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Americans Urged to Leave Iraq after Killing of Iranian General; Tens of Thousands Rally in Tehran Against U.S. Aired 6-6:30a ET

Aired January 3, 2020 - 06:00   ET

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


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

[05:59:24]

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to our viewers in the United States and all around the world. This is NEW DAY. It's Friday, January 3, 6 a.m. here in New York. Alisyn is off. Poppy Harlow joins me for a significant morning with stunning developments.

The breaking news, the State Department is urging all Americans to leave Iraq immediately. This after a U.S. air strike in Baghdad killed Iran's top security and intelligence official. That air strike was ordered by President Trump.

General Qasem Soleimani was the commander of the Quds Force of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard. But his title doesn't explain the towering role he played in the region over the last several decades. Imagine if the head of the CIA, combined with the joints chief of staff, combined with a shadow secretary of state. He was that big. And he was extremely close to Iran's supreme leader, who this morning is vowing to respond with harsh revenge.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: And this morning members of Congress are sharply divided, with most Republican lawmakers applauding the president and this decision. Democrats questioning the president's authority to assassinate a top Iranian official without congressional approval or notification.

Overnight, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called it a dangerous escalation and demanded an immediate briefing for Congress. That is expected to happen a little bit later today.

We are expecting to talk to the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, in the next minute, all about this attack. We have global resources of CNN covering this story, this huge development around the world.

Let's go to Baghdad and begin with Arwa Damon.

Good morning, Arwa.

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Good morning.

And the magnitude of this cannot be accurately stated not just in the killing of Qasem Soleimani, who himself was so revered within Iran and when it comes to all of the proxies that Iran has throughout the region.

He was a frequent figure in the battle, for example, against ISIS here in Iraq. He was an advisor to what's known as the Popular Mobilization Force. This is a force that was made up in response to ISIS sweeping through Iraq, mostly made up of former members of any number of Iraqi Shia militia groups. Many of whom got their experience fighting the U.S. during the years of the occupation here.

Also killed in that strike that took place on the early hours of Friday morning within the Baghdad Airport complex was the No. 2 of that predominantly Shia paramilitary force.

The Iraqi prime minister put out a very harshly-worded statement, going beyond calling this an act of flagrant violation of Iraq's sovereignty, but also saying that this was an act of aggression against Iraq. That paramilitary force does, to a certain degree, fall within the Iraqi security forces, although how much control they actually have over them remains to be seen.

We also have all of these various different groups that make up that paramilitary force issuing orders to their fighters to get ready, feeling that they have to now protect Iraq against this act of aggression.

You also have the army, the Mehdi Army of radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the Mehdi Army that has also been unfrozen. Anyone who's been following Iraq since 2003, 2004 will remember just how devastating the violence carried out by the Mehdi Army against U.S. forces was back in those years. That force has also right now been unfrozen and is at the ready.

And so this right now is really not just putting Iraq into unchartered territory, but the entire region into unchartered territory. Iran is going to have a response, but its options are vast. Its influence, its tentacles extend quite far. How it's going to respond, that's what everyone is going to be watching right now.

HARLOW: Arwa, thank you for the important reporting. As you said, completely unchartered territory. We'll get back to you very soon.

Look at these live pictures, OK? These are the streets of Tehran. You have thousands and thousands protesting there today. The action of the United States in this assassination. This comes as Iran's supreme leader is vowing, quote, "harsh revenge on America" after killing its most powerful military general. Really, the most powerful military general in the entire region.

Let's go to our Ramin Mostaghim, who is live to Tehran now with more from the capital city.

RAMIN MOSTAGHIM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: In more than 800 cities and towns, rallies and post Friday prayers are underway. And "death to America," as usual and also "revenge, revenge, revenge" is shouted by the worshippers of Friday prayers and different blocs of society.

And so people by and large are admiring Qasem Soleimani as their martyr, and then doing and paying homage and respect for his family in Kerman, his hometown, in his -- the village that he was born.

So we can say that the rallies are ongoing, and we are still waiting to see the reactions from the officials as the negotiation behind the curtains among the top officials in national security council is underway -- Pop.

BERMAN: All right. I'll take it. Thank you so much. Please keep us posted.

We're looking again at these dramatic live pictures from the streets of Tehran, where tens of thousands of people are out demonstrating the death of General Qasem Soleimani, killed in this U.S. air strike.

CNN's Jim Sciutto confirmed minutes ago it was a drone used for the killing. It was ordered by President Trump from his Florida resort. We're waiting to hear from the president this morning. When will he speak? We're not exactly sure, but we do expect it. And there is the question of why now. Why did the United States decide to carry out this attack against the Iranian leader now?

CNN's Kaitlan Collins is traveling with the president. She's live in west palm beach, Florida. Kaitlan, former national security advisor John Bolton tweeted about three minutes ago that this was long in the making. So what do we know?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes. He also says he hopes this is the first step to regime change in Iran, so it's pretty clear where the former national security advisor would have come down on this, had he still bee in the administration.

Of course, John Bolton is not. He's been replaced by Robert O'Brien, who we have heard is on property with the president at Mar-a-Lago right here behind my shoulder. He was there yesterday with the president, seen there as the president was there having dinner when we first learned about this strike that had killed this figure, of course.

And so far we have not heard anything from the president except that one tweet, the picture of an American flag with no words next to it. That was as we were still waiting for the administration to confirm that, yes, it was the United States behind this attack, which they later did in a statement from the Pentagon, which they says -- they say it was carried out at the direction of the president.

Now, your question about why now, because given this was someone who really moved in and out of Iraq freely for the last several years. The Pentagon seemed to try to get at that in their statement last night, saying that they had intelligence about preempting potential attacks on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. They say also, "The strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans. The United States will continue to take all necessary action to protect our people and our interests wherever they are around the world."

Now, that's what we've got so far. We're still waiting to hear from other officials on the record from this in person. So far they're only referring to this statement. Now, as far as what the president was doing yesterday, we did not see

him publicly. But CNN cameras did capture him on his golf course. He was there for about five hours, roughly, before returning to Mar-a- Lago. He was then at dinner. But really, that's pretty much all that we've heard from Trump so far.

HARLOW: OK. And as John said, we hope to hear from him. It appears likely we'll hear from him this morning. Kaitlan, thank you very much for being there.

The U.S. military and American diplomats all on high alert right now after Iran vows retaliation. What is being done to protect Americans in that region around the world?

Let's go to Ryan Browne. He joins us at the Pentagon with more. And the Pentagon, Ryan, made very clear in their statement that this was a response to what they call an actively developing plan to attack Americans.

RYAN BROWN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Poppy. And we got a little bit of a preview of this new position from the Pentagon yesterday by the secretary of defense, Mark Esper, who warned that the U.S. would take preemptive action if it detected a threat, an imminent attack from Iran or its proxies, saying that the game had changed and, really, saying that they've kind of had enough, pointing to some 11 rocket attacks on U.S. bases in Iraq over the last few months, one of which killed an American contractor.

They put the blame for those attacks squarely on Iran and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp's Quds Force, which General Soleimani headed. So they kind of previewed a little bit that this new tougher stance on Iran.

But again, I don't think anyone anticipated this strike against General Soleimani. So the Pentagon acting quickly on information, apparently.

And to your point about the security in the region, depending on it had already been bracing in the wake of these attacks for potential additional Iranian provocations. They had sent a hundred Marines to the U.S. embassy there. They had deployed a battalion of paratroopers, hundreds of paratroopers to neighboring Kuwait with thousands more on standby to come to the region.

So the Pentagon had been bracing for some potential escalatory action on the part of Iran for some time. So those forces will likely remain there for some time to come, given this increased threat situation and Iranian promises of revenge.

The U.S. embassy also issuing alert, telling all Americans in Iraq -- telling all Americans in Iraq to leave the country as soon as possible. So very much concern about the security of Americans in the wake of the strike against General Soleimani. Possible retaliation from Iran or its multiple proxy militia groups in the region -- John.

[06:10:05] BERMAN: Yes, you would think the range of options bigger than ever for Iran including cyberattacks, attacks by proxies, Lebanon, Israel, Syria, other places. Maybe even direct military response. All of that, you would think, is on the table this morning. Ryan Browne at the Pentagon, thank you very much.

So who was Qasem Soleimani? This is Iran's top security and intelligence official who was killed in this U.S. air strike. We're going to take a closer look at his role and also again, what will Iran do this morning? That has to be a major concern for the U.S. around the world. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BERMAN: All right. The breaking news. You're looking at live pictures right now. Tens of thousands of people on the streets of Tehran, protesting America's killing of one of their most powerful leaders. The security and military intelligence leader Qasem Soleimani, the general in charge of the Quds Force of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, he was killed in a drone strike yesterday in Baghdad ordered by President Trump. Iran is vowing harsh revenge this morning.

Joining us now, CNN chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto; CNN national security analyst Samantha Vinograd; and CNN military analyst, retired Lieutenant General Mark Hertling.

Jim, I want to start with you, just very briefly. You and I were both in Iraq when General Soleimani was responsible for the death of hundreds of U.S. service members. For that matter, Sam Vinograd and General Hertling was commanding troops there --

HARLOW: Right.

BERMAN: -- at that same time. Just very briefly explain who this man was.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Six hundred and three deaths in -- The U.S. military blames Soleimani and his forces for 603 deaths. They supplied powerful IEDs, armor-penetrating IEDs. So there is direct American blood on his hands.

[06:15:10]

And this is why -- one of the reasons why the U.S. categorizes him as a terror leader. That's true. He's a bad guy. And the Quds Force has enormous capabilities all over the globe, and they've done a lot of bad stuff.

What we have to remember, though, in Iran as you mention, he's a political leader, as well. He's arguably the second most powerful man in Iran after the supreme leader. Intelligence and military leader. So you have to, from Iran's perspective, imagine how they then respond to that. Right? What would the equivalent be here? It's hard to say, because there's no one person in the U.S. that encompasses all these roles. But what would happen if the CIA director was assassinated? If a

senior commander of U.S. forces abroad was assassinated? That's the level that this person is. And that's why you're seeing the kind of action you're seeing from Iran.

HARLOW: General Hertling, we've heard a lot of comparisons this morning, and the most I've heard is people comparing this to the killing of Osama bin Laden or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. But this is much more significant than that, is it not, given what Jim just laid out?

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET.), MILITARY ANALYST: This is different than both of those. He is certainly a terrorist figure.

If I could add to what Jim said, I was in Iraq in 2007 and 2008 when Soleimani really started to influence and foment more problems along the the Iran-Iraq border, which I was responsible for in the north. And it's -- he's -- I studied him and my intel guys put together a very interesting brief on him.

This guy was a division commander at the age of 22 in the Iran-Iraq war. He is a revered figure in Iran. He's the closest thing you could get to Khomeini in Iran itself.

And beyond that, he has been a tactical, operational, and strategic genius in expanding the arc of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps throughout the region.

Having said all that, though, it's a good day that he's dead. We don't know what the repercussions. And I've been reading reports about this all night long, what different people are saying and suggesting might happen. We really don't know now. But we do know that there's going to be chaos not only in Iraq, but there's going to be protests in Iran. There's going to be reactions in Israel and Lebanon and other places around the world.

You know, I state that the Council of Foreign Relations said -- issued their top 13 places to watch in 2020. And within the top five was what was going to happen in terms of proxy wars between the U.S. and Iran and U.S. allies in Iran in this region. You know, it's already happening, and we're on day three.

BERMAN: Yes. We also know that the U.S. State Department has told all Americans in Iraq to get out now, because it's not safe.

We know, Sam, that the French government put out a statement. This is the French minister of state for Europe and foreign affairs. She says, "Today, we wake up to a more dangerous world."

Again, you look at this and you say you hope that this administration planned for the aftereffects here. What do you see?

SAMANTHA VINOGRAD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, yes. The State Department announcement really speaks to a projected threat environment on the ground in Iraq. The State Department has urged all -- I repeat, all -- American citizens to depart Iraq. What is unclear is whether the State Department, the Pentagon, and the

intelligence community worked with the president in advance of the decision to conduct this targeted operation to prepare contingency plans which, in this case, would include things like the evacuation of American citizens.

John, it will be impossible to evacuate all Amsets (ph) from Iraq at this juncture. We have thousands of dual nationals, not to mention thousands of U.S. government personnel, both military contractors and diplomats. And what I am waiting to see is whether there were plans in place to account for the heightened threat environment both in Iraq and throughout the region.

HARLOW: So to Sam's point, Jim, Iraq's response this morning is notable. Right? After condemning the air strikes over the weekend on Sunday for a violation of its sovereignty, Iraq this morning is calling this flagrant violation of the security agreement with America.

SCIUTTO: Yes. Listen, if the position of U.S. troops was at risk prior to this, and there are portions of the Iraqi public that want them gone and many who want them to stay, this definitely ratchets up the pressure.

It's all these follow-on effects. You wonder what the planning has been. I've spoken to Trump administration officials who say that under President Trump, often the policy making follows the decision. The national security infrastructure, the Pentagon, the State Department, they learn what the policy is when the president tweets it. That happened with the Syria withdrawal.

Did that happen here? In other words, is the policy now follows -- following the decision? All the preparation for the follow-on effects? That's a real concern, because there will be follow-on effects. Really, the question is only how severe they are.

BERMAN: General Hertling, what would Iran do? What is within its capability to do this morning in response?

HERTLING: I think it will continue to do the kinds of things it was already planning. They'll be more difficult to do, John, because of the lack of this leader, Soleimani, who was actually driving some of the planning and the operations. It will also be interesting to watch the reflections of those in Iraq and other parts of the world.

I've seen so far this morning Ayatollah Sistani in southern Iraq who has been furious about the attack in Baghdad's airport and says it's a strike against Iraqi sovereignty. But he's also called for calm.

You contrast that with Muqtada al-Sadr, a guy that our organization fought in Baghdad, who has about a million and a half followers in the northeast parts of the city, all unemployed males who have really honed their skills against first the U.S. and then against ISIS who are going to be probably taken to the streets today.

It'd be interesting to watch that and what happens there. What happens in northern -- or in southern Lebanon against the Israeli border. So I don't know.

I think we're going to see continued asymmetric attacks. You may see continued economic warfare in the Gulf of Hormuz. And you will see, based on the symbols we're seeing from the streets of Tehran already, a great support for a government that has been under a pressure campaign and doesn't have a whole lot of money right now and has lost influence in the world.

So you're going to see a combination of asymmetric attacks, proxy forces conducting attacks, economic warfare. All of those things.

BERMAN: All right, friends. Stand by for one moment.

HARLOW: We have a lot ahead. What is the president's end game here in escalating tension with Iran? We're going to talk about that next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[06:25:10]

HARLOW: Breaking news. The State Department this morning urging all Americans to get out of Iraq immediately. This is after the U.S. killed Iran's most powerful military commander overnight. What will Iran's response be?

Back with us, Jim Sciutto, Sam Vinograd. Kaitlan Collins, our White House correspondent, joins us now, as well.

Kaitlan, what can you tell us about how long this was being planned? Because we saw John Bolton tweet this morning, former national security advisor, that this was long in the making. What do we know about what led to what happened last night?

COLLINS: Well, a lot of this is starting with that death of the American contractor several weeks ago. That's what led to those other strikes by the United States, then leading, of course, to those protests, those attacks on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.

And now we've seen this, the most significant military action from President Trump since he's been in office. And that's why there are going to be a lot of questions behind this decision that the president has made. Why now? What exactly this intelligence was that they hinted at in that statement from the Pentagon? Essentially accusing this figure, this commander of masterminding further activities that could harm the United States or its citizens; accusing him of hundreds -- the deaths of hundreds of American soldiers.

So those are going to be the questions facing the White House now, and we're still waiting to hear more on exactly on how all of this went down, when the president made this decision. Because of course, we know that we were keeping a close eye on him yesterday. He spent roughly five hours at his golf course here. He left about 10 a.m., came back around 3 p.m. And then was at his Mar-a-Lago club, where he was seen having dinner, seemed to be in good spirits according to people who saw the president. But we do know that, of course, behind the scenes, this was going on.

He was seen with multiple Secret Service officers after a briefing on this. His national security adviser, Robert O'Brien, was on property at the time. So those are the things we're still waiting to hear from the president himself, the justification for this. Because of course, he's getting praise from Republicans but also a lot of criticism from Democrats and his critics.

BERMAN: Sam, I had a former State Department official text me a few hours ago and saying I would not want to be in the secretary of state's motorcade in any country going forward. In other words, that U.S. officials now need to be concerned that they could be targeted. I've heard you mention that we now need to assume that U.S. service members stationed in many countries overseas might be considered fair game by Iran.

What does this mean for the security of U.S. personnel stationed around the world?

VINOGRAD: Well, John, It's not just service members. All American citizens are now walking prime targets for Iranian retaliation.

The Department of Defense put out an important statement last night after this operation indicating what appears to be declassified intelligence. That Qasem Soleimani was responsible for planning additional attacks against Americans.

But also that he approved the attack against the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. So it looks like they were declassifying intelligence on that front, and going forward, we should really expect more of the same. IRG Quds Force has demonstrated its willingness and intent to strike American citizens, to strike American diplomats, who are afforded protections under international law.

So in addition to the force protection measures needed for American service members, I'm equally as focused on the American diplomatic corps, as well as all of the contractors that work for the U.S. government and other American citizens, not just in the Middle East but around the world.

Let's not forget that the IRGC Quds Force has tried to implement terrorist plots in Europe. They tried to assassinate the Saudi ambassador just a few miles from where I'm sitting here. So they clearly have global reach, and all Americans are a prime target.

HARLOW: And she's right. It was Soleimani that tried, you know, to pull off that assassination in 2011, Jim, right in Washington, D.C. But outside of, you know, physical threat and potential military action by Iran. You wrote a whole book about this. What about cyber retaliation? You have DHS warning about that this morning, as well.

SCIUTTO: Iran is expert and has enormous capabilities in the shadow world, or hybrid war tactics. The Quds Force, the IRGC, it is global. Right? And that encompasses terror attacks on soft or hard targets, military targets. U.S. diplomats, civilian targets, frankly. This is Cafe Milano, a restaurant in D.C. -- HARLOW: Right.

SCIUTTO: -- the assassination plot there. Economic targets, think oil facilities. They've already attacked tankers in the Persian Gulf. They've attacked the Saudi oil refinery there.

Think economic targets. Think also cyber. Because Iran is one of the most capable along with Iran and -- along with Russia and China in terms of carrying out cyberattacks. They do it. They've even done things that are election related attacks.

So you have to think in terms of not just uniformed attacks, you know, soldiers shooting at soldiers. You have to think of a whole host of things that happen in the shadows here.

And that's what Soleimani, the Quds Force, the IRGC is expert in. And just one more thing. They have enormous resources. The IRGC has its own navy of small fast-attack boats in the Gulf that can attack U.S. naval warships and tankers.

[06:30:00]