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U.S. Military Investigating Civilian Deaths; Trying to Push ISIS out of Mosul; Carrie Lam Elected Hong Kong's New Leader; Trump Shakes Off ObamaCare Loss; Millions Facing Starvation in Yemen; "Star Wars" Fans Mark Earth Hour Event. Aired 3-3:30a ET

Aired March 26, 2017 - 03:00   ET

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


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CYRIL VANIER, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): The Pentagon is investigating allegations that U.S. air raids killed more than 200 civilians in Mosul, Iraq. We'll be speaking to a reporter who just saw the aftermath of the strikes.

And Carrie Lam is the new leader of Hong Kong through a vote under the direct influence of Beijing. We'll be live in Hong Kong with the latest reaction with Kristie Lu Stout.

Hi, everyone. Thank you very much for joining us. I'm Cyril Vanier in Atlanta. And your CNN NEWSROOM starts right now.

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VANIER: The U.S. military and Iraq are investigating allegations that Iraqi civilians may have been killed in coalition airstrikes. The Pentagon confirms that coalition warplanes struck ISIS fighters and equipment on March 17th in Western Mosul.

It's now looking into whether civilians died in that bombing raid and in several other airstrikes in the area this month. These are images from the aftermath of the March 17th raid, showing bodies being placed on carts and shocked relatives grieving.

This is all happening as the U.S. and Iraqi forces are trying to drive ISIS out of Mosul, Iraq's second largest city.

CNN's Ian Lee is following all this for us and joins us now from Cairo, Egypt.

Ian, the death toll that we're talking about is very significant indeed.

IAN LEE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Cyril. It started out on social media when we first heard about this, where reports that there were bombings that killed had nearly 200 people.

Now a provincial leader in Iraq has also said that hundreds of people were killed in these airstrikes although we haven't been able to independently verify that. U.S. Central Command, who's in charge of the operations in Iraq and Syria, says they're going to launch a formal assessment. So they're launching one.

But to look into this, it is a very confusing picture right now. The U.S. military doesn't have people on the ground to investigate this any further. But they will be looking into this.

And if it was, in fact, U.S. government that was responsible, expect them to have an assessment on how they can minimize these kinds of casualties going forward.

VANIER: Ian, the fight to retake Western Mosul is slow going. Tell us about the difficulties of that battle.

LEE: That's right. And this is where it really is important when it comes to these airstrikes to be precise because this is a densely populated area, where there is narrow alleys as well as old buildings.

The Iraqi federal police say that they are going to -- they're adjusting their tactics using more snipers, more boots on the ground, less mechanized, less mortar equipment because it is so densely populated. And they want to limit the number of casualties.

Well, people fleeing Mosul are talking how ISIS is using them as human shields. Take a listen.

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UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): We are being fired on and Islamic State would not let the families out. We went out in the middle of the night. People were killed. But thank God we managed to escape.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): We were fired upon from coalition air force. The snipers go to the top of buildings that have families and the air force strikes these buildings, killing them and everyone in the house.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LEE: Now, Cyril, the U.S. military says that they aren't going to delay the operations because of this. But they say that their ultimate goal its zero civilian casualties.

VANIER: All right, Ian Lee reporting live from Cairo in Egypt. Thank you very much.

Molly Hennessy-Fiske with us now over the phone from Baghdad. Molly is an "LA Times" reporter, she has just spent weeks reporting from Mosul.

On Friday, she was in Jadida, the neighborhood that the Pentagon acknowledges was struck on March 17th as part of an air raid on an ISIS target.

Molly, what did you see in Jadida two days ago? MOLLY HENNESSY-FISKE, "LA TIMES": So we were allowed into the area by the Iraqi civil defense workers who have been out in Mosul trying to rescue people who've been injured as well as retrieve bodies. They arrived nearly a week after this airstrike.

They weren't able to get into the area because it wasn't safe, they said. So they had arrived Thursday. They brought us in Friday. And because they had been there the day before, they sort of knew which areas were safer to go into. And they were leading me around showing me some of what happened.

There were some areas where homes were just completely destroyed in rubble. So we had to sort of pick our way through. And we could see parts of --

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HENNESSY-FISKE: -- people still stuck under the rubble, hands, feet; there were some remains that were wrapped in blankets. Most of them that they had retrieved, they put in body bags, in these blue body bags.

And they unzipped some of those because they wanted to show us that some of those victims were women, including at least one pregnant woman, and children. There were some babies as well.

VANIER: And how many people do they believe were killed on that occasion?

HENNESSY-FISKE: Well those numbers vary. The civil defense people that we talked to had said they thought it was about 200. They had retrieved more than 100 remains by yesterday.

And a photographer from the "LA Times" and I who were there, we roamed around and we saw about 50. There were some other photographers there. They saw about the same number of remains.

It was a very crowded street. There were a lot of families with children. And they told me that Islamic State militants had forced more people in the area and that they had been sheltering inside the homes when the incident happened.

VANIER: So in your assessment, at least 50 people were killed. That is a very significant death toll.

Tell us more about what the residents described about the area and what was happening at the time when the air raids took place?

HENNESSY-FISKE: Well, they had been living under Islamic State. There had been some militants in the area; they said it was a small group. They said that the fighters had brought a -- what appeared to be a truck with explosives, what they called suicide car to the area, had parked it there days before.

And that, when some militants had returned, part of the strike happening in the evening, on that Friday, that there had been one on top of the roof, a sniper. And then some in the streets. So they had stayed inside of their houses because they felt threatened, that they saw them, shooting up at the aircraft.

And then this explosion happened. Some of the people I talked to said that the houses just started coming, the buildings started falling down on them. Some saw that truck that was parked on the street explode. It wasn't clear why that was, if that was triggered by the strike or not.

And some did manage to escape unharmed. Some of the houses were still standing and people were in them on Friday. But a good number of them were destroyed.

VANIER: Molly Hennessy-Fiske, thank you very much for your account of what was going on in Jadida just 48 hours ago. That's the area in Western Mosul that was targeted by a strike on March 17th. Thank you very much for your insights. Thanks.

Now let's move on to our other priority story this hour. An election committee has selected Carrie Lam as Hong Kong's new leader. She was seen as Beijing's choice and she defeated a candidate who had more popular support.

She is the first woman to be selected as Hong Kong's chief executive.

Our Kristie Lu Stout joins us now from Hong Kong. She's been monitoring reaction there.

What was the feeling like, what was the reaction like in Hong Kong when the result was made public?

KRISTIE LU STOUT, CNN ANCHOR: It was very interesting because I got to see it from here, at Hong Kong election headquarters. As you just said, Hong Kong has a leader. As wildly expected, it is Carrie Lam, the first female chief executive in the history of the territory.

And when the announcement was made, I was in the public viewing gallery. And there were cheers but that is really not representative of the overall mood of the Hong Kong people.

If you look at the opinion polls, she was not the people's choice. Now she was voted in by a mere 1,200-member election committee, said to be broadly representative of the Hong Kong people but really packed with pro-business, pro-Beijing interests, changing the way the election is conducted in Hong Kong as a key demand of the 2014 Umbrella Movement pro-democracy protest.

That was not granted. And a lot of the key figures and protestors and activists from that movement were here today, earlier as the ballots were being secretly casted by the election committee members, saying that they're still wanting to push for universal suffrage.

So this is just one of the many challenges that the new chief executive has to deal with. And right after it was announced that she is the new leader, she addressed that in a press conference. She says that she acknowledges that there is this division in Hong Kong society.

And she wants to work towards bringing people together. Now, Cyril, I also must note that when the announcement was made, the symbiotics, the symbolism was quite interesting. She was anointed the next leader of Hong Kong underneath the flag of Mainland China, the bohemia flag of Hong Kong and a protester holding a yellow Umbrella Movement umbrella.

So if that could just symbolize anything, that is the state of Hong Kong politics today -- back to you, Cyril.

VANIER: And, Kristie, in fact, I would like our viewers to actually hear that --

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VANIER: -- and listen to what Carrie Lam had to say shortly after she won the election.

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CARRIE LAM, HONG KONG CHIEF EXECUTIVE: As your chief executive, I shall do my utmost to uphold one country, two systems and to guide (ph) our core values. Hong Kong, our home, is suffering from quite a serious divisiveness and has accumulated a lot of frustrations.

My priority will be to heal the divide and to ease the frustrations.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VANIER: So this speaks, Kristie, to what you were saying just a moment ago. She is addressing, it seems to me there, the people who were out in the street three years ago, and who were carrying out the Umbrella Revolution.

STOUT: Absolutely. She is acknowledging that, yes, there is a social divide here in Hong Kong. There is this issue with the widening rich- poor gap here. But also the division over the issue of universal suffrage. And the protesters who we have seen who want to have universal suffrage, one person, one vote, it's even -- bring about an additional political movement here in Hong Kong, called the Localists.

These are individuals, a small but vocal movement, who want independence from China. There was a poll that took place recently and said 40 percent of young people in Hong Kong, in their teens and 20s, went to be independent from mainland China.

So these are the type of problems that she is going to deal with. But she is also a pragmatist. She is an establishment player. Carrie Lam, the new chief executive of Hong Kong, she will also want to maintain the harmony, not just for the people of Hong Kong but also the business interests here as well -- back to you.

VANIER: Kristie Lu Stout, reporting live from Hong Kong, thank you very much for your insights -- thanks.

Still ahead on CNN NEWSROOM, President Trump vows to overturn ObamaCare in the future.

But can he count on members of his own party to stand by him after Friday's humiliating loss in Congress?

And a dark hour aimed at shedding light on climate change. It's lights out in some of the world's biggest cities. We'll explain why and how just ahead.

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VANIER: Welcome back.

After failing to repeal ObamaCare, U.S. President Donald Trump is shaking off his first legislative loss as just one skirmish in a long battle. He reacted Saturday with this tweet.

"ObamaCare will explode and we will all get together and piece together a great health care plan for the people. Do not worry."

Let's get the latest now from CNN's Athena Jones.

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ATHENA JONES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, the White House is indicating that tax reform will come next. One big question is what lessons were learned from the failure of this repeal effort that can be applied to any future legislative effort?

One senior administration official told me that going forward we can expect to see the White House get more engaged on the front end when it comes to legislation, shaping the --

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JONES: -- language and the strategy.

The other big question is how the president's own sales pitch might shift. The White House has been saying in recent days that the president was all in on this bill, that he took this personally, that he was very much involved in having face-to-face meetings with members of the Republican caucus and also phone calls from early in the morning until late at night.

But if you talk to some members of the Republican caucus on Capitol Hill, they indicate that some of the president's sales tactics might be a bit lacking.

For one thing, they say that he didn't offer a strong enough rationale for why members should vote yes on this bill, other than a political one, the idea of giving him a legislative victory in his first 100 days. And perhaps even more important here, is many members got the sense that the president did not have a good grasp of the details of this bill, the nitty-gritty policy details. Some members wanted to talk to him about their specific concerns about specific policies contained in this bill and he wasn't able to address those concerns.

My colleague, Dana Bash, reports that two sources tell her that during a Freedom Caucus meeting on Thursday night, that is the conservative wing of the House, the House Caucus, one of the members brought up a concern about one of the policy areas and the president said, "Forget about the little stuff."

He didn't say "stuff." He used another four-letter word that starts with an S.

In another meeting with moderate members of the House, one congressman from Pennsylvania, Charlie Dent, told the president that he was a no and the president replied, "Why am I even talking to you?"

A congressional aide, a GOP congressional aide tells my colleague, Jim Acosta, the bottom line her is that the president didn't care or particularly know about health care. And if you are going to be a great negotiator, you have to know about the subject matter.

So according to some members of the president's own party, he might need how to work on his dealmaking skills when it comes to dealing with Capitol Hill -- back to you.

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VANIER: Larry Sabato is the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. He joins us now.

Larry, how does Donald Trump turn this around?

LARRY SABATO, UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA: Well, it is very difficult for him to do so because he has done something no other modern president has done. He has lost his first big legislative package when his party controls both houses of Congress.

It's unprecedented. So it is going to take a lot of effort. He says he is going to switch to tax cuts and tax reform. Well, that even more complicated than health care reform.

VANIER: One of his go-to lines during the campaign was "We are going to win, win, win, we're going to win so much, you will get tired of winning."

He is not exactly delivering.

SABATO: Yes, and I think at least he's made sure that people won't get tired of winning because there has been relatively little of that.

Now, it is true, it's only, day 65, 66 in his presidency. And there are 1,461 days in every presidential term. So there's a lot of time to turn it around. But generally speaking, presidents become less popular with time. And

the difficulties and problems mount. They don't disappear. So I would say he is going to have to work very quickly with the leaders of Congress if he can get a big thing passed by the end of his first 100 days.

VANIER: There is one line from Mr. Trump that jumped out at me on Friday.

He said, "We learned a lot about loyalty during this process."

What do you take away from that?

SABATO: He is talking Republicans there. And he learned that he lost the moderate conservatives, which really wasn't that much of a surprise. But he lost a lot of the House Freedom Caucus, the most conservative members of Congress by far.

Why was Trump surprised at that?

Because Trump carried their districts in November by 20, 25, 30 percentage points. He thought that would, inevitably, produce votes for his package. He was very wrong.

VANIER: So how do you think he approaches them in particular, the ultraconservatives within the Republican Party, from now on?

Because we now know, it has been demonstrated, that they're not going to support him as a matter of principle.

SABATO: He can't simply cede the negotiations to the Speaker of the House. He certainly has learned that from the demise of the repeal of ObamaCare. He's going to have to do some himself.

And you know what that means?

He has to immerse himself in the details of the legislation. What was most remarkable about this entire episode was that Trump never learned what the package was about. He couldn't answer basic questions from congressmen in the Oval Office, who were trying to see where he stood on this or that.

VANIER: This next question requires a bit of crystal ball gazing but you are, after all, the author of "The Larry Sabato --

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VANIER: -- Crystal Ball."

Do you think that Donald Trump is going to be -- do you think he is going to want to change his style of governing, and be a bit less abrasive in order to build a larger coalition now that he's had this failure in the very early stages of his presidency?

SABATO: He's received that advice from a number of his closest staff members and I think, frankly, from at least one member of his family. But, hearing it and doing it are two separate things.

Now it is true, in the hours after this defeat, we didn't see what many had expected to see, a bunch of angry tweets from Donald Trump and insulting this one and insulting the Speaker and so on. He didn't do it.

But one day does not a presidency make. And most people think he will fall back into those bad habits.

VANIER: All right, Larry Sabato. Thank you very much for your insights. Always a pleasure.

SABATO: Thank you, Cyril.

VANIER: The ongoing fighting in Yemen may not be attracting the global attention that's being paid to Iraq and Syria. But it is taking just as catastrophic a toll on the country's civilians and especially its children. Nick Paton Walsh reports, many of them are starving to death.

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NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SR. INTL. CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): These are the drawn, deathly faces of a war the world forgot, now in its third year that has fostered famine, geopolitical hatred and Al Qaeda.

You've probably heard little of Yemen's horrific conflict but, as with most problems ignored, it is not going away.

Back in 2015, a rebel group called the Houthis seized the capital, causing the Western-backed President Hadi to flee.

We saw them swiftly kick out his forces from Sanaa's ancient streets. But Hadi came back with heavy firepower. Neighboring Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States saw the Houthis as too close to their foe, Iran, and intervened, pitching their well-funded army and firepower against the Houthis' motley street fighters.

Slowly, from the countries south, the Saudi-backed government returned and pushed north in bloody battles like this one that retook a town for the Hadi forces only recently, but often caught civilians in the crossfire.

But with Houthi territory and the capital Sanaa effectively besieged, a ghastly humanitarian crisis spread, unprecedented fears of famine, appeals for the roads closed by the fighting around the country to be opened so emergency food can flow.

ERTHARINE COUSIN, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, WORLD FOOD PROGRAM: We have about three months of food stored inside the country today, but we don't have enough food to support the scale-up that is required to ensure that we can avoid a famine.

WALSH (voice-over): These scenes have caused intense criticism of the Saudi- backed campaign and civilian deaths from Saudi airstrikes caused the Obama administration to ban some weapons sales to Riyadh. But the Saudis, determined to reduce Iran's influence, are persisting, saying they want to reduce civilian casualties.

And in a vacuum, as before in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, terror is using the chaos to thrive.

In the southeast, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the group thought most advanced in plots to attack the homeland, is growing in the chaos.

In this interconnected world, suffering and horrors continents away can still hit home -- Nick Paton Walsh, CNN, Beirut.

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VANIER: In London now, investigators do not currently see a direct ISIS hand in Wednesday's attack outside Parliament. A BROSNAHAN: counterterrorism official tells CNN that no evidence has emerged to show that assailant Khalid Masood was indeed communicating with the terror group.

Meanwhile, police have released all but one of the people who were arrested in connection with the deadly attack.

And the Las Vegas strip is completely reopened after police say a man shot two people, killing one of them. The suspect surrendered after a long standoff on Saturday. The shooting happened on a public transportation bus near the Cosmopolitan hotel on the Strip. Police say the shooting does not appear to be related to terrorism.

Let's bring in Derek Van Dam now from the CNN International Weather Center. Coastal evacuations are underway in Australia as tropical cyclone Debbie bears down on the Queensland coast.

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VANIER: OK. And I think this next story you will be interested in as well, Derek, I think you have got some personal involvement.

DEREK VAN DAM, AMS METEOROLOGIST: I do.

VANIER: Some cities around the world, a number of cities around the world, in fact, just went almost dark.

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VAN DAM: They turned their lights off.

VANIER: You were an ambassador for WWF, working on this for a while --

VAN DAM: Earth Hour, that's right, across the world. People turning off their lights as a symbolic gesture to show that they're going to fight against climate change, pretty good thing. VANIER: Let's show our viewers what that looks like.

Moscow was one of those cities, turning out the lights on major landmarks. There it is, that's the Kremlin.

In Paris, the Eiffel Tower plunged into darkness. All of this is to call attention to global warming as Derek was saying. People and businesses also dimmed their lights for an hour. This was all happening at 8:30 Saturday night local time in a number of different countries.

And, this one here, Manila, "Star Wars" fans getting creative. They had light saber duels, this to mark the 10th anniversary of Earth Hour, this initiative by WWF.

All right, that does it for us. Thank you very much for joining us for CNN NEWSROOM. He is Derek. I am Cyril. And I will be back with the headlines in just a moment.

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