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Draft Letter Leaked from U.S. Military; Cool Weather Helps Firefighters Combat Bush Fires; Iranians Mourn for Soleimani's Death; Iran Warns There is Payback Time for U.S.' Action. Aired 3-3:30a ET

Aired January 7, 2020 - 03:00   ET




ROSEMARY CHURCH, CNN ANCHOR: A massive display of mourning in Iran. America's targeted killing of a top general feels calls for retaliation. We are live in Baghdad where a U.S. military draft letter cause confusion about the future of U.S. troops in Iraq.

In Australia, cooling weather could help firefighters struggling to control the fires raging across the country.

Hello and welcome to our viewers joining us from all around the world. I'm Rosemary Church. And this is CNN Newsroom.

It is 11.30 in the morning in Iran where huge crowds are mourning the country's slain military commander. And there is growing concern their grief will soon give way to revenge against the United States.

Funeral services are taking place in the hometown of General Qasem Soleimani, killed Friday by an American drone strike in neighboring Iraq.

Hundreds of thousands of mourners filled the streets Monday in Tehran to pay their respects, some chanting "death to America."

Meanwhile, the U.S. military commanders are in clean-up mode after suggesting American forces would be leaving Iraq. Joints Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley strongly denied that, saying a general's memo was poorly worded and released by mistake.

Iraq's Parliament voted over the weekend to force the government to work toward removing all foreign troops including the Americans from the country.

And we have new reaction to the crisis from Iran's Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif says U.S. forces are no longer welcome in the Middle East. He says they violated Iraq's sovereignty when they killed military commander Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad last week. And he said this about U.S. President Donald Trump's threat against Iran.


MOHAMMAD JAVAD ZARIF, IRANIAN FOREIGN MINISTER: He is showing something. He is showing to the international community that he has no respect for international law, that he is prepared to commit war crimes, because attacking cultural sites is war crime.

And this disproportionate response is a war crime. Proportionality is a major principle of international law. But he doesn't -- he doesn't care, it seems, about international law but has he made U.S. more secure? Do Americans feel more secure?


CHURCH: And we have this just in to CNN, Iran's Parliament has passed a bill designating all U.S. forces terrorists after Soleimani's killing by the U.S. on Friday.

Let's get more on all of this from CNN's Nic Robertson who joins us from Riyadh. So, let's look at that information just in, this designation from Iran's Parliament, but also what the foreign minister there is saying about the fact that these U.S. troops are not even wanted in the region. They are not necessarily going to force them up but they are not wanted.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: The revenge that the Iranians have been talking about for the death of Qasem Soleimani at the moment is translating itself into the isolation of the United States in the region with a focus of getting as many U.S. troops out of the region, specifically Iraq, but they were more broadly like to see them leave and other countries as well.

So, this is the revenge at the moment that the killing of Qasem Soleimani has allowed the Iranians to sort of focus on this. It seems to be the direction of travel that made it clear, that proxies have made it clear that any attacks will be on U.S. military forces.

That doesn't give a huge amount of relief for the United States allies in the region because of the concerns that there could still be the potential for a trigger for a broader conflict.

But certainly, the United States allies in the region will be concerned if the United States draws down its forces significantly in the region, that's something that they'll look to as being a guarantor, a part of the stability and security within the region, particularly within Iraq.

So, these words from the Iranian foreign minister, although not surprising, are obviously going to now help shape the understanding for the United States and its allies, the direction of travel for Iran at the moment, Rosemary.


CHURCH: And talk to us about this designated -- designation in this bill in Iran, calling U.S. forces terrorists. What are the consequences of that label?

ROBERTSON: Sure. I, mean the Iranians would love for that to gain broader traction, and that feasance to the isolation and demonization of U.S. forces which has been a theme of the Iranians for a long time. But it has to feel at the moment as well of something of a tit-for-tat with the United States because the United States is designated so many people and groups in Iran as terrorist organizations that the Iranians have bridled against, you know, the whole time that President Trump has been sort of escalating up his maximum sanctions, and isolation of Iran.

So this does have a feel for fit-for-tat and the practical reality is that in a way, you know, it reinforces what the Iranians have been saying, that there will be a military to military response, and therefore this will give them, you know, what they might consider, or what their proxies might consider political cover for killing U.S. soldiers anywhere in the region, at any point in time by designating them as terrorists.

But it has a -- it has a rhetoric feel that has sort of a tot-for-tat sense to it as well. Again, this is -- this is in part, in keeping with isolating and demonizing the United States.

This is a moment in the region where Iran can capitalize on Qasem Soleimani's death, can capitalize on the fact that large numbers of people have come out on the streets in Iraq and in Iran, that not only tells, that sends a very big message to the peoples of those countries that support for Soleimani was big, and that anyone that's actually opposed that support and opposed the government in Iran opposes a large number of people on the streets.

It has, it amplifies that that kind of message, and that's something that, you know, Iran will be very keen to exploit and is exploiting at this time.

CHURCH: All right, our Nic Robertson bringing us the very latest details on those new developments coming into us at CNN joining us there from Riyadh in Saudi Arabia. Many thanks, Nic.

Well, in Washington, the Trump administration is defending the strike, but officials are not speaking with one voice. The U.S. defense secretary contradicted President Donald Trump's threat to target Iranian cultural sites if Tehran retaliates.

Then, a letter from a top U.S. general leaked, appearing to indicate U.S. troops would withdraw from Iraq.

Barbara Starr has more on the Pentagon's struggle to clarify what that letter actually means.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: What it says is that U.S. troops are repositioning in Iraq, and that is true, but it also goes on to talk about future onward movement of U.S. troops. Very strongly suggesting that U.S. troops are leaving Iraq.

And what Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters today is no, that is not policy right now, and in fact, the Iraqi government has not yet officially asked U.S. troops to leave. So, a lot of confusion, a letter that was poorly worded and absolute

insistence, at this time, at least, from the highest levels of the Pentagon that at least for now, U.S. troops are not leaving.

CHURCH: And Jomana Karadsheh joins us now with the very latest from Baghdad. And Jomana, how would a letter like this mistakenly be leaked? Talk to us about how it ended up in the hands of Iraqis, and then at that point, presumably was leaked?

JOMANA KARADSHEH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Rosemary, we simply don't know how that happened. We just know that it appeared it circulated amongst the Iraqi media here. It was being reported by Iraqi TV, it was breaking news here really late in the evening and it was being phrase as the U.S. military has begun withdrawing, which obviously led to the scramble by U.S. officials to try and explain and clarify this letter.

As you heard there from Barbara, U.S. officials here were saying listen, this is not a withdrawal, this is absolutely not happening. This is just repositioning of troops, moving them around, their remaining in the region.

What this is, is just notifying the Iraqis of movements that are going to be happening, that this is standard. There was going to be a lot of chopper, helicopter movement in Baghdad and they did not want, considering the current tensions people to think that there are any additional troops coming in. So, this was just notifying them of that.


And then a short time later, we had senior U.S., a top U.S. official in the Pentagon also coming out to try and explain what had happened. The joint chiefs of staff saying that this was an honest mistake, that this was a poorly worded letter, and it not meant to be released.

But no one has actually answered the question of why in the first place where there are any indications in this letter that there would be some sort of a withdrawal. Why mention that? Why say it is on the table.

What we know is U.S. officials here, U.S. officials in Washington, D.C. coming out and clearly saying that that is not happening, that U.S. troops are not planning at this point to withdraw from the country.

And that could also have some reaction here, some implications, of course, when you have the Iraqis (AUDIO GAP) who have over the past few days made it clear the political leadership here, the prime minister and his office have come out and said that they are going with what parliament had ask them to do. They are starting to work with the coalition government to ask them at some point to withdraw their forces from here.

We know they have spoken to a number of coalition governments, the prime minister here met, according to his office, with the U.S. Ambassador in Baghdad. Well, they haven't notified the U.S. officially of this request for withdrawal. They said that they need to work together according to that readout from the prime minister's office on implementing this decision by the Iraqi Parliament.

And of course, an issue of concern when you have U.S. officials coming out and flat-out denying that there is any possibility of withdrawal, that they are remaining here.

The security implications here with the current threat level that we have, you know, we've heard the threats coming from the Iranian- backed proxies on the ground in the past 48 hours or so, some of their top leadership, of the most powerful Iranian-backed paramilitary groups coming out and saying that if the United States does not withdraw immediately, as was decided by the Iraqi Parliament, that they are going to be considered occupying forces and that they will be dealt with as such.

CHURCH: Right.

KARADSHEH: Indicating, hinting that they will go back to targeting these forces as they used to do back during the U.S. military occupation, Rosemary.

CHURCH: All right, Jomana Karadsheh, bringing us that live report from Baghdad. Many thanks.

We'll take a short break here. Still to come, Australia's devastating bushfire season is costing resident millions of dollars in lost property and lost communities. When we return, what the government is doing to help rebuild them.


CHURCH: Well, light rain and cooler weather is giving Australians a much-needed break from the devastating bushfire season, but the break will be short lived as high temperatures are set to return on Friday.

The official death toll stands at 24, and thousands of homes have been damaged or destroyed.


The insurance council of Australia estimates nearly $500 million worth of insurance claims have already been filed and that number is only expected to rise as more loss is reported.

Well, CNN's Anna Coren joins us now from outside of Cobargo on the New South Wales southern coast. So, Anna, if there is one thing we have learned in the midst of these bush fires, it is they are indiscriminate in nature. And what is the scene there where you are, and how residents dealing with their losses?

ANNA COREN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Rosemary, we are on the outskirts of Cobargo, as you say, we wanted to give you a different landscape, if you like, this is a pastoral and it is absolutely scorched. The earth is scorched. There is no grass for the eye to see, and this fire has just roared through, the trees are black, everything is black, there is perhaps little patches here and there, but everything has been decimated.

And, you know, there is cattle, there is sheep, we've driven past them, they are (Inaudible). We're hearing from farmers that they have had to shoot many livestock that have been injured in these fires, those that survived but are deeply, deeply injured. So, it is just devastating. Devastating obviously for those who have lost their homes but also for the farmers who have lost their livelihoods.

This is taking an enormous toll and this is just one township. We have seen this right up and down the southeast coast of Australia where there are more than 200 fires burning. You mentioned those milder conditions that we are experiencing at the moment, firefighters are certainly making the most of that, putting a containment lines, putting in the firebreaks, preparing for those hot, windy temperatures conditions to return later in the week.

We are only in January, Rosemary. We are halfway through the fire season and there is no forecast for substantial rain. We need weeks of rain to not only just put out the bush fires but also to end the drought that has plagued Australia for years now.

CHURCH: Yes, exactly, and provided all that fuel for these fires. So Prime Minister Scott Morrison has come under considerable pressure for his slow response to these bush fires, and his apparent lack of understanding about the role carbon emissions have played in all of this. Will he be able to redeem himself with the announcement of significant government help for bush fire victims?

COREN: Yes, he announced that $2 billion dollar bush fire recovery agency, and that money is desperately needed. There are people who don't have homes, people who no longer have livelihoods because their businesses have been completely wiped out.

The south coast of New South Wales, Victoria, it relies on tourism. Well, that has gone. Completely gone. The wood chip mill in Eden destroyed. So, these towns will need so much support. As for the prime minister people are furious. People are angry and you can feel it, Rosemary, when we speak to these people.

There are rallies organized for later in the week calling for him to be sacked. That is how much the Australian people have turned against a man that they only reelected last year.

So, Australians are feeling abandoned, certainly in this part of the world, they are feeling abandoned. Then even Australians who haven't been affected directly by the fires feel like the Australian prime minister and his government have let this country down. So, it will be interesting to see, Rosemary, whether or not he can redeem himself.

CHURCH: Yes, and of course, Morrison going to Hawaii on vacation in the midst of these bush fires certainly did not help his cause.

Anna Coren bringing us the very latest there on the outskirts of Cobargo, many thanks to you.

And for more information on how you can help the victims of Australia's devastating bush fires, you can visit

Well, prosecutors in Los Angeles have hit Harvey Weinstein with new rape and sexual assault charges. It happened just hours after he appeared in the New York court to start a trial on a different sex crime charges. Weinstein has denied allegations of non-consensual sexual activity in the New York case but some of his accusers say the trial marks a moment of justice.


ROSE MCGOWAN, ACTRESS: The trial means so much to so many, but it will mean the most to the brave women testifying, and to all of us silence breakers. I think those testifying for standing, not just for themselves, but for all of us who will never have even one day in court.



CHURCH: Weinstein was considered one of Hollywood's most powerful producers until news reports broke in October 2017 detailing numerous allegations of sexual misconduct against him. Since then, more than 80 women have come forward and accused him of abuse.

With Iran vowing to retaliate for the killing of its top commanders, U.S. lawmakers are demanding answers on whether the strike that took him out was justified. The details on the planned briefings ahead.


CHURCH: And just recapping our top story, thousands of mourners are turning out in Iran. A slain commander Qasem Soleimani is being buried in his hometown. This as Iran's Parliament declares all U.S. forces terrorists in response to the U.S. drone strike that killed.

The Trump administration is expected to brief top House and Senate members in the coming hours on the intelligence that led to the strike. Some lawmakers have questioned the justification for the strike and why Congress was not notified beforehand.

And the Pentagon rushed to clarify a leaked letter written by U.S. general that suggested U.S. troops would be withdrawing from Iraq. The U.S. defense secretary says the letter was a mistake and troops are not leaving at this time.

Well for more on all of this Sam Kiley joins us now from Abu Dhabi. And so many developments, Sam, and then at the same time, people just very worried and concerned about the possible retaliation that Iran may take and then of course, these counterattacks that President Trump says that he will take if that retaliation is acted on.

SAM KILEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Rosemary. I mean, what we have is in this sort of gray area of international conflict, both the United States and Iran trying to feel their way towards quote and unquote, "some kind of legal justification for what comes next."

So with the Iranians now actually invoking, in a sense, the U.S. doctrine of prevent -- of preemption, declaring that all United States military personnel and installations are part of a terrorist network, worldwide, would, in their minds, legally justify using the doctrine of preemption that the United States has been using for some years, attacks on U.S. military targets.

Their argument being that their senior commander was killed in a third country, while there has been a terrorist strike. Meanwhile, the United States White House has got itself locked in an internal dispute as to whether or not the commander in chief, Donald Trump, would dispatch U.S. forces to attack, among other things, cult sites of -- cultural significance in Iran if there were retaliation from Iran.

His own defense secretary saying no, the United States would not do that and it would observe international law.


Of course, as you, know Rosemary, attacks, deliberate attacks on cultural sites are a war crime, a war crime that will be seen most graphically committed on a gigantic scale by none other than the so- called Islamic state, particularly in northern Syria and northern Iraq with the mass destruction of cultural sites there.

So, you have this very strange standoff, both sides trying to kind of create a space for themselves to conduct some kind of military retaliation in what in their eyes would be a legal framework.

But I think what is significant about this, if you look at Fred Pleitgen's interview with the senior adviser to the supreme leader and the words of Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, all of them have been consistent now in saying that an Iranian retaliation will be focused on military, American military targets, only simply warning to American allies to try and stay out of the way.

But inside Iraq, of course, that presents problems because it would require the Iraqi government forces to withdraw their defense perimeter that they have around American forces inside Iraq to make room for an Iranian counterattack. A very confusing picture, but yes, as you point out there is -- the whole world is really but particularly now the U.S. military braced for some kind of counterstrike from the Iranians which the Iranians are making absolutely clear they believe is now entirely legal by their definitions.

CHURCH: Yes, indeed. Much concerned and much confusion with the whole issue, and we will continue to cover this. Many thanks to Sam Kiley bringing us that live report from Abu Dhabi.

Well, just into CNN, a British girl in Cyprus who was found guilty of making up a rape allegation has been sentenced. Her lawyer says it is a four-month jail sentence, though it is suspended for three years.

The 19-year-old had said she was raped by several Israeli teenagers at a popular resort in July, then later said she was coerced into withdrawing her complaint. Her lawyers say she will appeal to clear her name.

And Chinese officials are trying to identify a mysterious strain of pneumonia that's made dozens of people sick. They have ruled out a return of the deadly SARS virus. Fifty-nine cases have been reported in the city of Wuhan in central China. The World Health Organization says the symptoms include fever, difficulty breathing and possible lesions on both lungs.

Twenty-one people in Hong Kong returned from Wuhan with fever or respiratory symptoms. Hong Kong's government is now working to keep the illness from spreading any further. Travelers returning from Wuhan will have their temperatures taken at the airport.

And thank you so much for joining us. I'm Rosemary Church. Inside Africa is up next. But first, of course, I'll be back with a check of the headlines. You're watching CNN. Do stay with us.