor of Minnesota making a statement, saying he didn't think Peterson should play on Sunday. You had a senator from Minnesota adding to that. You had a chorus of Vikings fans bombarding team headquarters saying that. And finally, they decided to do the right thing.

The idea that some of the players in the locker room are putting forward today, that Peterson hasn't been convicted of anything, is a little bit of specious logic in the NFL. The NFL regularly suspends players for offenses that are not illegal in our criminal justice system, much less being convicted. You take the wrong supplement in the NFL, something that's sold over the counter, and you can be suspended for six games. So, it doesn't always follow that the only reason you get

disciplined in the National Football League --


NICHOLS: -- is because of a conviction in court. This is something that is wrong.


LEMON: There is the argument there that -- listen, again, you have to put a caveat every time you talk about this because people think you're condoning what he did. I did not -- I'm not condoning what he did, but he really hasn't been convicted. If you take a supplement, there's evidence that you took that supplement, obviously, that you're guilty. The pictures if indeed true --

NICHOLS: But Adrian Peterson came and said he did it. He issued a statement saying he did it.

LEMON: He did not say he abused him. He said he whipped him with a switch.

Now, if the pictures are accurate, then, yes, it was abuse. But he's not been convicted of abuse. So, listen, I think he should be suspended until -- but again, it is a difference because he's not been found guilty. There is some truth to that.

BLITZER: What about the legal parts of all this, Jeffrey?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, the whole issue of his suspension or non-suspension from the NFL has no effect on his criminal case. He's now charged in Texas with this child abuse offense and he's been arraigned. He's out on bail. He's going to have to deal with those charges.

Those cases are usually dealt with in a plea bargain of some kind or another, but the case is pending. He's now out of football, and we'll see for how long. But the criminal case just goes on as planned.

BLITZER: How much of a role -- first to you, Don -- did the sponsors, those who sponsor NFL play in all this? Because there were a bunch walking away from the Minnesota Vikings.

LEMON: Well, you know that song "money, money, money, money," that's really what it is. It plays a huge role. Everything revolves around money and they were talking about billions of dollars here. The stock and trade of the NFL that -- are its players.

So, if that player is no longer on the field, of course, the teams are going to suffer, the revenues are going to suffer. But I think the NFL backed into a corner here. The team owners backed into a corner. They would probably, quite honestly, rather not take those players off the field, but they have to because of public outcry. They start to lose fans and they start to lose sponsors because of it. They've got to do it.

BLITZER: And the other NFL scandal, Rachel, involves Baltimore Ravens Ray Rice, his indefinite suspension, which he is appealing. The NFL Players Association put out a statement saying, "The NFLPA appeal is based on supporting facts that reveal a lack of a fair and impartial process, including the role of the office of the commissioner of the NFL."

Where does this stand?

NICHOLS: Well, the NFLPA has made it clear that they are "not supporting Rice", quote-unquote, or backing his actions in that elevator that day in Atlantic City. What they are complaining about is the fact that the NFL league office seems to be rolling a set of dice as they decide punishments, willy-nilly, back and forth, Sunday to Monday to Tuesday. It's all different. It all seems to be very arbitrary.

And as a union, they're saying, wait a minute, we have policies for this. In the Ray Rice situation, specifically, Rice was suspended two games. Then, this video comes out of the elevator incident and then they suspend him indefinitely, and the P.A. is saying, wait a minute, you had all that information. There was a police report saying that he struck her unconscious.

What's the new information here? So, they want a process change here.

LEMON: And he told them. He told them.

TOOBIN: The NFL strategy seems to be panic. Do something, see what the public reaction is, then do something else. They've now done it with Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson the same thing.

That can -- is not a system that the legal system general supports, and even though these players are deeply unpopular at the moment, their claims may not fail. They may win.

BLITZER: Slugging your fiance in an elevator with a fist, that's a crime.

TOOBIN: That is a certainly a crime.


LEMON: It is a crime, Wolf. But here's what happened. He sat down and he told them -- he told them exactly what he did. He said, I punched her in the face. And he got disciplined for it.

And then once there was backlash from the public, they came back again and disciplined him more harshly. Obviously, that's what happened.

But the argument here is there is almost a double jeopardy type of quality to this, that they've already been disciplined. And then once you realize you didn't do enough, you go back again -- BLITZER: All right.

LEMON: -- when they thought it was behind them.

NICHOLS: It's just hugely disappointing. Not only do you expect this to be a process, but if you're a league like the NFL and you consider yourself the place where America gathers, shouldn't you have standards where you don't have to react to everything? Shouldn't you be able to have a moral compass yourself?

BLITZER: All right. Guys, we're up against the clock.

Don, we'll see you 10:00 p.m. Eastern. You'll have a lot more on this story, all the day's important news, 10:00 p.m. Eastern, right here on CNN.

Just ahead, dangerous conditions as fires and flash floods threaten homes and lives in the western U.S. We'll get the latest forecast.


BLITZER: We're following multiple major wildfires now burning across California. Our meteorologist and severe weather expert Chad Myers has the latest for us.

Chad, how bad is it?

CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Some terrible pictures out there, especially for the northern California town of Weed, in the Boles Fire. This is what it looks like right now on my map from space. You can see the smoke, it almost covers Lake Tahoe, into Reno, right now.

The radar out of Sacramento is confused. It thinks there's rain drops in the sky, those raindrops are smoke particles.

So, here we go, three big fires, the King Complex to the east of Placerville, to the west now just of Lake Tahoe. And then the Happy Camp fire, over 100,000 acres burn here, it's a complex, there were 10 fires burned into one here.

And this is it. This is the Boles fire, the tragic fire of a loss of 150 homes in just one day in this town of Weed in northern California. The air is dry. The tinder is dry. It hasn't rained in some spots for half a decade. And this is what we're going to see I think for the rest of the year, Wolf.

BLITZER: Terrible situation.

Chad, thanks very much.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.