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Iraqi Protesters Storm Embassy; More Information on New York Stabbing; Texas Church Member Speaks Out; Charges Filed Against Hanukkah Attack Suspect. Aired 7-7:30a ET

Aired December 31, 2019 - 07:00   ET





JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, don't be surprised if he changes the constitution again.

Fred Pleitgen, thanks very much.


SCIUTTO: We are following breaking news in Iraq. The pictures, alarming. Let's get right to it.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world.

This is NEW DAY.

And we are following significant, breaking news this morning.

You are looking at live pictures of hundreds of Iraqis trying to storm the U.S. embassy in Baghdad after funerals were held for 25 fighters that come from an Iranian backed Shiite militia. They were killed by those U.S. air strikes over the weekend.

SCIUTTO: The protesters gathered right now outside the U.S. embassy -- the U.S.'s largest embassy in the world, in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad.

What's new in the last couple of minutes is U.S. military personnel now posted on the rooftop of the embassy. You can see them there. That, of course, a response to this. We should note that U.S. diplomatic staff, including the ambassador, have been evacuated for their safety.

Let's get right to CNN's Arwa Damon. She is live in Istanbul with breaking -- the breaking details. And, Arwa, you spent a lot of time on the ground in Iraq. You look at

these images as echoes of 40 years ago in Tehran when the U.S. embassy was taken over there.

Tell us what you're seeing and what we're hearing from Iraqi officials.

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, that most certainly would presumably be the fear at this stage, but the situation has not quite come close to escalating to that just yet. The Iraqi prime minister, under his title as commander in chief, put out a statement saying that while the demonstrators had a right to mourn the victims of those U.S. strikes, they should most certainly not be engaging in acts of violence against the U.S. embassy, saying that that would be in defiance of Iraqi law. So at least there we have an attempt to try to calm down the situation.

And these protesters, look, are not your ordinary protesters. They are by and large made up of members of what's known as the Popular Mobilization Force. This is an umbrella force that was formed in response to ISIS and is largely made up of former members of any number of Iraqi militias.

SCIUTTO: Arwa, hold on just for a moment.


SCIUTTO: Because we heard the pop, pop -- now, this could be gunfire. It could also be the firing of tear gas rounds. As we noted earlier, you do have U.S. forces now posted on the rooftop of the embassy there. We're going to get more details from the ground. We haven't seen people falling.

And, again, earlier, Iraqi forces were firing tear gas as well. So that pop, pop, pop sound could be the firing of tear gas rounds rather than live rounds. But we will stay on top of it.

Sorry, Arwa -- sorry to interrupt. That was just happening as you were speaking.

But tell us again what you're hearing and the significance of this and the danger of this as people at home watch these -- watch this news unfold.

DAMON: So, based on the last information that we have, this, so far, has not resulted in any deaths or in any use of lethal force. Yes, there was tear gas that was used to try to push these demonstrators back. They were smashing security cameras outside. They did set fire to smaller caravans. And they did throw rocks over the walls of the U.S. embassy. It is, obviously, on lockdown.

And back to what I was saying about who are these demonstrators. They are not ordinary demonstrators. They are mostly members of this paramilitary force known as the Popular Mobilization Force that was formed as a response to ISIS taking over Mosul and then making its way, marching towards Baghdad. But this force is mostly made up of former members of a number of very powerful Shia militias, many of them who, yes, were engaged in battles against the United States back before the U.S. withdrew from Iraq. They are the ones who many within the Iraqi government at least view as having been instrumental in the fight against ISIS.

And so when the United States carried out these attacks against Kate'eb Hezbollah, the Iraqi government viewed that as effectively being an attack against an element of its own security forces. The prime minister said that he had asked the Americans to wait, that the Iraqis were still trying to gather information to figure out which group was behind the attack against American installations, including the one that took place most recently near Kirkuk that killed one U.S. contractor.


But the other important aspect in all of this, too, as we talk about it this morning, is the fact that this crowd was able to reach the U.S. embassy.


DAMON: It is inside a part of the green zone that is still very secure. You need badges or an escort to be able to get through.



DAMON: And this is sending a very clear message, some would say, to the Americans, look, we can reach your gate --

SCIUTTO: OK, Arwa -- Arwa, just --

DAMON: And there's not a lot you can do about it.

SCIUTTO: We'll have to leave it there for a moment because as you're speaking, we're seeing -- I don't want to call them explosions. It's more likely these are tear gas canisters because you can also then see -- it appears the protesters are picking them up and then throwing them back over the wall there. But it shows the seriousness with which U.S. forces are taking -- taking this right now.

HARLOW: Yes. We --

SCIUTTO: In fact, there you go again, that little thing you saw flashing across the screen there, most likely a tear gas canister as U.S. forces trying to secure the situation there around the U.S. embassy.

HARLOW: We also have just had the first response from the president. He writes, quote, Iran killed an American contractor, wounding many. We strongly responded and always will. Now Iran is orchestrating an attack on the U.S. embassy in Iraq. They will be held fully responsible. In addition, we expect Iraq to use its forces to protect the embassy, and so notified. That from the president warning that the protesters will be held fully responsible.

I would say that Iraq's prime minister also just urged the protesters to leave the area. Clearly they're not heeding that.

SCIUTTO: Well, the president, Senator Marco Rubio pointing the finger at Iran here. And, again, we just saw another what appears to be a tear gas canister thrown back across the wall. That appears to be what U.S. security is firing in the direction of these protesters.

Joining us now, CNN military analyst, retired Major Generals James "Spider" Marks. He, of course, served in Iraq, commanded U.S. forces in Iraq, where he was the senior U.S. intelligence officer.

General Marks, you spent a lot of time in Iraq and you spent a lot of time in that embassy there. And I've been there as well. The security around it is remarkable. Multiple layers of security. So for them to get this close to the wall, I mean that's -- that's a significant threat, is it not?

MAJ. GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, it is, but bear in mind, what you see is within these concentric circles of security that you have around the embassy, as Arwa has already described, is you're seeing levels of discipline that we probably wouldn't see in this part of the world, we haven't seen in this part of the world previously.

Look, the -- you've got Iraqi forces clearly that have been trained by the United States over the course of years. You've got U.S. forces on the ground that are really -- their primary mission is to ensure the functioning of that embassy. So in spate of an evacuation of the embassy, there's still functionality that's taking place.

What you have is the non-essential personnel are going to be evacuated someplace. Also bear in mind there are few, if any, family members that are a part of this. Although it is the world's largest, the U.S.' largest embassy in the world.


MARKS: It doesn't have the -- what I would call the additional pieces that you would find in Seoul or you would find in London, which was a level of normalcy with family members.


MARKS: But you're seeing discipline in the Iraqi forces in that there's some flexibility. They're allowing some forces to get in, but they're not going to let them cross certain lines. You don't want to use deadly force. So they're using force that hopefully is proportional to keep this thing in a -- in a rather moderate state.

HARLOW: General Marks, just to give people some context about how big this is, we keep saying the biggest U.S. embassy in the world, and it is. At peak staffing, we're told, 16,000 people work there.

MARKS: Huge. HARLOW: As big as Vatican City, right? So that's what we're talking


MARKS: Right.

HARLOW: My question to you is, if those air strikes on Sunday were meant to be a deterrent to Iran, does this tell you that that was not the case at this point?

MARKS: Oh, I would say what the United States did in Iraq a couple of days ago is probably -- was disproportionately low when you look at the level of influence, nefarious influence, malfeasance on the part of Iran as a matter of routine in that part of the world.

Look, Tehran's influence in Baghdad is significant. We understand that. And the United States is going to continue to see this type of activity from Iran. This is part of their playbook. So I would say the United States is clearly within its rights, obviously, to respond. And you're going to continue to see the United States respond. And I think they'll be moderate in their response. Although it's very, very clear that Iran is behind these protests to explain the attribution back to Tehran gets muddied.

Tehran, the -- you know, the border between Iran and Iraq is very porous.


We understand that. The influence is incredible in terms of Iran's influence in Iraq. So this will always be a challenge. The United States is going to expect this, does expect this, and is going to respond appropriately. But I would tell you that it's going to be a moderate response in this particular case. We want to keep Iraq as a good ally. They are an ally. We want to maintain that relationship, and we're going to maintain the ability to execute what's in our national interests in that part of the world.

SCIUTTO: We should note that the majority of the staff there of 16,000 would be Iraqi nationals as opposed to U.S. nationals.

On the issue of the Trump strategy regarding Iran, Ambassador Thomas Pickering, who was on this broadcast earlier this morning, made the point that you have this maximum pressure campaign in effect against Iran on a number of fronts, but you need an off-ramp, if that's the right phrase there. Where is it leading?

And I'm curious from your perspective, having spent a lot of time there, what is your assessment of the Trump administration's strategy with regards to Iran? The president pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal. He's been ratcheting up sanctions on Iran, restricting their sale of oil abroad. You had this attack over the weekend on Iranian backed militias.

Where is it leading and is it working?

MARKS: Yes, very good question. The issue of sanctions, it's very clear that the economic sanctions,

led by the United States, in partnership with some allies, is having a tremendous effect on the economy in Iran rite large. So there is a level of pressure that they've not felt before. And as a result of that, the mullahs in Tehran want to flip the narrative. They want to strike where they can. They want to change the narrative. They want to make the United States be the bad guy in this relationship and that they're the aggrieved party.

Ambassador Pickering is absolutely spot on because when you have this level of pressure, what's the release valve, what he called an off- ramp? How do you start to ratchet that off a little bit so you can allow Tehran to not necessarily save face but to have some way to maneuver through what these negotiations ultimately are going to look like because the end state is, if you don't have a release valve, there will be some type of an implosion or an explosion inside the regime that's not going to be beneficial for anybody in the region.

When you look at the succession plan of the mullahs, look, Khomeini is not going to be around forever and his son is the likely successor and he's in his 40s. He's a radical just like his dad. He's going to be around for a while.

So the pressure is working, but how do you acknowledge -- look, we're not going to necessarily be enemies of yours forever. We've been enemies for 40 years. Let's be frank. Are we going to do this for another 40? Are we going to have a century of this type of a relationship with the development of nukes? The costs are too high for us not to have some ability to communicate and to have a release valve that allows them to allow -- have -- to have communications with the United States and our allies in the region.

HARLOW: Spider, what does it mean for the U.S. trying to deter Iran's actions, specifically in Iraq, that Iraq's government feels like its sovereignty was violated with these attacks, and is lived that the U.S. carried them out?

MARKS: Yes, the Iraqi government clearly is in a routine state of transition. We understand that. And, again, the alliances and the connections to Tehran can be very, very distinct, discernible, and you can draw some very solid lines that exist.

The United States and Iraq have a strong relationship that requires nurturing on both parts. What you see here is a partnership between the United States and Iraq saying, look, these kinds of things occur as a matter of routine around the globe. We need to work together to kind of tamp it down.

So I would say that Baghdad is not an extremist right now. They understand the magnitude of this, but they've got the United States and they're working hard to make sure that this thing doesn't escalate.

HARLOW: Your expertise so valuable this morning having spent a lot of time there. You as well, Jim. Thank you very, very much, Spider. We appreciate it.

We'll keep a very close eye on this, bring you live pictures as we get them.

Also to the horrifying attack over the weekend here in New York. Prosecutors revealing an extensive trail of clues of the man that they say attacked five orthodox Jews celebrating Hanukkah. What they have found, next.



HARLOW: So the man that police say stabbed five orthodox Jews at a rabbi's home here in New York over the weekend has officially been charged with federal hate crimes. Investigators have uncovered a trail of online searches and journal entries where he wrote about Hitler, synagogues and American companies founded by Jews.

Let's go to our colleague Brynn Gingras, who joins us again live this morning in Monsey, New York, with more.

They have learned a lot apparently about what his state of mind may have been leading into this attack.

BRYNN GINGRAS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Poppy, I mean this was a six page federal criminal complaint and had a lot of details. Investigators saying they had a lot of evidence that they found in 37- year-old Grafton Thomas's home and in his car, including journals, which they said had Hitler references, references to Nazi culture, drawings of swastikas and the Star of David and then those Internet searches. According to authorities in this complaint, they say they found them on his cell phone in his car and they had anti-Semitic sentiments. One was the day of this attack where he allegedly searched an inquiry about an uptick in police presence at Jewish synagogues in New York City. Again, that was the day of this attack.

Now, the family for Thomas came out with their lawyer giving a statement saying that he doesn't have any anti-Semitism in his body. That he's a former Marine. But that he suffers from mental illness. And that is their explanation for why this attack possibly could have happened, or at least in response to this criminal complaint.


Now, Thomas was in court yesterday for these five federal hate crime charges, and he is going to remain in federal custody. However, he's going to be back in court on this Friday on those state charges of attempted murder.


SCIUTTO: Brynn Gingras on the ground there.

Now to Texas, where the man who shot and killed a gunman inside his church is now speaking out. Volunteer security guard Jack Wilson took out the gunman with a single shot within seconds.

CNN's Lucy Kafanov is live in White Settlement, Texas, with more.

So the shooter, who some are describing as a hero, he's now speaking out. What is he saying?

LUCY KAFANOV, CNN CORRESPONDENT: He is speaking out. He said that alarms went off in his head the moment a man wearing a fake beard and a wig walked into that church. Jack Wilson is a former firearm's instructor. He trained many members of this congregation to prepare for just this kind of worst case scenario. And so when that gunman opened fire, he knew how to react and react quickly. Six seconds, that's how long it took.

We're also learning more about the shooter, Keith Thomas Kinnunen, 43- years-old, lived on the streets for years, had many arrests, including for assault with a deadly weapon and theft. Those were convictions. The pastor says he's seen Kinnunen before. He's been at the church. He's been fed by the church as a homeless person.

We're also hearing from family members who say that he was deeply shaken by the suicide of a sibling and that he struggled with, quote, demons.

No word yet on motive, but this is a congregation that is looking to move on. Yesterday they held special services to heal, to gather, to pray, and to come together.

Take a listen.


BRITT FARMER, SENIOR MINISTER, WEST FREEWAY CHURCH OF CHRIST: We will not be swayed by evil speech or evil acts, and we will stay strong in the midst of the adversity that we know came on us because we know that God is with us.


KAFANOV: A message of unity in the wake of terrible tragedy, one that could have been a lot worse.


HARLOW: Lucy, thank you very much for that reporting.

All right, now back to the Hanukkah stabbing attack here in New York.

Joining me now is a survivor of the attack, Yisroel Kraus, the brother-in-law of the hero, Joseph Gluck, who you heard from on this show yesterday.


HARLOW: I -- he truly is a hero and our deepest gratitude to your brother-in-law and thank you for joining us this morning. I can't imagine your pain, but we'd just -- we'd like to hear a little bit about how you are doing this morning. I know you were in the home, ten of your nephews were in the home, and you actually say it's a Hanukkah miracle that the house wasn't even more packed when the attacker came.

KRAUS: Yes. Yes, it was truly a Hanukkah miracle.

About ten minutes earlier there was about 80 adults and I think 40 children altogether between the guests and the rabbi's grandchildren. And if he would have come in ten minutes earlier, the house would have been packed. I don't see a way that we could have run. It would have -- there was tables and chairs and everybody was sitting. It was a full house. And thank God that he came in like between the Hanukkah celebration, the candle lightings, and the meal, which was supposed to take place next door. That way the -- half of the house was already empty. It was already getting -- was -- there was more space, so that when he came in, people could move and run out. And my brother-in-law and other people threw chairs at him, so they had space. And the damage wasn't that bad. It was truly a miracle.

HARLOW: Yisroel, as I understand it, you -- one of the victims is your mentor, someone you're incredibly close with.

KRAUS: Yes, the victim was very, very critically injured. His name is Joseph Newman (ph). When I was a teenager, I learned -- a block away from his house and I used to go over there every day. He learned with me for about an hour, hour and a half. Incredibly, incredibly kind human being. One of the most selfless people I know. He doesn't have a -- a very poor man. Since I know him, he was a very poor man. Never had a dime to his name. And always goes around collecting money for other poor families. It's never about himself. He didn't have a good life, and he doesn't have a good life now, but always happy.


KRAUS: I've never seen him depressed. Never seen him without a smile. The most kind, gentlest human being. And he's suffered through a lot.

HARLOW: Yes. Well, I hope --

KRAUS: And we're all praying for a speedy recovery.

HARLOW: All of us, of course.

You are a father. You have a two-and-a-half-year-old little girl. Thank goodness she was not in the home when the attacker came in.

KRAUS: Yes. Yes.

HARLOW: But ten of your nephews were in the home. And we spoke yesterday with Joseph about how traumatized all of the children are who were in the house, that some were vomiting blood hours after because they -- I mean, they -- how do they process something like this? How are all of your nephews doing this morning?

[07:25:00] KRAUS: It's incredibly hard. When I came back after the attack -- I ran away. When I came back, I found a lot of children traumatized and shivering and they didn't know if their parents are alive or what happened. It was chaos. I immediately called in professionals. There's organizations here for that, (INAUDIBLE) being one of them. They sent down professionals to talk to the children. We gathered all the children in the house right next door. It was about 45 children. And we gathered them all and professionals came down, trauma, the professionals could deal with kids with -- went through a trauma.

HARLOW: Right.

KRAUS: Talked to them and gave advice to the parents on how to deal. But, still, it's incredibly hard. My nephews are waking up at night shivering, telling their parents they're having bad dreams. They're afraid. But we're stronger than that and we're going to get through that as well. And it's going to -- what doesn't kill you makes you stronger.

HARLOW: I suppose you are right, but just the images of those children so traumatized, it's hard to shake.

So right after this happened, I understand, many of you gathered at the synagogue, and your rabbi had a message for you, and that was a message of resilience even in light of all of this hate?

KRAUS: Yes, when -- there was a scheduled meal to take place next door in the synagogue, and about an hour after everything finished, after everything -- I can't say calmed down, but it was a little clear, we all gathered together for the scheduled meal. And the message of resilience was that we gather. We do our regular services the way we do it every time. We're not going to stop, and nothing is going to change us. And we're just going to go strong.

And we actually thank God for all the miracles that happened. There was a lot for people who are here often and who know the community, there was a lot, a lot of miracles in that night. There was a lot of people that weren't here by mistake. There was -- the fact that my brother-in-law, the hero, had the -- had the right state of mind, the merit to go after him --


KRAUS: And chase him out and to throw a table, which probably changed all of his plans. I believe he had bigger plans when he came here. He just got -- he got a table in the head and the -- all the plans went out the window.


KRAUS: So there was also -- there was a lot of miracles. We danced and we sang and we prayed for all the people who still -- who still need recovery, they should have a speedy recovery.

HARLOW: Well, that's a pretty remarkable mind-set in the face of so much hate. Thank you so much, Yisroel, for coming, and, of course, our prayers to

all the victims and especially your dear friend Joseph Newman. We wish him all the best.

Thank you.

KRAUS: Thank you. May God heal all the broken hearts and may God bless America.

Thank you.

HARLOW: Absolutely.


SCIUTTO: We continue to watch live pictures coming from just outside the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. These are live there where hundreds of protesters have been gathering, surrounding, at times attempting to climb the fences around the largest U.S. embassy in the world.

We're going to bring you all the breaking details, next.