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U.S. Kills Head of Iran's Special Ops Unit; Iran Vows Revenge for Killing Soleimani. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired January 3, 2020 - 05:00   ET


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Iran is vowing harsh revenge after a strike ordered by President Trump takes out the leader of Iran's special forces.

Good morning, everyone. Welcome to EARLY START this Friday morning. I'm Christine Romans.

LAURA JARRETT, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Laura. It's Friday, January 3rd. It's 5:00 a.m. in the East, 1:00 p.m. in Baghdad.

Welcome to our viewers here in the U.S. and around the world.

Major breaking news overnight. Iran's supreme leader vows revenge after a U.S. airstrike ordered by President Trump killed the commander of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard special ops unit. Qasem Soleimani, head of the Quds Force, and one of the ayatollah's most trusted advisors, was hit at Baghdad International Airport.

The Pentagon calls it decisive action. U.S. officials say General Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and troops in Iraq and throughout the region.

These pictures obtained by CNN show the aftermath of the strike this morning.


The State Department now urging all U.S. citizens to leave Iraq immediately.

ROMANS: Soleimani was revered by Iran supporters and proxies across the region and hated by the country's enemies, who saw him as the mastermind of state-sponsored terrorism. His killing marks a huge escalation coming just days after supporters of an Iranian-backed militia stormed the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. The deputy head of the group behind those protests was also killed in last night's strike.

They were protesting missile strikes launched by the U.S. in retaliation for the death of American contractor, an attack the Pentagon blamed on Soleimani's forces.

JARRETT: Tehran is, of course, furious. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif calling it extremely dangerous and foolish escalation, adding the U.S. bears responsibility for all consequences of its rogue adventurism.

One big question this morning, of course, is whether top congressional leaders were notified.

CNN's Fareed Zakaria suspects they weren't.


FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN HOST, "FAREED ZAKARIA GPS": It's not clear what the objective here. Soleimani's a bad guy. There's no question. But we appear to be, without by the way I'd say without congressional authorization, entering into another Middle East war.


ROMANS: Remember just the other day, President Trump did threaten Iran during the Baghdad embassy protest which Iran supreme leader replied: That guy has tweeted that we see Iran responsible for the events in Baghdad and we will respond to Iran. You can't do anything.

Arwa Damon is in Baghdad for us this morning.

Arwa, what are you hearing overnight? What has been the response there?

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: A lot of anger and a lot of shock. This is such a stunning turn of events to have taken place, that really, I think, a lot of people are struggling to grapple with it. The Iraqi government is absolutely incensed to a certain degree, viewing this as a direct aggression against them, against Iraq because it wasn't just the death of Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force. You also had the number two within the Popular Mobilization Forces. That is a branch of the Iraqi security forces who was also killed.

You have some voices here who are trying to call for calm, for more level heads to prevail. But underlying all of this is a lot of anger. There is a lot of anger at the United States, at the Israelis as well. And this force, this Popular Mobilization Force, is very strong here both militarily and politically.

Add to all of that the significance of the death of Qasem Soleimani, no matter where in the world where it could have taken place, it would have really caused a significant reaction. The fact that it took place here in Iraq, the fact that it was an assassination by the United States, that really has put us into unchartered territory. The ball, right now, to put it that way, is in Iran's court in terms of how it's going to respond, when and where.

One can only imagine that they were ready for something like this given the direction that the relationship between Tehran and Washington was going. One could only assume that they would have had some sort of a plan. But right now, we don't know what that is. There's a lot of analysis, a lot of people trying to predict exactly how, when, and where Iran is going to react. The only thing that I think we can say with any level of confidence is

that this war, because Iran most surely is going to be viewing this as a war, but this war between America and Iran is not going to be unlike any other.

ROMANS: Yes. I think uncharted territory is the right way to put it and, you know, the response here from the State Department has been to tell Americans, right, to leave Iraq and no consular operations at that embassy and do not approach the embassy, right?

DAMON: Yes, pretty much in a complete shutdown. The Green Zone itself is more or less entirely locked down, presumably, as a security precaution. I mean, the other aspect to all of this, of course, is when you're going to carry out this kind of a strike that is going to have this kind of an impact, one assumes that there is a plan to go along with it, given the -- the magnitude and just how momentous that kind of a strike actually is in terms of the message that it gives and the potential repercussions.

What we don't know either at this stage is what America's plan is.

ROMANS: Right.

DAMON: Where does the United States see things going from here? What kind of other precautions have been put into place? Because this is not a strike like taking out even though he was leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi or even Osama bin Laden.


DAMON: This is entirely different and potentially much, much more significant that that.

ROMANS: Yes, we'll be able to ask Secretary of State Mike Pompeo later this morning. He's going to be doing interviews on "NEW DAY". So, hopefully, we'll get to that strategy laid out for us.

Arwa Damon in Baghdad -- thank you, Arwa.

JARRETT: So just who is Qasem Soleimani?

Well, the United States believes he is responsible for killing hundreds of Americans.

Let's go live to London and bring in CNN's Nick Paton Walsh.

Nick, he seems to have taken almost mythical status both by supporters and his enemies.

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Frankly, hard for any man to match the myth that's begun to surround Qasem Soleimani, the leader of the Quds Force. Essentially, the part of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, that sort of elite part of Iran's military that was responsible for foreign operations.

So, he, on one side of the coin, was on the battlefield on the front line as Iranian-backed militia fought ISIS in Iraq and sometimes even Syria as well. That might be where his interests rarely aligned with U.S. foreign policy. The rest of the time, the U.S. alleges and behind this airstrike is the fact that he was behind attacks against U.S. assets, U.S. allies in the region, over a protracted period of time and often, frankly, quite public in his opposition.

So, a man who lived in the shadow, certainly, but through that sort of sense of being the eminence grise, became possibly one of the most recognizable figures in the Iranian government. A government now, frankly, which will be reeling from this assassination. I think something they never really thought was likely to be able to happen because the Trump administration would lack the will to prosecute it through.

I understand from a U.S. official, this was, quote, a target of opportunity, that the authorization from the president had been given for some time. But only necessarily did they see last night a chance to carry this out.

This is clearly deliberate U.S. strategy here. They seem to want to send a clear message. The question you have to ask is the quality of the analysis around President Trump leading him to this decision, the White House itself continually changing its national security advisor. They've all been Iran hawks, not necessarily lending them the clearest sense of judgment about the best policy of keeping peace in the Middle East that Trump so badly seems to want, so he can begin to take forces home.

And, then, of course, the CIA, State Department, many experts there who could have been feeding in that situation, we simply don't know what the calculus. The U.S. may have realized that perhaps the Iranians, who would lose a conventional military clash with the United States, may simply have to resort to more of the same, more asymmetrical attacks, more attacks on Saudi oil fields, more pressure on embassies, American civilians perhaps being threatened; but nothing massively substantial which would threaten their interests in the region.

We simply don't know quite how they'll choose to respond. But if the U.S. calculated their response, choices were relatively limited, that may be what led them to approve this particular attack. But there are many U.S. allies too potentially at risk for this. Israel faces Lebanese Hezbollah to its north who have rockets trained on it. And the Saudis have already seen this year how their own facilities are vulnerable to the what the U.S. alleged were Iranian missiles and drones.

So, a very dangerous morning that the world wakes up to. The last decade marks, I think, continued fight against Islamic extremism in the Middle East. But this new decade potentially will be defined by how the region responds to the death of one of its most prominent military figures.

JARRETT: And just what that response would look like obviously, the big question on everyone's mind now.

Nick, thanks so much.

ROMANS: So, President Trump ordered that strike that killed the top Iranian general from his resort in Florida where he is wrapping up his holiday vacation on New Year's Eve with the embassy protest under way, the president was asked if he foresees a war with Iran.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I don't think that would be a good idea for Iran. It wouldn't last very long.

Do I want to? No. I want to have peace. I like peace. And Iran should want peace more than anybody.

So I don't see that happening.


ROMANS: CNN's Kristen Holmes is live in West Palm Beach with the latest.

What can you tell us about the president's thought process here and what we know of the strategy behind this -- this very different, different day we wake up to?


Well, we're still trying to piece together the events that really led up to these air strikes. We've learned that President Trump was seen leaving a secured area of Mar-a-Lago around 6:00 p.m. yesterday. And officials say that he continued to be briefed by his White House aides throughout the evening.

Now, we have still not gotten a direct response from the president or the White House. We heard of course from the Pentagon. But the only thing we've seen from President Trump is this. A tweet that went out shortly after the reports started coming out of those airstrikes. And all it was, was an American flag.

Now, I want to note that president Trump was not alone when he made this decision at Mar-a-Lago. His national security advisor Robert O'Brien was there, as was the House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.

Take a look at this. This is an Instagram post that went up just a few hours ago and it shows McCarthy with President Trump, along with several of Trump's top aides.


You see Jared Kushner, who, of course, is also the president's son-in- law, along with the Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley, essentially posing in various parts around his resort.

McCarthy, in this post, praising the president and his actions. But I do want to note that, that is not across the board. There is a deep divide among U.S. lawmakers of how this went down and what exactly happened. And unsurprisingly, it really falls along party lines.

Republicans getting behind the president in full force. We heard from Senator Lindsey Graham who tweeted this: Price of killing and injuring Americans has just gone up drastically. If Iranian aggression continues and I worked at an Iranian oil refinery, I would think about a new career.

Now, on the other side of the aisle, Democrats are showing a lot of concern over two big factions. One is, the idea that nobody was really briefed in Congress. Not leadership. We haven't heard from -- we heard from Schumer saying he had not been briefed. And there was clearly no congressional authorization for these acts.

The other side is the consequences of this action. We heard from the senator from Connecticut, Chris Murphy, who said this: Did America just assassinate without any congressional authorization, the second most powerful person in Iran, knowingly setting off a potential massive regional war?

Now, Speaker Pelosi has called for an immediate briefing of all of Congress. Sources say that the Senate aides of certain, particular committees will be briefed later today. We're keeping our ear to the ground to hear when exactly or what that is going to look like.

And, Christine, we really should note here Trump is someone who said he wants to get out of the Middle East. Now, analysts and experts in the region are saying that this is not going to get him out as quickly as he said he wants to. In fact, this might actually keep us in the Middle East longer -- Christine.

ROMANS: Yes. And the U.K. foreign minister, Kristen, just issued a statement saying all parties should deescalate. It's in no one's interest for this to escalate further.

Kristen Holmes for us this morning in Florida -- thank you.

JARRETT: So, if Iran does choose to respond with force, Israel would be one obvious target. Israel is assessing its security this morning.

CNN's Oren Liebermann is live on the Israel-Lebanon border.

Oren, you've been reporting that Netanyahu's returning to Israel early.

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was on a state visit to Greece, a visit that was supposed to wrap up tomorrow. But we got word a short time ago that Netanyahu will be returning early. That as the defense minister calls a security assessment in the defense ministry in Tel Aviv, with the idea of chief of staff, as well as senior security officials.

Now, at this point, there are no additional limitations or restrictions on Israeli civilians in northern Israel. But that could change in a heartbeat if Israel gets the sense that it might be the target of Iran's reaction. And why would Israel worry about that? Well, a few others have mentioned but Iran's most powerful proxy Hezbollah is just across the border here. I can see a Hezbollah flag as fog begins to move here on a hill behind me in Lebanon. So, that would be an option, with more than 100,000 rockets and missiles that Hezbollah has that could be directed towards Israel.

It could also come from Iranian proxies in Syria. It could, in fact, even come from Gaza, where Iran has influence with Islamic jihad. Or it could be targeted at Israeli consulates or embassies overseas. With local media reporting those consulates and embassies are on elevated alert at this point.

We haven't really heard an official statement from the prime minister yet or from the defense minister. That, perhaps, because they don't want to provoke the situation, provoke Iran or any of its proxies.

But it's clear that Israel saw Qasem Soleimani as responsible for Iran's strategy in Syria, its aggression in Syria and throughout the region, and its positioning. And as such, Israeli politicians from most of the spectrum will be applauding this strike.

We've seen some of that from Israel's former ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren. He put out a tweet saying: Qasem Soleimani, responsible for the murder of thousands, Syrians, Iraqis, Americans, Yemenis, and for plotting terrorist attacks around the world is dead. Justice is done and American deterrence in the Middle East restored. All those threatened by Iran are grateful.

The key question, how does Iran choose to respond? And is that pointed at Israel? And that's what we'll be monitoring here.

JARRETT: Oren, thank you so much for all that reporting there on the border for us.

ROMANS: All right. Fourteen minutes past the hour.

President Trump says the strike was intended to deter future Iranian attack plans. 2020 is of course an election year. Rewind nine years to 2011 and then-citizen Donald Trump tweeted this: In order to get elected, Barack Obama will start a war with Iran.

JARRETT: With that in mind, the 2020 Democratic candidates are reacting.

Former Vice President Joe Biden says the administration's statement says that its goal is to deter future attacks by Iran. But this action almost certainly will have the opposite effect. President Trump just tossed a stick of dynamite into a tinder box and he owes the American people an explanation of the strategy.

ROMANS: And this from Senator Bernie Sanders: Trump's dangerous escalation brings us closer to another disastrous war in the Middle East that could cost countless lives and trillions more dollars. Trump promised to end endless wars but this action puts us on the path to another one.

JARRETT: And Senator Elizabeth Warren says: Soleimani was a murderer responsible for the deaths of thousands, including hundreds of Americans. But this reckless move escalates the situation with Iran and increases the likelihood of more deaths and new Middle East conflict.

ROMANS: And just a few days ago, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo talked down the idea of war with Iran.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Should the American people contemplate being on a war footing in 2020 where Iran is concerned?

MIKE POMPEO, SECRETARY OF STATE: This is state-sponsored terror. This is Iranian-backed terrorism that took place that threatened American interests. We've taken a fundamentally different approach. We have starved them of resources. We've denied them access. We put pressure on the Iranian leadership and I think you see that.


ROMANS: Keep it here. Pompeo will be on "NEW DAY" later this morning.

JARRETT: Big question for him seems to be what changed? Why now?

ROMANS: Right, right, exactly.

JARRETT: Well, more on this Iran situation obviously, and a revitalized Bernie Sanders going straight after Joe Biden, saying he can't beat president Trump. Just wait until you hear how Biden responded.


JARRETT: Today marks exactly one month to the Iowa caucuses as Democrats start to pick their nominee. An emboldened Bernie Sanders taking Joe Biden head on. Fourth quarter fundraising totals show Biden bringing in $22.7 million. His best quarter so far. That's doubling his online donations.

But Sanders brought in a whopping 34.5 million bucks.

ROMANS: The Vermont senator said this to "The Washington Post" about Biden. He brings into this campaign a record that is so weak that it just cannot create the kind of excitement and energy that is going to be needed to defeat Donald Trump.


Biden had this short and sweet comeback.


REPORTER: What do you say to Bernie Sanders?



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Good to see you.

BIDEN: Lots of luck in your senior year, Bernie.


ROMANS: Tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang took in an impressive $16.5 million. Notably, Elizabeth Warren has yet to release her final fundraising numbers. She sent an e-mail to supporters in December seeking their help with a last-minute push.

JARRETT: There's new evidence that shows the president -- has direct role in the Ukraine pressure campaign. The documents emerging just as Republicans finalize plans to shield the president with a swift Senate impeachment trial.

Senate majority -- or Mitch McConnell is expected to define the next steps in that trial later today with his first floor speech of 2020. McConnell is expected to push back against Democratic demands for testimony from current and former White House officials.

Documents reviewed by the Just Security website show a top White House budget official, Michael Duffey, made it clear that the order to halt nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine came directly from the president.

ROMANS: That e-mail was sent on the same day Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with president Trump to discuss the hold, which had been in place for about two months. Duffey is one of four witnesses Democrats want to question in the impeachment trial.

Newly released e-mails also suggest there could be damning bombshells in piles of official evidence the president is refusing to hand over.

JARRETT: The president orders a strike that kills a top Iranian commander. Iran already vowing revenge. What response lies in store? That and other headlines, up next.



ROMANS: Dangerous weather conditions expected to fan the flames in Australia this weekend. The government in New South Wales issuing a leave zone alert. Essentially, a voluntary evacuation order warning residents that worsening conditions are forecast for Saturday.

Families and pets evacuating on navy vessels from the isolated town of Mallacoota. I mean, they're having to evacuate by water ahead of what's likely to be a devastating weekend.

Wildfires hit cattle farmer Steve Shipton's thousand-acre ranch Monday. Fifty of his cows are dead. Now, he's forced to shoot the injured. At least 18 people have died so far across the region, 28 remain unaccounted for in Victoria alone.

JARRETT: Google says it's developed an artificial intelligence system that can detect breast cancer more accurately than doctors. A study tested the Google health program using tens of thousands of mammograms from women in the U.S. and the U.K. Research showed the AI model reduced both false positives where the test results suggest cancer is present when it isn't. And false negatives, where an existing cancer goes undetected. The study was just published in the scientific journal "Nature."

ROMANS: All right. What revenge does Iran have in store? New threats overnight from Tehran after their top commander was killed in a U.S. strike. The president bypassing Congress to give that order.


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

JARRETT: Iran is vowing harsh revenge after a strike ordered by President Trump.