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ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT
10 Rockets Hit Iraq Airbase Where U.S. Troops Are Based; Iranians Take Credit For Attack On Base Housing U.S. Troops; Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL) Discusses About Iran's Attack On Al-Assad Airbase Where U.S. Troops Are Housed; Pentagon: Iran Launched More Than A Dozen Ballistic Missiles Against U.S. Military, Targeting Two Iraqi Bases; Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) is Interviewed About Iran Firing Missiles at U.S. Forces in Iraq. Aired 7-8p ET
Aired January 7, 2020 - 19:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: We don't know the extent of casualties or damage. But this is potentially the start of Iranian retaliation. We'll see what the U.S. does next. Erin Burnett is going to pick up our special coverage.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is CNN BREAKING NEWS.
ERIN BURNETT, CNN HOST: And good evening, I'm Erin Burnett. OUTFRONT tonight the breaking news, Iran tonight taking credit for an attack on an airbase in Iraq where American troops are, tonight, they are based there and this is according to Iran. State-run press television, the Al-Assad Airbase, that is the one we are talking about. It is about 120 miles west of Baghdad hit by 10 rockets according to what we understand.
State TV in Iran saying 10s of rockets. Obviously, we are trying to get the details and the information. And according to the White House at this moment, the President has been briefed on this counterstrike. We have a team of reporters standing by from around the world. We are live in Baghdad, in Tehran, at the Pentagon and the White House.
We are going to be going to our reporters for the latest here as this news is literally developing moment by moment. So I want to start with Arwa Damon. She is OUTFRONT. She is in Baghdad. Obviously, very near this Al-Assad Airbase. And Arwa, what are you learning on the ground?
ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, at this stage, all we are really able to confirm, and this is from a Suni member of a paramilitary force that is based not too far away from Al- Assad itself is that 10 rockets did hit the base. We don't know if any casualties were caused just yet.
But given the heightened tensions that exist here, there is a lot of speculation as to whether or not this is just a warning to the U.S. who, you'll remember at this stage, has not yet said that they will be withdrawing despite the fact that the Iraqi government did pass a vote through parliament that is meant to be setting the course for the Americans and other foreign forces to leave here. This happens again a backdrop of a significantly heightened threat from any number of Iranian-backed proxies who operate on the ground in Iraq and most certainly have significant capabilities.
And also worth noting that the U.S. military here had suspended its anti ISIS operations, had suspended its training missions to be able to focus on force protection. Al-Assad Airbase is a massive sprawling complex. The largest, I believe, in Iraq that houses not only U.S. forces, but Iraqi security forces as well.
It is potentially any number of targets that Iran or its proxies in Iraq could have had in its sites. But at this stage still really trying to get more details as to exactly what was fired, where was it fired from and what sort of damage did it cause.
BURNETT: All right. Arwa, thank you very much. As I said, Arwa in Baghdad as she gets more information from on the ground. She's going to bring that to us.
I want to go now to the White House though, where Kaitlan Collins is standing by. And Kaitlan, obviously, we know the President has been briefed. What are you hearing from the White House?
KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes. He's been briefed. The White House says they're aware of these attacks. Though, Erin, they're not confirming any details about them. And essentially what Stephanie Grisham told us tonight is the President is going to continue to monitor these attacks and the updates about them with his national security team.
We know the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was here at the White House earlier, but we did see him leave earlier today. I do want to point you to a tweet you're just now getting from Speaker Pelosi's office. One of her aides, her Deputy Chief of Staff saying that she did speak with Vice President Mike Pence tonight just moments ago around 6:34 pm.
They say in this tweet and they say that the Vice President briefed the Speaker on these attacks, on these facilities that are housing U.S. troops in Iraq.
Now, Erin, we still have a lot to learn as Barbara Starr was saying from the Pentagon just a few moments ago about these attacks and what's going on. But let's also remind our viewers about that threat from the President just two days ago where he said that if Iran did retaliate for the strike, that general that was killed and if they did retaliate by attacking an American airbase, he said, and I'm quoting him now, "We will be sending some of that brand new beautiful equipment their way and without hesitation." Making a reference to recently purchased military equipment.
So the President essentially previewing what could happen if this was the type of attack that Iran was going to go with. We're still learning more, though, and we'll keep you updated on what the President is doing and what he has to say about these attacks.
BURNETT: All right. Thank you very much, Kaitlan. And as the White House has been silent thus far, we are hearing more from Iranian state television and from the international Revolutionary Guard Corps itself, which is taking credit for this strike.
Fred Pleitgen is in Tehran at this moment, able to monitor that and monitor those signals that you're seeing. Fred, what are they saying?
FRED PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, they're obviously saying that the Revolutionary Guard Corps is the ones who are behind this attack on this airbase. They say 10s of rockets and missiles have been fired at that base.
In fact, on the Fars News network, which is one of the state-run news agencies here in Iran. There is some video purporting to show one of those missiles hitting the base. They are saying that that was a ballistic missile hitting the Al-Assad Airbase. I'm just seeing this. We're obviously not able to independently verify that, but that obviously, Erin, would be an absolutely significant turn of events.
Because one of the things that we've seen so far with these attacks on American bases inside of Iraq, some of them by pro Iranian proxy forces is that they've often used lower tech shorter range rockets. If this was indeed a ballistic missile, a short range or even a medium or longer range ballistic missile, then it would be the Revolutionary Guard Corps. Not just showing that it's lashing back out at the U.S. or taking revenge at the U.S. as they put it for the killing of Qasem Soleimani, but then also showcasing some of their military capabilities, essentially saying they don't just have proxy forces that can wage low scale warfare, but they also also can use some more conventional weapons like these ballistic missiles.
Of course, the Ballistic Missile Program has been a huge concern, not just for the Trump administration, but of many administrations before that and indeed of the international community. But I want to say a key thing that I've been hearing from senior Iranian commanders here over the past couple of days, they've told me they were obviously absolutely enraged by the killing of Qasem Soleimani.
They said unequivocally there would be a military reaction, a military retaliation. They said that military retaliation would be against military targets. So this certainly does seem to fit that bill.
Now, the Iranians are saying or have been saying, through various channels, that they don't want this to escalate into a wider conflict. They don't want this to turn into a war. They said they want to retaliate and they want it to end there. But it's not clear how long that retaliation is going to last and how big that retaliation is going to be.
The head of the Revolutionary Guard Corps came out and said, Erin, that there would be a strategic retaliation, that that strategic retaliation would happen over a wide geography. So that seems to indicate that this could just be the beginning and not be the end and that it would happen over a longer period of time, Erin.
BURNETT: All right. Thank you very much, Fred. We're going to be going back to Fred throughout the hour, obviously. He is hearing from people on the ground. There are commanders on the ground in Tehran and also able to monitor what they are seeing and obviously their television network is now broadcasting what they say is the actual strike itself of what they claim are ballistic missiles.
I want to go now to Democratic Senator Doug Jones here as our reporters continue to scramble this information together. He sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Senator, I appreciate your time tonight. This is not what we expected to be talking about. I'm sorry that it is, but nonetheless, here we are.
We understand at least 10 rockets have hit that American airbase. U.S. forces are there. We don't yet know anything about the scale of the damage or any possible casualties. We do know Iran is taking credit for direct personal credit. What is your initial reaction?
SEN. DOUG JONES (D-AL): Well, I think we have to see what's going on. I think one of the things that we have to make sure we do is we've got a briefing set tomorrow and I'm hoping to get more information. Right now, we're picking up the same information as senators that you are in the media.
And what we know is that the President and the administration with the killing of Soleimani put Americans at risk and what I want to know is what are we doing now. We can go back and we can revisit what happened, why was there an imminent threat. But I'm really - obviously more important, I've got Alabama men and women who are going to be going over there.
JONES: I want to know if they're going to be at risk and we need to have a briefing, a full complete briefing on what's going on and what they expect in the near future.
BURNETT: I mean, look, you have here - the Iranians were clear, when I spoke to the Iranian ambassador to the UN, they were going to strike. It was a time of their choosing and here they are. Do you believe that this is their response? You heard Fred Pleitgen say they had indicated it would be at military targets. That is what this is, but do you see this as a precursor to a real attack or as the attack?
JONES: I think it's a little early to tell right now, Erin. I mean, what I was listening to before you came to me was that these may be ballistic missile attacks. If that's the case, this is a really serious matter. That ups the game considerably rather than just a rocket attacks from proxy groups that may be in the area.
I think it's really early to tell right now whether or not this is a precursor, whether we're about to engage in something more significant or whether this is going to die down tonight and something else will happen. What we know is we got folks at risk and that's what I'm sure the administration is looking at now.
BURNETT: Right. And we are waiting to see, I mean, when you say ballistic missiles would change the game completely, in what sense? Does that in your mind justify a different sort of response by the United States?
JONES: It's possible when it very well could. I'm not sure about that yet, but certainly ballistic missiles are coming from Iran. We know they have that capabilities.
There are so many proxy groups over there. You can never tell whether or not this is in fact something that they're doing along with the Iranian guard group or this is just something that is coming directly from the top.
I think this is so early right now, but the main thing that I think that we've got to make sure is our troops on the ground should have been prepared for this. They should have expected something. I know they've been looking for something.
BURNETT: Yes, sir.
JONES: We'll see where we are.
BURNETT: Senator, please stay with me. I'm sorry to interrupt you, but we do have some more breaking news.
BURNETT: Barbara Starr joins me live from the Pentagon with some new details. She's learning about this strike. Barbara.
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Erin, we have just gotten this, received this statement from the Pentagon and I'm going to go ahead and read it to everybody and then explain some of what they're talking about here.
The Pentagon says that at 5:30 Eastern Time today Iran, and I'm quoting from this statement, "Iran launched more than a dozen ballistic missiles against U.S. military and coalition forces in Iraq. It is clear that these missiles were launched from Iran and targeted at least two Iraqi military bases hosting U.S. military and coalition personnel at Al-Assad and Irbil." So let's go back a minute.
This statement tells us that ballistic missiles were launched against American forces and Iraqis, but against American forces from launch point inside Iran. This means a significant uptick in what the Iranians have been doing. They have been supporting a number of so called militia groups that have fired, pardon me, rockets and artillery that is relatively small.
These are likely short to medium range ballistic missiles, we'll have to find out. The only way the Pentagon would really know that these are ballistic missiles at this point would be because they have the electronic intelligence. They have the telemetry, the radar tracks. There are a number of systems inside Iran - pardon me, inside Iraq that would be able to track these incoming ballistic missiles.
So, I mean, going back, this now it is hard to see how President Trump would not respond to this. There are no reports yet of - I'm just going on, we have no specific information yet on any casualties killed or wounded. It doesn't mean it hasn't happened, but they say in this statement that they're working on the assessment of any battle damage.
But the really significant point here is that Iran - from inside Iran, more than a dozen ballistic missiles were launched against the U.S. military and coalition. This is something that they had worried about for several days. We reported and we know that U.S. and military intelligence had information that Iran had been moving short, medium range ballistic missiles around inside that country.
What they were looking watching for was any indication that those missiles have been fueled up, and were ready to go onto launchers and were ready to be fired. So we will have to learn what intelligence the U.S. may have had. Just prior to launch, we'll have to learn whether they were able to use any patriot missiles or any defense systems at sea to try and shoot down any of these ballistic missiles.
An awful lot to learn here tonight, but the basic construct is ballistic missiles fired by Iran knowingly, obviously, against U.S. forces. This has not happened in recent years. I mean, in fact, we'll have to get to the last time ballistic missiles were fired against U.S. forces in the Middle East, Erin.
BURNETT: I mean, Barbara, I think you're laying out here, I know Senator Jones was referring to this, but this is a game changer in terms of the way that they're doing this, that they're launching them from Iran, not directed by Iran, not because of Iran, not by a proxy but launched there that they were able to have. I mean, we knew they have a deep stockpile, but that they were able to do this and put their imprimatur on it proudly that this changes the symmetry here, right, this isn't - go ahead.
STARR: It does. It really does. Ballistic missiles or how to describe, I mean, there are essentially, if they work, if they hit a target, they can be weapons of significant destruction, significant human destruction. We saw this decades ago in the first Gulf War, Saddam Hussein. Remember he was firing Scud missiles, which were essentially very first generation ballistic missiles, but they were not very accurate, thankfully.
When ballistic missiles are accurate, when they are guided to a target, they can be absolutely devastating. Iran has a huge ballistic missile inventory.
If the United States is going to try and target Iran's entire ballistic missile inventory and go after it, I think it's safe to say they're well beyond the hundreds in both short and medium range ballistic missiles. And that's an interesting question. We're going to have to see where the launch points really were, how far away Al- Assad and Irbil were, that's going to tell us a lot about what has happened here.
But I also want to mention, it is very well understood that Iran is working even beyond short and medium, working on long range missiles that could hit Europe.
BURNETT: All right. Barbara, thank you very much. As she gets more information, we're going to go back to Barbara.
Senator Jones, I know you were listening to her report there, but obviously now confirmed from the Pentagon more than a dozen ballistic missiles launched from inside Iran, targeting not one but two U.S. air bases. Al Assad and also Irbil more towards the north.
You had indicated ballistic missiles for you really, this could be a game changer. Now, you have heard it confirmed, your reaction?
JONES: Well, I think it is significant. I think it is potentially a game changer. What I think the President and the administration need to do, they need to follow through with their promise tomorrow to come brief the members of Congress. That's the one thing that's been missing here is that a full briefing of the members of Congress and the United States Senate I think is necessary.
Before we take any further military action, I hope the President will come to the Senate, will come to the House, talk about that, get an authorization for the use of that before anything further is done and this gets even greater and deeper into war than what it appears that we may be headed to now. I think that that is really important that we get a full briefing and get some kind of authorization, if he can get that, and see what it is that we can expect.
I think that's an important question, Erin. What is the endgame here? What is the outcome that they're looking for here with regard to Iran? We have not heard that from this administration as of yet.
BURNETT: No, we have not. We have not and I appreciate your time, Senator. Thank you very much for being with me tonight. Our breaking news coverage continues here as we are getting more information now confirming these were more than a dozen ballistic missiles launched from Iran targeting U.S. targets in Iraq.
The President of the United States earlier today before this news had promised to attack Iran. In fact, he had said perhaps in a disproportionate manner in a tweet on January 5th, so what will he do now?
BURNETT: All right. We are following the breaking news tonight, Iran launching more than a dozen ballistic missiles, targeting two air bases in Iraq where American troops are stationed tonight. We do not yet know anything about casualties.
This attack though is a game changer. According to the military, the Pentagon has just confirmed that these rockets were fired from Iran. They were ballistic missiles. There were more than a dozen of them, two bases targeted. Fred Pleitgen in his OUTFRONT live in Tehran. I want to go back to
you, Fred. We have just obviously heard from the Pentagon about these ballistic missiles. What more are you learning now?
PLEITGEN: Well, the Iranians also coming up with more information as well. It's quite interesting because when Tasnim News network, which is one of the news networks here, they are saying the second wave of rockets barrage has started against American bases. Now, whether or not that includes the bases that we were just talking about those two that have already been struck or whether or not there's other barrages that are still being fired by the Iranians at this point is very much unclear.
But they are saying and this comes from a statement that the IRGC, the Revolutionary Guard Corps put out, the statement is entitled this is the beginning of and I'm paraphrasing here, of hard revenge. And that was something that the Iranians were saying that they wanted after the killing of Qasem Soleimani.
A hard revenge. A strong revenge. A strong strikes. It's what we've heard from protesters also, as we were at the funeral procession for Qasem Soleimani as well. And, of course, highly significant that you have these ballistic missiles that are being used. They are the weapon in the arsenal of the Revolutionary Guard specifically, that they say are the most sophisticated.
They've spent a lot of time, a lot of energy sophisticating these weapons and so therefore, obviously, this is something where they are not only saying that they're able to strike the U.S. and Iran, but - in Iraq, sorry, but they're able to do so with conventional weapons and not just using proxy forces.
Also interesting, another thing that we're learning as well, a senior Iranian official has come out and tweeted, his name is Saeed Jalili, he's an advisor to the supreme leader. He came out and he tweeted an image of the Iranian flag, which seems to indicate that he's maybe mocking President Trump or taking reference to President Trump obviously, tweeting out the American flag after Qasem Soleimani was killed by that U.S. strike in Baghdad, Erin.
BURNETT: All right. Fred, thank you very much. We're going to go back to Fred in just a few minutes, obviously, as he's getting new information. Colonel Cedric Leighton is with us tonight, our Military Analyst Colonel Peter Mansoor, former aide to General David Petraeus during the Iraq War, Pamela Brown, our Senior White House Correspondent and Jim Sciutto, National Security Correspondent.
Colonel Leighton, what's your response here to what Fred is just reporting now that one of the Iranian news agencies is reporting now the beginning of a second wave and that this is, quote, the beginning of hard revenge.
COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON, U.S. AIR FORCE (RET.): Well, clearly, Erin, this is an escalation and if the Iranian reports are true that Fred mentioned, then what they're doing is they're not only going with one wave of an attack, but at least two waves. Whether or not they'll be subsequent waves of missile attacks, that, of course, is an open question at the present time. But they seem to be asking for a U.S. response to what they're doing.
There's no way that the United States can let this kind of an attack go unanswered and I'm afraid we're approaching a point of escalation at the moment.
BURNETT: Colonel Mansoor, how significant of a moment is this?
COL. PETER MANSOOR (RET.), FORMER AIDE TO GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: Well, it's very significant. The last time Iran launched missiles at Iraq was during the 1980 to 1988 Iran-Iraq war. These missiles are potent. They could potentially kill Americans, but they can also kill the Iraqis that are stationed on those bases, so they're in danger as well.
And my guess is these strikes are just the first of a number to come in the days ahead. I would be amazed if they're going to limit it to a couple of waves on two airbases, so more to follow.
And like Colonel Leighton said, this will spark retaliation by the Trump administration and potentially into Iran proper, so that you'll have U.S. weapons landing on Iranian soil and that also is an enormous escalation.
BURNETT: I mean, that Jim Sciutto is war.
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR AND CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it is.
BURNETT: And so you have the President of the United States today saying that he would attack if he need to for retribution. That was before this happened. You have this tweet from a couple of days ago when he said if Iran should strike any U.S. person or target the United States, we'll quickly and fully strike back and perhaps in a disproportionate manner.
SCIUTTO: Yes. A couple of things of significance, the idea that these were missiles not rockets, because missiles carry a lot of a payload, a potential for destruction, but also loss of life is enormous here. And the fact that it came from Iranian territory, according to the Pentagon statement, also significant because to this point, Iran has hidden behind proxies, largely the attacks on the tankers, the attack on the Saudi oil facility, the attack on the U.S. Embassy.
This would come directly from Iran. It would mean that Iran and you see that even with tweeting out a picture of the Iranian flag, is not shy about saying this is coming from us, right?
SCIUTTO: We're not going to hide it behind anything. And that, of course, then forces America's hand in terms of how it responds to echo what Colonel Mansoor said likely on Iranian soil. I mean, the President has tweeted that he has targets in Iran.
BURNETT: Fifty-two target, he said. Yes.
SCIUTTO: As a possibility. And as that would take place, you have to imagine that this becomes a serious military operation. Of course, the U.S. has the option of launching missiles as well, but it also has the option of attacks from the air. That would require taking out surface to air missile positions in Iran. Those are staffed by Iranian soldiers.
Remember, when Trump pulled back from responding to the shoot down of the U.S. drone, the target at the time included positions in Iran where he pulled back because he was concerned about the loss of Iranian life. If you are launching an operation like that, that is a risk to Iranian soldiers and that Iran response to that. Anyway, you see very quickly the cycle of retaliation.
BURNETT: Well, you end up in a point of no return. I want to go to Alex Marquardt in Washington with some breaking news here about Secretary of Defense. What are you learning, Alex?
ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Erin, in the past half hour, as we're just getting these reports and these claims of responsibility, I should say, from the IRGC, we know that the Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper's office did reach out to the Iraq authorities specifically to the Prime Minister's office in Baghdad.
Now, of course, it is the middle of the night. I understand there were some difficulties getting through according to a diplomatic source. But at this point, in the wake of this attack, there has been communication at the highest levels between the U.S. and Iraqi governments.
Now, of course, I imagine each side is going to be both asking questions and telling the other side what they intend to do. This entire episode between the U.S. and Iran has put Iraq in an extremely difficult position. They depend on both each country as a patron of Iraq's and now they find themselves essentially at ground zero for what could be a massive conflagration between the two sides. That is not where they want to be.
If you think about what's happened in the past few months, they've recently just kicked ISIS out of their country. And so now they find themselves essentially in the middle of these two sides with Iraq - with Iran and the U.S. using Iraq essentially as a staging ground for what could really turn out to be a major escalation of violence, Erin.
BURNETT: All right. Alex, thank you. We have more news coming in from Baghdad. We're going to go there in just a moment as our breaking news coverage continues. We are also just learning that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the Defense Secretary Mark Esper have just arrived at the White House, presumably to meet with President of the United States. We'll be right back.
ERIN BURNETT, CNN HOST: Breaking news, Iran retaliating just moments ago here. According to the Pentagon, they have confirmed Iran launched more than a dozen ballistic missiles targeting two bases in Iraq where American troops are stationed, Al-Asad airbase and Erbil. According to the military, these ballistic missiles were fired from Iran sovereign territory.
This is the video showing the missiles coming in to the Al-Asad airbase in Iraq. Now, we're not able to independently confirm that's what this video is. Nonetheless, this is what they're broadcasting and they're saying that is exactly what you are watching.
We are now learning that the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Defense Secretary Mark Esper have just arrived at the White House. The president now meeting with his national security team.
Kaitlan Collins is OUTFRONT at the White House.
Kaitlan, the huge question here is, the president who earlier today said he would attack Iran in retribution if they struck back and earlier said in a tweet he could strike in perhaps a disproportionate matter is now facing an attack from Iran which is a game changer in and of itself, with ballistic missiles targeting U.S. troops.
Any understanding here on what they're talking about in terms of response?
KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Erin, we know the president almost specifically previewed this happening saying if Iran did strike an air base that had American troops at it, that the United States would respond. And, of course, you're right. The question is going to be how are they going to respond?
A little under an hour ago, the White House is consulting with the national security team, constantly being briefed and updated on these attacks. We now know that's happening in person, because it's not just the Defense Secretary Esper here arriving, as you saw him carrying that big bag with him.
The Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was also seen arriving a few moments before. He was seen in the backseat of his car pulling up. That's right outside the West Wing. Pompeo was seen reading some materials.
And then you can see the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley, following all of them.
So, all the top national security aids are inside the West Wing with the president as they're going over this. And we're waiting to see how it is they're going to respond.
Now, the president is familiar with one of these air bases because he visited it in 2018 and the Vice President Mike Pence who also was on the phone with Democrats on Capitol Hill was there a few months ago in November when he visited the troops at Thanksgiving. [19:35:09]
So, we're still waiting to see what it is that -- how the president is going to respond but he's been foreshadowing how he would respond and, like you said, maybe in a matter that was not proportionate to their attack.
BURNETT: All right. Thank you very much, Kaitlan Collins.
I want to go live to Baghdad now. Arwa Damon is OUTFRONT there.
Arwa, what are you learning now? We know, of course, secretary of defense has been in touch with the Iraqi prime minister in Baghdad. What are you hearing?
ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, we're just beginning to get a little bit of information as to what may have happened. This is from an Iraqi security source who is telling us that there are casualties at the Al-Asad Airbase. He does not know at this stage how many, whether it is killed or wounded, but we are hearing that they are on the Iraqi side.
This base, like many of the bases in Iraq that houses U.S. forces also houses Iraqi forces. Al-Asad itself is a massive, huge, sprawling complex that does have a U.S. and an Iraqi side. So, at this stage we are hearing reports about casualties on the Iraqi side.
And in this kind of warfare that has been unfolding so far, whether it's when the Iranian proxies here end up firing at U.S. locations or the other types of attacks that do take place, often times, Iraqi security forces, because they are co-located do end up also suffering casualties on their side as well.
Given the dynamics that have been unfolding here, Erin, what we don't know is if this is the start of something bigger like Iran and its proxies in Iraq have been promising, or if this is some sort of message to the U.S. because right now, the Iranian-backed proxies here have really begun upping their rhetoric when it comes to their desire to see American forces out of Iraq. This is not just about revenge for what took place. This is about seeing, at least for them, American forces leaving.
BURNETT: All right. Arwa Damon, thank you very much. We're going to go back to Arwa as she gets more. Of course, there are 5,000 American troops stationed around Iraq at this moment.
I want to go now to Democratic Congressman Eliot Engel of New York. He's chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Chairman, is this now war?
REP. ELIOT ENGEL (D-NY): Well, it could very well be, and the president and his crew better figure out a way to sort of tone down everything because we could be in the middle of a full-fledged war, and I don't think that's something anybody wants. There's no doubt that America would win any kind of war, but the casualties would be horrific.
And I don't think the American people are ready for it. I know Congress is not ready for it. And, you know, you had to expect that there would be some retaliation such as this.
I don't like the regime in Tehran, but I don't think we want to go to war with them.
BURNETT: So, the president earlier today said he would attack. That's his word, he would attack, in retribution if Iran were to strike any sort of an airbase or anything like that. And he also, as I mentioned a few days ago, said that he would engage in a disproportionate response if he felt like it and it didn't matter what Congress said, that he could do that.
Do you believe that Secretary Esper, Secretary Pompeo are going to be able to talk to him tonight and get him to not do something like that?
ENGEL: Well, I would hope so. You know, talk is cheap and bluster is cheap. And we can, you know, all be the toughest guy on the block and dare someone to knock our head off, but that's really irresponsible.
I think what we have to do now is tone down the rhetoric on all sides and try to see how we can sort of extricate ourselves fro this nightmare because I don't think the American people want to go to war. And the irony is we talk about the Iran and Iraq, you know, the United States is really, in my view, is really responsible for making Iran the hegemonic power in the region because by knocking off Saddam Hussein in Iraq -- and you remember Iraq and Iran kept having these wars fighting each other.
So, what we did was drove Iraq closer to Iran and made Iraq -- made Iran the hegemonic power in the region which is not what we wanted to do.
So, I hope the president and his aides are thinking this one through very carefully.
I don't believe there's any good ending if we're in a full fledged war.
BURNETT: What should the president do? I mean, whatever you are -- whatever your feelings about how we got to this point, you now have a dozen ballistic missiles fired where U.S. troops are stations. Unclear if there are casualties, unclear if Iran intended for there not to be American casualties. We just don't know.
But we do know that this is a game changer, right? They launched them from inside Iran. They're a sovereign territory. They launched at American interests. Doesn't the president have to do something?
BURNETT: Well, the president has to do something, but he doesn't need to exacerbate the situation and make it tit for tat and before you know it we're in a full fledged war. Look, you can't be belligerent and then when it doesn't work the way you had hoped turn around and just walk away. There are consequences here.
One of the things that I've had difficulty with this administration is that we don't seem to be utilizing any of our allies. We don't seem to care about any of the groups we belong to like NATO. The president seems to trash them. And we could be using the help of some of our NATO allies right now. And hopefully the president -- calmer heads will prevail and the president will do something like that.
ENGEL: But, you know, again, they're not sweethearts in the government in Tehran. But on the other hand, do we really want a full fledged war? I think the answer is no.
BURNETT: All right. Thank you very much, Chairman Engel. I appreciate your time tonight.
The panel is back with me tonight. Also on the phone, Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, who was the commander of U.S. Task Force in Northern Iraq.
General, what's your reaction here as this news is coming in, ballistic missiles from Iran? They're threatening a second wave, unclear what that means, targeting two U.S. bases.
LT. GENERAL MARK HERTLING (RET), CNN MILITARY ANALYST (via telephone): Yes, couple things Erin. I'll start by saying -- preface everything I said by the fact it's very easy to fall into a war and to start a war. It's a whole lot more difficult to extricate yourself from it.
What we're seeing now is how big the strategic game by Iran. These are ballistics missiles as some of your previous folks have already said. This is very different than launching a couple of rockets at a military base which Iran proxies have done in the past. This is a cross-border operation with a large ballistic missile, missiles that Iran has a lot of that they've not only made themselves but they've also purchased from Russia.
Second thing, they are sending very specific messages. As I see it, this attack started about the same time of day that Soleimani was hit by a drone strike. So, there is even a message in that. The fact that you have some members of the Iranian government tweeting out Iranian flag is trolling at the strategic level to our president.
And then third I think one of the big things is that Iraq is now right smack in the middle of this and they are strategically driving more of a wedge between the United States and Iraq in terms of striking a target on Iraqi soil. It's their very first attempt to counter the U.S. forces.
So, that's sending a message to not only us but to Iraq. If they are going to allow the U.S. to strike forces from off their soil, then be prepared to have more trauma within the government of Iraq. And this is one of the things that their president has said specifically that he didn't want to see Iraq go back into a cycle of violence. Unfortunately, because of what we now see as potential for a huge proxy war between Iran and Iraq -- I'm sorry, Iran and the United States, Iraq is going to be pulled into it.
And then you have just the fact that you just reported the majority of the casualties seem to be on the Iraqi side. That's going to further inflame not only the Iraqi government but the Iraqi people.
BURNETT: Yes, which I think is a crucial point. And again, that's very preliminary. It's one Iraqi source. We don't know anything on the American side.
BURNETT: Pam, what are you hearing about the president's response, what Secretaries Esper and Pompeo are saying to him right now?
PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, this is a critical decision-making point for the president, the biggest decision essentially he'll probably have to make in his presidency beyond the strike against Soleimani.
And there's a lot to discuss here. Of course they're looking at retaliatory options. It wasn't long ago, you keep pointing out, Erin, that it was the president who tweeted if Iran strikes American interests or personnel, Iran itself will be hit very fast and very hard, saying we're the biggest and by far the best in the world, and we will be sending some of the brand new and beautiful equipment.
So, the president essentially drew a red line for himself and now we're seeing this play out. Iran is retaliating after the strike, and now the ball is in the president's court in terms of how he's going to respond. This is a president who has said many times he doesn't want to go to war with Iran.
He campaigned on this idea of getting out of foreign entanglements and now he's in this position of where he said he's going to respond.
It's also worth noting, Erin, that some of the intelligence that led to the strike against Soleimani, I'm told by a source, was concern about an imminent attack on the Al-Asad Airbase. And so, to General Hertling's point, it does also appear that Iran is trying to send a signal that you may have taken off one of our key players, our military players, but we are still capable of causing great harm, Erin.
BURNETT: All right. All of you stay with me. I'm breaking news continues.
We are getting more information here about casualties. Our reporters are working on that. As soon as we are able to get that to you, we will.
We are also learning Vice President Mike Pence just briefed congressional leaders. We're going to give you what we learn from that. We're going to take a brief break and come back with everything as we gather it. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)
BURNETT: All right. We are following the breaking news. More than a dozen missiles launched from Iran, from Iran's territorial territory, hitting two major bases in Iraq where American troops are based.
And we now just have video. This, we believe, shows the moment some of the missiles hit the Al-Asad Airbase.
This is cell phone video from someone who is there. We can't independently confirm it, but this is what we understand it is. I want to play it for you.
(VIDEO CLIP PLAYS)
BURNETT: And you could see more of them coming in, as we said, more than a dozen.
Jim Sciutto is here with me.
Obviously, you heard the explosion and you see the lights and more explosions.
Arwa's talked about the massive size of this base.
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Yes.
BURNETT: Those are obviously cell phone video from the Iraqi side.
SCIUTTO: In the simplest terms, these were big missiles, right? The sound and the explosion. And this is, as we were saying earlier, the fact that they were missiles and not rockets, according to the Pentagon, that's a more significant way to attack, with greater damage and greater danger to life.
And the fact that the U.S. says that they came from Iran means that Iran is not reluctant to make clear that this is coming from them. They're not hiding behind proxies, as they have with previous attacks. And as we are now reporting, there are casualties, we believe, confined to Iraqi forces there. So this is the use of potentially deadly force. All of those things qualify this as a significant response on the part of the Iraqis to the killing of Soleimani.
The open questions now, one, will there be other waves of attacks like this? Two, also, crucially, what are the U.S. casualties here? We don't know.
BURNETT: Right, and they had, one Iranian state TV saying a second wave was beginning and there are hard revenge. We don't know what that meant, whether that referred to what we've already seen or what we perhaps have not yet seen. We just don't know.
SCIUTTO: I can assure you, those bases are bracing themselves for exactly that. BURNETT: Colonel Mansoor, let me ask you, because we don't yet know the casualty situation. We do, though, know that we understand that there are casualties on the Iraqi side. We don't know anything about the American side of the base at this point. However, when you look at what this is, sophisticated ballistic missiles launched from Iran proper at a base.
If they wanted to strike specific American troops, would they have done so?
COL. PETER MANSOOR (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: They have the capability to target specific parts of the base. I believe their ballistic missiles have the guidance systems to do that. So -- and we'll know more tomorrow when people wake up and can assess the damage, what exactly was targeted.
But to my knowledge, the Iranian missiles are guided. They're not simply like the old Scud missiles that you fire and forget and hope for the best.
BURNETT: All right. Let me go to Kaitlan Collins at the White House right now.
Kaitlan, you have a development from the president?
COLLINS: Yes, that's right, Erin. The president is meeting with his national security advisers that you just saw at the White House. We are now being told that urgent preparations are being made for the president to potentially address the nation on these attacks tonight.
Now, there is still a lot being learned, information is being gathered, as you see there. The defense secretary and secretary of state are meeting with the president right now, but two officials tell my colleague, Jeff Zeleny, that right now, they are preparing for the president to address the nation tonight from the Oval Office. Now, we've got to express a lot of caution here, because sometimes these things can be delayed, as they are gathering more information about these attacks. But right now, we are expecting to hear from the president tonight, based on these current plans of which my colleague, Jeff Zeleny, is reporting.
Now, this would be notable, because last week when that strike happened, we did not hear from the president beyond a tweet of the American flag, until the next day when they rushed reporters in at the last minute and he talked about that strike that killed that top Iranian commander. But now, it does sound like based on what we're hearing, we may hear from the president in the Oval Office tonight, which would be significant. I think it would be the second time we've ever heard from the president address the nation in prime-time from the Oval Office.
BURNETT: General Hertling, as we prepare for this possibility and a very significant moment and night for this country, I want to put this question to you, because it may end up being important. We don't know anything about U.S. casualties, and that, obviously, is going to be hugely significant. If there were none, though, was that intentional, by Iran, to not have
there be American casualties? To provide an off-ramp?
HERTLING: No, I don't think we can read into that, Erin. I agree with what Pete Mansoor said, that while the Iranian missiles are a little bit better than the Scuds, they don't have the precision-type of capability that many of our missiles have. They will hit a general area and I think that there was -- the requirement or the desire to cause casualties, to strike a target.
And if it turns out that there were moment Iraqis than Americans that were either injured or killed by this strike, I don't think that was intentional.
It was not a target -- in my view, initial assessment, I'm sure others will be able to determine this. But it was probably not an intentional approach to strike Iraqi versus U.S. targets.
BURNETT: Which is a significant -- look, it's a significant statement.
All right. I want to go to Fred Pleitgen back in Iran right now.
Fred, obviously, we're reporting that President Trump may be about to address the nation with a message that will, of course, be seen in Tehran. What are you hearing there?
FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, we've gotten the full statement by the IRGC. Now, we've heard, of course, Erin, before, on state TV here, you had banners sort of outlining part of the message from the Revolutionary Guard Corps, which have said they are behind these ballistic missiles that have been fired at these U.S. bases.
Again, they -- in the title of the statement, say they pledge hard revenge, as they call it, for Qasem Soleimani's death. And it's been so interesting, Erin, over the past couple of days as we've been at the funeral procession for Qasem Soleimani, there were so many people there that had placards that simply had two words on them, hard revenge or harsh revenge.
So, this seems to be something that seems to have been building up that the Iranian power center has been building to almost label this operation, this revenge operation, as they call it, and just call it hard revenge.
Now, there's points that the Revolutionary Guard makes there. They say to the great Satan, obviously referencing the United States, saying that the slaughters the American regime is warned not to repeat its wickedness. Essentially, what the Iranians are saying there, Erin, and I think this is something that's key, because the senior adviser to the supreme leader told me the same thing as well, they are saying that this is their retaliation and they want it to end there. They don't want America to strike back and they said -- and they're essentially saying that they don't want this to turn into a larger war.
That doesn't necessarily mean that this is going to be the only retaliation or this is going to be the only strikes that we're going to see, but the Iranians are essentially warning President Trump and the U.S. not to continue and escalate the situation any further. They're warning any governments in the region not to provide the U.S. with any capabilities to launch attacks at Iran, saying any governments that do so will also become targets for Iran as well. They then threatened Israel, saying they don't consider what they call a Zionist regime to be separate from America.
And then and finally, this is quite interesting, they urge the American people to call on American troops from the region to prevent further casualties and not allow essentially the Trump administration to endanger their lives. Obviously, essentially, telling American forces in that region not to follow President Trump's orders, if those are to attack Iran.
So you can see, they seem to have put this statement out or they seem to have drafted a statement, at least, well in advance. This does appear more and more, Erin, like a very, very concerted and orchestrated retaliation by the Iranians.
BURNETT: Extremely so.
General Hertling, though, you heard what Fred is saying. They're seeming to indicate that they don't want this to go further. But there's no way the United States -- go ahead. Sorry.
HERTLING: Yes, I agree completely with that. And the other thing that I would point out is if this was a commanded strike, in other words, if the government of Iran actually said, execute this strategy, and it certainly appears that it does, this being the first wave is something that I think the American military is feared in terms of our dealings with Iran. Because, first of all, if it's a strike from the government of Iran, again, bringing the Iraqi government into this and having a proxy war on Iraqi territory, that's one dynamic that we can ill afford to approach.
The other thing is, there are literally hundreds of proxy forces, not with ballistic missiles, but just rockets. That could fire on U.S. forces throughout the Middle East. And we're not just talking about Iraq, but in places like Yemen, in Syria, in Somalia, and we could -- the list could go on and on, to include potentially Lebanon, Jordan, and even Israel.
BURNETT: So, Jim, we'll see what the president says tonight, but I think that it is important to emphasize to people watching how important two other people are tonight, Mike Pompeo and Mark Esper.
BURNETT: They are in that room with him, right now.
SCIUTTO: And keep in mind, as well, that Mike Pompeo, to our knowledge, has been pushing for a forceful response to Iran for some months prior to this and was apparently behind the Soleimani killing for some time.
SCIUTTO: So his posture, you might say, is more forward leaning. But again, both sides have opportunities to calibrate their responses here. It's possible Iran calibrated theirs tonight. How does the U.S. respond? That's the key question.
BURNETT: And those are the crucial questions here at this moment. Every second counting, as we are learning more and still have so many questions.
We do not yet know details about any American casualties. We do know, however, there were casualties on the Iraqi side, unclear whether they are killed or wounded.
A huge night unfolding. Our coverage continues now with Anderson Cooper.