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ISIS Executes Syrians in Palmyra; Political Aspects of ISIS Fight Explored; Fans Raise Money To Keep Seahawks Quarterback; Joel Osteen, Elizabeth Dole Help Military Caregivers; Comedy Icon Anne Meara Dies At 85. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired May 25, 2015 - 16:30   ET



[16:34:23] JOHN BERMAN, CNN: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm John Berman, in for Jake Tapper today.

Topping our world on this Memorial Day, ISIS terrorists have killed hundreds of Syrians in the ancient city of Palmyra. A human rights watchdog group says at least 11 children were among those rounded up and executed.

This comes as the Syrian army launches at least 15 airstrikes to try to beat back this ISIS advance.

Want to get straight to CNN's Nick Paton Walsh, who is live for us in Baghdad this morning.

Nick, what are the Syrian forces, the Syrian military, what are they prepared to do to try to get Palmyra back?


NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, a lot of rhetoric, as you might expect, from the Syrian government here about this vital strategic town that they did convincingly lose, quite swiftly, in fact, to ISIS.

Questions really though remain as to whether they can launch that counteroffensive they say they are preparing. We have known for some time that Damascus is really suffering to replenish its front-line troops here. It's losing in the north around Damascus, the south as well.

And Palmyra's fall symptomatic of a broader malaise, many asking that perhaps this war of attrition going on now for four-plus years is beginning to make the regime's position significantly less defensible -- John.

BERMAN: And, Nick, our concern is obviously with the people, the innocent victims in Palmyra who have been killed, in some cases brutally killed by ISIS.

But there's also material (INAUDIBLE) there as well, these antiquities, these treasures some 2,000 years' old. Any word yet on how ISIS is treating this history that's there?

WALSH: At this stage, those antiquities do not appear to have been in ISIS' crosshairs as yet.

Some may say that perhaps they're holding off doing that so they can garner favor with the local population, who would clearly hold them very dear. That's typical to ISIS moving into a population center. They can be kind at first before they become more brutal and significantly more conservative and started a force upon those people, and then also to some -- so they could just be waiting, frankly, for the news blast of Palmyra having been taken in the late stage to get further publicity about that destruction.

But they're, at this stage, said to be OK. Still, though, I should point out 217 people said to have been executed by ISIS as they go door to door killing those with any sense of regime connection or sympathy -- John.

BERMAN: It is simply barbaric. Nick Paton Walsh for us in Baghdad talking about what's happening in Syria, but there's a lot is happening in Iraq as well. Thank you so much, Nick.

The ISIS takeover of Palmyra comes just days after ISIS seized Ramadi from Iraq security forces following an a pitched 18-month battle for that city 70 miles west of Baghdad.

In an exclusive interview with CNN, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter questioned the Iraqi army's will to fight ISIS.

Barbara Starr joins us live from the Pentagon.

And, Barbara, I have to say, I was taken aback by the blunt assessment from the defense secretary. How are Iraqis taking his harsh words?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, now, John, we're beginning to hear from Iraqi opposition politicians who are also weighing in, perhaps expectedly, on their dismay about the performance of the Iraqi military in that battle for Ramadi.

Whatever did or did not happen in Ramadi, it has just set off a seemingly unending controversy.


STARR (voice-over): A chaotic firefight just before Ramadi fell filmed on a cell phone by an Iraqi soldier, the strategic city now in the hands of ISIS, and the U.S. defense secretary not mincing words in an exclusive interview with CNN.

ASHTON CARTER, U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY: What apparently happened was that the Iraqi forces just showed no will to fight. They were not outnumbered. In fact, they vastly outnumbered the opposing force, and yet they failed to fight. They withdrew from the site.

STARR: A comment that set off its own firestorm. Vice President Joe Biden called Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi

Monday, pledging more training and equipment, countering the defense secretary, in a White House statement saying, "The vice president recognized the enormous sacrifice and bravery of Iraqi forces over the past 18 months in Ramadi and elsewhere."

Abadi hit back at Carter in a BBC interview.

HAIDER AL-ABADI, IRAQI PRIME MINISTER: I'm surprised why he said that. He was very supportive of Iraq. I'm sure is, he was fed -- he was fed with the wrong information.

STARR: And ahead of Iran's elite Quds Force saying it is the U.S. that -- quote -- "has no will to fight ISIS."

Iraqi forces, along with Sunni tribal fighters and Shia militias, many backed by Iran, launched a counteroffensive east of Ramadi. Blame game aside, the situation remains dire. Nearly 55,000 people have fled Ramadi since ISIS captured it. And in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, ISIS militants have executed more than 200 people in the last 10 days, according to a human rights group.

U.S. airstrikes inside Syria and Iraq will continue, but will never be enough, Carter told CNN.

CARTER: Airstrikes are effective, but neither they nor really anything we do can substitute for the Iraqi forces' will to fight. They're the ones who have to beat ISIL and then keep them beaten.



STARR: So why no will to fight in Ramadi?

Well, defense officials are now telling us they have been looking at several factors. Iraqi forces there may not have been even paid for some time. They were exhausted. They hadn't been given any leave to go home and see their families, and many of them have already said they felt essentially very disconnected from their commanders.

There is growing concern that the leadership in the Iraqi military may be playing a large role in this, and they may not be very loyal to their own troops, essentially not looking after their own troops in the field -- John.

BERMAN: Serious issues, to say the least. Barbara Starr for us at the Pentagon, thank you so much.

Joining me now to talk about this fight against ISIS is retired Army Lieutenant General Mark Hertling. He's a former commanding officer -- commanding general of U.S. forces in Europe and a CNN military analyst.

General Hertling, you also spent significant time in Iraq, so you are well-suited for this discussion. I want to separate, if we can for a moment, the political wisdom of

the defense secretary, Ash Carter, making statements about an ally's military. Separate whether or not he should have said it. First, I want to focus on whether or not it is an accurate statement. The Iraqi military did, frankly, dissolve about a year ago when ISIS advanced through Mosul. Did it happen again in Ramadi? Did they show no will to fight?

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, it depends on you define will, John. And that's the interesting piece.

But I think the secretary's attempting to hold up a mirror to the Iraqi government and saying, you're still failing. You haven't pulled it together yet. You have not pulled the forces in a coordinated fashion to fight this dastardly enemy.

That's on the political side, as you said a minute ago. On the tactical side, there were certainly some problems on the battlefield. Early indicators are they were not coordinating well between the Sunni, the tribal fighters, the Sunni tribal fighters, the militias that are there, the Iraqi army, the forces that were inserted into the fight from the Golden Division that was -- that has basically been traveling all around the country, the more elite of the Iraqi army, and the police force.

So you really have five uncoordinated organizations attempting to defeat ISIS. You also have a weather problem, but you have to fight through that. You have an intelligence problem, a logistics concern. All of these things are some things that we saw even during my last tour there in 2008 that the Iraqi army had to overcome.

The will of the individual Iraqi soldier is there. They will fight if their leaders insert the trust that is so necessary in any military organization.

BERMAN: The administration had called the loss of Ramadi a tactical issue right now, a small tactical setback.

But isn't is a serious strategic issue as well if the United States has been counting on the Iraqi military to stand up and fight? Isn't it a strategic problem if that military is not capable to stage that fight and isn't it a failure of the administration not to get those troops trained?

HERTLING: You have hit it right on the head, John. It is a tactical failure.

I mean, and those kind of battles go back and forth. I mean, heck, you can look back at the American Army. Our first fight in World War II was the Battle of the Kasserine Pass. It was probably worse than what we saw in Ramadi in terms of an uncoordinated action.

But, in this case, it's an indicator of what is or is not happening from a strategic level. The Iraqi government has not done the things we had hoped they would do by now, which is get all of the politicians on board, eliminate the -- or at least reduce the amount of sectarian tension between the Sunni, the Shia and the Kurds.

And unless they do those two things, they're going to continue to have problems. So it is an indicator of strategic issues. So the battle itself of Ramadi, I mean, I think the forces will take back Ramadi within the next few days or weeks. They will regain the city.

But the problem set still remains. How does the Iraqi government come together so we can support them more with the kinds of things the president and Chairman Dempsey and Secretary Carter want to do?

BERMAN: They have to trust each other inside Iraq before the United States can fully trust them.

General Mark Hertling, thank you so much for being with us on this Memorial Day. I appreciate it.

HERTLING: Yes. Thank you, John.

BERMAN: Coming up for us, after two Super Bowl appearances in a row, he is ready to cash in. But can the Seattle Seahawks afford to keep their star quarterback? Fans hope so and they are willing to chip in.

What they're doing to convince the NFL star to stick around, that's next.

Plus, she appeared in everything from "Rhoda" to "The Carol Burnett Show" to the film "Fame" -- that's my favorite -- also "Sex and the City" and "Seinfeld" -- excuse me -- "Seinfeld" -- easy for me to say.

We will remember a comedy legend ahead.


BERMAN: Hi. Welcome back to THE LEAD. The Sports Lead, some New England Patriots fans are trying to crowd source the cash to pay the Patriot's Deflategate fine. One Seattle Seahawks fan has started a "gofundme" site to try and keep the quarterback that Tom Brady beat in the Super Bowl happy.

The Keep Russell Wilson in Seattle" page is trying to raise $5 million to help the team re-sign Russell Wilson. It has already received more than $1,000 in donations, in less than two weeks, but Wilson is reportedly looking for $20 million to $25 million a year, in an extension from the Seahawks.

Despite being in two Super Bowls, winning one, Wilson started the third highest quarterback on his own team. The team is owned by Paul Allen, who founded Microsoft and is worth 76 jillion dollars. Maybe they can afford themselves.

Turning now to today's emotional Memorial Day ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery where President Obama shared a moment with a very well- known veteran. A World War II hero wounded in combat, who once came close to holding the title that President Obama holds right now, is former Senate Bob Dole looking terrific. I have to say, by the way, 91 years old. Last week, Dole's wife, former Senator Elizabeth Dole came to Washington with Pastor Joel Osteen to shine a light on the hidden heroes, the husbands, wives, mothers, fathers and other family members and friends caring for our nation's returning heroes.

[16:50:06] Jake Tapper caught up with Osteen and Dole to find out more about their campaign to honor and help these caregivers.


JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: So you two are spearheading this effort, hidden heroes to honor and support military and veteran caregivers. I'll ask you both, start with you, Senator, what role do you think faith plays when it comes to addressing issues like post-traumatic stress?

ELIZABETH DOLE, FORMER U.S. SENATOR: Goodness, I think it plays a major role. No question about it. We had the Rand Corporation do two years of studies. The first evidence-based research on military and veteran caregivers and they found that so many of the caregivers when they're in deep trouble, they turn to the clergy.

Because they're people who need that reassurance that faith that opportunity to speak privately, too, in a quiet setting so the role of faith is major, it's certainly major in terms of wanting to, all the people wanting to join together in a large coalition to help these caregivers. I think much of it is driven by faith.

TAPPER: Yet I have to say, it's almost counter intuitive because this is a community that has faced the worst of man. The horrors of war, what war does to people? Maybe people who are inclined to think there is no God?

JOEL OSTEEN, SENIOR PASTOR LAKEWOOD CHURCH: Yes. I think, Jake, we always get that, or, Joel if god was good, how could he let that happen? There are a lot of things we don't understand. I think my bigger view is that God gives us our own freewill and unfortunately some people choose to use it in the wrong sense.

But we do see, like the senator said, that people in crisis, they need something bigger than themselves. I mean, some of these people, you know, the situations are bad. They can't get out with some kind of hope or somebody helping them so they turn to their faith and that's why we've partnered with Senator Dole.

These hidden heroes, people that are just taking care of somebody 24/7, you know, they need some relief. They need people to be their friend, talking to one today who said, if somebody to just go get groceries. We don't need money. Take the hour and give me an hour off. Simple things we can help.


BERMAN: Coming up, Hollywood mourns the death of a comedy legend. A look back at a career that spans six amazing decades, she was so good. That's next.




BERMAN: Welcome back to THE LEAD. Our Pop Lead, a sad moment for the entertainment world. Anne Meara passed away this weekend at the age of 85. Her death prompted some headlines referring to Meara as Ben Stiller's mother, but she was so much more than the mother of a comedy star. She was a comedy legend in her own right.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Here we are, now we're left with obituaries.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Obituaries? Already written. Ours are written.

BERMAN (voice-over): Already written? Not for Anne Meara, because honestly, there is simply too much to include. The comedienne rose to fame with her husband Jerry Stiller doing imprompt.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm Hershey Horowitz.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm Mary Elizabeth Doyle.

BERMAN: The duos best known bit was a last-minute idea performed for Johnny Carson.

A Jewish man and a Catholic woman madly in love, what a pairing on and off the screen for more than 60 years. In the early days, it was "The Ed Sullivan Show."

MEARA: You ignorant Jew, you matzo head, what do you know?

BERMAN: The "Carol Burnett Show."


BERMAN: Even national commercials for big brands including Windex. Eventually the actors branched out to successful solo roles shining brightly on their own.

MEARA: Nothing like a good, brisk shower to start off a wonderful day of sitting on your bed.

BERMAN: Meara was a beloved guest star on "All My Children," "Love Boat," and "Rhoda."

Stiller and Meara were all over the defining sitcoms of the '90s and beyond including "Seinfeld" --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All right. I guess that's about it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I got it, cups in the front. BERMAN: And "Sex and The City." In total, Anne Meara appeared in more than 30 movies and 50 television shows over the course of six decades, even getting animated with Stiller last year for Disney's "Planes."

Entertaining people was her passion and she continued to embrace it in new ways. In 2010, she and stiller began a web series produced by their son, the actor, Ben Stiller.

After his mother's death on Saturday at age 85, Ben Stiller tweeted, "All of us in our family feel so lucky to have had her in our lives."

And as Meara and her husband once explained to CBS News, luck and love was the secret to their success

MEARA: What is the one thing that worked for you our marriage?

STILLER: I had you.

MEARA: You had me?

STILLER: Lucky to have one another.


BERMAN: They sure were. That's it for THE LEAD. I'm John Berman in for Jake today. Now let's go to Brianna Keilar filling in for Wolf Blitzer in "THE SITUATION ROOM."