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Iran Vows "Harsh" Revenge for Killing of General Qassem Soleimani; Pompeo Says Killing Soleimani Disrupted "Imminent Attack"; Gang of Eight Not Briefed on of Airstrike but Graham Told in Advance; Great Anxiety about What's Next after Soleimani Death; Amb. Dennis Ross Discusses Iran, Ripple Effect of Soleimani Death. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired January 3, 2020 - 11:00   ET

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


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[11:00:01]

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Wolfe Blitzer, in Washington. We want to welcome our viewers here in the United States and around the world.

We're following major breaking news outs of the Middle East. The world is on edge right now. Iran is vowing harsh revenge for the killing of General Soleimani, who died early this morning in a U.S. airstrike in Iraq.

As leader of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard Corp, Soleimani was considered by many to be the country's second most-important person.

He had just arrived in Baghdad when the convoy he was traveling in was struck by a U.S. drone near the airport. Another Iranian leader and several officials from Iraqi militias backed by Tehran were killed in the airstrike. Iran's supreme leader now promising retaliation for Soleimani's death.

Meantime, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tells CNN that General Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack Americans in the region, making the decision to take him out, in his words, "all the more urgent."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MIKE POMPEO, SECRETARY OF STATE: President Trump's decision to remove Qassem Soleimani from the battlefield saved American lives. There's no doubt about that. He was actively plotting in the region to take action, "big action" as he described it, that would have put dozens if not hundreds of American lives at risk.

We know it was imminent. This was an intelligent-based assessment that drove our decision-making process. Last night was the time that we needed to strike to make sure that this imminent attack, that he was working actively, was disrupted. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: We have team coverage of this breaking story. Let's start with CNN's Ryan Browne. He's over at the Pentagon with new information.

What are you learning?

RYAN BROWNE, CNN PENTAGON REPORTER: That's right, Wolf. Sources are telling some of our CNN colleagues, Jim Sciutto, Pam Brown, and Dana Bash, that a little bit more about the information that led to this strike, the threat.

Secretary Pompeo declined to get into the specifics about the intelligence. But we're being told by sources that Soleimani had been in the region where he was attempting to orchestrate attacks against U.S. personnel and facilities. He had been traveling to multiple countries.

And a senior administration official saying that he had come back to Baghdad in order to plot follow-on attacks in the wake of those militia attempts to storm the U.S. embassy, follow on attacks against U.S. personnel and U.S. interests, so that the eminence of this was determined to be significant and that the plot was maturing and that's why the U.S. decided to strike when it did.

Of course, this comes after a series of rocket attacks against U.S. military installations that the Pentagon has blamed Soleimani and Iran for, including one which killed an American contractor.

We're also being told by defense officials that the U.S. military in the Middle East has raised its force protection levels out of concern of a potential of a terrorist attack, something they don't typically do unless there's real intelligence leading that an attack is imminent.

So the U.S. bracing for a possible retaliation from Iran or some of the militias closely aligned with Tehran.

BLITZER: There's still, what, about 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq right now, but there's still thousands of U.S. military contractors and U.S. diplomates and others on the scene. What advice are they being told right now about staying put or getting out of there?

BROWNE: Well, they've all been given this directive to increase their force-protection levels. And that's not just the 5,000 troops in Iraq. That is tens of thousands of troops stretching from Egypt to Pakistan that have been placed under this new force protection guidance.

Of course, the U.S. has recently deployed additional resources to the Middle East, some 14,000 troops in the last few months. Much of that deployment based off of a perceived threat from Iran.

But all the more recently following the attempt to breach the U.S. embassy. Hundreds of Marines were sent to the embassy compound and another battalion of paratroopers were sent to Kuwait, with thousands more being told they could be deployed to the region, something we expect will likely happen given this increased threat.

BLITZER: Yes. I think there's about 60,000 or so U.S. troops in that region right now.

Ryan Browne, stand by. I know you're working your sources over at the Pentagon.

I want to go to CNN's Kaitlan Collins, over in West Palm Beach, Florida, where the president is still vacationing at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach.

Kaitlan, what are you hearing, first of all, from the White House?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, so far, we still have not heard from the president in person yet about the strike. But we did see that statement from the Pentagon last night saying that it was carried out at the direction of President Trump, who later began tweeting and he's continued to do so throughout the morning defending the decision to strike as commander.

Today, he's saying that, "General Soleimani has killed or badly wounded thousands of Americans over an extended period of time." He says, "He was plotting to go kill many more, but got caught."

He goes on to say, "He was directly and indirectly responsible for the death of millions of people," though not citing where he got that figure of millions, Wolf.

And the president continues to say, quote, "He should have been taken out many years ago."

[11:05:00]

So you're seeing the president continue to move to defend this.

We're also hearing a little more about how this process played out. Our questions have been about which members of Congress were notified about this beforehand. Wolf, we know the Gang of Eight did not have a formal briefing on this as of last night when news of this strike broke.

But there's one member of the Senate who said he was informed days before this strike was carried out, and that's Lindsey Graham, who happened to be here at Mar-a-Lago, right over my shoulder, who happened to be with the president on Monday and Tuesday.

Listen to what he said about conversations he had with the president about this potential operation.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC) (voice-over): I was briefed about the potential operation when I was down in Florida. I appreciate being brought into the orbit. I really appreciate President Trump letting the world know you cannot kill an American without impunity. We will stand up for our people. And that is an absolutely essential message.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COLLINS: So Lindsey Graham was aware. Still no formal briefing for the Gang of Eight. And some Democrats are accusing the administration of leaving them in the dark on this. We're waiting to find out more about when that briefing will happen.

Right now, Wolf, we are not scheduled to see the president until at least 2:00 p.m. There's essentially a hold on any appearances by him, though he is expected to fly to Miami in several hours for an event there. So there's a chance we could hear from him.

Other than that, we're just waiting to see what the administration says next -- Wolf?

BLITZER: Yes. I wouldn't be surprised if we do hear from him in some sort of address to the nation. This is a critically important moment right now.

We're going to get back to you, Kaitlan. Obviously, stand by.

I want to go Baghdad now. CNN's Arwa Damon is on the scene for us in the Iraqi capital, a very tense capital right now.

Arwa, what's the latest that you're hearing?

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, I think a lot of people really here still reeling from all of this, especially given that it took place on Iraqi soil.

The Iraqi caretaker prime minister has said this isn't just a violation of Iraq's sovereignty, but that he has said that it is an act of aggression against Iraq itself.

We have been talking a lot about the killing, the targeted killing of Qassem Soleimani, but also, in that convoy, Wolf, was a prominent figure for Iraq. And that is the number-two commander of what's known as the Popular Mobilization Force. This is a Shia paramilitary force that was formed in response to ISIS sweeping through Iraqi years ago.

The number two -- Abu Mahdi al Muhandis is the leader of Kataib Hezbollah. That is he same group, Wolf, that the U.S. targeted on Sunday. He was also killed in this same strike.

His group, this paramilitary umbrella group, Wolf, is part of the Iraqi Security Forces. So from Baghdad's perspective, this also took out one of its key military leaders.

And this strike was carried out by a country that was meant to be an ally of Baghdad at a time when the Iraqi parliament, already because of these rising tensions between Washington and Tehran, was set to debate and begin drafting legislation surrounding the U.S. troop presence in Iraq.

For quite some time now, Iraq has basically been begging Washington and Tehran to stop using it as a proxy battlefield. This strike by the U.S. has just pushed Iraq and the region into unchartered territory.

BLITZER: There was a statement, Arwa, from the Iraqi government condemning this U.S. drone strike that killed this Iranian spy master and there's some suspicion and some concern that maybe the Iraqi government now will ask the U.S. to get out, to remove those remaining troops. Is that at all realistic?

DAMON: It's very realistic, Wolf. Look, parliament was already on a deadline, to a certain degree, to begin drafting a bill that would basically be specifically about how to remove troops from Iraq. It was unclear, if you had asked me this yesterday, whether or not that bill would have passed. I think right now that dynamic has shifted.

It's very difficult to see how Washington repairs its relationship with Baghdad moving forward, not just in terms of the U.S. military troop presence here, which is really becoming a very serious source of contention, but also, politically speaking, how does America and Iraq move forward from all of this? And what does it mean for the broader stability, for the fight against ISIS, if and when the Iraqi government does demand that those U.S. forces leave?

[11:10:07]

BLITZER: Yes. They say -- the Iraqis say this U.S. action was a violation of Iraqi sovereignty by going into the Baghdad International Airport, launching those drones and killing Qassem Soleimani and his associates.

We're going to get back to you, Arwa. I know you're working your sources there as well.

CNN's Ramin Mostaghim is in Tehran for us right now.

Ramin, what is the reaction so far on the ground in Tehran to what has happened in Baghdad?

RAMIN MOSTAGHIM, CNN JOURNALIST: So far, I can tell you that here and there across the country in more than 800 cities and towns, people are rallying behind this ruling theocracy. Lots of people are supporting the Southern Republic of Iran at the expense of America.

And they are calling it the terrorist action committed by America. And they say Trump has done the biggest miscalculation ever. So this is what's going on in the streets against America.

While at the same time, the latest development unfolded is that Iran's Supreme National Security Council has issued a sort of a statement to say that this miscalculation committed by Trump administration is historic and American administration bears all the responsibility of all consequences of this miscalculation.

So it means unwanted consequences, such as resurgence and reemergence of Daesh, ISIS, in the region, especially in Iraq, is the responsibility on the shoulder of America. From now on, Daesh, the emergence of Daesh in the region is direct responsibility of America, according to the statement issued by Supreme National Security Council - Ryan (sic)?

BLITZER: So a very, very dangerous situation right now.

Ramin, we're going to get back to you in Tehran, in Baghdad, in Tehran.

We're covering this story from all angles.

General Soleimani's role in expanding Iran's reach and influence was certainly enormous over these past two decades. Now that he's been killed by the United States, there's great anxiety over what will happen next.

Let's go to our chief international anchor, Christiane Amanpour. She's joining us from London right now.

Christiane, first of all, explain the significance of General Soleimani's death.

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: Well, Wolf, you can imagine, this side of the pond, away from where you are, the reaction is very different than it is in the United States where a huge amount of defense of this action is being weighed.

Now, over here, people are not shedding any tears for Qassem Soleimani. They know that he has been the main military arm and the foreign policy strategist, if you like, of an adversarial regime.

Whether it is what they did to prop up very severely the government of Bashar al Assad and prevent him from falling to the popular resistance in Syria, whether it is supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon, whether it is the Houthis in Yemen, wherever it might be, including, of course, in Iraq with those Shiite-dominated militias, which has so much direction from Qassem Soleimani, they know that he has played a very major Iranian nationalistic role.

And that happens to be against the United States for the most part.

They also know that it was Qassem Soleimani who mobilized, in the absence of any other Iraqi resistance, and given the entire you U.S. military presence was withdrawn under President Obama, it was Qassem Soleimani who mobilized the defense of Iraq from ISIS back in 2014 and, as many have said, was the only thing standing between ISIS, when it took over Mosul the north, and Baghdad.

So it is a really, really difficult situation that the United States has got itself into right now and that Iraq is facing right now, as well. Because there will be these mass funerals. You've already heard Ramin, in Tehran, Arwa, in Iraq. And you heard the response to what's going on in the region.

The National Security Council of Iran has just finished its meetings. And because he was such a legendary figure, raised not only in terms of not only what he actually did but, mythologically, always spoken of by name by the Americans, weirdly, Qassem Soleimani suddenly became sort of a mythical figure, even the way the United States was talking about him, they have to avenge his death.

And everybody has said, we wait to see exactly what that will look like.

[11:15:04]

But you and I know, Wolf, as we've been in that region many times and covered many a war out there, that the Iranians, and particularly the Quds force that he led, have their tentacles and their very powerful networks all over the region. And the United States and U.S. allies have their troops and interests and bases also spread over that exact region.

So this is, you know, a collision that we'll wait to see what the impact of it might be.

BLITZER: Christiane, what do you make of Secretary of State Pompeo saying on CNN just a little while ago this morning that this was all about saving American lives, the U.S. decision to send those drones into the Baghdad International Airport and kill Soleimani?

AMANPOUR: Well, look, CNN is coming out with its own reporting on this. You've been talking about Jim Sciutto, Dana Bash and the others who have Pentagon sources and others telling them, perhaps even congressional sources, what evidence that they have been briefed on.

And CNN is saying, according to these sources, that they discovered, the Americans, that Soleimani and the Quds force were planning quite elaborate potential attacks against U.S. interests in the region.

The thing about this is that this has been going on in a sort of -- for want of a better word, tit-for-tat, cat-and-mouse situation between the United States and Iran ever since President Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal and he and his you administration, Mike Pompeo, John Bolton, crafted this strategy of maximum pressure. That was initially an economic strategy.

And it didn't work in the way that the U.S. wanted it to work. They hoped that the regime would fall or they hoped that it would reign in the regime's foreign policy actions. It didn't.

Now they've moved from this economic targeting of Iran to a military targeting of Iran. And I think it's important to remember that. This is not an attack on one man, no matter how that is being portrayed. It is an attack on the nation of Iran, and as Arwa said, to an extent, on the nation of Iraq. Iraq being an ally, Iran being an adversary.

This is not like killing Osama bin Laden, who, by the way, was on his legs, when he was a nonstate actor, or al Baghdad, the chief of ISIS, a nonstate actor. This is escalating against one of the most powerful members of a regime.

So it's a decision. And the question is, is it proportionate. And I think every question that should be put to President Trump, Secretary Pompeo, Secretary Esper, every single American official, including the Congress people, is, what is the plan. What is your strategy? What is the plan? What's your strategy? It has to be asked over and over again.

Because you saw, with the retaliation against the Kataib Hezbollah force in response to the killing of that one American private contractor, you saw the U.S. embassy in Baghdad being breached. Was the U.S. forces, was the U.S. administration prepared for that? Did they imagine that would happen?

And then you've seen the consequences, that an ally, Iraq, has now been potentially forces -- and we'll see what the street dictates -- to put through parliament a complete reversal of the relationship with the United States to potentially get the U.S. forces at least to be ordered out of the United States (sic). Whether it happens -- out of Iraq. Whether it happens or not, we'll see.

If it does happen, that was Soleimani's goal, to get U.S. forces out of Iraq and out of the region.

So we are in somewhat difficult unchartered territory. And President Trump, who is very, very unwilling to start another war in the Middle East, will wait to see whether this action is something that is considered a casi belli and whether it escalates and de-escalates.

BLITZER: And we'll wait to see if he makes a public statement at some point in the coming hours.

Christiane Amanpour, as usual, thank you very, very much.

Coming up, we're going to have a lot more on the breaking news we're following. The world now waiting to see how Iran will respond after the U.S. takes out its top general. What will the global ripple effects be? We'll ask someone who has advised five U.S. presidents on Middle East policy.

[11:19:30]

We'll be right back.

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BLITZER: The breaking news, a dramatic escalation of the already very dangerous situation in the Middle East. Iran now vowing what they're calling severe revenge in response to the U.S. drone strike that killed the powerful Iranian military commander, Major General Qassem Soleimani.

For two decades, he led the elite Quds force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a branch responsible for the Quds force intelligence and military operation outside of Iran.

The killing ordered by President Trump happened overnight at the Baghdad International Airport.

Joining us now, Ambassador Dennis Ross. He served as a Middle East adviser to five U.S. presidents, most recently advising President Obama on Iran and other issues.

Ambassador Ross, Dennis, I should call you, thanks so much for joining us.

What do you think the Iranian response will be to the killing of Soleimani?

AMB. DENNIS ROSS, FORMER MIDDLE EAST PRESIDENTIAL ADVISER: Well, there will be a response, not just because they're saying it, but because he was part of the core of the regime, the right-hand man, in many respects, to the supreme leader. For the supreme leader not to react when there's a threat to the core of the regime would suggest, somehow, they're willing to live with things of that sort.

[11:25:05]

Having said that, this is also -- Ali Khamenei is someone who was very much scared by the Iran/Iraq war, doesn't like direct military conflict, always looks at the idea of using proxies and indirection.

So while I expect there to be a retaliation and a response, I don't assume it's going to be immediate, to begin with. I don't assume it's going to be direct, necessarily.

I think they will focus heavily on trying to mobilize domestic sentiment within Iran. They crushed what were the demonstrations recently, killing -- you know, estimates are they killed at least 400 people, maybe many more. And the fact is I think now they're going to try to mobilize passions, national sentiment.

Soleimani was portrayed as someone defending Iran from ISIS. So I think you'll see a dramatic funeral. I think it will be parts of an effort to, in a sense, create broad support for the regime and lay a basis on which to justify whatever actions they take.

I think in the near term, the retaliatory steps they will take will be against countries within the region.

I'm in Israel right now. One of the things the Israelis did was announce they were closing a ski resort today. I think they're anticipating that there could be attacks by the -- again, not by the Iranians but by Hezbollah or Shia militias coming out of Syria. I think all states in the region should be tripling their security measures.

Even Qatar, which has a different kind of relationship with Iran, because there's a very large American base there, I think they should be preoccupied or concerned about this as well.

Sooner or later, I think they will try to attack soft American targets, as well.

My guess is, knowing them, they will now look at President Trump as someone who is not just an enemy but someone that they would like to embarrass. You will recall that they acquired a similar kind of view with Jimmy

Carter. They wouldn't release the hostages in advance of the election. They sought to embarrass Jimmy Carter.

I think we will see the Iranians also look for some opportunity sometime in the coming months to take actions that would embarrass the president.

BLITZER: That is an interesting point.

We just got a statement from Brigadier General Ramezan Sharif, the spokesman for Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp.

And it's interesting what you say because he says that "General Soleimani's influence in Iran and neighboring countries was enormous." And he said, "America and Zionists will receive a crushing response for his death."

He said that, "Soleimani's death will further strengthen this resistance front and will not halt the struggle of Muslims against Americans and the Zionists." Adding, in fact, "It injected new blood."

You say the Israelis are concerned right now about potential Iranian proxies, Hezbollah in Lebanon, for example, taking action again Israel?

ROSS: Look, I think the Israelis will be concerned about Hezbollah, but I think they'll be concerned about the Islamic jihad in Gaza. I think they will focus on all those who carry out acts of terror or launch missiles into Israel or drones into Israel. They will certainly be heavily focused on kind of a higher level of vigilance right now.

But it won't only -- even though the statement is "Americans and Zionists," this is a kind of traditional slogan for the Islamic Republic of Iran to follow back on that.

So while I think that may also be something they may seek to address in terms of attacks, I would be surprised -- I think one of the things they will try to do is they'll try to foment greater instability in the region and then say this is the American's fault.

When the statement of the Supreme National Security Council in Iran said we would be responsible for the consequences, I interpret that as being more trouble throughout the region and, in effect, trying to lay that at the American doorstep.

BLITZER: In addition to the Israelis, very quickly, Ambassador, how concerned should the Saudis, the Emirates, the Kuwaitis, the Qataris, the Bahrainis, others in the region, be right now?

ROSS: I think they should all be tripling their security protection measures. I think they -- where the U.S. is coordinating with them, especially to try to provide defenses against drone attacks, they should focus on that. Although I have to say, I think we're going to see more indirection,

the use of militias. I think the Iranians will try to create an impression of deniability even while they send a message that's unmistakable that somehow they're behind it.

BLITZER: Ambassador Dennis Ross, thanks so much for joining us from Tel Aviv. Appreciate it very much. We'll stay in close touch with you.

[11:29:47]

Coming up, President Trump facing some backlash here in Washington for not telling lawmakers the airstrike was coming. Why were top members of Congress kept in the dark? A member of the House Armed Services Committee standing by live. He'll join us next.

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