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Protests Over Saudi Execution of Shiite Cleric; Armed Protesters Occupying Federal Land; Levees Breach, Towns Surrounded By Water; Trump: I Will "Unsign" Obama Executive Action. Aired 8-8:30a ET

Aired January 3, 2016 - 08:00   ET


ALISON KOSIK, CNN ANCHOR: And we begin with breaking news. More demonstrations are expected today after the execution of a Shiite cleric in Saudi Arabia ignited a firearm storm of protests.

[08:00:09] VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN ANCHOR: In Iran, dozens of demonstrators attacked the Saudi embassy there in Tehran, throwing, as you saw, fire bombs, smashing windows and furniture. Riot police were called in and 40 people, so far, have been arrested.

There have also been protests around the world. Hundreds of people turned out to protest al-Nimr's death from Saudi Arabia, there in Bahrain, India as well.

Let's bring in CNN's Becky Anderson.

And, Becky, first, just help us understand why there's been a passionate response to the execution, not of all 47 but mainly al- Nimr.

BECKY ANDERSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, as you've been pointing out, was an outspoken critic of the ruling Sunni monarchy with a sizable support base, it has to be said, in the kingdom's Shia-dominated eastern region. Fiery sermons from that cleric on a fairly regular basis until he was arrested but little evidence to suggest he was active in taking bombs against the Saudi state.

I think this is the real crux of things. By executing him along with 46 other, what the Saudis would call convicted terrorists belonging to groups like al Qaeda. The kingdom sending a message it will not tolerate any form of dissent, be that radical Sunni jihadists or Shia activists.

Now, you clearly have Iranian sympathy for a Shiite cleric in Saudi. They have made that very clear during his arrest and the possibility of his execution. But this clearly inflaming tensions both between Saudi and Iran and in countries which have a restive or not Shiite population around this region, and it's got to be said beyond into Southeast Asia.

Now, let's do the Iran Saudi story and we can get wider. Iran's supreme leader has said that Saudi's leaders will, and I quote, "face divine justice" as protesters in Tehran on Saturday night ransacked the Saudi embassy. There are protesters outside of that embassy again today in Tehran. Authorities there saying that they are trying to disperse some 400 or so, we are told.

But what is really important here is that we have seen evidence in recent weeks, until this point, of what looked like a bit of a thaw in relations between Riyadh and Tehran. Reports that Saudi Arabia would be sending a new ambassador to Tehran to improve ties, as it were.

So, this latest incident only strengthening the hand, I think, of conservative hardliners in both capitals. Witness what we heard from the supreme leader out of Tehran today. Also, a message from the Iranians that rode outside the Saudi embassy in Tehran renamed Martyr Nimr today. So, that fairly provocative in anybody's books, Victor.

And just to compare those comments with those of the more reform- minded President Hassan Rouhani in Iran who condemned calling it unjustifiable.

So, my point here is, you have two camps in Iran. Washington and the West clearly backing that camp of the President Hassan Rouhani. When you see episodes like this, this really plays into the hands of the conservative hard liners. Both in Tehran and it's going to be said, in Riyadh.

Back to you.

BLACKWELL: Very complex situation. Becky Anderson, thanks for helping to untack all that for us.

Now, for analysis, let's bring in CNN military analyst, Major General James "Spider" Marks.

In this conflict, Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally, Washington is now working to renew or start anew its relationship with Iran. Talk about the high wire that U.S. officials have to walk. We can point out that the statement that came out was not from the president. It wasn't from Secretary Kerry. It was from a spokesperson, John Kirby, for the State Department.

MAJ. GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS (RET), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Yes, Victor, first of all, wasn't Becky's reporting just really spot on? I mean, she laid it out in all the color and all the details that really described this complex, kind of mosaic that we're dealing with. It's very difficult to get your arms around it.

To your question, yes, it's an incredibly tough challenge that we have. And clearly I would say what the United States administration is doing now is they are downplaying -- they're not trying to enflame this. And so, a spokesman steps forward and said we're working diligently with both capitals in Tehran and Riyadh to try to mitigate.

[08:05:08] But bear in mind, Saudi Arabia and Iran have some major issues, and we see it every day in Yemen. Remember that Saudi Arabia has a hot war with Shia militia down in Yemen right now. This is not a war by proxy. This is Saudi Arabia stepping up saying no more. They mobilized ground troops, they mobilized an air force. It's now kind of been tamped down.

But it exists and it will continue to exist like this and things like this will enflame that. What we have to realize is that we have a very strong relationship with Saudi Arabia. It is, as you said, Victor, on a very thin line. It's very nuanced but we have to maintain that type of base, that type of relationship, that type of trying to improve the trust that exists.

As we realize now, also, we're trying to get this nuclear deal through with Tehran, which the world has not completely embraced. So, this is a very delicate dance that this administration is putting on right now.

KOSIK: And, General, we see the U.S. playing this down but more protests are planned today. Do you think it could be the start of a bigger conflict in the region between these two rivals?

MARKS: Probably not. I see this as an unfortunate step within this relationship that exists. Riyadh will abide no protests. Riyadh is all about control. When you look at -- they've been in the region. They understand the region better than anyone.

They lifted the Arab spring. Clearly there is no spring in the Arab spring. It has descended in many places into complete chaos. And we have unleashed these pent up frustrations that existed for years.

So, Saudi Arabia is very aware of that. Very much aware of the fact they could be dealing with a much larger challenge, and they have a singular industry. It is the oil industry and that is precariously kind of on a balance, as well, if it were to get broader, Alison.

So, I don't think it will be. Everybody's best interest is to put a blanket on it and not let it get out of control.

KOSIK: All right. Major General Spider Marks, thanks so much for your analysis today.

MARKS: Thanks, Alison and Victor.

BLACKWELL: All right. Ahead another big story here in the U.S. Five levees breached along the Mississippi River in Illinois. The latest just overnight. The state's governor particularly concerned about people in the flood zones, and not just because of the loss of water.

KOSIK: Also, ahead, Donald Trump has based much of his campaign on criticizing President Obama. Well, now, he vows to undo a key executive order that Obama has yet to sign.


[08:10:55] KOSIK: In Oregon, armed protesters have taken over the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in the southeast part of that state. BLACKWELL: The property is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which says it is monitoring the situation. No government employees were on the land at the time because the refuge was closed for the holidays.

KOSIK: The armed occupation grew out of a protest that happened earlier in the day nearby town of Burns. That rally was to show support for two local ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond who are convicted of arson and sentenced to five years in prison. They are expected to surrender to prison Monday morning.

BLACKWELL: And one of the men behind the occupation of the wildlife refuge is the son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy who was the center at the intense stand off last year with the Bureau of Land Management in Nevada over grazing fees for his cattle.

I spoke with Ammon Bundy, his son, about how he hoped to execute this, what he hoped to accomplished, and how long he expected this occupation to last.


AMMON BUNDY, LEADING ARMED OCCUPATION (via telephone): It may be days. It might be weeks. It might be longer than that. But what we cannot do and what we must not do is just allow what is going on to go on. I mean, people need to be aware that we've become a system where a government is actually claiming and using and defending people's rights.

And they're doing it against the people. And we cannot allow that to happen. I mean, in order for us to prosper as a people, we have to have access to the land and resources.


BLACKWELL: Well, an attorney for the ranchers who will be going to prison tomorrow said they do not welcome or agree with what the armed protesters are doing.

KOSIK: There's a nightmare scenario brewing in southern Illinois, west of Miller City. That's as the Mississippi River breaks through the Len Small levee. According to CNN affiliate KFVS, that water flowing for six miles into the state completely surrounding two small towns.

Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner says the situation is serious.


GOV. BRUCE RAUNER, (R) ILLINOIS: Here in Alexander County, it's the worst we've seen. The levees have been breached in at least five locations. The water is coming over at a pretty high pace.

Hundreds of families have been requested to evacuate. Unfortunately, the majority of families we contacted so far has said they don't want to evacuate. They want to stay with their homes. A flood in the winter when it's 30s is different when it's 80 degrees

in June. And big risk of hypothermia, and we are asking your watchers (ph) or viewers, please, if you're requested to evacuate, please honor the request and evacuate. Stay safe.


KOSIK: And next door in Missouri, the clean up is underway after days of flooding there with help from an emergency declaration signed yesterday by the president. Here in Cape Girardeau, the threat continues with the water line over the town's ground level. The Mississippi River at record-breaking levels, running 15 to 20 feet above normal.

BLACKWELL: All right. Up next, Donald Trump on the campaign trail promising to -- this is his word -- unsunign any orders that President Obama would sign this week which would add restrictions on gun sales.


[08:17:29] BLACKWELL: Donald Trump is not happy about President Obama's reported plan to tighten gun control laws. Yesterday in Mississippi, the Republican presidential frontrunner vowed to veto, his term, any executive action the president takes on guns, calling it an assault on the Second Amendment.


DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: So, he's going to sign another executive order having to do with the second amendment, having to do with guns. I will veto. I will unsign that so fast. So fast.


BLACKWELL: CNN senior political analyst Ron Brownstein joins us now.

Work for the room is a smart strategy.

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes. Yes, well, for Republican audience, it is, you know? I think every Republican presidential nominee, candidate will promise to undo this order before the primaries are over.

And look, this is -- you know, as we talked about it yesterday. What we're seeing from presidents in both parties I think in recent years that recognition it's hard to get bipartisan agreement with Congress and a strategy of moving ahead with unilateral executive action.

This is the weak spot in the strategy, Victor, which is that the next president, if it's from the other party, can undo what you have done. And, you know, we've seen the same thing on immigration, on the deferred action.

Every Republican nominee, I think, is talking about undoing that as well. So, it is a real risk for President Obama if Democrats do not hold the White House after 2016. BLACKWELL: So, so supporters at the event there in Biloxi didn't seem

phased at all by this new video from al Shabaab, including the statement from Donald Trump barring Muslims coming into the United States, not American Muslims.

Listen to one supporter here talking to a reporter.


RALPH CAHILL, DONALD TRUMP SUPPORTER: I think that's fabricated.

REPORTER: You think the video was made up?

CAHILL: Yes, sure it was.


CAHILL: Well, because you can see where it was cut in. At least that's my opinion. I think that was strictly -- I may be wrong, but I think that was a made up deal there. And if they did, he has no control over that.


BLACKWELL: All right. So, why no discussion of it. Why not mention it during this hour long speech at this rally?

BROWNSTEIN: You know, it's been through the primary season the conversation is often been how is Donald Trump maintaining his support despite his most controversial comments? What has become more clear over time is that he's building his support because of his most controversial comments. I mean, if you look at polling among a big chunk of the Republican base, not all of it, but a portion of it, and especially voters attracted to Trump, they agree with him on ideas like building a wall, deporting 11 million undocumented and barring Muslims from entering the U.S., at least temporarily.

[08:20:14] So, on all of these fronts, I think voters are with him. And I think the inclination as we have seen over and again is to kind of overlook what many in political circles would view as kind of disqualifying behavior because they fundamentally agree with what he's been saying. And I've been waiting I think in many ways for someone to give voice to these sentiments.

Now, whether they're majority sentiments and whether you can build national winning coalition on it in a general election is a different question. But there's no question he tapped a powerful cord in the Republican primary.

BLACKWELL: Now, he didn't talk about al Shabaab but he did mention ISIS. And two names specifically to people to whom he attributed their creation. Let's play what we heard from Donald Trump in Biloxi about the creation of ISIS.


TRUMP: They've created ISIS. Hillary Clinton created ISIS with Obama -- created with Obama.


BLACKWELL: To your point, it works in the primary. It works in the room.


BLACKWELL: But what could this mean for maybe not just Donald Trump but even any other Republican nominee moving into the general.

BROWNSTEIN: Right. I think you hear a version of that argument from whoever is the Republican nominee. I think that, you know, the complex situation we are in is that when George W. Bush left office in 2008, most Americans believed his approach to the Middle East and protecting the nation from terror in terms of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan had failed. And now, as you come to the end of the Obama presidency, most Americans also think his approach has failed. I mean, we've soured on both the iron fist and the velvet glove. ]

And I -- it may be that the rise of ISIS is the single biggest policy vulnerable from the Obama era for the general election. And I think one of the critical questions in 2016 will be whether Americans believe that we are making progress or losing ground against this very real threat.

BLACKWELL: All right. Ron Brownstein, always appreciate the insight. Thanks so much.

BROWNSTEIN: Thank you.

KOSIK: And there's a lot more to come for President Obama's executive action on guns and the race to the White House, all coming up at the top of the hour on CNN "STATE OF THE UNION". CNN's Dana Bash anchoring this weekend, in for Jake Tapper.

Good morning, Dana.


KOSIK: I know you got Carly Fiorina, you got Bernie Sanders on this morning, a big show.

BASH: A big show and it's hard to believe we are finally in 2016, which means it is actually the presidential election year, 29 days until the Iowa caucuses. So, of course, there's a lot to talk about with both of these candidates who are vying for the Republican and Democratic nominations.

You know, both having some struggles right now, but it's presidential politics in 2016. You never know what can happen, Alison.

KOSIK: And it seems like it's already been a long political season. Dana Bash, we will be watching "STATE OF THE UNION" starts at the top of the hour, 9:00 a.m. Eastern, right here on CNN. And another programming note, Monday morning, Donald Trump will be

live on CNN "NEW DAY" beginning at 6:00 a.m. Eastern Time. That should be very, very interesting, as it usually is.

BLACKWELL: Chris Brown is back in hot water with the law this morning. Ahead, what Las Vegas police say he did to a woman that now has the singer under investigation.

KOSIK: Plus, we know the identity of the suspected gunman who opened fire on a pub in Tel Aviv. Police have raided his home, and today, the suspect's family is speaking out.


[08:27:10] BLACKWELL: Approaching the bottom of the hour now. It is day three of the manhunt for the gunman who killed two people and wounded eight others in a New Year's Day attack. Police have now named the suspect, 31-year-old Nasha'at Melhem from northern Israel. Right now, specialized police units are searching house to house in Tel Aviv trying to find him. Melhem's uncle told CNN that he's suffering from psychological disorders.

KOSIK: Here are other stories making headlines this morning. We have new pictures from Ramadi, Iraq, where Iraq forces are sweeping neighborhoods where ISIS fighters are suspected of hiding. Iraqi troops have retaken the city from ISIS, at least the center city. But the terror group still has control of some areas of the city. This as ISIS suicide bombers attacked Iraqi forces at a military base near Ramadi on New Year's Day.

BLACKWELL: Refugees are still streaming into Europe, but a 2-year-old boy drown after the crowded dinghy he was traveling on slammed into rocks off the Greek island. He's the first known migrant casualty of 2016.

Now, the other 39 passengers were rescued. Some of them were taken to a hospital and treated for hypothermia. That rubber vessel had set off from Turkey in windy weather.

KOSIK: In Mexico, a brazen assassination in a town south of Mexico City one day after being sworn in as mayor, armed men entered the mayor's home and killed her. Police killed two of the gunmen as they fled. Two adults and a juvenile were arrested. The area is a known haven for drug cartels.

BLACKWELL: In San Bernardino, California, hundreds of employees at the inland regional center will return to work tomorrow with much tighter security in place, including a new fence around the property. It's been closed since the mass shooting a month ago that ended with the deaths of 14 people. The facility provides services for disabled people. Employees have been working from home using iPads.

KOSIK: In Las Vegas, police are investigating a report of an altercation in a hotel between singer Chris Brown and an unidentified woman. The woman was allegedly struck and had her phone taken away when she took Brown's picture in a hotel room. The victim apparently had minor injuries, apparently. Police tried to contact Brown but he already left the hotel.

BLACKWELL: President Obama and his family return from their Hawaiian vacations today. One of the first pieces of business back of the White House is reviewing possible actions to reduce gun violence in the U.S. He also has to prepare for the annual State of the Union speech this year on January 12th.

KOSIK: Looking forward to that. So happy you can begin your morning with us.

BLACKWELL: "STATE OF THE UNION" comes up at 9:00. Bernie Sanders and Carly Fiorina, the guests today. But up next, "INSIDE POLITICS".

Thanks for being with us.