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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

U.S. Diplomat in China for Talks Amid Soaring Tensions; U.S. General: Airstrikes Backing Afghan Forces to Continue; Biden to Meet with Iraqi Prime Minister at the White House; Tunisian President Sacks Prime Minister, Freezes Parliament; Massive Sandstorm Engulfs City in Northwest China; Tropical Storm Nepartak Threatens Japan; Memorial Concert Honors Surfside Victims. Aired 4:30-5a ET.

Aired July 26, 2021 - 04:30   ET



ISA SOARES, CNN ANCHOR: Now a top Chinese diplomat is blaming the U.S. for the country's strained relationship. The pointed rhetoric comes of course as America's number two diplomat, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman is in China for a two-day visit.

For more on this let's turn to CNN's Kristie Lu Stout who joins us from Hong Kong. And Kristi, for this second top-level meeting between the two countries since President Joe Biden took office, what are the expectations here?

KRISTIE LU STOUT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, the expectations are frankly pretty low, but the stakes are high. This high-level meeting taking place right now between the U.S. and China in Tianjin. Ahead of this meeting, U.S. officials said that Wendy Sherman, the Deputy U.S. Secretary of State would be seeking guardrails from China in order to better manage competition with China and also to avoid conflicts.

But instead, she's been getting an earful from Chinese officials including the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who in the days leading up to today's meeting has been speaking through Chinese state- run media emphasizing that no country is superior to others. She's also been getting an earful from his deputy, Xie Feng, the Vice Foreign Minister of China, who this day from Tianjin has been issuing a series of strongly worded statements rebuking the United States, including this one. Let's bring it up for you.

In the statement he's basically blaming the U.S. for the current stalemate in the relationship, saying quote, the China/U.S. relationship is now in a stalemate and faces serious difficulties. Fundamentally, it is because some Americans portray China as an imagined enemy. He goes on to say, we urge the United States to change its highly misguided mind set and dangerous policy, unquote.

The meeting today in Tianjin, it comes in the backdrop of deepening tensions between the U.S. and China, especially after that last first top-level meeting between the U.S. and China under the Biden administration. That happened in Alaska in March that erupted in that very public confrontation.

Since then both sides have been trading near constant diplomatic barbs, as well as tit for tat sanctions. You know, most recently the U.S. launching sanctions against the Chinese officials here in Hong Kong. And in response, China slapping sanctions on American entities and officials last Friday incoming the former U.S. Commerce Secretary.

Given the current climate, a number of political analysts we've been talking to have been saying that it is not likely that any significant outcomes will come out of today's meeting in Tianjin. Listen to Willy Lam.


WILLY LAM, ADJUNCT PROFESSOR, CHINESE UNIVERSITY OF HONG KONG: Given the fact that both sides have so many things, not incumbent, including the position of sanctions, accusations of hacking, geopolitical contention in South China Sea, Taiwan, Xinyang, and Hong Kong.


STOUT (on camera): But if talks today in Tianjin do go well, they could set the stage for potential Biden/Xi summit that can possibly take place on the sidelines of the G-20 in Italy in October -- Isa.

SOARES: Thanks very much, Kristie Lu Stout for us in Hong Kong.

Now a top U.S. general is vowing that American forces will continue air strikes in Afghanistan to back Afghan forces battling that Taliban. That assurance coming about one month until nearly all U.S. forces are expected to be out of the country.


GEN, KENNETH MCKENZIE, COMMANDER, U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND: I believe that the singular advantage the government of Afghanistan has right now in the fight they're in is their air force. So, we will do everything in our power to keep that air force effective, flying, and in support of their forces. We spent a lot of time training them. Now is their moment. Now is the time for that very stern test that I noted earlier, they're going to face. I think they have the resources and the capability to actually conduct that fight and win it.


SOARES: U.S. President Joe Biden will meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi at the White House today. The summit will focus on economic developments, security, and mission changes for U.S. troops in Iraq. The leaders are expected to announce a shift to a strictly advisory role. It is a major adjustment U.S. forces are going to focus mainly on advising and sustaining the Iraqi military. CNN Senior International correspondent Arwa Damon joining us now from Istanbul. Now Arwa, what does this shift with a strictly advisory role mean for the troops on the ground and particularly for Iraq?

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, technically speaking, Isa, it's really just semantics. Although the U.S. military would argue otherwise. But the bottom line is instead of focusing their mission on combatting ISIS and other counterterrorism maneuvers, the soldiers who remain in Iraq will effectively be rebranded as advisory and assist troops versus combat forces.


Now the Iraqi Prime Minister himself, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, has said that Iraq doesn't need U.S. combat forces. But this progression forward, the fact there will be American boots on the ground will come as a big relief to members within the Iraqi government and the Iraqi population who are greatly concerned about not just the potential resurgence of ISIS but perhaps more at the forefront at this stage Iran's growing influence.

Now the politicians, the militias that are armed and backed by Iran, they may not look upon this so favorably. And you will remember that in recent months there has been an increase in indirect fire attacks against U.S. forces.

All of this of course being said, the Iraqi government has been under quite pressure to demand that all U.S. troops leave Iraq. These are demands that became extremely vocal following the assassination of Iran's top general Qasem Soleimani and Iraq under the Trump administration at the beginning of 2020.

So since then, the Iraqi government has been walking something of a tight rope trying to appease those voices who have been demanding for a full, complete, and immediate U.S. troop withdrawal. And on the other hand, recognizing that the Iraqi security forces do continue to need American support. Because this is not just about having, you know, advise and assist forces on the ground. They bring with them a significant number of intelligence and other capabilities.

SOARES: Arwa Damon for us there in Istanbul peer Thanks very much, Arwa.

I want to take you now to the political turmoil in Tunisia. Where the president has dismissed the Prime Minister and frozen Parliament in a move that sparked cheers in the capitol.

Well large crowds turned out in Tunis in support of the president's announcement. His opponents accused him of launching a coupe. CNN's Ben Wedeman is following all the developments. He's standing by in Beirut with the latest. And Ben, I was looking at the footage we saw from the last few minutes, live images from Tunis. Still large crowds. Why are they protesting? What is at the heart of this?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, basically what is happened is that the president seems to be putting democracy on hold for the moment and therefore not everybody is happy about it. Even though many people support this move because Tunisia is in very bad shape.

The economy last year slunk by somewhere between 7 and 9 percent because of COVID. Unemployment is at 16 percent. Youth unemployment is at 36 percent. And at the moment, there is a standoff between supporters of Kais Saied, the president, and supporters of the Ennahda, which is the largest political block in the now suspended Tunisian Parliament.

Now overnight Rached Ghannouchi who is the veteran leader of the party Ennahda party went to the gates of the Tunisian Parliament, which have been locked. And he has accused the president, Kais Saied, of pulling off an attempted coupe. Now we know that four of the largest political blocks in the Parliament have come out in opposition to this move by the president.

But really this reflects this rather awkward arrangement whereby executive power, according to the 2014 constitution in Tunisia is shared between the president, the prime minister, and parliament. And frankly, it's such a mess that the country has really been in something of a state of paralysis now for many months. 11 of the proposed ministers for the government have not been approved by the president at this point.

And so, what you are seeing is just general frustration with politics and the COVID pandemic. One of the worst in Africa per capita. And the general economic stagnation that is gripping this country, which was held up as the only success story from the Arab Spring. And it may be that this also is going the same way as the other failed state from the Arab Spring -- Isa.

SOARES: Ben Weidman do keep us on top of this developing story for us in Tunisia. Thank you very much, Ben. Good to see you.


Now Jordan's King is calling his half-brother's role in the alleged plot, amateurish and disappointing. You may recall Jordanian officials accused former Crown Prince Hamzah of being part of a plot to destabilize the kingdom back in early April.

In videos obtained by the BBC Hamzah criticized Jordan's leadership and denied the allegations. He said he's been isolated over concerns about alleged criticism of the government or the King. But days later he pledged loyalty to the King. Here's what the King now tells our Fareed Zakaria about the situation. Take a listen.


KING ABDULLAH II, JORDAN: We've had to look to at many characters that tend to use people's frustrations and legitimate concerns of challenges that they have in making their lives better to really push on their own agendas and ambitions.

What I think made this so sad that one of the people was my brother who did it in such an amateurish and really disappointing way. From our point, the intelligence services, as they always do, gather information, and it got to a point where they had legitimate concerns that certain individuals were trying to push on my brother's ambitions for their own agendas and decided quite rightly to nip it in the bud and quietly. (END VIDEO CLIP)

SOARES: Well early this month, a top advisor to the King and a member to the royal family was sentenced to 15 years in prison for sedition.

Coming up right here on CNN NEWSROOM, more fires are ripping through parts of the Western United States. We'll hear if weather conditions are finally going to be on the firefighters' side. We'll bring you that story after a very short break.


SOARES: Incredible pictures from Northwest China. Massive sandstorm washing over Dunhuang city on Sunday. Watch as it just rolls over these buildings. The city is on the edge of the Gobi Desert.


So, it's somewhat accustomed to seeing sandstorms. China's state-news agency reported this storm reached as high as 100 meters, that's over 300 feet. This storm overtook an expressway in just a few minutes and reduced visibility to dangerously low levels. Police had to direct stranded vehicles to get people off the road safely.

Tropical storm is In-Fa is pummeling eastern China, flooded villages and is likely to bring at least 8 inches of rain in the coming days. That's about 20 centimeters. Chinese state media around 1.5 million people have been evacuated to safety ahead of the storm.

At least 149 people have died in western India after monsoon rains triggered a landslides and flooding. At least 64 people are still missing as rescue operations continue for fourth day. Crews have already evacuated more than 229,000 people from vulnerable areas. The Indian army, navy, as well as air force have been assisting with rescue operations. The region has seen heavier rains than usual this monsoon season, about 35 percent above normal levels.

Tropical storm Nepartak is bearing down on Japan right now. It's due to make landfall by late Tuesday or early Wednesday. It's supposed to hit well north of Tokyo, but Olympic venues will likely see some nasty weather over the next couple of days. Pedro Javaheri has more for you.


PEDRAM JAVAHERI, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Good morning, Isa. Incredible to think what folks here and Olympic organizers certainly have had to deal with. First the pandemic then we talked about excessive heat impacting the games and now a tropical system, and frankly it could be far worse. This is a tropical storm, not a typhoon.

But officials on alert here because of the 42 venues across Tokyo, some 16 of them north of town, it's central and northern regions of Japan. Some of those certainly will be exposed to the elements here with a system approaching Tuesday night into Wednesday morning.

Winds again around 40 miles per hour. It's 60 to 70 KPH range as it makes landfall. But the concern is that we know officials have already rescheduled some of the water sports. Just offshore the canoeing events they've been, and the rowing events they've been rescheduled in advance of this system. As much as 150 millimeters or about 4 plus inches of rainfall is in store later into the week. So we know gusty winds also are going to accompany these storms.

But in Tokyo, well to the south of where the storm will be, just a cloud cover on the increase, maybe 30 to 40 percent chance of storms could push that up close to 50 percent come Thursday. But again, it has been a wild go for folks there and the weather becoming part of the elements as well there for coverage for the Olympics.

But how about the United States. The Western U.S., we know largely 90 large active fires in place across at least 12 states. Interior portions of the Northwest, the hot bed here for excessive temperatures. Look at the readings. In Boise, Idaho climbing up 10 degrees above average, which Isa, for this time of year, that puts you around 105 degrees Fahrenheit and stays into the 100s for a couple of days before cooling off.

But these are the areas here where fires have been really rampant. And notice the state of Oregon third largest fire in state history taking place there. As much as 400,000 acres of land consumed. Twice as big as was happening across the state of California with the Dixie Fire.

But there's good news here, arm models do suggest the monsoonal moisture that has been in place in the Southwest is surging northward. And in fact, above average conditions for rainfall from say Friday into Saturday could see a 40 to 50 percent chance of rainfall here going into this weekend, Isa. So that is excellent news for firefighting efforts. And at this point, we'll take anything that they can. Send it back to you.

SOARES: Very good news indeed. Thanks very much Pedram.

Well at least seven people are dead and several others in critical condition after a sandstorm left 20 vehicles crash in Utah on Sunday. These images there from the scene shows damaged tractor trailers and passenger vehicles littering the roadway. Officials say the crash happened after strong winds kicked up dust and sand making it hard for drivers to see.

Next right here on CNN NEWSROOM, the victims of Florida's Surfside condo collapse remembered at a memorial concert.



SOARES: Memorial concert was held Sunday in Bell Harbor, Florida to honor the victims of the Surfside condo collapse. It's now been a month since the tower building came crashing down in the middle of the night killing at least 97 people. Authorities believe there's one victim of the collapse who has yet to be found. CNN's Boris Sanchez was at the memorial and has more from Surfside.


BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It was a solemn and somber evening near Surfside, Florida. On the water just a few blocks away from where Champlain Tower South came crashing down one month ago, it was very emotional.

And people in the crowd shed tears as the names of the 97 people who were confirmed dead in that tragedy were read aloud. There were songs and hymns and a symphony playing music for the crowd. It was an early step in a long process of closure. I got to speak with the mayor of Surfside, Charles Burkett about that process. Here's some of what he shared with me.

MAYOR CHARLES BURKETT, SURFSIDE, FLORIDA: You know we've got people's lives in that debris. I mean, things as small as diamond rings. I was just talking to a family member who told me, her daughter who was just married in January had two rings and described the rings in great detail. So, all of those things have to be found. These people have no closure yet. This is a long process. It's painful.

They asked about the psychological support, we have psychological teams here. We're just getting started, really.

SANCHEZ: There's no question it's going to be a long process of closure. There are still so many questions to answer for that investigators are working through right now.

I do want to leave you with some of the lyrics from the final song that was sung here on Sunday night both in Hebrew and in English.


Surfside of course being the home of a large Jewish community. The song is called "Heal Us Now." And some of the lyrics say quote, we pray for healing of the soul. We pray to once again be whole." Back to you.


SOARES: Thank you very much, Boris Sanchez there.

Now police and bystanders are being hailed for the heroic actions after a vehicle hit a mother and her baby in New York state trapping the little girl underneath. It's disturbing to watch but the mother and child, thankfully, did survive.

Now surveillance video shows the car swerving into view hitting another car and then veering right -- as you can see -- right into the woman and her daughter. The car then crashed into a barber shop pinning the baby underneath. That's when two officers and bystander came to the rescue lifting the car to get the girl out.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Grab the baby. Grab the baby.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I got it. I got it. I got the baby. I got the baby.


SOARES: Both the child and the mother were seriously injured but are expected to be OK. The driver has been arrested and charged with vehicle assault. Police say he had a suspended license and was intoxicated.

And finally, a couple got the surprise of a lifetime when their long- lost wedding video turned up years later. They thought the years had been accidentally erased and was gone for good. But get this. When a friend found it 14 years later, Drew decided to give Kala a special anniversary surprise. He booked out a movie theater and surprised her with a big screen showing there. It was the first time she had seen it. And as you can see crying happy tears there. That's a wonderful story.

And thanks very much for joining us on CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Isa Soares. "EARLY START" is up next. Tuesday right here though with CNN, bye-bye.