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THE SITUATION ROOM

America Has Started A War After The Death Of Qasem Soleimani?; A Terrorist Attack In Kenya Leaves Three Americans Dead. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired January 5, 2020 - 17:00   ET

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


[17:00:00]

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: We want to welcome our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM, as we monitor growing tensions between the United States and Iran. Here's the very latest today. A top military adviser to Iran's supreme leader said that America has started a war, and the U.S. should expect an appropriate military reaction, quote against military sites.

Thousands in Iran flooding the streets to pay tribute to the man President Trump insists was planning an imminent and sinister attack on American people and interests The body of General Qasem Soleimani was returned to Iran earlier this morning. He was killed in a U.S. air strike in Baghdad.

These (ph) are the Iranian parliament today lawmakers standing and shouting death to America. The head of Iran's parliament calls the killing of Qasem Soleimani a military act of terrorism committed by the United States. Also today, Iran announced it will abandon another key commitment under its international nuclear deal.

Meantime, in neighboring Iraq, parliament members there holding a vote today, urging the government to end U.S. troop presence in the country in the wake of Soleimani's killing. The U.S. Secretary of State delivering a message to people who are not convinced that Soleimani posed an urgent and imminent danger. Mike Pompeo saying it was the right move.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MIKE POMPEO, SECRETARY OF STATE: There's no need to guess about what Soleimani would have been up to the day after and the day after, and the day after. This was a bad guy. We took him from the battle field. We saw that his plotting further plans to take down Americans, in some cases many Americans. We took the right action to defend and protect America. President Trump will never shy away from that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: We're going to go straight to CNN's Senior International Correspondent, Fred Pleitgen, who is joining us live from Tehran. Fred, you actually sat down for an exclusive interview with a military adviser to Iran's supreme leader. Tell our viewers what he said.

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this military adviser to the supreme leader, someone who is extremely close to the power center here in Iran. In fact, he's very much part of the decision processes that go on here with the leadership in Tehran. He essentially told me three key things.

He said first of all, there is going to be a response by the Iranians. It's going to be military response. It's going to be against military targets. But importantly, Wolf, he also said that the Iranians do not want a full-fledged war against the United States. Here is what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HOSSEIN DEHGHAN, MILITARY ADVISER TO IRAN'S SUPREME LEADER: The response, for sure, will be military and against military sites. Let me tell you one thing. Our leadership has officially announced that we've never been seeking war and we will not be seeking war. It was America that has started the war. Therefore, they should accept appropriate reactions to their actions.

The only thing that can end this period of war is for the Americans to receive a blow that is equal to the blow they've inflicted. Afterwards, they should not seek a new cycle.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

PLEITGEN: So Wolf, the Iranians essentially saying they will strike back but they want it to end there. Another key thing that he also said to me, he said look, despite the fact that Qasem Soleimani, of course, was a towering figure in the revolutionary guard's Quds force, the foreign operations wing of the revolutionary guard.

He has already been replaced. And the Iranians say they are not going to miss a beat. They are just as capable of foreign operations as they were before. I also asked this adviser whether or not the Iranians, under any circumstances, would be willing to enter into negotiations with the Trump administration.

Of course, that's something that President Trump has been floating. He said at this point in time, of course, absolutely not. The Iranians extremely angry, and saying that there will be retaliation, Wolf.

BLITZER: As you know, Fred, President Trump threatened to hit cultural sites in Iran if the Iranians were to retaliate. We're learning now from two senior U.S. officials currently serving that there is deep opposition within the Trump administration to that idea. What is the reaction to President Trump's threat in Tehran?

PLEITGEN: Well, there's been extreme anger here in Tehran about that, not just from the political leadership but from a lot of regular Iranians as well. In fact, there's a lot of Iranians who have been taking to social media and posting pictures of Iran's cultural sites and saying these sites should not be bombed, because, of course, Iran is a nation that is very rich in history and has a history that goes back thousands of years.

And it's something that's a great of source of pride to all Iranians, whether they support the government or the clergy or whether they don't do that. I also asked really senior adviser to the supreme leader about those 52 targets that the president was talking about and those cultural sites that were apparently part of that as well.

He basically called that notion ludicrous. He said targeting cultural sites would amount to war crimes. And then se also said something which was key. He said look, if the president is talking about 52 sites he could target, well, then we'll target 300 American sites. Wolf?

[17:05:03]

BLITZER: Fred Pleitgen in Tehran, we'll get back to you. Thank you very much. Today, the Iraqi parliament voted to end U.S. troop presence in that country after the killing of General Soleimani on their soil. Our Senior International Correspondent, Arwa Damon, is on the ground for us in Baghdad. She's joining us live.

Arwa, so what are the implications on this vote?

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Potentially very serious, Wolf. The case for parliament to take this vote was actually made by the caretaker (ph) prime minister. Although it is worth noting that parliament and chief corem (ph) mostly because of Shia representation, the vast majority of Sunnis and the Kurds.

They were not attending this session. But abden meiti (ph) was saying that he believed that this was in the interest both of the U.S. and other foreign forces here, because he said they would not be able to protect themselves and in the interest of Iraq, stating that the Iraqi security forces would not be able to protect foreign troops.

This, it very much seems, was a calculus that was made based on today's reality that significantly altered with that targeted killing, with Iraq finding itself as the primary battlefield between Washington and Tehran. For the Iraqis, this was perhaps the only way to quickly deescalate a situation that was rapidly growing out of control.

But either way, whether the U.S. troops leave or stay, that has an implication on this country. Both options cause bloodshed. If and when the U.S. and other coalition forces do leave, this is a win for ISIS, Wolf, a win that even didn't even have to do anything to get because of the role that the collision continues to play in the battle against ISIS.

And let's remember that the last time the U.S. withdrew from Iraq. That is what created the security vacuum that eventually allowed for ISIS to emerge. It's also a win for Iran. But had the U.S. stayed, had the U.S. and Iran continued to confront each other in Iraq. That also would have had a devastating effect on the Iraqi population.

BLITZER: Arwa, we're also learning that the U.S.-led coalition to fight ISIS in Iraq has now actually paused its training in Iraq in the aftermath of the killing of Soleimani. What's behind that decision?

DAMON: Not just its training, Wolf. It's also paused its anti-ISIS operation, saying that they need to focus their troops on the ground, specifically towards force protection given the height intentions that exists, given the fact that Iran's proxies in Iraq are very capable of targeting the United States, as they have in the past.

More recently, it was those various different militant groups targeting U.S. military installations. But let's also take a look at who these militant groups are, Wolf. These Shia groups, they're the groups that were targeting the United States throughout the course of the American-led occupation here. So the threat posed by them is very real.

BLITZER: All right. Arwa, thank you very much. We're going to get back to you as well. Joining us now, the former secretary of defense under President Clinton, the former Republican Senator from Maine, William Cohen, Mr. Secretary, thanks very much for coming in.

WILLIAM COHEN, FORMER SECRETARY OF DEFENSE UNDER PRESIDENT CLINTON: Good to be with you.

BLITZER: You heard the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, say Americans are safer today than they were a few days ago, but the U.S. -- are now telling all Americans for example to get out of Iraq immediately. Are Americans safer today?

COHEN: In the short term, no. In the short term, the alert has been raised here in this country as well as throughout many of the European capitals as well. So short term, I think the threat of retaliation is higher than it was before the attack. I would like to go back to the parliament in Iraq story.

BLITZER: The Iraqi parliament.

COHEN: We want you to get out. I think that was an advisory nonbinding resolution. They don't have an existing government yet because the prime minister has resigned, and we don't have a new leader at that point. But they should take caution on that. If we leave, ISIS makes a comeback, Al Qaeda, and certainly the Iranians have greater influence.

And without the U.S. there, they're going to get much greater level of threat and much greater violence.

BLITZER: If the U.S. pulls out its 5,000 troops and there are thousands of other U.S. contractors and diplomats in the so-called Green Zone in Baghdad, if the U.S. were to pull out, that would be a huge win for neighboring Iran.

COHEN: It would be huge win for Iran. It would be huge win for Russia. I think there are two things to look out for. Remember, one, there could be false flag operations. There may be attacks by ISIS, Al Qaeda, other groups against Iraqis, against the Americans and then blame it on the Iranians, saying they were at fault.

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So I think you have to be careful of that. Second thing we have to look at is what is the role of Russia going to be? Russia is a supporter of Iranians. They don't want to see Iran destroyed -- that the levelling of their cultural areas, and symbols, and history, etcetera. They're going to want to -- they think the notion perhaps the United States is now bogged down in Iraq that they make it involved in long term conflict there.

That would be their interest. But if we were to leave, that would be their interest as well. And I think what will happen that the Iranians will come back with some sort of calibrated attack on the United States, not too big, not too small, kind of Goldilocks, just enough to say this is proportionate, but not enough to stimulate a reaction by President Trump.

Then come the Russians and say let us help. We know the Iranians. We can be helpful as we were in Syria. And so they -- we pulled out of Syria. They've moved in. And I suspect this will be a real opportunity for them to say we can mediate this. We don't want a war. Let us help you.

BLITZER: But the president has now repeatedly, over the past 24, 48 hours of war, and if Iran does retaliate, in a tweet, he said that the U.S. would immediately target 52 Iranian sites, representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago, some at a very high level and important to Iran and the Iranian culture.

COHEN: Two things. His pal, Putin, hasn't called him yet. When Vladimir calls up, you can be sure that Trump will take the call. Secondly, if he is saying that we've already picked out 52 targets to hit, that means that we've been planning to hit these targets for some time now. The Iranians might say, oh, we're on your imminent hit list, so why are you saying that you're in danger when you've been plotting 52 targets for us?

So I think it's really dangerous. I would take the Twitter account away from the president and say let's get back to doing diplomacy the good old-fashioned way by having experts sit down and try to figure out a way out of this, understanding Iran is going to attack in some fashion. Once that is over, we have to have the diplomats come in. And I think it's going to come from other countries, probably Russia.

BLITZER: I want you to listen to this exchange that our Jake Tapper at a State of the Union earlier today with Elizabeth Warren, one of the Democratic presidential candidates. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Next week, the president of the United States could be facing an impeachment trial in the Senate. We know he's deeply upset about that. And I think people are reasonably asking why this moment? Why does he pick now to take this highly dangerous action that moves us closer to war?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Senator, are you suggesting that President Trump pulled the trigger and had Qasem Soleimani killed as a distraction from impeachment?

WARREN: Look, I think people are reasonably asking about the timing.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: What do you think?

COHEN: Well, I was curious about the New York Times article that suggested that the chairman of the joint chiefs and secretary of defense placed this option of killing Soleimani on the table as a last resort and putting a much higher risk of danger and reaction. So the question is why would they put that in there if they knew this would generate the most reaction, negative reaction out of the Iranians?

I assume they did so after laying out what the consequences would be. But let me say from personal experience, I was involved in making the decision, recommending decision to President Clinton when we bombed and went after Saddam Hussein. And that happened at the time of the impeachment consideration House of Representatives.

I didn't know about what they were planning. I didn't know about any dates. But I went up to the House -- I had been called by Speaker Gingrich and Bob Livingston. They said the top is blowing off of the capital. I said what do you want me to do? They said come up here and explain why you've done what you've done.

We think this is wag the dog. I went up with the chairman of the joint chiefs, the Central Intelligence Director, and Ken Bacon, who was my public affairs spokesman at the Pentagon. I spent three hours in the well of the House of Representatives outlining exactly what we did and why we did it. And I would say if there's any indication that the joint chiefs or the secretary of defense argue this or laid this before the president with the notion it would be used for political purposes.

They ought to resign today. I don't believe that for a moment. I don't think any one of them would make that recommendation. If they found themselves doing it or the president's going to use it for political purpose, I think they would walk out and they should walk out.

BLITZER: This is video we've just received of the casket carrying the body of Qasem Soleimani who was killed in a U.S. drone strike outside the Baghdad International Airport. The crowds are huge in Iran right now. And they're shouting death to America.

[17:15:01]

COHEN: Well, what would be our reaction if the Iranians had targeted the secretary of defense of the chairman of the joint chiefs or the vice president of the United States? I think there would be many thousands of people in the streets of the United States saying death to Iran. I think that when you kill so many people of that stature within another country, you're bound to see this kind of reaction.

So I think this is one of the things I hope that the secretary of defense, the agencies who are advising the president said this is likely to be the reaction. It's going to be an outpouring of rage and there likely to be retaliation against us. So are you sure you want to take this action or is there something lower on the scale that would send a message without provoking a response that could endanger many Americans.

BLITZER: Secretary Cohen, thanks so much for coming in and giving us your important perspective. We're going to take a quick break, a very quick break. You're looking, once again, these pictures just coming in from Tehran. That's the casket carrying the body of General Qasem Soleimani who was killed in a U.S. drone strike outside the Baghdad International Airport. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to our special coverage. I want to quickly go back to Tehran right now. Fred Pleitgen is on the ground for us. He's watching very dramatic movement right now. We see the casket carrying the body of General Qasem Soleimani who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad. Right now, the body has just returned to Tehran. Fred, let's talk a little bit about the images that we're seeing.

PLEITGEN: Yeah, Wolf. I mean, obviously, very powerful images that we're seeing. You know those thousands of people who are coming to greet that casket as it arrives here in Tehran. It really is, I would say, one of the culmination points of what we've seen ever since the early morning hours of Saturday. Essentially what's been going on is that the body of Qasem Soleimani first arrived in Western Iran where you already saw these large crowds lining the streets, large crowds turning up.

And then was flown to Mashad, which of course, is a holy city in Shia Islam, and the reason, Wolf, why the body is only arriving in Tehran now, I have to look at my watch here. It's 1:50 in the morning, Tehran time. The body was actually supposed to get here hours ago, to then be displayed publicly there in the main grand mosque here.

But it wasn't -- they weren't able to bring it here because so many people had already turned up in Mashhad. So that goes to show what an important figure Qasem Soleimani was for so many Iranians. And Wolf, the Iranian leadership, of course, is very much capable of drumming up large crowds to events, to protests, to similar things.

[17:20:08]

But the amount of people that we've seen out in the streets, the amount of mourners certainly goes beyond anything that the Iranian government would be able to drum up. And so certainly, there's a lot of very real outpouring of grief, and of course, also support and of respect for Qasem Soleimani as well, Wolf.

BLITZER: It's a dangerous, very dangerous situation. Right now, Fred Pleitgen in Tehran for us, we'll get back to you. Also right now, more than 3,000 U.S. service members, they're on their way to the Middle East, not knowing when they'll return home as critics of the president questioning the timing of this strike continue to speak out.

Also, there's more breaking news. Three Americans killed in a terrorist attack that targeted a military base in Kenya, the victims, a U.S. service member, two U.S. civilian contractors, Al-Shabaab now claiming responsibility. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: All right. Take a look at this. Thousands of U.S. troops deploying for Fort Bragg, North Carolina, last night, they're headed to the Middle East. The military says the deployment is part of precautionary action being taken to respond to increased threat levels against U.S. military and civilian personnel following the U.S. killing of a top Iranian, General Qasem Soleimani.

The Trump administration has warned Congress that retaliation of Soleimani's death could come within weeks. And a top Iranian official is now telling CNN its response will be against U.S. military sites. At the same time, President Trump appears to be using Twitter as formal notification of potential military action.

[17:25:04]

He tweets this, and I'm quoting now, these media posts will serve as notification to the United States Congress that should Iran strike any U.S. person or target, the United States will quickly and fully strike back and perhaps in a disproportionate manner, close quote. Joining us now, CNN National Security Reporter, Kylie Atwood, CNN Political Analyst and Congressional Editor for "The New York Times," Julie Hirschfeld Davis, and CNN Military Analyst, Retired U.S. Army Major General "Spider" Marks.

General Marks, what do you think about -- it may not be a disproportionate response if the Iranians were to retaliate.

JAMES MARKS, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: That's troubling in my mind. I mean, what you never want is take options off the table. You want to leave enough confusion out there if you intend to take action. Just lay it out there and say we have options and we reserve the right to take the options necessary to accomplish the task.

And here is what we think is available to us. So to say it's disproportionate simply ratchets up the rhetoric, which is never helpful in this particular situation. What you want everybody to breathe through their nose. Take a step back and say we reserve the right to do what we think is right. And in many cases, it will be proportionate but we'll make that decision when the conditions --

BLITZER: What are you hearing, Kylie, and you covered the State Department for us, national security. The reaction to the decision by the Iraqi parliament to say, you know what? U.S. troops, there are 5,000 U.S. troops still in Iraq right now, thousands of U.S. military contractors and diplomats in this so-called Green Zone around the U.S. embassy. Basically, the parliament is suggesting that the U.S. military personnel should get out. KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: Yeah. That was the

Iraqi parliament vote today. And the State Department Spokesperson, Morgan Ortagus, came out and said that the U.S. was disappointed by that decision, and that they're urging the Iraqi leadership to reconsider that, to really look at the U.S./Iraq relationship when it comes to economics and when it comes to security.

But the question here is what did the Trump administration expect was going to happen, right? This is something that the Iraqis could have chosen to do. They are not supportive of the Trump administration coming in and killing an Iranian on their soil without them having known. So this is a potential reaction that the Iraqis could have had.

And the question is did the U.S. plan for it, and what did the U.S. really plan for Iraq to do?

BLITZER: That U.S. drone strike outside Baghdad International Airport also killed an Iraqi militia leader.

ATWOOD: That's right.

BLITZER: Closely aligned with the Iranians Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and that was an Iraqi citizen.

ATWOOD: Yeah. And so therefore, they are violating Iraqi sovereignty in doing that, especially given the fact that we have such a strong relationship on the ground with the Iraq military and leadership. This is going to -- this is really putting the U.S. and the Iraq relationship at a testing point and we're going to see how it develops.

BLITZER: If the U.S., Julie, is forced to get out of Iran, all the thousands of U.S. troops who are still there. The fear is that this could lead to a resurgence of ISIS in Iraq. I wonder what kind of reaction Republicans -- you're hearing from Republicans in Congress to this possibility.

JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS, CONGRESSIONAL EDITOR, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Well, so far, we haven't heard a whole lot of reaction to this possibility. There -- what we're hearing is a lot of strong support for what the president did. And it's actually quite striking because in the past there's been criticism of the president when he has taken aggressive actions that some Republicans in Congress feel go too far.

But in this particular case, whether it's because of the seriousness of Soleimani's role or because possibly we're in an impeachment round where Republicans feel like they really don't want to speak out against the president in this sort of a political situation. For whatever the reason, we're not hearing a lot of criticism.

I do think that if this does lead to a resurgence of ISIS, if this leads to a pullback on the part of U.S. military as a reaction to what's happened here, there will be some questions raised by Republicans. And we're going to hear some of that play out in the war powers debate that we're likely to know see in the next few weeks. BLITZER: It's going to be intensive debate up on Capitol Hill. Is it

realistic you think, General, that the U.S. is going to be forced by the Iraqi government to pull out?

MARKS: This is the big issue in my mind. This is -- of course, we have to discuss Iran. This is about our relationship with Iraq. If Iraq wants to be a sovereign, it needs to act like a sovereign. It hasn't been acting like a sovereign. Soleimani has complete transit authority, and he shows up whenever he wants. He exercises command and control inside of Iraq.

That's not the actions of a sovereign. So Baghdad has a choice to make right now. This could be an opportunity for the United States and Iraq to get their act together in a way that allows Baghdad to make a choice that says, look, you can't align yourself with Tehran. You can't have these militias running around, wantingly doing what you think they should be doing inside our country.

[17:29:52]

And then give us a hard time when we go after somebody who is a recognized terrorist, IRGCs as a terrorist organization, and we strike their leader. That's kind of our relationship with Baghdad. That's our understanding of our relationship. And for them to criticize that action is inappropriate this time completely. You want to be a sovereign, act like a sovereign.

BLITZER: Because there are a lot of U.S. officials, as you know, Kylie, who are deeply concerned if the U.S. were to pull out Iraq and the U.S. went to war in 2003 to get rid of Saddam Hussein, Iraq could emerge for all practical purposes as a wholly subsidiary of Iran.

ATWOOD: And it could also be a win for ISIS. I mean, there's been a lot of talk about ISIS coming back into Iraq as Iran is kind of opening that capability for them to do so. And so therefore, if the U.S. leaves Iraq, it is opening up this possibility for it to re- emerge as a country that, we in the first place, got there to prevent it from becoming.

BLITZER: I want to play a clip. This is the president who was then a private citizen back in 2011, speaking about President Obama and his bid for re-election. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, UNITED STATES PRESIDENT: Our president will start a war with Iran because he has absolutely no ability to negotiate. I believe that he will attack Iran some time prior to the election, because he thinks that's the only way he can get elected. Isn't it pathetic?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: You know, a lot of Democrats right now are suggesting maybe the president wants to change the subject from impeachment. That's why he has escalated this crisis. DAVIS: Absolutely. I mean, we've been hearing that accusation coming

from -- particularly in the progressive wing of the party, some of the candidates who are running to challenge him in the 2020 election. The timing, obviously, is incredibly volatile. We are in the middle -- he is an impeached president. We are about to be in the middle of, we think, an impeachment trial.

And the fact that this happening now does seem suspect, but there is also a lot of talk, I think, among lawmakers on Capitol Hill about the fact that this president has been criticized for not being aggressive enough when it comes to Iran. And that it's possible that he took this action at least in part in order to dispel that image as well.

And that of course, plays politically into his brand. And he wants to show voters in advance of his re-election that he's tough and he's strong and he's all those things that he has always professed to be. So no question the timing of this has huge political implications. And if it wasn't the driver behind taking the action, it certainly is going to fuel the response domestically.

BLITZER: He's bracing for Iranian retaliation and wondering what the U.S. will do in response to that. Kylie, Julie, Major General Marks, thanks to all of you for joining us. Meanwhile, a Hezbollah leader issuing a new grave warning at a rally today, saying the U.S. military would quote, pay the price for the killing of Iran's top military general. We'll discuss what that could mean when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:35:00]

BLITZER: A dire new warning to the United States today after the killing of Iran's top military figure. But this threat comes from outside Tehran during a massive memorial rally in Beirut, Lebanon. The head of the Iranian-backed Lebanese militia group, Hezbollah, promised revenge. He called -- he vowed what he called just retribution, insisting U.S. forces were, in his words, quote, pay the price for the drone strike at the Baghdad International Airport.

Joining us now is Michael Oren. He is a former Israeli Ambassador to the United States. He also served as a member of Knesset, the deputy administer in the prime minister's office. Mr. Ambassador, thank you so much for joining us. You strongly support President Trump's decision to order this strike. Tell us why.

MICHAEL OREN, ISRAELI DEPUTY MINISTER OF DIPLOMACY: Good to be with you. Wolf, it's not just me. It's across the board in Israel. It's Prime Minister Netanyahu. It's Benny Gantz, the head of the opposition. Right and left, Israelis overwhelmingly support this opposition. Because first of all, Soleimani deserved to die, he has the blood of many Israelis on his hands, to say nothing of the hundreds of thousands of Arabs, hundreds of American troops.

He was a terrorist and deserved to die. Israelis also welcome the return of America to the Middle East after a long period where America appeared to be withdrawing from the region. We welcome the reaffirmation of American strength, the restoration of American deterrents power. That's very important for Israelis. And what's interesting we probably run the highest risk, because when the Iranians say they're going to take revenge.

They say they're going to take revenge against Israel. And we're facing about 150,000 rockets in the hands of Iran and its terrorist proxies like Hezbollah. Even with that, Israelis still support the Soleimani operation.

BLITZER: If Israel had found an opportunity to take out Soleimani, wouldn't it have done so -- should it have done so?

OREN: Well, we've been conducting operations on a regular basis against Iran and its proxies for about nine years now. And during the course of these operations, Iranian officers, including high-ranking officers, have been killed. And Israeli officials in the past have said that Soleimani was on the list of potential targets.

I assure you that if we had learned that he was planning, actively, a terrorist attack that would have taken the lives of large number of Israelis, soldiers or civilians, that Israel would taken exactly the same operation.

BLITZER: So you think if Israel knew where he had been over these past years, it would have killed him?

OREN: If there was a need to, yes. And if it was in part of our strategic goal of distancing Iranian forces from our borders, from Lebanon, from Syria, and now we are witnessing the creation of an Iranian military presence, including a missile capacity in Iraq, which is capable of hitting Israeli cities. So we're going to operate wherever we have to in order to distance that Iranian threat from our borders.

BLITZER: You wrote an article just now for CNN.com, saying that no one in Israel wants war, but does this killing make war more or less likely?

OREN: Well, we see a situation where Iran is trying to surround us strategically with these tens of thousands of rockets. And in a couple of years the sunset clause of the Iran nuclear deal will set in and Iran will be able to enrich enough uranium to make many hundreds of nuclear weapons. So we're on a path to war, irrespective with Iranians.

And there's a certain feeling here that if we would rather do it now rather than five years from now when Iran becomes stronger. So for Israel, Iran is a serious military threat. We can defend ourselves. I must tell you honestly, Wolf. Israelis sometimes shake their heads why Americans are so afraid of Iran. From an Israeli perspective, Iran is a paper tiger.

Iran -- when was the last time you saw a picture of an Iranian tank or an Iranian fighter jet? Their air force is from the 1970s. So a serious Iran cannot pose a serious military threat to the United States. To Israel, yes, and we can defend ourselves. BLITZER: But if the Iranians are using their proxies in Lebanon, or

Gaza, or Syria or elsewhere, want to go after Israelis, they could kill a lot of Israelis right now.

OREN: They could always kill a lot of Israelis. They've been trying for years and years. There's nothing new about that. The important thing from our perspective is, again, is America is back. America is reasserting its deterrent power. And that is a strategic asset for the state of Israel.

BLITZER: Well, I know people that in Israel are tense right now. They're worried about what might happen in the aftermath of this killing of Qasem Soleimani, and hopefully people will calm down. But let's see what happens. Everybody seems to be bracing right now for Iranian retaliation, and that could lead to a very, very serious U.S. response. Ambassador Michael Oren joining us from Tel Aviv, thanks so much for joining us.

OREN: Good evening, bye-bye.

[17:40:12]

BLITZER: All right. So there are new details emerging about three Americans killed today in a terror attack in Kenya, Al-Shabaab now claiming responsibility. We're going there live to Nairobi when we come back.

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BLITZER: Now to breaking news out of Kenya where a terror attack has claimed the lives of three Americans, a U.S. service member and two U.S. military civilian contractors. It happened at an airstrip near a military base. The Al Qaeda-linked terror group Al-Shabaab is claiming responsibility. CNN's Farai Sevenzo is joining us now from the Kenyan capital of Nairobi.

Farai, so what do we know about this attack and the people who were killed or injured?

FARAI SEVENZO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this happened very early this morning, Sunday, way before the sun rose. The sun usually rises around 6:00 a.m., but it was right about 5:30 according to the Kenyan defense forces when this base airfield and very near the U.S.-Africa calls Camp Simba that took place. Now, of course, this is a place where the United States Special Forces usually train their African partners like the Kenyan defense forces.

And what we know is that since this morning, the U.S.-African commander released a statement, saying one American serviceman and two civilian contractors have died in that attack, a further two have been injured, and we believe that they are stable. And according to U.S.- Africa command, they are being evacuated. Now, of course, the land where this took place, Wolf, is one of the most beautiful places in Kenya.

But unfortunately, it's proximity to the Somali border means that it is prone to so many attacks by this Al Qaeda-affiliated terror group known as Al-Shabaab. Just last Sunday, they killed over 85 people in Mogadishu in a massive truck bomb. It's their modus operandi. And of course, we here in Kenya, where I'm speaking to you from, are no strangers to their kind of terror.

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Just a year -- nearly a year to the date, on January 15th, they attacked a hotel here, killing 21 people. Now, of course, their audaciousness and brazenness of this attack is raising a lot of questions this evening in this east Africa region, how this terror group could have managed to enter such a heavily fortified place and carry out attacks.

We understand as well that six civilian contractor planes were badly injured. Earlier, the U.S.-Africa command said that both fixed wing and rotary aircraft were also injured. And many questions tonight, Wolf, about how this could have taken place. And of course, it endangers troops in the street.

BLITZER: Yeah. The U.S. still has plenty of troops throughout Africa. Farai Sevenzo, thank you very much, we'll get back to you as well. Congress, meanwhile, returns to Washington this week. But the impeachment trial appears to be going nowhere fast. Will anyone budge on their positions? Republican John Kasich is standing by live to share his thoughts. We'll be right back.

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BLITZER: Lawmakers return to Capitol Hill this week with an impeachment trial of the Senate at an impasse. The stand-off between House Speak Nancy Pelosi and the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell continues. Pelosi is withholding the two articles of impeachment until she says it's clear their will be what she calls a fair trial in the U.S. Senate. The Judiciary Committee Chairman, Republicans Senator Lindsey Graham said this about the speaker's actions.

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SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, JUDICIARY COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: The sooner this trial is over, the better for the American people. And so what I would do if she continues to refuse to send the articles as required by the Constitution, I would work with Senator McConnell to change the rules of the Senate so we could start the trial without her, if necessary.

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BLITZER: All right. Joining us now, former Republican Governor of Ohio, John Kasich, also a former member of Congress, Governor, a couple of months ago you came out in support of impeaching the president. Do you think it will come down to a full scale trial of the Senate, circumventing potentially Speaker Pelosi? JOHN KASICH, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: You know, Wolf, I

don't know how that's going to play out. But right now, my focus is on -- very, very, very laser-like, in terms of the potential Iranian response to the action that we have taken. I, like Former Senator Cohen, former Secretary of Defense, hope that that response is below a threshold where we wouldn't have to get into a tit-for-tat situation here.

Because we need to stabilize this, you know, and the issue at hand is what is our long term strategy? What are we doing to figure out what we can do to contain a nuclear program, which Iranians announced they are withdrawing from today? What do we do about the development of their ballistic missiles? What do we do about their activity in the region?

And I think what we have to think about, Wolf, is what is the back channels that we can begin to develop? Because frankly, our goal's got to be to stop that nuclear program and the development of those missiles and all their activity in the region. That should be our focus. Impeachment is still there. But to me, if you have -- you got to have grownups in the Congress right now that as we all wait as Americans about the potential response, which endangers all the people in our military.

So that is my focus today, not that we can't move forward on the other side. But today, this is a very tense time for our --

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BLITZER: Of course. And nearly 4,000 U.S. troops are on their way from the 82nd airborne division. So do you think it's time maybe to pause on the impeachment trial in the Senate and let this crisis with Iran be resolved?

KASICH: Well, I think we went through this back in the time of Bill Clinton, when there was an attack inside of Iraq, launched by the president, and they still proceeded. But right now, to me, I mean in terms of a pause, I would not object to a pause. I mean, the Speaker hasn't, you know, moved those articles of impeachment forward.

My concern right now, my greatest concern is how does Iran respond? Do they respond in a disproportionate way, and then what does that do for us? Do we then have to respond? And this tit-for-tat, the president has got 52 targets. If they strike, then we strike back and they strike and we strike, and we end up potentially in a full-fledged war, which we want to avoid.

You know, Wolf, what's really interesting is there were at least two occasions where the United States, including the president, were very, very close to sitting down with some of the Iranian leaders, with, you know, with the elected president, Rouhani. There was an opportunity, frankly, during the U.N. meetings that was set up by Macron.

Also the president of Japan, Prime Minister of Japan Abe was going to have a meeting. And that got undercut by the United States. The number of times when we could have sat down and maybe had created a thaw and relationships. Today, I think what has to happen is we have to work with our allies and we've got to have a back channel to say to the Iranians.

We know you're going to respond. Be careful what you do. And at some point, we have got to thaw these relations and get back into a more stable environment. Because right now, Wolf, this is of course, extremely concerning not just to us but our allies all across the globe.

BLITZER: You were in Congress. You were a leader of the House Armed Services Committee. I want to get your reaction to this tweet that the president sent out about Iran. He said this. These media posts will serve as notification to the United States Congress that should Iran strike any U.S. person or target, the United States will quickly and fully strike back and perhaps in a disproportionate manner.

Such legal notice is not required but is given nevertheless. So as someone who served in Congress for almost 20 years, was on the House Armed Services Committee, what do you think?

KASICH: I think that rhetoric itself was over the top. Look, everybody understands that if there -- if Iran instigate as strike, a devastating strike that we're going to respond. I think they know that. What we don't want to do is to have too much heated rhetoric. Look, they're going to hit us somewhere. I hope when they hit us it's going to be basically low-key.

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That they're going to take some action, but that they don't raise the level of strife, so that we have to fire back. So what I'm concerned about if the president saying if you say this, ours will be disproportionate. Well, where does that lead us? Because the end goal has got to be a stabilizing of the relationship between us and Iran.

And we know they're bad actors. But we've come close to having meetings with them where we could have thawed this relationship. And we have got to get back to the table, because the last thing we need is the development of a nuclear weapon in Iran, because what that will lead to is a development of nuclear weapons in other nations that are located in the Middle East.

So now let's see what comes. Let's get the back channels going. Let's involve our allies and let's try to get on a path here where we can have some stability, because we do not have to go to war. And war is in no one's interests including the Iranians.

BLITZER: Former Governor John Kasich. Thanks so much for joining us.

KASICH: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: And a pro-rubbing (ph) known about a timely CNN special report tonight. I hope you will join me for a look back at the suspense and the drama from President Bill Clinton's impeachment trial in the Senate. Here's a preview. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We want to welcome our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. You're watching a special edition of THE SITUATION ROOM.