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THE SITUATION ROOM

ISIS at Perimeter of Base with U.S. Troops Inside; U.S. Closes Embassy Vital to War on Terrorism; Details of Iran's War Against ISIS; Deadly Fighting in Ukraine Despite Ceasefire Deal; FBI Helping to Investigate Murder of Three Muslim Students

Aired February 13, 2015 - 17:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, Marines in danger after an ISIS surprise attack, using fighters in stolen uniforms. Is a key air base safe for hundreds of U.S. troops? I'll ask the former commander of U.S. Military's Central Command.

Fighting exploding just hours before a cease-fire in eastern Europe. Will it draw the U.S. and Vladimir Putin's Russia into a deeper, more dangerous confrontation?

And hate crime. The killing of three Muslim students in North Carolina takes on a whole new dimension as President Obama makes a stunning and powerful new statement, and the FBI opens its own inquiry.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Breaking now, new inside details of today's attack that brought ISIS militants to a perimeter of a huge air base. Hundreds of U.S. troops are inside, training Iraqis to defend their country. Will the Iraqis stand up and fight? Are U.S. forces in danger?

And since ISIS used sleeper cells to take lightning control of a town near the base, are militants about to spring up in other places? The former head of the U.S. military Central Command, retired General Anthony Zinni, he's standing by live to join us, as are our correspondents and analysts. They're all standing by.

Let's begin with our chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto. He's got the latest -- Jim.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, today -- when you looked at today's attack, here's where it was, right here at al-Assad air base right next door to al-Baghdadi, just nine miles down the road. Al- Baghdadi now under ISIS control.

Today's attack repelled by Iraqi forces inside al-Assad base. They killed, they say, eight suspected suicide bombers who were, as you say, dressed up in Iraqi military uniforms. I'm told by Pentagon officials that at no time were the some 300 U.S. military personnel inside the base under threat.

It's a big base. It's the size of Boulder, Colorado. They were on the other side, kilometers away. But the fact is, Wolf, when you have ISIS in such close proximity to al-Assad now controlling this town, it's expected they will attempt to attack the base again, and you speak to Pentagon officials, they acknowledge that the U.S. forces there are under threat.

BLITZER: They certainly are. Where else are U.S. troops deployed in Iraq right now?

SCIUTTO: They're now deployed in five places outside of Baghdad. One is here at al-Assad. Another up in Erbil. Another in Kaji (ph), just to the north of Baghdad and also just at another base just to the south.

So four places here. The southern area generally under the control of Iraqi forces, but as you move up here, you're getting into areas that are under greater threat from ISIS forces. The talk had been for a number of weeks of ISIS being on the defensive.

You saw today, not just here in the central part of the country but also up in the north, ISIS making advances, going on the offense again. So even with that pressure of the U.S.-led air campaign, even with what are acknowledged much better, stronger efforts by Iraqi forces to repel them, they still have the ability to carry out major military operations. And the U.S. personnel who are here, here and here are certainly more exposed.

BLITZER: All right. Jim Sciutto, we're going to get back to you. ISIS is on the move in west and central Iraq. It's a different story in the northern part of the country where Kurdish fighters are preparing for their own offensive to try to take back more territory captured by ISIS.

CNN's Phil Black traveled to the front lines of that battle. He's now back in the northern Iraq city of Dohuk. He's joining us live with more. What's going on, Phil?

PHIL BLACK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, clearly it is a story of two different regions in this country. In the west there, around al- Baghdadi, around that base, in the province of Anbar, it is a place where ISIS is very much on the offensive, where they control some 70 percent of that huge province, and where the Iraqi army hasn't been able to slow them down.

Here in the north of the country, more evidence today that ISIS is increasingly contained by Kurdish forces. But despite that, there are still some big towns around here, big cities, that ISIS still has very firm control of.

We today were around the city of Sinja. It was a city of hundreds of thousands of people that is now largely abandoned, but ISIS has a very firm control. We have Kurdish fighters moving in slowly to try and take the city back, Kurdish fighters not just from Iraq but also from Syria and Turkey, as well. And they have made some progress, but as I say, very firm control on that city, very firm control on the town of Talafar and very firm control on that major city, Mosul, as well.

BLITZER: Any indications that Kurdish fighters, the Peshmerga, are getting any help at all from the regular Iraqi military?

BLACK: Not in this region, no. That's really what they're waiting for. Before some of these big cities can fall, the Peshmerga tell us they simply are in no position to do it on their own whatsoever. Partly because of the ethnic sensitivities in this country, the ethnic makeup. Towns like Talafar and the city of Mosul, majority Arab, Sunni Arab. These are areas that the Kurds simply do not feel that they can enter safely and do the job alone.

They also don't necessarily believe it is their job to clear these cities alone. So therefore, they are waiting for the Iraqi army to prepare, to train, to be ready to be part of such a major offensive operation. But they don't think that's going to happen imminently. It still looks some months away yet, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Phil Black, we're going to check back with you, as well. A very disturbing situation unfolding in Iraq right now.

Joining us in THE SITUATION ROOM, retired U.S. Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni. He's a former commander of the U.S. military Central Command.

General Zinni, as you heard, we're learning that suicide bombers were able to get into that al-Asad Air Base near the Anbar province. Hundreds of U.S. Marines are there. They're training the Iraqi army. Their efforts were thwarted, but is this really worrisome right now? Are those U.S. Marines safe?

GEN. ANTHONY ZINNI, FORMER COMMANDER OF U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND: Well, I think that al-Asad is safe, I mean, in terms of the ability of ISIS to take it. I think it's probably too well-defended. The area around it is very open. Air can be very effective.

This was probably an attempt to cause some casualties. It didn't sound like it was a serious attempt to overtake the base. Obviously, the base is well-defended by Iraqi troops. But there's still the possibility of indirect fire. Artillery pieces, mortar, rockets and lucky shots that can come in. So to that extent, I do think they're exposed.

BLITZER: Because we're also hearing that a lot of those attackers were actually wearing Iraqi military uniforms. What do you make of that?

ZINNI: Well, remember, the ISIS forces overran a number of Iraqi positions, Iraqi military positions, and I'm sure beside the equipment they were able to get their hands on, they got their hands on a lot of (UNINTELLIGIBLE). And uniforms are not hard to come by out there. They're in the markets and everywhere else. So that doesn't surprise me.

BLITZER: You think the U.S. military can really rely on those Iraqi forces, given the fact that so many of those Iraqi troops, regular Iraqi troops, simply ran away in the face of an ISIS offensive in Mosul? That's a huge city, as you well know, and other areas that are threatening other major air bases like the Balad Air Base right now. Can those U.S. Marines rely on the Iraqi military for protection?

ZINNI: I think what you probably have is an Iraqi army that's 18 months or two years away from generally being considered capable of retaking and holding portions of the country that ISIS has.

I would guess there are probably units you could rely on that may be a little bit better led and willing to fight a little more. I'm not certain about what they have out at the air base out where the attacks came. But right now, I would probably say it's a mixed bag, and I think we're looking at at least 18 months to two years before we say we've got an Iraqi army that's fully capable.

BLITZER: Should there be U.S. combat boots on the ground right now, as they say, U.S. combat forces to deal with what's going on?

ZINNI: I believe there should. And I'm probably a minority of a few, but the only U.S. combat troops will cause other coalition partners to gather around and be part of the coalition.

I think the longer ISIS stays and holds ground in Iraq, the harder it's going to be to get them dislodged. They're going to win over people. They're going to end up recruiting more people, because they're defiant and they're in place.

You can't take this ground with Special Forces, Special Operations forces are not designed to take and hold ground. You need ground combat units to do that. And if America is going to lead and provide command and control, we at least need some there. Right now, the strategy is relying on attrition through air power and that's going to take a long time.

BLITZER: How many troops -- how many troops, General, do you think -- how many troops do you think the U.S. needs?

ZINNI: They're not armed as well as they should be, and the Iraqi army, like I said, has got a ways to go before they're ready.

BLITZER: How many U.S. troops do you think should be there on the ground?

ZINNI: Well, I'd like to see a couple of brigades, and I really believe if you had a couple of U.S. ground combat brigades, there would be other countries in the region that would provide others. They're not going to do it on their own. They want that U.S. leadership and participation, not just in command and control and in air and intelligence, but really, the combat units. And I think you would see other countries come in.

I also would arm the Peshmerga better than we are. I think it would -- U.S. ground forces would provide some backbone for the Iraqi military also. And remember, you know, everybody's, I think, very concerned about casualties, troops being exposed. And they go back to our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But remember, in Iraq and Afghanistan, because we were doing counterinsurgency operations, we were in every nook and cranny of the country and in every valley. That would not be the mission here. It would just be to strike, and as the Iraqi army got better, to reinforce them or support them or provide backup.

BLITZER: So when you say two brigades, how many troops does that mean?

ZINNI: Well, I would say, I mean, just to give you a number, I would say 10,000 American troops ground, and that's support, too. That's things like artillery and logistics support and all that. But it's just meant to be something that we can gather a coalition around.

BLITZER: All right, General, I want you to stand by, because there's a lot more to talk about. Iraq certainly is turning out to be a mess, but there are other parts of that region also awful right now. Much more to discuss with General Zinni right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're following today's disturbing news, ISIS fighters at the perimeter of a huge military base where hundreds of U.S. troops are training Iraqis.

We're back with the former U.S. military Central Commander, retired Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni.

General Zinni, once again, thanks very much for joining us. In addition to what's going on in Iraq right now, Yemen is turning out to be a disaster for the U.S. That's where the U.S. military, of course, have been going after al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, AQAP, as it's called. The U.S. embassy has now been abandoned in the capital of Sana'a. This is turning out to be a real disaster, isn't it?

ZINNI: Yes, it is. Yemen has always been a concern by the other nations on the Arabian Peninsula. It's always had very porous borders, a long coastline, not a very strong coast guard. Its military has always been tied up in tribal conflicts. And I know that the Saudis and the others on the peninsula really worry about this becoming a transit point.

It will be interesting to see what AQAP does vis-a-vis the Houthis. They are religiously different and will there be a conflict down there? Will they work together in some fashion? Will it become more of a base of operations located right on the peninsula, and I'm sure these are the concerns that are in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi and elsewhere on the peninsula right now.

BLITZER: This used to be your area, this whole area, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, the whole U.S. military Central Command region of responsibility. Did you ever think, looking back at your time, there would be this kind of disaster unfolding, the U.S. having to abandon its embassy not only in Yemen but in Somalia, in Libya, obviously Syria, as well? This whole region looks like it's on fire right now.

ZINNI: No, I didn't. You know, I thought we were making progress. It was very slow. I was hoping the reforms might move a little faster. Many young people disenchanted. But once the -- Osama bin Laden and the al Qaeda movement really took hold, and once we went into Iraq and sort of, frankly, broke it, we ended up opening up this part of the world to the extremists getting planted in there and gaining sanctuaries. And that, of course, metastasizes all over the region.

BLITZER: You've had a chance to read the president's proposed war powers languages, the resolution he wants Congress to approve, giving him new military authority to wage this war against ISIS. You like that language as you've read it?

ZINNI: Well, first of all, I like the idea that we go to Congress. I mean, I think constitutionally that's the way it was supposed to be. And they represent the people, and that demonstrates the will of the people. And I think Congress ought to be involved in these decisions.

I don't like the idea that it's limited. I don't think the president should ever limit it himself by eliminating ground combat troops or anything else. Keep all your options on the table, as we talked about before. So it's not the best language, but the fact he's bringing Congress in, I think, is good.

BLITZER: But if you had a vote, if you were a member of Congress, the language as he's proposed it, would you vote for it or against it?

ZINNI: Well, I'd like to see the language changed to give him more authority to use other forces. I don't like the idea that it's limited to three years. You know, timelines don't mean anything in this part of the world. I understand why he put the time limit in, but I think it more has to do with mission. I don't think we would have given Franklin Delano Roosevelt just three years to win World War II.

So some of the language, I would hope, maybe gets changed in the congressional language that comes out of this debate, but I do think that going to Congress is the right thing.

BLITZER: All right. General Zinni, as usual, thanks very much for joining us.

ZINNI: Sure.

BLITZER: Coming up, they may be fighting the same enemy as the United States, but they're certainly not on the same side. We have new details of Iran's role in battling ISIS.

Also, President Obama breaking his silence on the killing of three Muslim students in North Carolina. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're getting new details of Iran's role in the fight against ISIS. The commander of that country's super-secret Quds Force has spoken out on what his troops are doing to combat the terror group in neighboring Iraq, putting him effectively on the same page as the United States. Brian Todd is joining us. He's got more information. What are you

learning, Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, America could not have a more unlikely partner in the war against ISIS. Now, U.S. officials, they would not call him a partner. They might instead call him the enemy of their enemy. He is general Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force of Iran's Revolutionary Guard. He looks like George Clooney, and he leads a shadowy unit that has a lot of American blood on its hands.

He's just made some telling comments about ISIS. The Iranian Fars news agency is saying this week at a speech in his home province, quote, "Given the heavy failures that the ISIL and other terrorist groups in Iraq and Syria have sustained, we are sure that these groups are nearing the end of their life."

And Soleimani would be in a position to know. Security officials and analysts say Soleimani and the Quds First have given crucial support to Iraqi forces battling ISIS. Soleimani, according to analysts, has slipped in and out of Iraq since the war against ISIS began with his forces, fighting alongside the Iraqis, training them, giving them intelligence.

Back in September, a photo posted on Twitter by a group called Digital Resistance -- you can see it there -- that was described to be of Soleimani on the ground near the Iraqi town of Amerly (ph) at the same time that his forces were helping Shia militias break an ISIS siege of that town.

CNN cannot independently verify the authenticity of that photo. It sure does look like Soleimani, though.

Soleimani is no friend of America's, however. U.S. officials believe during the Iraq war, his unit provided Iraqi insurgents with a lethal weapon against American troops: advanced explosive devices that could penetrate the armor on American vehicles. A lot of U.S. soldiers died from those devices, Wolf. He is no friend to America; but right now, he's a pretty dire enemy of ISIS.

BLITZER: And incredibly, he's been involved in terror plots, other operations, that have even reached American shores. That's the accusation against him, isn't it?

TODD: Absolutely, Wolf. Treasury and other officials, they're saying Soleimani oversaw Quds Force operatives who in 2011, they tried and failed to assassinate Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the U.S. That plot involved an attempt to bomb the ambassador at Washington's upscale Cafe Milano. The Iranians denied involvement in that plot, but Qassem Soleimani reached -- there's no doubt his reach extends far, and it is lethal.

BLITZER: Brian Todd, thanks very much.

Let's get some more now with our experts. Joining us, CNN intelligence and security analyst Bob Baer, a former CIA operative; CNN terrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank; CNN military analyst, retired Lieutenant General Mark Hertling.

Bob Baer, why do you think the Quds Force commander is now coming out and saying all of this?

BOB BAER, CNN INTELLIGENCE AND SECURITY ANALYST: Well, in effect, Wolf, they are our ally. And you know -- you know, a couple years ago, they were killing Americans. In 2007, the Quds Force ambushed by American soldiers and executed them in Karbala. They were responsible for blowing up the Marines, the Cafe Milano attack. I could go on and on and on. They've got more blood on their hands, almost as much as bin Laden.

And this has all changed by the existence of the Islamic State, the rising of it. And they are the only allies we, in effect, have. The people doing the fighting right now is not the Iraqi army but militias that answer to Soleimani.

BLITZER: As you know, General Hertling, a lot of U.S. officials, they acknowledge that this Quds Force, the Iranians are helping the Iraqi military go after these ISIS forces. But at the same time, they say if in fact they were to succeed and ISIS were destroyed in Iraq, it wouldn't take very long for these Iranian forces to begin their operations right against U.S. Military personnel. Do you buy that?

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: I do, Wolf. We have seen that before. Your reporter earlier talked about how they contributed, and Bob just mentioned their contributions to the war in 2007 and '08.

We watched this group very closely. They were actually transitioning or transferring, rather, these things called explosively formed penetrators, EFP, which was an advanced form of improvised explosive devices that could penetrate some of our best armor. And they were the ones that helped some of the Shia militias go up against the American forces. So I'm very suspect of this particular group and this particular general.

BLITZER: All right. Let me switch gears and bring Paul Cruickshank into this conversation.

Paul, you're getting new information on that Belgium raid that -- the Belgium raid that triggered these activities in Belgium, that some terrorists effectively escaped. Here's the question. How close were these terrorists in Belgium to an actual attack in that country?

PAUL CRUICKSHANK, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: Wolf, I mean, they were very close indeed, according to senior Belgian officials. They had automatic weapons. They had all the chemicals necessary to make TATP, a high explosive, many times more powerful than those devices in Boston. They had police uniforms so the suspicion is they were trying to gain access to a sensitive site.

Belgian officials believe that the senior leadership of ISIS were behind this. That they sent this Belgian cell back to Belgium to launch this attack. A lot of concern about this. They also found a GoPro camera suggesting that they wanted to film this attack. Belgian officials, this was going to be a terrorist spectacular in the

heart of Europe, they believe it was being coordinated by an ISIS operative from Greece using an elaborate system of phone calls, also coded language. And so the concern was this group was about to launch some kind of massive terrorist attack in Belgium.

BLITZER: Let's say, Bob Baer, that these ISIS terrorists in Belgium were targeting a place like NATO headquarters outside of Brussels. What could that mean for ISIS' ambitions against not only NATO and Europe but the United States?

ROBERT BAER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, Wolf, I think we're going to find out, as Paul started to get into, that this was going to be a huge attack and I would imagine against the United States. We are the number one enemy of the Islamic State. And I have no doubt in my mind and I have had this confirmed by law enforcement people, we are the target inside this country.

Now they have told me that there are people here answering to the Islamic State, not quite sure what that means, but they are quite confident they are here and we are a target. Now is it going to happen tomorrow, 10 years from now, I can't tell you.

BLITZER: And these U.S.-led air strikes against ISIS, what's the impact of all of that, General Hertling?

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: I think it's continuing to blunt them, Wolf. I'd give them high grades. It's causing them damage across the board from a strategic and an operational perspective. They can still conduct tactical operations, to be sure, as we have seen today in Anbar but also as we've seen in Europe. So there are individual cells and individual groups that can conduct attacks but they are being thwarted by these air attacks and it's causing them to change the way they do business, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, guys, everybody, stand by. We have more -- more information coming in. Also coming up, the FBI now opens its own inquiry into the killing of three Muslim students in North Carolina. President Obama is condemning the killings.

Plus, a hot war in eastern Europe. Despite the countdown to what's supposed to be a cease-fire.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Tanks rolling through the streets, artillery shelling on enemy positions, fighting raging on in Ukraine, one day before a cease-fire is supposed to begin.

We've got correspondents on the front lines of the battle between pro- Russian separatists and the Western-backed Ukrainian government.

Let's begin with our senior international correspondent Nick Paton Walsh. He's on the ground for us.

Nick, what are you seeing? NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: We're about

23 hours away from when the guns are supposed to fall silent and we've seen today ourselves how it seems separatists' rocket launchers were rolling towards the front lines in one part of the area. It went through here behind me in the past few hours. We've still heard outgoing and incoming shelling. No signs of things slowing down.

Sadly, though, the civilian losses continue to mount. We saw ourselves how yesterday at 8:00 in the evening, a family put their three children into the bath, the first time they had running water in their home in the town of Horlivka and separatist held areas for about a week. The mother went to the bedroom to get a towel, she came back and found an artillery shell had destroyed their bathroom and killed all three of their children.

They were utterly shell-shocked when we saw them, furious about the cease-fire, blaming the Ukrainian military for firing that shell when everybody know where it came from, what was the cause of that tragic loss of life but it builds on a broader picture of civilian anger here on both sides, too.

The town of Artemivsk today hit also by shelling. That's in Ukrainian government held areas. A child also killed, two people dying there. And the Ukrainian president saying that could jeopardize the Minsk agreement themselves but many focusing on a key town to the northeast of where I'm standing. It's called Debaltseve. It's got potentially hundreds if not thousands of Ukrainian troops in it.

The separatists say they have encircled it. They say that it should be theirs under the Minsk agreement and they tell us that they're actually firing over the heads of Ukrainian troops. A bunch of shells which will drop leaflets on to those troops. You can see some pictures of them here. An elaborate device, telling those troops how they can in fact surrender. And of course, they're also firing heavy artillery into that area as well.

There's a lot of heavy weapons being used here but the controversy, the anger and frankly, the tension over Debaltseve in the next day or so could be a key point to derail the disagreement. It's absolutely clear both sides think it's theirs.

It's absolutely clear the violence is swirling around it, Wolf. We haven't even seen the guns fall silent now, so much is already going wrong.

BLITZER: And supposedly in 23 hours that cease-fire will begin.

Nick, stand by. I want to bring in our senior international correspondent, Fred Pleitgen. He's in the embattled city of Mariupol.

Fred, what are you seeing there?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, and the big question here in Mariupol which is on the Black Sea is whether or not the pro-Russian separatists are going to try and make a push to take this city before in 23 hours that cease-fire is to -- is set to go in place.

Certainly what we can see here on the ground, Wolf, is that this city is on the edge. You have checkpoints all over the place. You have patrols that are going around checking vehicles and there has been a lot of fighting in the past couple of days as well.

The interesting thing down here, however, Wolf, is that here it appears to be Ukrainian forces that are trying to make a push on the one hand to try and get the pro-Russian separatists to get a little bit of distance between themselves and the city but also to try to take pressure off Ukrainian forces in other places, make the pro- Russian separatists put forces down here to try and bind them down here.

There was a tank battle that apparently happened here today. It happened -- went on for quite some time, tanks trading shots. What we heard is there haven't been any casualties in that. In the past couple of days, however, Wolf, there's been a lot of casualties here around Mariupol. There's one Ukrainian force called the (INAUDIBLE) Battalion which actually answers to the Interior Ministry of this country that's been making a big push, took back several villages.

They have very, very hardcore fighters that have been going around so it's been very fierce down here and again, the big question for the people down here is, are the pro-Russian separatists going to try to make another move to try to get this town, because it is key, Wolf.

This town if the Russians -- pro-Russian separatists take this town, they would have a land route going all the way to Russia to Crimea which of course Russia annexed at the end of last year. So it's very, very important and certainly when you go around here and you talk to the Ukrainian fighters who are in this town, none of them will tell you they believe that this Minsk agreement will hold -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Fred Pleitgen, I want you to stand by as well.

Joining us is Daniel Baer right now. He's the United States ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Ambassador, thanks very much for joining us. Is the cease-fire really going to take hold in 23 hours?

DANIEL BAER, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO ORGANIZATION FOR SECURITY AND COOPERATION IN EUROPE: Well, certainly, Wolf, that's the hope. This will be the latest test of Russian and Russian-backed separatists' goodwill and their intentions to follow through on words with action. And everybody -- as we've heard already from your correspondents, everybody on the ground there needs this cease-fire.

The cease-fire is needed to stop the killing, to stop the violence. The violence that has been fueled for many, many months now by Russian coordination, Russian supplies, Russian fighters. The cease-fire is the first step to deescalating and obviously we welcome the efforts of Chancellor Merkel, President Hollande, working with President Poroshenko and President Putin earlier this week. And we will -- we will judge the Russians and the Russia-backed

separatists by their actions not their words. And we welcome the effort to start the path of de-escalation through the cease-fire and the withdrawal of heavy weapons that is supposed to follow in the days that follow, and we will see tomorrow night at midnight is when it is supposed to start. And certainly all of our hopes are that there will indeed be an end to the fighting then. What happened today and -- that the uptick in violence has not been encouraging.

BLITZER: Do you trust President Putin?

D. BAER: I don't think we're in even a trust but verify. We are in a verify and then possibly begin to expect a continued path down the -- down the path of de-escalation. So President Putin and the separatists he backs need to make good on their word. Obviously this is a commitment they made back in September. Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande worked with President Poroshenko to try to get President Putin and the separatists he backs to recommit to the agreements that they made back in September.

That remains the formula for a peaceful de-escalation, a peaceful resolution of this crisis, and you know, the hope is that the deal that was hammered out this week starts us down that path. The path, as Chancellor Merkel has said, will be long. The road is long ahead and the international border will need to be brought back under Ukrainian control and the Ukrainian side of the border, there will need to be a great deal of political effort that follows from the cease-fire but we'll be focused in the next 24 to 48 hours to seeing whether that cease-fire can hold tomorrow night, which obviously for everybody on the ground, would be a good thing.

BLITZER: Well, as everybody says, actions speak louder than words. As far as Russian military actions are concerned, what are you seeing right now inside Ukraine?

D. BAER: Well, Wolf, unfortunately, you know, the cease-fire is supposed to start tomorrow night at midnight but obviously we can judge the goodwill and the spirit of the parties who signed on to that by their actions immediately. And we have seen the Russian military has deployed heavy artillery and multiple rocket launcher systems around Debaltseve where they are attacking Ukrainian positions.

We are confident that these are Russian military and not separatist systems. Russian military has also deployed anti-aircraft systems around Debaltseve, and like -- and in the same way, we are confident that these are Russian military systems, not separatist systems. The Russian military is preparing on the Russian-Ukrainian border to transfer new arms to the separatists.

None of these actions are in the spirit of the agreement that was reached earlier this week. They call into question the credibility of President Putin and the separatists he backs. So we will be watching very closely and hoping that 23 hours from now, we'll hear the guns fall silent which all of the people on the ground in Ukraine so desperately need.

BLITZER: Ambassador Daniel Baer, joining us from Vienna, thanks very much. Appreciate it.

We are also following a huge break in a major international scandal linked to suspected Iranian terror. We are talking about the 1994 bombing that killed 85 people at a Jewish center in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Argentina's federal prosecutor died under very mysterious circumstances last month after announcing Iran was behind the attack.

Today, a new prosecutor declared there's enough evidence to investigate whether Argentina's current president, Cristina Fernandez Kirchner, and other top Argentinean officials covered up Iran's alleged role in the 1994 bombing.

Coming up, after international criticism, President Obama's finally addressing the murder of three Muslim American students in North Carolina. What did the president have to say? His statement is coming up next.

Plus, ISIS is closing in on an Iraqi base with hundreds of U.S. troops. We are going live to Iraq for the very latest.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: After two days of silence, President Obama is now speaking out on the murder of those three Muslim American students near the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

Protesters gathered near the White House today as critics at home and abroad, including the president of Turkey, slammed President Obama for keeping quiet.

But in a statement today, President Obama said, and I'm quoting, "No one in the United States of America should ever be targeted because of who they are, what they look like or how they worship."

The FBI, meanwhile, has opened a preliminary inquiry into the shooter's motive. But so far, there have been no hate crime charges.

CNN's Jean Casarez is in Chapel Hill. She's looking into this story for us.

What's the latest over there, Jean?

JEAN CASAREZ, CNN LEGAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the North Carolina bureau of the FBI does confirm with me today that they are continuing to process evidence and helping the Chapel Hill Police Department. But the ultimate question here, the true issue, is what was the state of mind of the defendant, 46-year-old Craig Hicks?

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CASAREZ (voice-over): Who is this man? Someone motivated by hate or someone so obsessed by parking spaces at a condominium that he shoots to kill? A local tow truck driver says he remembers now defendant Craig Hicks. He continually called to get cars towed off the property where he lived. CHRISTOPHER LAFRENIERE, TOWED CAR FROM COMPLEX: When they said it was

a parking dispute over there, I'm not too surprised. It actually got to the point where he was no longer allowed to call. If he called, we wouldn't go out.

CASAREZ: Neighbor Samantha Maness said it wasn't only parking spaces that got Hicks riled up.

SAMANTHA MANESS, SLAIN MUSLIM STUDENTS' NEIGHBOR: A few time I would pull into the parking lot and my car music volume would be loud as I pulled in and he would open his front door and tell me that he was not very happy about that.

CASAREZ: One of the victim's best friends says he was always careful about where he parked when he visited Deah Barakat.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He'd tell us where to park exactly. Like there would be a little small ramp in front of his area. Not in front of Mr. Hicks' house.

CASAREZ: This and the question of whether this was a hate crime will be looked at in an FBI preliminary inquiry.

TOM FUENTES, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: You would need to find something where he has given statements to other people, friends, colleagues, family members that he had that degree of hatred. He's posted things that were more specific.

CASAREZ: And Hicks' Facebook pages show a hatred of religion. "If you plan to be enjoying heaven while your multitudes are tortured forever, then you are as much of a sociopath as the god that you worship." And a love of guns, "Yes, that is one pound 5.1 ounces from my loaded .38 revolver, its holster, and five extra rounds and speed loader."

His ex-wife told the Associated Press, Hicks' favorite movie was "Falling Down," about a man who goes on a violent rampage. Hicks thought it was hilarious, she said.

Suzanne Barakat says the motive for her brother's murder just can't be so simple. Law enforcement needs to dig deep.

SUZANNE BARAKAT, SISTER OF SLAIN STUDENT: It's basically incomprehensible to me that you can murder three people by shooting a bullet into their head and killing them over a parking spot.

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CASAREZ: And I spoke today to Deah Barakat's best friend. We know that he wanted to help so many in this country and the world through his dental ministry, in a sense, just giving and teaching oral hygiene. I asked him, how would he think if now he may be forever remembered even on a larger scale in the country and even the world in such an impact to make forever? He said he would be overwhelmed -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jean, do we know exactly what happened in the moments just before these three young students were shot in the head?

CASAREZ: Here is what we've learned. A law enforcement source with knowledge of the case says that this defendant saw a car that he believed was in his parking place or in the incorrect parking place, went to the condominium -- remember, they were next-door neighbors and that he allegedly shot them all dead inside the condominium. That's what we know at this point. Specifics, no.

BLITZER: The president of the United States now speaking out on this and the FBI launching a preliminary inquiry as well.

All right. Jean, thanks very much. We'll have more on this story coming up in our next hour.

Coming up at the top of the hour, hundreds of U.S. troops now on the front line near ISIS as the group advances on an Iraqi military base.

Will American troops be forced into combat?

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