Return to Transcripts main page

THE SITUATION ROOM

Iraqi Forces Declare Major Victory Over ISIS; U.S. 'Prepared to Walk Away' from Iran Nuke Talks. Aired 5-6:00p ET

Aired April 1, 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, pushback. Iraq says ISIS has been driven out of the key city. Is this bloody battle a U.S. victory or is Iran gaining greater influence? A CNN correspondent takes us into the city of Tikrit.

Nuclear overtime. The U.S. and Iran work through the night, trying to reach a nuclear deal. Can progress set off a Middle East race for the bomb?

And dangerous search. New video shows pieces of the flight, Flight 9525, on the slopes of the Alps as angry families say not enough is being done.

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

We're following two major stories tonight. Investigators make a new discovery in the crash of Flight 9525 as extraordinary new images reveal just what the recovery teams are facing in the crash site in the French Alps. The closest look we've gotten so far shows crews struggling to move large pieces of wreckage and perch precariously on the mountainside.

The other big story: Iraq. It's now declaring a major victory over ISIS, saying it's driven the terror group out of the strategically important city of Tikrit. ISIS captured the city last June, amid reports of horrific massacres. While ISIS left behind snipers and booby traps, and explosions can still be heard. The Iraqi prime minister, Hadi al-Abadi, today visited Tikrit to put the exclamation point on its liberation.

The battle took a month. Government troops were aided by Iranian-backed Shiite militias and U.S. airstrikes. And now, if religious tensions don't tear the Iraqi forces apart, Tikrit may be the jumping-off point for the next Iraqi military offensive.

I'll speak live this hour with Senator Tom Cotton of the Intelligence and Armed Services Committee. He's standing by. Also, our correspondents and analysts, they're standing by with full coverage. We'll take you inside Tikrit in just a few moments. But let's begin with our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr. She has the very latest -- Barbara.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, when Iraqi Prime Minister Hader al-Abadi showed up in Tikrit today, it was a message to the world that he was trying to send that Iraqi forces have their victory, that they have entered Tikrit, and they have driven ISIS out.

But many people here at the Pentagon say not so fast. Clearly, there are several hundred ISIS fighters still scattered throughout the city. And the Iraqis still working to clear the city of them. And a lot of questions, because the Iraqis not able, really, to do this all on their own.

In the last weeks, the U.S. started airstrikes that pounded those ISIS targets that were very well dug in. ISIS defenses were very strong in the city. They were able to push them back, and of course, the Iraqis had considerable help from those Iranian-backed Shia militias.

So right now a victory for the Iraqi forces but it is just the beginning of what they are going to have to deal with if they hope to hold on to this city and move ahead -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Lots of complications there. Barbara, why is this victory, though, in Tikrit so important in the overall war against ISIS?

STARR: Well, Tikrit literally is on that highway to Mosul. The city in the north that is the big prize. The U.S. wants the Iraqis to get their fighting force in shape to move north and take Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq that ISIS has held on to for some time.

Both Tikrit and Mosul, though, very problematic. You have to be able to hold onto the city. You have to provide security. You have to provide services to the people there. You have to drive ISIS out long enough and far enough away that you can really credibly say you have taken control of that city. There's a long way to go in Tikrit and Mosul. It could be months before Iraqi forces get there.

BLITZER: All right. Barbara, thanks very much. Barbara Starr at the Pentagon. ISIS may have pulled most of its fighters out of Tikrit, but it's still a very, very dangerous place.

Our senior international correspondent, Arwa Damon, made it into the city with shots still being fired and explosions still echoing.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: This is the main road leading through Tikrit. This is the center of the city. That building we were told had a suicide bomber and a sniper on the roof. There are still various gunshots that you do hear. Pockets of resistance still exist. That, the governor's compound.

Now, when the Iraqi forces went inside, one of the majors was telling us it was booby-trapped. The stairway had explosives in it, and when one of their officers stepped, it detonated. Two officers were killed. Another three soldiers wounded inside there.

[17:05:12] And if we swing around a bit more, you still see smoke rising, and you see plumes of smoke throughout the entire city. There were widespread concerns that, when this force came through Tikrit, a Sunni area, it would be carrying out acts of revenge, retaliation, but that smoke we're being told, is not because homes were deliberately burnt. We have not been down there to see it. But because -- and you hear explosions there in the distance, because they're trying to defuse all of these IEDs.

And it's not just IEDs that have been placed in the streets. It's IEDs, booby-trapped buildings. There have been a few occasions where the force moving into a building has opened the door, and the entire building has exploded and collapsed on top of them.

Now, the Iraqi government is saying that it has won in Tikrit. It is declaring victory at this stage. But what is just as important, perhaps, as the military aspect of this, even though there are still pockets of ISIS resistance, is going to be what happens next.

This is a very sensitive situation. Everyone very concerned about the potential for sectarian tensions to re-emerge here. And so the Iraqi federal police units that we're with are trying their best, they say, to clear it out, secure it so that the families can return eventually. But the city that they're returning to is nothing like the one that they left.

Arwa Damon, CNN, Tikrit, Iraq.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: After a deadline came and went, diplomats gave it another day to reach a framework deal on Iran's nuclear program. Now that day has also gone, and some partners in the talks, they have actually gone home. The United States and Iran, they are still talking, but the U.S. is warning it, too, will walk away if necessary. And while there's talk of progress, the finger pointing has already escalated.

Our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, is tracking all of this for us.

Jim, is the deal dead or alive?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, we've just learned that the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, is on his way to Lausanne. He had left yesterday. Possibly a sign of progress that they're moving towards some sort of agreement, but it's not the first time we've seen ministers come and go and then come again.

But as you said, there is also a testier back and forth now between the two sides, each side blaming the other for the obstacles in the talks.

Listen to how the White House and the Iranian foreign minister traded comments today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JAVAD ZARIF, IRANIAN FOREIGN MINISTER: That this is a unique opportunity that will not be repeated, and they need to take advantage of this opportunity.

JOSH EARNEST, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: If we are in a situation where we sense that the talks have stalled, then yes, the United States and the international community is prepared to walk away.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCIUTTO: This could be last-minute posturing. It could be a sign of real trouble in the talks, but keep this in mind, as well. The best that can be expected to come out of Lausanne this week whether tonight or tomorrow or in the coming days is not really anything signed on paper but a general statement of goals going forward. Apparently, the Iranian side doesn't want to sign anything. They are firmly focused on that June 30 deadline.

And you know, this early deadline, Wolf, was originally intended by the west to be a sign of Iran's seriousness about these negotiations, that they're willing to make the big concessions. That question's still open, based on what we're seeing now.

BLITZER: Certainly is. All right. Jim Sciutto, thanks very much.

Let's get some analysis of what's going on now. Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas is joining us. He serves on both the Intelligence and Armed Services Committee. Before that he served in the U.S. military in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He was a U.S. Army officer, also went into the Army after graduating from Harvard Law School.

Thanks very much, Senator, for joining us. Let's say you were in charge of these negotiations with Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister. Knowing what you know, what would you say to him today?

SEN. TOM COTTON (R), ARKANSAS: Well, I wouldn't say anything to him today, because I would have left yesterday at the deadline. I wouldn't have started these negotiations to begin with, at least not on the terms we started them. In 2013, sanctions had driven Iran down to its knees. I voted in the House of Representatives 18 months ago to impose new sanctions on Iran with 400 other members of the Congress, so we could negotiate from a position of strength, not of weakness.

BLITZER: Isn't it better to have a negotiated peaceful diplomatic deal that eliminates Iran's potential for having a nuclear bomb, than doing it militarily, launching airstrikes, for example, trying to destroy their nuclear facilities?

COTTON: Yes. Of course, Wolf. I like most Americans support a negotiated deal. But the key word that you said there was eliminated. We have to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, not just today and tomorrow, but 10 and 15 years from now, as well.

Remember, it only took North Korea 12 years in from the time we reached the agreed framework to the time they detonated their first nuclear weapon in 2006. I don't want the world to live with those consequences in 10 or 15 years because we reached a bad deal today, negotiating from a position of weakness.

BLITZER: Let's say the secretary of state, the other members of the U.N. Security Council, Germany, they announce with Iran tomorrow, let's say, the so-called framework agreement; but they also say, "You know what? We've got to finish the details by the end of June." That's when the deadline is, June 30. And they say, "Don't impose additional sanctions during this interim period." What will be your reaction?

COTTON: Well, Wolf, any kind of agreement, based on the reports we've seen out of Switzerland, is going to kick the can down the road on all the major details.

Unfortunately, the administration's already made very dangerous concessions. If you look just in the last week, what they've conceded, Iran had agreed to ship all of its uranium outside of the country to Russia, so that wouldn't be a risk. They've reneged on that agreement.

Secondly, apparently, we're willing to allow Iran to continue to enrich uranium in underground fortified military bunkers. They have no reason to do so. And the president has said so himself. There's no reason that we should be continuing to grant these concessions and kicking the can down the road on these technical details.

BLITZER: It's important to hear what the details are. We don't know all the details yet. Let's say they announce a framework detail agreement tomorrow, but they say the remaining technical details still have to be worked out. What are you going to do, because I know a lot of your colleagues are already saying they want to move forward with additional sanctions during this interim period. The administration, the Obama administration, says that could kill a deal.

COTTON: Well, what I've supported in the United States Senate and what many Democrats as well as Republicans have supported this future perspective sanctions. Not immediate sanctions, but sanctions that would go into effect if Iran walked away from the table.

I've also supported legislation that would require congressional review period so Congress has a chance to weigh in as the American people, a clear majority of the American people think they should.

But I'm not sure they're going to get to anything that's worth calling an agreement right now, and deadlines have to mean something. When you're negotiating and you have deadlines, you have to show that you're serious and you're willing to walk away from the table; and then come back in a position of strength, not a position of weakness.

BLITZER: Because they say the real deadline is June 30. This March -- end of March deadline was sort of self-imposed by the U.S. And that's why they're going another day or two or three, whatever it takes.

But I just want to be precise on this. What you're saying is that, in April or May or June, before the final deadline, you're willing to go ahead and impose new sanctions, but they would only be implemented after, if there's a failure, let's say, by June 30. You wouldn't begin implementing them over the next...

COTTON: Well, that's what the legislation that I voted for in the banking committee and that Mark Kirk, my Republican Senate colleague from Illinois, proposed. Sanctions take effect in early July if there's not a deal by June 30.

I personally don't think we should have gone down this path to begin with. We should have imposed new sanctions in 2013 and maintained the strength of our negotiating position, which is what brought Iran to the table in the first place. But we certainly should not be continuing to kick the can down the road and letting Iran get nuclear weapons in slow motion, as opposed to all at once.

BLITZER: Now a lot of our viewers remember you organized that letter, you and 46 of your Republican colleagues, you wrote a letter to the Iranian leadership explaining your understanding of what this deal might mean. Did you ever get a response from Iran to that letter?

COTTON: Well, Javad Zarif, who's the foreign minister negotiating with them, responded promptly and in public, saying that international law would trump the United States Constitution, which Wolf, just goes to show that we needed to make the statement to Iran's leaders in the first place.

They don't understand our constitutional system of government. They don't appreciate that while the president negotiates, Congress has to approve any final deal. Their response indicated that we needed to communicate to them directly in the first place and that they needed to get the message straight from us, because they're not getting it in Switzerland.

BLITZER: But no one wrote you back, "Dear Senator Cotton, I understand we received" -- you got no response?

COTTON: We didn't have...

BLITZER: No formal response?

COTTON: In the same way...

BLITZER: Who was your letter specifically addressed to?

COTTON: It was an open letter to the leaders of Iran.

BLITZER: Wasn't it addressed to the ayatollah?

COTTON: No, sir. And it was released publicly. And they released -- Javad Zarif.

BLITZER: He made a public statement responding to you.

COTTON: He made a statement publicly that demonstrated the need for our letter in the first place.

BLITZER: You didn't get an actual response in writing?

COTTON: No postmark.

BLITZER: All right. Stand by, Senator. We have a lot more to talk about.

Senator Tom Cotton is here. We've got a lot more to talk about, including what's going on in Iraq right now. Much more coming up right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're back with the Republican senator, Tom Cotton, of Arkansas. He serves on both the intelligence and Armed Services Committees.

Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, he said today the military option against Iran and its nuclear programs, he says that option is sitting on the table. His words, sitting on the table, if there's no deal and the U.S. concludes that Iran is moving forward and developing a nuclear bomb.

Do you support a preemptive strike to simply destroy Iran's nuclear capabilities?

COTTON: Well, I'd like to see a negotiated outcome that stops Iran on all paths to getting a nuclear bomb.

BLITZER: Is that conceivable, you think?

COTTON: I think it would be conceivable if we would negotiate from a position of strength. Unfortunately, I don't think Iran or many of our adversaries in the region take that threat of force very seriously. I've spoken personally with ambassadors from the region who just say it's not believed anymore, particularly after the president walked back his so-called red line in Syria after Bashar al- Assad used chemical weapons.

What we need to do is reinvigorate the threat of use of force to drive our diplomacy, because diplomacy is always stronger when backed by credible threat of the use of force.

BLITZER: But you don't believe the Iranians take the president's, Josh Earnest, Ash Carter, the defense secretary, said yesterday also the military option potentially is on the table. You don't think they take that seriously?

COTTON: Actions have consequences. And the president drew a red line in Syria, and then he erased the red line. So right now, no, I don't think Iran or, frankly, most other countries in the region believe that the United States is willing to take military action to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.

BLITZER: You think the Iranian... COTTON: That's one reason why we're negotiating from a position

of weakness right now.

BLITZER: You think they take an Israeli threat seriously, the Iranians?

COTTON: I think they'll take it more seriously than they take the U.S. threat. That's also why it's so dangerous to show any daylight with the government of Israel. The U.S./Israel alliance is a core part of our strategic position in the Middle East. And to the extent that we're undermining Prime Minister Netanyahu as he forms a new government and tries to address their security concerns, we are further weakening our negotiating position.

BLITZER: Because we all know the Israelis destroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor, a Syrian nuclear reactor. Do they have the capability militarily -- the U.S. probably does. They have huge bombs. The U.S. has huge bombs, but do the Israeli air force, the Israeli military, have that capability?

COTTON: Wolf, that's a question for the Israelis. Obviously, the United States military can destroy any of Iran's nuclear infrastructure. I will simply quote something that a former Israeli defense force general said to me when I asked him this question many months ago. It can be done.

BLITZER: How worried are you that, if these negotiations fail and Iran moves forward with its nuclear capability, other countries in the region like Saudi Arabia, for example, may say, "You know what, we need a nuclear bomb, as well"?

COTTON: Wolf, it's very worrisome. Let's just take stock of what would happen if Iran got a nuclear weapon. They're already the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism. They're already supporting Bashar al-Assad in Syria and the Houthi militant group in Yemen. They do that without a nuclear weapon and without tens of billions of dollars in access to hard cash. Imagine what they'd do if they got a nuclear weapon.

Second, they might use it. They continually threaten to eliminate Israel.

Third, countries like Saudi Arabia probably would feel compelled to develop a commensurate nuclear infrastructure to counteract their enemies.

And fourth, throughout the region, governments that might be pursuing nuclear weapons have been shown over the last four years to not always be the most stable government. That means a nuclear material would fall in the hands of Sunni terrorist groups like the Islamic state or al Qaeda. So we would be -- we would be ringing the most volatile region in the world with nuclear trip wires if we let Iran get nuclear weapons capabilities.

BLITZER: But if -- if the president of the United States assures the American people, assures friends in the region, whether the Israelis or the Arabs, the Saudis, the Emiratis and others, the United States will not allow Iran to have a nuclear bomb and all options are on the table, that means they won't have a nuclear bomb, right? That the U.S. would take military action and destroy that capability before they develop a nuclear bomb, right?

COTTON: Well, unfortunately, Wolf, the president's assurances don't reassure many people in the Middle East right now. He reassured the world that he wouldn't allow Bashar al-Assad to use chemical weapons with impunity, and he walked back that promise when it was time to make a decision.

So right now those assurances do not -- do not reassure Saudi Arabia or, for that matter, many of the other Sunni countries. And look what's happening in Yemen.

Last week at the Armed Services Committee, commanders in the region testified that Saudi Arabia only gave the United States government a few hours' notice before they began airstrikes against Yemen. That's inconceivable with presidents of both parties throughout the Cold War period and the post-Cold War period, because they knew that they could count on American security guarantees.

BLITZER: You served in Iraq. You were in Baghdad. You were a U.S. m military officer there. When you see what's going on in Tikrit, for example, right now, you heard our report. Arwa Damon is there. Iraqi military has gone in. They've got extensive backing from Iranian-supported Shiite militias and from the U.S. air power, if you will. You see what's going on. Your reaction?

COTTON: Well, I see what happens throughout Iraq is just heartbreaking, because as you say, thousands of Americans died. Many thousands more were wounded or maimed fighting to protect our national security interests in Iraq. The Islamic State rose to power in part because we made a precipitous decision to withdraw our troops in 2011.

But also a continuing factor in Iraq is Iran's influence. You mentioned Iranian-backed Shiite militias are fighting in Tikrit. They were led by Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force. That's the rough equivalent of Iran's Special Operations forces and their CIA. A man who has the blood of hundreds of American soldiers on his hands.

Now I would note that Qasem Soleimani and those Iranian-backed militias weren't able to take Tikrit. And the commanders in Iraq and the Middle East, when they testified before the Armed Services Committee last week, assured us that Iranian-backed Shiite militias had pulled out of Tikrit, and it was led by the operation that we supported with airstrikes...

BLITZER: You have any confidence in the Iraqi military at all right now? Because as you know, Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, a city of nearly two million people, when these ISIS guys came in, they just ran away, left their U.S. equipment behind, and abandoned their posts.

COTTON: I do have confidence in the Iraqi army, but they need the support of Americans. That's why I think the question about...

BLITZER: But you don't want U.S. ground troops there.

COTTON: Well, the question about U.S. ground troops is largely overtaken by events. We have thousands of Americans on the ground right now. We may need to put soldiers in with different skill sets, maybe Special Operations forces or joint forward air controllers to make our airstrikes more effective, but we already have thousands of troops...

BLITZER: About 3,000.

COTTON: Yes. On the ground.

BLITZER: They are supposedly advisors and trainers, intelligence. They're not really combat ground troops.

COTTON: Well, there's a large, long range between having zero troops in a country and having 150,000 troops in a country, as we did at the height of the surge. The president, when he talks about no boots on the ground, first off, I think it minimizes the sacrifice that those 3,000 roughly troops are already performing in Iraq.

[17:25:13] But also, it's setting up what he always likes to call a false choice. You have to have nothing or you have 150,000 troops and heavy mechanized vehicles.

There's lots of range of options that our military can provide the commander in chief to execute that policy. But the point I would say about Tikrit is it was largely an Iraqi army operation, if you listen to what our commanders in the region testified to the Armed Services Committee last week, supported by American forces. But Iran continues to be the worst threat we face in the region, in part because of their drive for regional dominance.

BLITZER: And before I let you go, I've got to get your quick reaction to what's going on in your home state of Arkansas. Very different subject. The governor, Asa Hutchinson, as you well know, decided that he wasn't going to sign into law this religious freedom bill, in part based on what's going on in Indiana right now. Your reaction?

COTTON: Well, Wolf, in Arkansas, we believe in religious freedom. That's one reason why...

BLITZER: Everybody believes in religious freedom.

COTTON: Well, that's one reason why...

BLITZER: The question is the discrimination, potential discrimination against gay Americans.

COTTON: The Religious Freedom Restoration Act was signed by former Arkansas governor Bill Clinton in his first year in office. These laws are modeled on that. And a lot of the concerns about discrimination haven't been brought -- borne to bear over the last 20 years.

I also think it's important that we have a sense of perspective about our priorities. In Iran they hang you for the crime of being gay. They're currently imprisoning an American preacher for spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ in Iran. We should focus on the most important priorities our country faces right now. And I would say that a nuclear armed Iran, given the threat that it poses to the region and to our interests in the region and American citizens, is the most important thing that we'd be focused on.

BLITZER: All right. So did Governor Hutchinson do the right thing?

COTTON: I think Governor Hutchinson and the legislature is trying to strike the right balance, between protecting all citizens of all strikes from discrimination in, say, a restaurant. But again, those kind of concerns have not been borne out over the last 20 years that we've had the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

At the same time, I think it's a legitimate question to ask, whether a woman who teaches piano and then, on her free time, makes extra money by playing pianos at weddings, if she strongly believes that gay marriage is not consistent with her personal conscious beliefs, should be compelled by law to perform at a gay marriage. I think that's a reasonable question to ask. And I don't think that we should call that woman bigoted or hateful or that we should impose criminal or even civil fines on her.

BLITZER: What you certainly don't want in your home state of Arkansas, a boycott, economic punishment, if you will, similar to what's going on in Indiana right now. And I assume that's why the governor decided to back off today.

COTTON: Of course not. And I would say anybody who thinks that these laws are empowering that kind of discrimination are either misinformed or they're misrepresenting the facts. That simply hasn't been the case in the 22 years since Bill Clinton signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

BLITZER: All right. Senator, we'll leave on it that note. Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, appreciate it very much.

COTTON: Thank you.

BLITZER: Coming up, an ISIS recruiting magazine now claiming that at some point, the west will have to consider calling a truce. Is that just ISIS propaganda? Could it be a white flag from ISIS? We'll have more, coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's get back to our top story. Iraqi forces declare a victory over ISIS, recapturing the city of Tikrit, which fell to the terror group last year. [17:32:42] But in the latest edition of its online so-called

magazine, ISIS vows to continue its spread through the Middle East and Africa and beyond.

Our counterterrorism analyst, Philip Mudd, is here with us in THE SITUATION ROOM. He's a former CIA counterterrorism official.

Phil, walk us through some of the fertile ground. I know you've got a map up here, that you can show us where ISIS is beginning to penetrate and get some -- gain some strength.

PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Contrast this with al Qaeda. Look how quickly, just in the course of a year or so, ISIS has spread.

Let's start with the heartland here. You're talking about the headquarters of ISIS up here in Syria and Iraq. You keep going geographically, you look at a place like Yemen in the south, heartland also for al Qaeda, a place you would expect ISIS to expand to. Also geographically, you're looking at Sinai Peninsula, but then you start moving.

Geographically, you're going into Libya where we saw the attempt on the hotel, the murder of a few people a few months ago. Keep going into Africa. Tunisia, where we saw the attack relatively recently just a few weeks ago and further, to Algeria, a place where we had a civil war back in the '90s, also a lot of foreign fighters going into Iraq.

And finally, we have ISIS talking about moving further afield in addition over here into Nigeria and West Africa generally.

So again, a contrast to years when al Qaeda had to spend time building this kind of network, ISIS is kicking on an open door, places where al Qaeda already had success. And people are now saying, "New game in town. Let's join the new group."

BLITZER: How does this compare to al Qaeda, classic al Qaeda, the various factions of al Qaeda?

MUDD: I know they look fundamentally different, and through my eyes, they are -- they are really a different ball game here. They look different, because you had al Qaeda very slowly saying, "Who represents the brand well? We are not going to allow you to join, sometimes after years of negotiation, until we can affirm that your leadership thinks as we do."

Opposite for ISIS. Very different. ISIS saying, "Look, as long as you're close to the game, close to believing what we think, you're welcome to join." So they've sacrificed, if you will, quality for speed. Something al Qaeda would not have done.

BLITZER: Groups like Boko Haram, they're claiming allegiance now to ISIS, and that could be a pattern down the road, right?

MUDD: It's a pattern. I think it's a risky pattern for ISIS. Short-term, it's a great gain. We've seen the geographic spread. That would have taken years for al Qaeda to accomplish.

The problem, the flipside of this is groups like Boko Haram, you remember abducting hundreds of girls. The risk is they're going to do things that violate not only some of the views of local people they want to recruit, but they're also going to violate some of the fundamentals of what ISIS wants to accomplish.

[17:35:17] So again, they're going to get groups like Boko Haram to sign up very quickly, but these groups might alienate the local population over time and, in effect, undercut ISIS.

BLITZER: I want you to stand by, because we have much more to talk about.

I also want to bring in retired Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, our CNN military analyst; and "Washington Post" columnist David Ignatius. He's covered the intelligence community. He's covered the Middle East for decades, in fact.

Guys, stand by for a moment. I want to take a quick break. Much more right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're back with our Middle East and terror experts. David Ignatius, is the fight over Tikrit in Iraq over?

DAVID IGNATIUS, COLUMNIST, "WASHINGTON POST": It doesn't look to be over yet. The Iraqi government hoisted the flag, and the prime minister announced that Tikrit had been taken, but it still appears doubtful. ISIS has dug in.

Part of the problem is that, apparently, the city is so booby- trapped that advancing forces have to be very careful as they enter parts of it, but clearly, most of the ISIS fighters have fled.

BLITZER: General Hertling, the secretary of state, John Kerry, he told Katie Couric in a Yahoo.com interview not that long ago he'd be open to actually coordinating with Iran in this war against ISIS in Iraq. You believe that coordination should go forward? Is it necessary?

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Wolf, as a military guy, I'm saying that's a political decision. What I will tell you from a military perspective, there are going to be a lot of commanders that are going to have difficulty cooperating with Iran. Now, coordinating is a different story. We have seen that over this last week where there was some coordination with the Iraqi government to pull Iranian forces out but directly with Iran, probably not any time soon, in my view.

BLITZER: Phil Mudd, today nine British nationals, including women and children, they were prevented from crossing from Turkey into Syria to join forces with ISIS, but presumably a lot of others are successfully crossing that border, right? MUDD: You've got to believe that ISIS not only has its own

people in places like Turkey, but they have coopted border guards in Jordan and Turkey, I'm certain of it. So for the ones we see, what are you guessing, 10, 20 percent more, 50 percent more, 100 percent more that are getting across. There's got to be hundreds, maybe thousands we don't see.

BLITZER: David Ignatius, the ISIS recruitment magazine, a propaganda magazine, "Hadith" (ph), as it's called, features an article written by the British hostage, John Cantley, presumably under great duress. The article calls for an end to the western strikes saying at some stage, I'm quoting now, at some stage you are going to have to face the Islamic state as a country and even consider a truce. Is this just propaganda? Is it a white flag? What's your assessment?

MUDD: It is propaganda. Everything that appears in their magazine is that. I think even mentioning an eventual truce is not a white flag but it's holding out that idea that at some point, they're prepared to negotiate.

Right now, that sounds like an impossibility to the U.S. and the U.S. coalition. You know, the terms for a truce, we made clear in the case of the Taliban: You have to renounce violence; you have to renounce terrorist attacks. If they began to make statements like that, that would be a sign that they really are on the run and are interested in some kind of negotiation. Whether the U.S. would do that, hard to say at this point.

BLITZER: General Hertling, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, last week, Adel al-Jubeir, last week told me that Saudi Arabia would take in his words whatever measures are necessary in order to protect its security.

Does that mean that Saudi Arabia if it doesn't like the deal that the U.S. And the others are trying to achieve with Iran, Saudi Arabia might go forward and develop its own nuclear bomb?

HERTLING: I don't know about that, Wolf. But I do know that the government in Saudi Arabia is a little bit offended about what has occurred recently in terms of our negotiation with Iran. That's certainly obvious to everyone.

So I think a lot of this is bluster. Currently, what they're talking about is just the security to their south in Yemen, and they've asked to become involved in other places and have been rebuffed in that regard. So I just think a lot of this is posturing on the part of the Saudi Arabians, but they are a little bit upset with the United States, to be sure.

BLITZER: Let me wrap it up with David Ignatius. You know the Saudis, they're almost as worried, if not more so, than the Israelis are about this nuclear deal, right?

IGNATIUS: They are very much worried about the nuclear deal and the expansionist Iran. What they've done in Yemen, using Saudi military force to push back what they see as an Iranian proxy force, is very significant. What it says is that the Saudis are prepared to act without the United States directly supporting them to defend their security. That's a big move in the Middle East.

BLITZER: All right, guys, thanks very much. David Ignatius, Mark Hertling, Philip Mudd I appreciate it very much.

Up next, we're getting word of a new discovery by investigators looking into the crash of Germanwings Flight 9525. Stay with us. We have the closest look yet at the actual crash site.

[17:44:51]

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're getting new information about the deadly crash of Germanwings Flight 9525. We are also getting our closest look yet at the crash site.

Let's go to our justice reporter Pamela Brown, she's joining us from Germany with more.

What's the latest there, Pamela?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, a source close to this investigation says investigators here in Dusseldorf have made a new discovery in that investigation very recently. However, they are not sharing publicly yet what that new finding is. Meantime, in France, investigators there are still searching for that flight data recorder.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN (voice-over): Tonight new images of the search crews and the meticulous work recovering passenger remains and personal belongings in the French Alps.

[17:50:06] Sorting through the wreckage is a daunting task amidst the debris. The teams lifted this broken piece of fuselage.

For the first time, Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr visited the crash site today, adding a wreath to the pile of flowers left by the grieving families at a simple stone memorial.

CARSTEN SPOHR, LUFTHANSA CEO: We are learning more every day about the cause of the accident. But I think it will take a long, long time for everybody, all of us, to understand how this could happen. There's in questions and answers.

BROWN: But Spohr refused to answer reporters' questions about the co- pilot Andreas Lubitz who's accused of deliberately crashing the plane, killing all 150 people on board.

SPOHR (Through Translator): He was 100 percent fit to fly without restrictions.

BROWN: Initially, Lufthansa insisted it was unaware of any medical issues associated with Lubitz. But the airline dropped a bombshell Tuesday, revealing the 27-year-old, in fact, himself reported five years ago that he had suffered a, quote, "episode of severe depression." Lufthansa says it still put him in the cockpit only after putting Lubitz through another round of psychological testing.

Jim Phillips of the German Pilots Union says Germany has a strong support system for pilots.

JIM PHILLIPS, GERMAN PILOTS ASSOCIATION: Our pilots don't just fall through the cracks and are unemployed and have no money if they get sick. Their goal is, one, to keep everybody safe, no question. But, two, to keep the pilot flying.

BROWN: But the question remains tonight how Lubitz could have fallen through the cracks. Authorities say a primary motive in their investigation centers around a fear by Lubitz that his medical issues would cost him his job as a pilot.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: And tonight, a -- that source close to the investigation tells us that investigators have been pouring through his electronics, his computer files. They say the only relevant findings so far in this electronic is information about his 2009 depression episode.

But as I mentioned, Wolf, investigators have come across a new finding. And the hope is that it could help explain a motive -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Pamela Brown in Dusseldorf for us, thank you.

Joining us in THE SITUATION ROOM, our aviation analyst Miles O'Brien, who's a private pilot, and our law enforcement analyst Tom Fuentes, a former assistant director of the FBI.

Miles, we heard the editor of "Bild," the German publication say that he has seen the video purporting to show the final seconds of the plane's flight. We've also heard from French authorities on the ground who say they don't know about this video and if anyone has it, they would certainly be grateful if they were to share it with them.

What do you believe is going on here? Do you think there is such video that it's authentic?

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: Well, I think it's a little unusual, though we haven't seen it, if "Bild" and "Paris Match" did, in fact, get this scoop, you would think they would -- and presumably because they're known to pay for stories, they would have been able to deliver the goods. So I'm slightly skeptical because we haven't seen anything.

However, I do know there is a tremendous amount of persuasive capability when you break out the checkbook and offer to pay for these kinds of things. So I don't doubt that somebody on the ground there might have seen something, quietly put it in their pocket and sold it to -- I'm putting quotes around it, journalists. And they might have watched it. So, you know, that's -- it's a possibility, put it that way.

BLITZER: Do you think, Tom Fuentes, somebody could have found a memory card, for example, that was part of the -- from the crash scene, actually given it to a journalist or for whatever, downloaded it without the authorities knowing about that?

TOM FUENTES, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Sure. I think the fact that they shouldn't do it doesn't mean they couldn't. I mean, we're talking about the object the size of a thumbnail that they could easily stick in the pocket or backpack, or whatever, back to the hotel. Meet with a journalist, let them look at what's on there, sticking it in another phone and keep it or -- we don't know who actually is in possession of it right now. But very easily that could be done. It just should not be done.

BLITZER: And you think, Miles, that -- given the devastation at the crash site, a little thumb drive or a memory card or whatever, a computer chip like that, could have survived and actually have been found?

O'BRIEN: Well, Wolf, I'm a history major, but I do know force equals mass times acceleration. And I harken back to the Columbia disaster, February 1st, 2003. A hard drive survived that. A videocassette with a video recorder and even a canister filled with living worms that were used in experiments. And that vehicle was going 19 times the speed of sound. So, you know, there's strange aerodynamics and force equations that occur in these situations. And these cards and these phones are often light.

[17:55:03] BLITZER: All right. Miles, thanks very much. Tom Fuentes, thanks to you as well.

Coming up, Iraq declares a major victory saying it's driven ISIS out of a key city, but with explosions and gunshots still echoing, Tikrit is still a very dangerous place. We're going there live.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Happening now, on the battlefield, CNN is inside Iraq, reporting on hidden dangers after a significant defeat for ISIS. What will the terrorists do next?

Nuclear all-nighter. The U.S. says it's not giving up on critical talks with Iran. Will progress be made in the next several hours amid new fears of a Middle East arms race?