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THE SITUATION ROOM

Interview With Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard; Terrorist Manhunt; Uncertain Fate for ISIS Hostages; New Video of Suspected Terror Accomplice

Aired January 23, 2015 - 18:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And terrorist manhunt. New video of a suspected accomplice to a deadly attack on a Jewish museum seven months ago. Was it the first ISIS strike in Europe?

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

Breaking now, new video just coming in of a dramatic fight against ISIS. Iraqi Kurdish forces, the Peshmerga, they're conducting a new operation right near the northern city of Mosul. A senior U.S. military official tells CNN top commanders are considering whether to send American advisers closer to the front line in a move that would have to be personally approved by President Obama.

At the same time, we're waiting to learn the fate of two Japanese men being held by ISIS, who threatened them with beheading unless their country paid $200 million in ransom. The execution deadline set by ISIS expired 17 hours ago.

All of this happening as the U.S. watches the disintegrating situation of one of the most important allies in the Middle East, Yemen, which has offered critical help to the United States fighting the al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen.

We're covering all the breaking news with our correspondents and our guests this hour, including Democratic Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard. She's a key member of the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs Committees.

But let's begin with our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, and he's got much on the very latest -- Jim.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, a U.S. official confirming today something the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey, has signaled for some months, and that is that he may recommend U.S. ground forces on the front lines, U.S. advisers on the front lines with Iraqi forces.

They may not be combat troops, but they would be in combat and in what would be the signature operation of the war on ISIS so far. That is retaking its northern stronghold in Mosul.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) SCIUTTO (voice-over): This is the front line in the war against

ISIS, Kurdish militia battling the terror group on the outskirts of the Northern Iraqi city of Mosul. The Pentagon tells CNN it is now prepared to recommend a small number of U.S. military advisers join this fight on the front lines if necessary, accompanying Iraqi ground forces when they launch an assault to retake the city this spring, this despite repeated promises by the president that he will not place U.S. troops in combat.

Today, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Mr. Obama stands by that pledge.

JOSH EARNEST, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: He does not believe that it would be in our best interest for a large-scale military deployment to be executed in Iraq, that committing more American ground troops in a combat role to Iraq is not in our best interest.

SCIUTTO: The U.S. and Iraq have markedly different timetables for the assault on Mosul. Iraqi commanders insist they're ready now. U.S. commanders disagree. A difference that is clearly testing the patience of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

HAIDER AL-ABADI, IRAQI PRIME MINISTER: Everyone has got his own timetable. Of course, it's due to logistics and priorities. This is important that everyone matches the Iraqi timetable rather than their own.

SCIUTTO: The fight against ISIS also has two different realities on different sides of the Iraq-Syria border. In Iraq, the terror group has seen its momentum stop, the Pentagon says. In Syria, it's still gaining.

BRUCE RIEDEL, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: It hasn't had any effect really on ISIS' growth in Syria. We have to think of this as a one- theater operation, not two theaters. One joint theater. That's how ISIS sees it. And if they're being hurt in Iraq, they can move to Syria and vice versa.

SCIUTTO: The fate of ISIS' latest foreign captives remains in question. A deadline for Japan to pay a $200 million ransom to free them expired early Friday with no word yet of their fate.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCIUTTO: U.S. commanders in Iraq say Iraqi forces simply are not ready for an assault as large as the one that would be necessary to retake Mosul.

I went to Iraq last month, went with General John Terry. He's the commander of U.S. forces here. He told us it will be months before Iraqi forces are prepared. He added it will take a three years minimum for U.S. forces to train Iraqi forces to secure Iraq. More broadly, Wolf, the emphasis among U.S. commanders is on the long game there. But you have some impatience from the Iraqi side.

BLITZER: Certainly do. All right, Jim Sciutto, thank you. Any ground game against ISIS terrorists is at risk of being lost

in the against al Qaeda terrorists in Yemen. The country is unraveling. The government which helped the U.S. battle the militants has collapsed. The U.S. is now urgently trying to keep ahead of the unfolding crisis.

Let's go to CNN's Barbara Starr. She is working the story at the Pentagon.

What are you hearing over there about the latest U.S. efforts under way in Yemen, Barbara?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, what we know is the U.S. priority is to keep countering al Qaeda in Yemen, one of the most dangerous, if not most dangerous al Qaeda affiliates, the group said to be behind the Paris attacks.

Right now, the White House says today it still has a counterterrorism partnership with Yemen, the government of Yemen. But there's no functioning government in Yemen. What we now know here at CNN is behind the scenes, U.S. intelligence and military officials urgently reaching out to their counterparts in Yemen trying to cobble together, keep whatever intelligence they can flowing about al Qaeda in Yemen, where are the top leaders?

Collecting eavesdropping intelligence, satellite intelligence, being ready to do more drone strikes if they can. But the big problem right now is those al Qaeda leaders in Yemen, they are well dug in. They are in hiding. They are in their safe havens in Yemen and Apparently well out of the reach of any real fundamental U.S. intelligence pinpointing where they are.

All well and good to try to keep working the problem, keeping an eye on the disintegration of Yemen, but for now, the al Qaeda leaders seem to be at least for now out of range of any U.S. strikes -- Wolf.

BLITZER: As you earlier reported, Barbara, dozens of American diplomats, they were evacuated and they left Yemen today. But there's still plenty more there, right, and plenty more U.S. military personnel at the same time.

STARR: The embassy has a smaller contingent, but indeed there are -- they're not saying exactly how many. There are American civilians and American diplomats there and a good number of U.S. Marines heavily guarding the embassy.

The feeling is that they're not under direct threat. But I have to tell you, this is still a situation that anyone in the Pentagon will tell you they're watching minute by minute. It will be a State Department decision if there's a further drawdown or even evacuation of the embassy. That order has not come. But everybody is watching the situation on those streets in Sanaa, the capital of Yemen.

BLITZER: Yes, we know at least two U.S. warships are off the coast of Yemen, the USS Iwo Jima and the USS Fort McHenry, and they're ready for action. More vessels, more personnel could be brought to that region if necessary very, very quickly. Barbara, thanks very much.

Meanwhile, there's more trouble in the region for the U.S. There's a frosty relationship now between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. They're complicating Israeli- Palestinian negotiations, as well as talks between the U.S. and Iran.

Now the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is coming to President Obama's backyard.

CNN global affairs correspondent Elise Labott is in Jerusalem for us.

What is the very latest? Because this is a dicey situation between two close allies, the United States and Israel.

ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.

Every time we say the relationship between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu has never been so bad, it gets even worse. This time, U.S. officials are warning Prime Minister's Netanyahu decision to come address the U.S. Congress and his actions could actually hurt his country and cost it critical support from its closest ally.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LABOTT (voice-over): Prime Minister Netanyahu's plans to address Congress on March 3rd, two weeks before the Israeli election, is causing new fractures in an already brittle relationship. The White House is furious with the Israeli leader for accepting House Speaker John Boehner's invitation. Aides say President Obama in an angry phone call warned Netanyahu not to interfere in his battle with Congress over Iran sanctions.

But they say Netanyahu secretly plotted to do the opposite, arranging behind the president's back to deliver a speech critical of his policy.

JOSH EARNEST, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Certainly, if we had the opportunity to weigh in on that schedule a little bit more, we would welcome that opportunity and probably make a variety of changes.

LABOTT: It's the latest confrontation in a series of growing tensions between the two allies. Last March, in a testy Oval Office meeting, Netanyahu rebuffed Obama's attempts to accept a peace deal with the Palestinians. In October, the White House denied the Israeli defense minister high level meetings over his harsh criticism of Secretary of State John Kerry's peace efforts.

But frustrations reached new heights after a top White House official used an expletive to describe Netanyahu, saying in an interview with "Atlantic" magazine, he had -- quote -- "no guts" to make peace with the Palestinians.

U.S. officials say Secretary Kerry, who in the last month made more than 50 phone calls to allies on behalf of Israel to stop action in the U.N. Security Council and International Criminal Court, is running out of patience.

AARON DAVID MILLER, WOODROW WILSON INTERNATIONAL CENTER FOR SCHOLARS: If the administration wants to get anywhere on the Israeli- Palestinian issue, on dealing with Iran, on stabilizing the region, they're going to have to find a way to manage their relationship with Israel.

LABOTT: U.S. officials insist Washington support for Israel's security will remain despite political tensions. But the timing couldn't be worse, as the Middle East itself teeters on the brink.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

LABOTT: Wolf, U.S. officials accuse Prime Minister Netanyahu of using his visit and address to Congress as a campaign stop in advance of the March elections.

But they warn that that could backfire if Israelis about to go to the polls see their leader doing so much damage to this critical relationship. It's really bad -- Wolf.

BLITZER: The Israeli elections scheduled for March 17, the address he's supposed to deliver before a joint session of Congress March 3, exactly two weeks before the Israeli elections.

Elise in Jerusalem, thank you.

Let's talk about all of this and a lot more.

Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii is joining us. She sits on the Armed Services and Foreign Affairs Committee.

Congresswoman, thanks very much for coming in.

Are you worried about the strain in U.S.-Israeli relations right now, given this deteriorating personal relationship between the president and the prime minister?

REP. TULSI GABBARD (D), HAWAII: I think overall we have got to keep our eye on the bigger picture and look at our ally, look at our ally Israel in the region, especially at this time, where there's so much unrest and there's so much lack of stability that's happening in different places.

I think it's important for us to also really look at and make sure that we don't get sucked into the minutia of what's happening in different places, because each of these different countries like Yemen and Syria, like Iraq for example, have very different dynamics. What we have to do is keep at the forefront, what's in the best interest of the United States and keeping the American people safe, and then take action based on that.

And when we look at the threats that are posed right now, the answer to that question is al Qaeda, is ISIS, this Islamic extremist terror threat really that is threatening us here and around the world.

BLITZER: But the invitation from the speaker to the prime minister to come address a joint session of Congress, was that wise, given the delicate issues with Iran specifically right now?

GABBARD: I don't see a problem with the invitation personally.

Obviously, Iran and the negotiations are on the top of many people's minds clearly in Israel, in the region and here in the United States.

BLITZER: What do you want the U.S. to do right now in Iraq? You're a veteran of the war in Iraq. You served in Iraq. You see that situation over there. A lot of us are not very confident that whatever the U.S. does right now in the end is going to lead to a stable, peaceful pro-American Iraq. Given the 10 years of an enormous investment in blood and treasure of the U.S., that didn't exactly work out so well.

GABBARD: I agree completely.

And I think the worst thing that the United States can do is to continue the failed policies in the past. I think as we look to Iraq and this continued propping up of a so-called one central government, it's something that's just not going to work. You saw in the previous segments there about how long they're saying it's going to take to train this Iraqi security forces, three years.

When we look at -- we have already trained them for a decade. And when push came to shove, they cut and ran and dropped their weapons. The solution I believe really lies in something that Vice President Biden, then Senator Biden, put forward and saying you have these natural three divisions in Iraq.

You have the Kurdish saying, look, we don't have much time, but the only chance for a successful Iraq is separating into three different semiautonomous regions, because right now you have the Sunnis, who have been really oppressed by the Shia government. And that has created oxygen for ISIS to go in, and say, hey, come and work with us, and we will liberate you from this oppressive government.

BLITZER: Your advice to the administration, to the president of the United States, you know what? Guys, don't get sucked back into Iraq. This is a country that's seen enormous tension for hundreds of years. Get out of there while you can. And don't risk anymore lives and spend a few more billion dollars.

GABBARD: Well, and support the natural divisions that have already been there for generations upon generations, the divisions that are there between the Sunnis, the Shias and the Kurds. Empower them, so that they have these three semiautonomous regions.

Otherwise, this conflict will continue. And more importantly, again, when we look at what's in the best interest of the United States, when we look at what's happening in Iraq, it's removing oxygen that ISIS is taking advantage of right now in Iraq because of these sectarian divides and the sectarian civil war and by aligning themselves with the Sunni factions that are existing there.

BLITZER: How do you get rid of ISIS? We see the pictures of this so-called Jihadi John, this guy with a knife, threatening to behead these two Japanese hostages. That ransom, $200 million, that has come and gone right now. We don't know what is going to happen to these two Japanese guys.

But it's pretty terrifying when you think about it, especially given the history of the Americans who were beheaded by these guys, these ISIS guys as well.

GABBARD: Well, the first thing, the first and most important step -- and I talked to you about this last week when I was on your show -- is we have to identify exactly who they are.

Something happened today where Secretary Kerry made a statement which I think was very evidence of the problem that we're seeing where in a speech he talked about how these Islamic extremists that they are engaged in -- and I quote -- "criminal conduct rooted in alienation, poverty, thrill-seeking and other factors."

And he went onto say that ultimately this fight will be determined by our success in creating prosperity that is widely shared. This is completely missing the point of exactly this radical Islamic ideology that is fueling these people, and, mistakenly, a huge mistake, thinking somehow, OK, look, if we give them $10,000 and give them a nice place to live that somehow they're not going to be engaged in this fighting.

Osama bin Laden is a perfect example, millionaire who left his mansions, went and lived in the desert because of this radical ideology that was fueling his actions, his attack on the United States and these attacks we're seeing further now.

BLITZER: When you were with me here in THE SITUATION ROOM with me last week, you said you wanted the president of the United States to directly address this issue, I think, in your words, Islamic terrorism. You wanted to use those words which he's been reluctant to do.

Have you heard from the White House since those comments? They caused quite a little stir.

GABBARD: I haven't.

And it's really unfortunate and disturbing to me to see Secretary Kerry doubling down on that refusal to use those words. And the words matter. It's not just empty words. The words matter because words are an expression of understanding and feeling and intention.

And if you refuse to understand this simple concept of who exactly is our enemy, who is posing a threat to the American people and why, then we can't even begin to talk about how do you defeat them. That's a whole separate conversation that can only happen once that identification takes place.

BLITZER: You're a Democratic member of Congress. You're standing by what you said to me last week.

GABBARD: This is nonpartisan. Absolutely. This is an issue of the safety of the American people that must transcend partisan politics.

BLITZER: Congresswoman, I want you to stand by.

We have much more to discuss about what is going on right now. It's a good thing you're on the Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committee. Stay with us. Much more coming up right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Rebels hold the capital of Yemen right now, a government that helped the United States battle al Qaeda. That government has collapsed in chaos. And there are now new fears that terrorists will be free to carry out their plots unhindered.

We're back with Democratic Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii.

This situation in Yemen is a disaster right now. And potentially -- maybe it could get better a little bit in the short term, but it doesn't look encouraging down the road, at least to me.

GABBARD: Yes.

It's something that again is another dynamic that you could say is similar to Iraq in many ways, where you have a government that was in power with a minority that was oppressed. The minority now is pushing back against that government.

And the future remains uncertain. A lot of people are saying the chaos that has been created will create an opening for AQAP there to step in and really regain or gain more power. What I'm focused upon here, again, I think it's important that we take a step back from the minutia that is happening and evolving hour by hour on the ground and really look at what are our capabilities in fighting against our enemy, in fighting against al Qaeda, and ISIS and other extremist groups.

And in places like Yemen, we have got to look at it and make sure our military is mobile, that we're taking advantage of our superior technology and of our superior war fighters and evolving with the dynamics on the ground.

BLITZER: But the fighting in Yemen is going to make those U.S. drone strikes against al Qaeda targets in Yemen even more difficult. There hasn't been any, we're told, since December.

GABBARD: It will make it more difficult. Again, that's why we have got to focus on making sure that we can be that quickly evolving and dynamic fighting force that can adapt to these different environments.

When you look at the whole region across the Middle East, there's so much unrest in many different places and different situations. And we have got to fight not only in stable and settled environments, but especially given the threat that is being posed to us now even more so. We have got to be able to be highly flexible and mobile and able to operate especially in these highly chaotic environments.

BLITZER: If you take a look at the region, and you want to take a look at the big picture, it's a disaster what's going on right now. The U.S. had to pull out completely and shut down its embassy in Somalia, obviously in Damascus in Syria, given what is going on there.

It could be doing that in Yemen. Look what's happened in Libya, in North Africa, that the U.S. pulled out. This is the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli. Take a look at this, Congresswoman. This is the pool the ambassador used to have there. These are rebels, these are terrorists who have taken over the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli after the U.S. launched hundreds of Tomahawk cruise missiles to try to remove Gadhafi from power.

There were expectations the Arab spring, it was going to be a democracy over there. Look what's going on in Libya.

GABBARD: Libya is a perfect example of the mistake that we should not make again.

When President Obama and Secretary Clinton made that decision to go in and try to get rid of Gadhafi, there was no after plan, there as no plan on what happens next. And it's a perfect example of why we should not allow the United States to get involved in these civil wars or these sectarian wars that are happening in many different places, especially across the Middle East, and why it's so critical for us to answer that all-important question.

What's in the best interest of the United States? We are not and should not be in this nation-building, regime-changing business that's only caused this chaos.

BLITZER: When you think about the nearly $2 billion that U.S. taxpayers spent in Libya trying to get rid of Gadhafi, you see whether situation is there, a failed state right now, terrorists in control.

You say to yourself, $2 billion. You can imagine what you could done with -- in education, in health care, in research, infrastructure, $2 billion, a lot of money, for what?

GABBARD: Exactly.

BLITZER: Congresswoman, we got to leave it there. Thanks very much for joining us.

GABBARD: Thank you, Wolf. Aloha.

BLITZER: Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii. Aloha to you, too.

Just ahead, the hunt for a suspected terrorist accomplice, details of his alleged role in what may have been the first ISIS attack in Europe. And was there a connection to the Paris attacks and the recent

foiled Belgium plot? I will ask our terrorism experts. They are all standing by.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: It may have been the first ISIS attack in Europe, months before the massacres in Paris, a deadly attack on a Jewish museum in Belgium. And now, there's new video of a suspect who's the subject of an international terror manhunt. Our justice correspondent, Pamela Brown, is in Paris. She's got more on what's going on. What's the latest, Pamela?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, as this terrorism crackdown across Europe continues, tonight for the first time, Belgian authorities are asking for the public's help identifying another potential terrorist on the run, believed to be connected to an ISIS-related shooting last May.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN (voice-over); Belgian authorities are trying to hunt down the man seen here, reportedly walking behind suspected French Algerian ISIS fighter Mehdi Nemmouche. Officials say Nemmouche allegedly killed four people at the Brussels Jewish museum last May.

Now the prosecutor in Brussels says this man may have been one of Nemmouche's accomplices in the museum shooting. This as authorities in Belgium continue efforts to track down Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the alleged ring leader in a foiled attack targeting police officers earlier this month. According to Interpol's secretary general, there is increased concern of Islamic radicalization across Europe.

JURGEN STOCK, INTERPOL SECRETARY: We have independent cells within our countries. Maybe not in any command-and-control structure. And of course, we have the lone wolves. And we have those returning from the conflict zones imposing threats to the countries they come from.

BROWN: In the weeks following the Paris attack, at least half a dozen European countries cracked down on terror cells, arresting associates of the French attackers, as well as those believed to be planning separate attacks.

STOCK: It's very difficult to detect plans, to identify plans before terrorists can take action against innocent people.

BROWN: In France, authorities are scrambling to prevent another terrorist attack. The FBI is assisting French authorities with their investigation into the Paris attacks analyzing forensics, laptops, fingerprints and running names through databases as they look for other potential accomplices of the suspects, Amedy Coulibaly and the Kouachi brothers.

Sources tell CNN it's believed several of their associates are hiding out in Syria, including Coulibaly's wife, Hayat Boumeddiene, last seen in Turkey.

A defensive Turkish prime minister spoke to CNN's Richard Quest.

AHMET DAVUTOGLU, TURKISH PRIME MINISTER: We discovered that video. We informed France. If we...

RICHARD QUEST, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You lost her.

DAVUTOGLU: No. Because it was -- we were not informed in advance. Can you blame Spain because she went to Spain? If you cannot blame France and Spain, you cannot blame Turkey.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: And a source I spoke to today here in Paris involved with the investigation says authorities are still right in the thick of it; they still need a lot of answers. And Wolf, the biggest concern, of course, is that there could be others that they're just not aware of involved with the Kouachi brothers and Coulibaly here in Europe on the verge of launching an attack -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Pamela Brown in Paris for us, thanks very much. Let's dig deeper right now.

Joining us, our CNN military analyst, retired Lieutenant General Mark Hertling; also our global affairs analyst, retired Lieutenant Colonel James Reese; our law enforcement analyst, Tom Fuentes; and our CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen.

Tom, you saw the video and suspicion of the attack in Paris and the attack at that Jewish museum earlier in Belgium. How do you go about investigating something like this?

TOM FUENTES, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Well, I think in this case, Wolf, it's a good sign that they went ahead and put that video out there for public assistance. Normally, Europeans are very reluctant to put videos of suspects or wanted persons out in the public domain. You know, we do that commonly here, but they don't do it commonly in Europe, so it's a good sign that they have done that now.

BLITZER: What's your analysis, Peter? You're studying these terrorists.

PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, we don't know the connections yet. I mean, the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) of the guy who attacked in Brussels and killed four people was in Syria. I think it's still unclear what his relationship with ISIS might be.

And of course, the attack in Paris had nothing directly to do with ISIS as far as we can tell. That was an al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula attack.

BLITZER: So they're all investigating to see what's going on. There could be some overlap, as well. General Hertling, what's your reaction now to these reports that

the Iraqis are trying to retake Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, a city of some 2 million people. The Peshmerga, the Kurdish fighters, they're clearly key in all of this. But they want more U.S. advisors, more aid on the front lines if there's going to be an assault to retake Mosul. It sounds a little like bit like mission creep. But tell me your analysis.

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: I don't think it's, Wolf, mission creep, Wolf. I think what they're preparing to do is seize the city of Mosul. You have to cut it off completely. I think the Peshmerga are pushing from the east to the west to do that.

But the retaking of Mosul is going to be very challenging. Mosul is a city of about 1.5 million people. It's a huge urban area. And for the Iraqis, as I heard in the earlier report -- for the Iraqis to say that they're trying to rush this is critically important not to do.

General Terry is over there. He's trying to force his will on them, saying you guys aren't ready for this. I've seen this many times before. The amount of time I spent in Iraq where the Iraqi forces want to rush into things. They don't understand that there's a need for intelligence, overhead platforms, aviation support, logistics, artillery. They don't have any of that now. They tend to rush in with their infantry, and in an urban fight like Mosul, that's not what you want to do.

BLITZER: And that's a good point that the general makes, Colonel, because the new prime minister of Iraq, Haider al-Abadi, he caused quite a stir in anger here in Washington when he said the other day, he said the United States has been too slow to provide weapons and training for his country.

Well, what has the United States done for more than a decade in Iraq in terms of billions and billions of dollars in training and weapons for Iraq that the Iraqis quickly abandoned as these ISIS forces came in.

REESE: Wolf, you're right. And we trained the Iraqi -- in fact, General Hertling was one of the guys that was leading part of that training. And we did a very good job. And we left them in good shape. The problem is the senior leadership there in Iraq through the years have let them degrade. No soldier is going to sit on a hill with a stick and try to fight ISIS.

BLITZER: Should anybody have confidence in Abadi, the new prime minister? Nuri al-Maliki, the former prime minister, he turned out to be a disaster.

REESE: Well, I think right now what we're seeing, they're trying hard to make this thing happen. With the U.S. presence and the coalition, they can work these things. We've got to get time. The diplomatic side has got to continue to work. BLITZER: Let's talk about these two Japanese hostages. The

deadline has now passed. And you saw Jihadi John as he's called, this ISIS terrorist threatening that they were going to be beheaded, in fact, unless Japan paid $200 million to get these guys free.

There was even no discussion, we're told. The Japanese tried to talk to someone. They couldn't find anyone to pick up the phone, if you will. How do you deal with a situation like this? Because they're only going to continue to make these videos.

BERGEN: Well, we know that there's, unfortunately, an American female who's name we're not -- we're withholding. She's 26. She's an aid worker. You know, I think even for ISIS, you know, murdering a female would be a bridge too far.

But the fact is that they've got (ph) Japanese hostages, whose fate is unfortunately likely to be the same as ever other hostage who appears in these videos.

They're not the only westerner who's been held. We also know there's a British journalist who's been held. What do you do with them? What's the outreach (ph)? I mean, this is Colonel Reese's territory. I mean, we know July 2014 that there was a Special Operations effort to get these people released. It didn't work.

And in the absence of a successful rescue or a -- you know, and we've had some hostages escape. One American has escaped, who's been held by one of the groups. But that's really the only option of them.

BLITZER: Let me ask General Hertling to talk a little bit about the deteriorating situation in Yemen right now. A lot of the American diplomats are being evacuated. There's a U.S. presence there. But there's deep concern this whole situation could explode over there right now. The U.S. has been trying to deal with al Qaeda there. It doesn't look very encouraging.

HERTLING: Well, as we look at the removal of people from the embassy Wolf, they are doing this in a phased operation. They probably have 20 things that they're checking off to determine when they can pull people out.

And they've done that with some of their elements. But they have the key elements of the embassy still remaining. This could get sporty (ph) in the next couple of days, or it could level out. And I think the propensity for it to level out is much greater.

I actually believe the government is going to come back together. You know, there are Houthi members of the parliament, of Mr. Hadi's government, that understand that, if they don't replace the leadership, they've got a failed state. So I think cooler heads are going to prevail in the next couple of days. And I think the American embassy being there and supporting this is extremely important.

BLITZER: It's a delicate situation, potentially very dangerous situation for those American diplomats and military personnel and civilians who are still there. All right guys, stand by. We have more breaking news we're

following. The multiple crises unfolding in the Middle East: Iraq, Syria, Yemen and beyond. How are they all impacting the U.S.-led wars on ISIS and al Qaeda?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The United States is scrambling right now to stay ahead of a wave of crises engulfing countries all across the Middle East. And with the battles against ISIS and al Qaeda are now in jeopardy.

CNN's Tom Foreman is joining us now with a closer look.

Tom, set the scene for us. What is the big picture? How bad is it?

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It's not just the United States, Wolf. Countries all over the world are looking at the Middle East, because all this uncertainty could affect many nations, and it starts with Saudi Arabia right now. The death of the king there, his brother, half-brother ascending to power, theoretically should mean policies remain in place, but that may or may not be the case. And a lot is at stake.

Remember, this is the largest exporter in the world of petroleum products, and their military has been strong force to that region to ensure a degree of stability, keeps other countries from paying attention to a degree.

Beyond that, what about Yemen down here? Yemen, of course, right now is jut in chaos. It's not at all clear who is going to be in charge when all dust settles there. Rebel forces are putting tremendous pressure on. And this is a country that has been associated with terrorist movements for quite some time. Officially working against terrorism, but plenty of people there supporting terrorism including al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

And then, up north here, let's talk Syria and Iraq. And we're going to put them together not just because they share a geographic border but because they share a common problem, and that is ISIS, which is trying to carve out its Islamic caliphate between the two countries. Beyond that, of course, Syria has got its civil war going on for a long time. Bashar al-Assad and Iraq is going through its own rebuilding.

Wolf, these are four of the nations that right now are causing a lot of this uncertainty.

BLITZER: And, Tom, we haven't touched on several other nations with problems that are worrisome in their own right. Run through a few of those.

FOREMAN: Yes, there are really many of them out there. Egypt for quite some time has been facing a degree of uncertainty. It's sure what it's going to be doing as it goes forward. Israel still is a strong U.S. ally, but Israel could feel a lot of pressure from all this, and relations between Israel and U.S. have been dicey lately.

And this is the one to really watch in all of this, Iran. Iran already has a lot of influence in this region and there's always the chance with all this uncertainty out there wolf, they could emerge as the big winners with more influence throughout the Middle East -- Wolf.

BLITZER: An incredibly, incredibly intense situation throughout North Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, it's an awful situation right now. Good explanation, Tom. Thank you very much.

There's much more breaking news ahead. That's coming up.

But, first, CNN Michaela Pereira has this "Impact Your World."

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Here we go.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (singing): Go tell it --

CHOIR (singing): Got tell it on the mountain.

MICHAELA PEREIRA, CNN ANCHOR, NEW DAY (voice-over): Beautiful songs from men whose lives have often been anything but.

CHOIR: Go tell it on the mountain.

PEREIRA: The man behind the music is Donal Noonan. In 2013, he started the Atlanta Homeward Choir, a singing group made up of homeless men. The church music director got the idea for the choir during his morning commute.

DONAL NOONAN, FOUNDER, ATLANTA HOMEWARD CHOIR: These folks were just sitting there waiting for something. And what that was, it was almost like they were waiting for a bus but the bus came and went and they were still on the wall.

PEREIRA: The Irish immigrant went to a shelter near his church to find volunteers for his new choir. Marvin Koine was one of the original members. He admits being a little surprised by the notion.

MARVIN KOINE, MEMBER, ATLANTA HOMEWARD CHOIR: I didn't know at first, but I was like a homeless choir? It was just weird. But then, once I got down there, I was like, OK, we've got a couple of guys that can sing. And I was pretty -- I was enthusiastic about it, too.

PEREIRA: Koine was offered a job by someone who watched the group perform. He's now off the streets.

So what does Noonan give to the men to help them out of homelessness?

NOONAN: Confidence, self-worth and being a part of community again.

PEREIRA: The audience is also inspired.

PATRICK MCGRALL, AUDIENCE MEMBER: It just makes everyone, including me, I think, cognizant of the homeless problem. We have to do something about it.

NOONAN: These guys, they find that energy and they find the courage to get themselves out of their current situation.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: CNN has confirmed that once and possibly future Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney met with top advisors today, one day after meeting with potential rival, the former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.

Joining us to talk about that and a whole lot more, our chief political analyst Gloria Borger, our senior digital correspondent Chris Moody, and CNN political commentator Ana Navarro.

Gloria, you've been reporting on this meeting that Romney had in Boston. What are you hearing?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Romney's aides in Boston.

Well, I think they're all getting back together again and someone said to me, look, it would be news if we weren't meeting or talking to each other because it's clear, Wolf, that this, gee, I might want to run from last fall is now become top fund-raiser of his today said I think the odds are 70 percent or 80 percent that he's going to run.

And they've got to get ready. They've got to compile a staff, a communications team. They got to get their fund-raising together, you know?

And it's not as if everybody is jumping out of wood work saying, gee, I think it's fabulous that Mitt Romney is going to run. They've got some work to do.

BLITZER: Chris, what are you hearing? Is this winnable for him, the nomination? Forget about the election, the nomination right now?

CHRIS MOODY, CNN SENIOR DIGITAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's still quick pros and cons list here. He's got the infrastructure. He's been running for president since 2006, 2007. On the con side, he had to drag the conservative base kicking and screaming back in the last election. And they're not going to go for it again, at least not without a fight.

Further, he's got trouble on the establishment side where he's going to have a much tougher primary against far more formidable foes than he did in 2012 or 2008.

BLITZER: Ana, you've been following these development closely. We know Romney and the former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, they met in Utah yesterday. I haven't heard a lot of details of what was discussed there, but you're close to Jeb Bush. What are you hearing?

ANA NAVARRO, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, you're not going to get any details out of me today. But I will tell you that, you know, this is something Jeb Bush has been doing. A few weeks ago, he met with Senator John McCain, and this is a meeting that's been scheduled for many weeks now. And I think neither Mitt Romney nor Jeb Bush wanted to call it off.

So, the meeting took place, and I suspect it was an exchange of ideas, of timing, of where each other is. Why they're doing it. And it's really I think a meeting between two people who have had a friendly and cordial relationship for many years.

BLITZER: And that was it, just a polite little meeting between two pals, Gloria?

BORGER: Well, look, there's tension between the two of them. I think that --

BLITZER: They're competing for the same base --

BORGER: -- they were both well raised and they wouldn't cancel a meet that had been pre-scheduled.

But, you know, from the Romney folks point of view, Jeb Bush was not as enthusiastic about Mitt Romney if they would have liked in either 2008 or 2012.

Look, what's happened here is Jeb is getting in. Jeb Bush getting in made everybody say, oh, my goodness, we got to get out there, we got to lock up some donors here. So, Mitt Romney, this early this fall might have said, you know what, I like to be the white knight, I can wait, I can sit back. Suddenly, Jeb has made everybody jump in a little bit sooner than they thought they've had to, including Mitt Romney. If he was going to be serious about running, and he and Jeb had a lot of overlap in a donor, he had to make a decision.

BLITZER: Jeb Bush is clearly is running.

NAVARRO: Gloria, I heard that point.

BLITZER: Ana, hold on a second.

I want to ask Chris. He's given up his seats on boards, either public boards, private boards and everything. It's every indication he wants to run for the Republican presidential nomination.

MOODY: Oh, absolutely. And he got an incredibly early to try to clear the field or tell donors to keep their powder dry. He cut all those ties. That was a very big step. He can always go back, but you don't take those steps in your personal life if you're not going to take a huge step, that is running for president.

BLITZER: You have no doubt about that, do you, Ana? No doubt that he's running?

NAVARRO: Well, look, I think he's -- oh, I think he still has a chance to pull the plug on it. And until he announces a formal campaign, I think there's a doubt. But I think he's doing everything in a very forceful and determined way. I think he spends a lot of time before he made the announcement in December thinking about how he was going to do it and when he was going to do it. So, I think he spent the thinking part of it has been done.

But to the point that Gloria made earlier that the Romney folks think Jeb Bush didn't do enough for them or wasn't incredibly enthusiastic about them in 2008 or 2012, you know, I actually think that's an unfair criticism because I think he did practically every event and every ad and every surrogate speech that they asked them to do. He didn't endorse in the primaries, it's something he didn't do in 2008 or 2012. Look, it's something he didn't even do for Marco Rubio who is his protege when he was running for Senate. It's not something he normally does.

BLITZER: And even now, Marco Rubio, this Florida senator, he's even suggesting Jeb Bush runs, even if Mitt Romney runs, he might want to run, too.

BORGER: Right, and he just announced a new finance chairman. I think they're feeling the heat from Jeb Bush here, Wolf. I mean, now that it's clear that Bush is going to get in, people have to decide what they're going to do because the money will dry up. And so, you know, Rubio share a donor base, I would presume from Florida.

BLITZER: They're competing for staffers too.

MOODY: Oh, boy, Florida is going to be the epicenter possibly of this whole primary. It's going to be so much fun I think to cover, because they're going to be competing not just for the money, but for the staff and the support. And to be down there is I think really going to be --

BLITZER: We love politics and we're going to be covering every step of the way.

NAVARRO: Let's not forget that it's an early primary state and it's going to be difficult for Mitt Romney to get to the nomination without Florida. With Jeb Bush in the race, that's very difficult.

BLITZER: All right. Expensive but a beautiful state indeed, good weather in Florida.

Guys, thanks very much. Have great weekend.

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

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.