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Isa Soares Tonight
Biden Vows To Respond After 3 U.S. Soldiers Were Killed In Jordan; Multiple Countries Suspend Funding To UNRWA; Trump Slams Possible U.S. Senate Border Deal; Displaced Palestinians Warn Suspension Funding To UNRWA Will Worsen Gaza's Suffering; 20 NGOs "Outraged" By Suspension Of Funds To UNRWA; Pentagon Briefing After 3 U.S. Soldiers Killed In Jordan. 2-3p ET
Aired January 29, 2024 - 14:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
ISA SOARES, CNN INTERNATIONAL HOST: A very warm welcome to the show, everyone, I'm Isa Soares. Tonight, we are following two major stories out
of the Middle East. First, U.S. President Joe Biden is vowing to respond after a drone attack in Jordan killed three American soldiers.
We will explore what that retaliation may be and what it could mean for the region. Plus, multiple countries pull funding from the U.N. refugee agency
working in Gaza after allegations staffers were involved in the Hamas October 7th attacks. We'll have the very latest on that.
But first, tonight, the chilling specter of a wider war in the Middle East is looming after a drone attack that killed three American soldiers in
Jordan. U.S. President Joe Biden is vowing to respond to the attack which happened at a remote U.S. outpost near Jordan's border as you can see there
More than 30 other U.S. troops were wounded. Washington blames Iran-backed militant groups while Iran has distanced itself from the attack. It is the
first time American soldiers have been killed in the conflict since the Gaza war began.
U.S. officials say their focus in the region has been on combating ISIS, but they are prepared to answer this attack. Have a listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JOHN KIRBY, COORDINATOR FOR STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS, NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL: The counter-ISIS mission is separate and distinct. Indeed, it has
been longstanding and unrelated to our efforts to support Israel and to prevent a wider conflict in the region.
We do not seek another war, we do not seek to escalate. But we will absolutely do what is required to protect ourselves, to continue that
mission and to respond appropriately to these attacks.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SOARES: And that was John Kirby speaking just moments ago, in fact. I want to bring in our CNN senior international correspondent Ben Wedeman, who
joins me from Beirut. And Ben, we understand, and we heard some of the messaging there from John Kirby that President Biden is working through his
response options right now.
In the meantime, we've also heard Iran is distancing himself from this attack, calling these accusations -- the U.S. accusations they were behind
it baseless. How is the region assessing this moment and the possible U.S. retaliation here? Give us some context.
BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, there was really a sharp intake of breath yesterday when the news came out that this strike
took place on American forces in Jordan, resulting in the killing of three American servicemen.
Diplomats and Lebanese officials we've been speaking to, for instance, are very concerned that the war in Gaza is having so many detrimental ripple
effects. Here in Lebanon for instance, where by our accounts, there have been 11 Hezbollah strikes on Israeli positions and Israeli counter attacks,
where of course, we know almost a 160 attacks have taken place on U.S. forces in Syria and Iraq since the middle of October.
So, the worry is that the United States is getting drawn into a much more deeper war, it's already a low intensity war going on. But this threatens
to become something much worse. We know that opponents of President Biden on the Republican side are breathing down his neck, calling for action, not
against Iranian-supported militias in Syria and Iraq or the Houthis or Hezbollah.
They are talking about striking Iran itself as Lindsey Graham, the Republican --
SOARES: Yes --
WEDEMAN: Senator from South Carolina said, he said, hit Iran now, hit them hard. So, the worry is that the United States is in danger, whether by
design or by mistake of really launching a major war in the region while most people, most diplomatic sources are saying the one thing the United
States could do to lessen the tension is to rein in Israel and stop the war in Gaza. Isa.
SOARES: Yes, and we have seen diplomatic efforts in the last few weeks trying to stop this from being a wider conflict. But what we have seen,
Ben, is tit-for-tat really from the United States as well as from the U.K. against Iran-backed Houthi rebels.
Now, there are several proxies, Iran-backed proxies in the region, Ben, there's a short list of candidates, and today, we heard from one of those
groups, an Iraqi-Shia group that operates in Iraq and operates in Syria.
They warn that the U.S., it will continue attacks against American soldiers if they did not leave today, saying the failure to do so would result in a
heavy price. Is this referring, Ben, do you know, or do you think to U.S. presence in the region or is this tied to Gaza here? Because I know
politicians want to differentiate both things.
WEDEMAN: Well, the resentment against the U.S. presence in Syria and Iraq predates the war in Gaza, but it has really given extra impetus to this
variety of the Iranian affiliated groups in Iraq, in Syria, in Yemen, to really pick up the fight, pick up the intensity of their strikes.
And certainly, I mean, let's look at the case of the Houthis before the war began in Gaza. The Houthis were not engaged in interfering with
international navigation. And in 2022, basically, they had reached sort of a ceasefire with the Saudis.
But since then, they have been actively interfering with navigation in the Red Sea. Now, on the one hand, the United States, the U.K. and other
European powers are concerned about navigation being interfered with. But many people in the region look at the Houthis, they say, look, they are
actually doing something to try to harm the Israelis as the Israelis continue with the war in Gaza.
So there's a certain amount of support, and for many of these militias, they aren't necessarily well regarded in the region. They've sort of
regained a certain amount of prestige, because they are in -- as it's seen in this part of the world --
SOARES: Yes --
WEDEMAN: Doing what they can to fight the United States, which is seen as the power that makes Israel's war in Gaza possible. Isa --
SOARES: Yes, and it does seem that, that acts of resistance has been growing in the last few weeks. Ben Wedeman there for us in Beirut. Thanks
very much, Ben. Let's get a view from Washington, I want to bring our CNN national security reporter Natasha Bertrand.
And so, Natasha, President Biden is going to have to wrestle, clearly, not only with how to respond, right? In this very moment to this attack, but
having to wrestle with domestic pressures in an election year. I saw one tweet from Lindsey Graham, and in fact, we just heard there from Ben
Wedeman talking about what Lindsey Graham said, and I think we've got that up for you.
He said, "hit Iran now, hit them hard." It was part of a longer -- a longer tweet. What is being considered? What are you hearing in terms of being
considered in terms of response, and how soon, Natasha, could this come?
NATASHA BERTRAND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: Well, there are a number of ways that the U.S. could respond to the most likely response is one that
they have taken before, which is to strike these Iran-backed militants directly in Iraq or Syria, try to destroy their weapons capabilities, try
to hit the militants themselves as a retaliation for the deaths of these three American soldiers.
And then, of course, there is what some Hawkish Republicans here have been calling for, which is to strike targets inside Iran directly, perhaps some
manufacturing facilities for example, that have allowed Iran to produce the weapons that have been given to these militias that are then being used to
carry out these attacks on U.S. and coalition forces across the Middle East.
Now, at this point, it -- the U.S. will tell you that they are not taking any options off the table, and that is something that John Kirby; the
national security spokesperson, he reiterated just a few moments ago, saying, look, we're not going to telegraph our punches, I'm not going to go
speak for President Biden on this, but he is weighing all of the potential response options here.
But the domestic political pressure cannot be really overstated. I mean, you even have Republican candidate Nikki Haley hitting Biden now, saying
that he needs to really react strongly here. This is the first time, of course, that American soldiers have been killed in hostile fires since this
SOARES: Robust response. Natasha Bertrand, appreciate it, thank you very much. I want to welcome in military and terrorism expert Colin Clarke; he's
director of the Research for the Soufan Group. Well, Colin, welcome back to the show. We have been told as you heard there from Natasha Bertrand in
Washington, that you know, President Biden is working through the options right now.
I wonder what your view -- what is being considered? As he said not taking any option off the table there. What are the best options? Is there any
good option here?
COLIN CLARKE, DIRECTOR OF RESEARCH, THE SOUFAN GROUP: Well, no, the President is going to have to select, you know, the best of several bad
options, and I think -- is not a good option, because it automatically escalates the conflict, and opens the president up to criticism, embarking
on another endless war in the Middle East.
But at the same time, if the President does not respond forcefully enough, it opens -- as being weak. I think the most likely option here is going to
be a full-throated response that targets IRGC infrastructure in Syria and other parts of the region, but not in Iran proper.
SOARES: Right, so you don't think that as some of -- Republicans are saying on Capitol Hill they should be hitting Iran directly, which is what we
heard, of course, from Lindsey Grain(ph) -- Lindsey Graham in the last 24 hours or so. You don't think that, that ought to be the response, that's
But it is a fine line, isn't it? President Biden having to respond and respond in a robust way, but also, Colin, in a way that deters them. So
far, that tit-for-tat, you and I discussed this last time, that deterrents, that hasn't worked, right? And so, I wonder what happens now because the
last time you spoke to me, you said to me that we are already in a low-boil regional war.
One of the concerns, of course, in calibrating this response, Colin, is the sprawling military presence in the region. In fact, we've got a map just to
show our viewers. Talk to that concern, how does he -- how does he calibrate that?
CLARKE: Again, incredibly difficult, right? And so, I think if there was -- was the option -- option -- again, highly unlikely, that immediately
escalates the conflict and it probably responds -- it leaves Iran to -- actors -- its various --
SOARES: Colin --
CLARKE: Proxy groups to, you know, escalate further, right? To disrupt --
SOARES: Colin, I'm going to interrupt, apologies, because your internet connection is breaking up a bit, and I think it's important we get the full
context, we'll try and fix that and we'll return -- try to connect with you. But it's important that we have your perspective of all the proxies
and really how President Biden could and ought to respond, and also how this needs to be ought to be balanced with diplomacy, which is critical.
Colin, appreciate you taking the time, we'll try to fix that and we'll go back to Colin. In the meantime, growing fallout from Israel's accusations
of some staffers of the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees were involved in the October the 7th attacks by Hamas. At least, half of UNRWA's top 20
government donors have now suspended funding to the agency, which provides life-saving aid to millions of Palestinians in Gaza.
The head of UNRWA, Philippe Lazzarini said he's shocked such decisions are based on the alleged actions over few individuals, calling it additional
collectible -- collective punishment for Palestinians as famine looms. But Israel's Foreign Minister, Israel Katzr, is calling for him to resign.
He's called meetings with -- he's cancelled meetings with Lazzarini, saying quote, "supporters of terrorism aren't welcome here." I want to bring in
our international diplomatic editor, Nic Robertson, who is live for us in Tel Aviv. Nic, I understand, and you can correct me if I'm wrong here, that
you and the CNN team have got your hands on this dossier, Intelligence basically compiled by Israel on these alleged links between UNRWA staff and
Just give us a sense of what this dossier reveals. Because we are seeing more and more countries pausing funding to UNRWA.
NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Yes, several CNN colleagues have received the document. And what it reveals is quite a long
litany of complaints about Hamas, the way that Hamas has leveraged influence over UNRWA, and that UNRWA has gone along with it implicitly,
being complicit at some point.
But some of the specifics and the sort of central thrust of the allegation that set the ball rolling here was that 13 either Hamas Palestinian Islamic
Jihad and one other operative -- one other unnamed group were involved in the attack on Israel on October 7th.
And it breaks down roughly this way. They say -- the Israelis say, and we haven't seen this sort of evidence that goes behind these allegations --
SOARES: Yes --
ROBERTSON: And we haven't heard what UNRWA -- this is a thunder-lightning storm here at the moment, nothing more. There were rockets fired at Tel
Aviv today --
SOARES: Oh, yes --
ROBERTSON: But to get back to the point of this report, I was just saying that UNRWA hasn't responded to the details that we've --
SOARES: Yes --
ROBERTSON: Received, but it says specifically that six UNRWA workers were involved in going into Israel as part of Hamas' operation, four of them
were involved in kidnapping Israelis and bringing them back into Gaza. A further three UNRWA employees received text messages from Hamas, telling
them when to show up, where to show up the night before the military -- night before October 7th and that they would get weapons.
Now, it's not clear whether they complied with that text message. But this gives you some of the details that we're learning. Again, we haven't heard
back from UNRWA on the specific details, and so far, this dossier that we've seen hasn't provided the evidence behind --
SOARES: Yes --
ROBERTSON: The details they're putting forward.
SOARES: That is important, of course, like you said, we haven't seen the evidence firsthand. We also haven't given -- we haven't heard from UNRWA on
this. But it's important, given the fact that we're seeing more and more countries, Nic, pulling -- pausing that funding for UNRWA and the
implications of that, of course, for people of Gaza, huge is the fund that behind -- you said the conditions are incredibly dire.
Let's focus on the diplomacy because we are also -- having seen in the last 24/48 hours, the flurry of diplomatic activity between the U.S., between
Qatar, Israel and Egypt on a possible hostage deal and a possible pause in fighting. What more are you hearing at this stage about a truce, a possible
truce here, Nic.
ROBERTSON: Yes, there was a meeting over the weekend with the head of Egyptian Intelligence and Mossad chief, Bill Burns; the CIA chief and the
Prime Minister of Qatar, and the feeling is from that meeting that they had, that they've got this sort of foundation for a pathway forward, they
feel that they've got the potential for a deal in a slightly better place.
But where it seems to hang up at the moment and the sense that we're getting from what we're hearing about these talks is that, it is Hamas who
are demanding a complete ceasefire. And what we understand is at least that Israel isn't inclined to give that. They've said that all along, the Prime
Minister have said that all along.
So, the sense is that the formulation of the discussion has now given Hamas something to respond to, that perhaps doesn't go as far as a complete
ceasefire. So the deal is not done, there's still a gap and it does --
SOARES: Yes --
ROBERTSON: Seem to be over this issue of a complete ceasefire or not a complete ceasefire. But if the frame -- I think the sense is that the
framework may give the opportunity out of it, that a full ceasefire or a longer ceasefire could be achieved. So I think hopes are up a little bit,
but at the moment here in Israel, no one is putting their hearts and emotions into this coming off in the next couple of days, let's say.
SOARES: Yes, it is gaining momentum, that is clear from what you just said. We are far away from that. Nic Robertson for us in Tel Aviv, very wet Tel
Aviv. Thanks very much. Well, the conflict has left much of Gaza uninhabitable, destroying homes, schools, farmland and vast civilian
infrastructure, raising questions about what will be left without Palestinians to return to after the war.
Now, some Israelis are openly calling for the re-establishment of Jewish settlements in Gaza. Several government ministers and lawmakers were among
thousands who gathered in Jerusalem for event titled "Rally for Victory: Liberating and Resettling the Gaza Strip", that was the title.
A larger map featured the location of planned settlements, some on top of existing Palestinian towns. Palestinians say the conference was incitement
to ethnic cleansing. And just moments ago, a White House spokesman called the minister's remarks reckless as well as incendiary.
Israel's Prime Minister said Israel does not intend to maintain a permanent presence in Gaza. Well, as the UNRWA allegations dominate the headlines on
Gaza, the Hamas-run Health Ministry says more than 200 people have been killed there in just the past 24 hours amid fears of Israeli attacks.
We'll have much more on what's happening on the ground coming up in the show in roughly less than 20 minutes or so. And still to come tonight, a
possible U.S. Senate deal could help ease the U.S.-Mexico over border crisis. But Donald Trump is trying to stop those deal efforts before a bill
even reaches the Senate floor. We will explain that next.
Plus, strained border talks have U.S. aid for Ukraine tied up in Congress, we'll take you to eastern Ukraine to see how that's impacting the
battlefield. Fred Pleitgen has that report after this break.
SOARES: Welcome back. Well, immigration is front and center for U.S. voters this election year. That much you have seen, and the Biden administration
is trying to score win on the issue. According to U.S. Senator Chris Murphy, a possible bipartisan border security deal could head to the Senate
floor in the coming days.
But Donald Trump has tried to tank the compromise to use as a selling point for his general election message. Have a listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Please, blame it on me. Please. Because they were getting ready to pass a very bad bill, and I'll
tell you what, a bad bill is -- I'd rather have no bill than a bad bill.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SOARES: Well, let's get more on all of this, CNN's Melanie Zanona joins us now live from Capitol Hill. So, Melanie, first of all, what are you
learning -- the dint over the details or what's on this deal?
MELANIE ZANONA, CNN CAPITOL HILL REPORTER: Well, we have not seen bill text yet. The negotiators are still hoping to release that bill text sometime
this week. But we have learned about some key details about what is in this proposal.
One of the provisions that negotiators have agreed to would automatically shut down the entire southern border if migrant crossings reach a certain
level each day. Another provision would speed up the asylum process for those who are seeking asylum at the southern border.
So those are some pretty significant concessions from Democrats, and perhaps also significantly, President Biden has indicated that he would
sign that package into law if it lands on his desk. But that is a big question about whether it will actually get through Congress.
And a big reason that this negotiation has gotten even more complicated is because former President Donald Trump has weighed in, and he is now the GOP
presidential frontrunner for the Republican nomination, and he is openly urging Republicans to reject to this deal, because as you heard there in
that clip you played, he would rather that he is able to campaign on this issue, and he does not want Democrats to have a win on this key area.
And so the pathway right now is really uncertain at the moment, even though this will likely be the most conservative compromise deal that Congress has
been proposing in many decades here on Capitol Hill. And even though, Republicans are the ones who are demanding border --
SOARES: Yes --
ZANONA: Policy changes in exchange for a Ukraine aid. So at the moment, all of that, Ukraine aid, Israel aid and border security hanging in the
SOARES: All tied together. We heard that little clip then, Melanie, from Donald Trump saying it's a bad bill. What are Republicans saying? What are
you hearing on Capitol Hill because this is something that they really wanted to focus the minds of the Democrats. Now that they have it --
ZANONA: Right --
SOARES: Well, how are they reacting to what Trump is saying? Do they also think it's a bad bill?
ZANONA: Well, the GOP is really divided, and it's pretty divided between the Senate and the House as well. Over in the House, you have Speaker Mike
Johnson who has repeatedly said in recent days that this bill, at least, as he understands it, is likely dead on arrival in the House.
He has put out a letter, spelling it all out crystal clear, saying he doesn't like the provisions as he's heard them leaked out.
And then over in the Senate, you know, there's a divide. You have Mitch McConnell and some of these negotiators like James Lankford in the
Republican Party who want this deal to happen. I mean, they are still pushing for a -- they are trying to make the case that this is the best
border security deal that they are likely able to get.
You know, hasn't been the case in the last few decades that they were able to get anything, and they said, we need to take this deal now, but there
are other folks in the GOP, who are listening to Trump, who don't want to cross the former president, especially now that he is the frontrunner for
the Republican nomination.
So, once this deal is announced, obviously, it'll be significant to see some sort of agreement officially reached. But then they have to sell it to
the rest of their colleagues, and again, just really uncertain how successful that effort is going to be, given all the political headways --
headwinds here on Capitol Hill.
SOARES: Indeed, Melanie Zanona, thanks for breaking it all down for us, appreciate it. And still to come right here on the show, 20 aid agencies
are urging the world not to cut funding for the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees. Some saying millions of lives in Gaza on the line. We'll speak to
the chief of the Norwegian Refugee Council, Jan Egeland. That is next.
Plus, the war in Gaza is taking a heavy toll on what would otherwise be rooting care for pregnant mothers. That report, next.
SOARES: Welcome back everyone. Now back to our top story. Palestinian civilians in Gaza tell CNN they fear the suspension of aid to UNRWA could
be a death sentence. More than a dozen countries have now frozen funding to the U.N. agency that provides critical aid to millions of Palestinians.
Israel is accusing several UNRWA staffers of taking part in the October 7th attacks by Hamas. The U.N. is promising to conduct an investigation as
quickly as possible.
Twenty relief agencies have signed a joint statement condemning what they call the reckless decision of some countries to, "cut a lifeline for an
entire population that is facing starvation, disease, as well as war."
Well, the Norwegian Refugee Council is among the agencies that signed that very statement that we read you part of. Its chief, Jan Egeland, is urging
UNRWA donors not to cuff funds, saying, "do not starve children for the sins of a few individual aid workers."
And Jan Egeland joins me now live from Oslo. Jan, welcome back to the show. I just want to say very quickly that we are expecting a briefing from the
Pentagon. So, apologies if we interrupt. But let me start off with what we just heard, what we just set up before we came to you. Let's talk about the
implications here of this pause and what this means for Gaza. First, your reaction to these damning allegations that we have heard from Israel.
JAN EGELAND, SECRETARY GENERAL, NORWEGIAN REFUGEE COUNCIL: Well, I mean, the -- there are serious allegations against a small group of UNRWA
employees. These have been terminated, fired by UNRWA. UNRWA is having an external independent evaluation of what happened. They have done everything
right. The donors are doing everything wrong now because they are discontinuing aid through UNRWA to the million people who are now homeless
and sheltering under an intense bombardment in the 154 schools and other collective centers that UNRWA is running.
So, UNRWA is the lifeline to most of the Palestinian population. All of the other organizations combined, including my own, is not even half of their
programming in Gaza to discontinue aid. It's incredibly reckless and very vain.
SOARES: And one would assume that this would be a short pause from those countries who are pausing the funding. But I'm not sure, Jan, if you've
seen the news or you heard the news today of a dossier from the Israelis that allegedly offers more details on this accusation. I'm just going to
preface by saying here, Jan, that CNN hasn't seen the evidence and that UNRWA hasn't responded to this.
But I can tell you from what our teams on the grounds have seen from the Israelis, they say that six UNRWA employees went into Israel for the
attacks. Four were involved in the kidnapping of Israelis and three received messages from Hamas of where and when to show up. That is
incredibly. That is incredibly concerning. That litany there of connection between possible alleged connections, you say, between Hamas and UNRWA.
EGELAND: Well, it's not between UNRWA and Hamas. It's between half a dozen or perhaps even a dozen of the 13,000 staff of UNRWA that were betraying
the ideals of all of us, which is neutrality, impartiality and independence of everybody. But who can say in the Middle East that they guarantee that
all of their staff do not have hidden agenda? I don't think any of us can.
Certainly not Israel that has CNN and numerous other Western groups have proven have a lot of rotten apples themselves, you know, soldiers firing
repeatedly on civilians with white flags, including some of their own hostages, settler gangs that are then recruited as soldiers or police. I
mean, these are beyond belief in criminal acts and now in the armed forces. So by the logic of these donors, there could be no aid to Israel or no aid
to any other place that would have rotten apples among the staff.
SOARES: And what we have seen in the last few days is at least, Jan, at least half of UNRWA's top government donors suspending funding. We're just
looking at a map, just shows really who has suspending. Norway, meanwhile, has decided to continue its funding, saying that, you know, stopping it
would be collective punishment.
I think this is something that you wholeheartedly agree with, given not just what you said, but the statement that has been put out by your NGO.
EGELAND: Absolutely. I mean, Norway, Ireland, a number of other countries are continuing to provide the funding needed. And we, all of the aid
groups, are really welcoming that as we are shocked and appalled by the reckless cutting of aid overnight, basically, before there is an
investigation, and on the allegations of the party to the conflict.
It could -- but UNRWA takes it so seriously that they have fired these people. They have an external investigation. They do everything right.
Actually, Israel and others could learn from UNRWA. They could have gone after many of these people who have been accused of doing war crimes as
Gaza has been bombarded now for 120 days and more than 10,000 children have died.
SOARES: And it's a story that we have focused on, that we will continue, of course, to focus on from our correspondents. But the impact of this, as
you've mentioned, is huge, right? We've seen, what, 80 percent of Gazans displaced. There are almost no functioning hospitals left. What would this
mean if this -- we don't know, Jan, how long this pause will go on for. We do not know how long this investigation will take. So, what will this mean
for the people of Gaza?
EGELAND: It would be a collapse, really, of the few services that are there still. Of the 13,000 staff of UNRWA, UNRWA was charged by the United
Nations, by all of these donor countries, to take care of the Palestinians that were removed. In 1948, during the war at that time, these people
hailed from inside Israel, and they fled to Gaza. UNRWA was created to take care of them, and they have ever since. And of the 13,000 staff, 3,000 are
still reporting to work. Many haven't been paid. Many of them have suffered a grave danger, 152 of their UNRWA colleagues have been killed by the
I mean, yes, a dozen people may have done horrific things, and I condemn it, but UNRWA must be funded. They need to reverse this funding decision.
EGELAND: Jan Egeland, always great to get your insight. Thanks very much, Jan. I appreciate it.
And I want to take you straight to the Pentagon, where the Deputy Press Secretary is speaking. Let's listen in.
SABRINA SINGH, DEPUTY PENTAGON PRESS SECRETARY: -- The Baghdad Diplomatic Support Center. Three of those patients are scheduled for imminent
transport to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center for follow-on care. The other five have been assessed for mild TBIs and are expected to return to
duty. We are still assessing what happened and how a one-way attack drone was able to impact the facility.
U.S. Central Command continues to investigate this attack, and for operations security and force protection reasons, we're not going to
discuss further specifics or measures we're taking to prevent such actions or future attacks. But we do know that Iran-backed militias are responsible
for continued attacks on U.S. forces in the region.
And as the President and the Secretary have stated, we will not tolerate continued attacks on American forces, and we will take all necessary
actions to defend U.S. military men and women forward deployed. And we will do so at a time and place of our choosing.
Now, over the weekend, the Secretary received regular updates on the attack against U.S. forces and participated in a briefing with the President and
his national security team.
Today, Secretary Austin returned to work at the Pentagon. This morning, he hosted the NATO Secretary General for a bilateral meeting where they
discussed the war in Ukraine, the next NATO summit, and ways to further strengthen transatlantic security.
He also met with President Biden at the White House, and later today will host again the NATO Secretary General alongside Secretary Blinken and the
National Security Advisor.
Additionally, the Secretary is tentatively scheduled to visit Walter Reed National Military Medical Center this evening for a follow-up appointment.
As his doctors said in their statement on Friday, Secretary Austin continues to recover well, and is expected to make a full recovery
following his treatment for prostate cancer. And with that, I'd be happy to take your questions. Thank you. Lita. Yes.
LITA, JOURNALIST: Thanks, Sabrina. A couple things. Number one, since Secretary Austin has now returned to the building, can you tell us whether
or not we will be able to see him in the briefing room this week?
SINGH: I don't have -- oh, sure. Go ahead.
LITA: Do you want to get that first?
SINGH: Sure. I don't have an update just yet, but it's something that we're certainly working towards, and we'll keep you updated.
LITA: OK. And then secondly, can you give us an update on the number of wounded and any breakdown between Air Force and Army on that?
And also, any update on the perpetrators of the attack? There's been a lot of chatter about KH. Can you tell us whether that is the leading suspicion
SINGH: Sure. So on the number of injuries, right now, we assess that there are more than 40 that have been injured. We do expect that number to
continue to fluctuate as our service members, as you know, with TBI, report symptoms later on, so that number could continue to grow.
In terms of attribution for the attack, we know this is an IRGC-backed militia. It has the footprints of Kata'ib Hizballah, but not making a final
assessment on that. Our teams here are continuing to do the analysis, but we know that Iran is behind it. And certainly, as we've said before here in
this briefing room, Iran continues to arm and equip these groups to launch these attacks, and we will certainly hold them responsible.
LITA: Just clarification. You said you know Iran is behind it. You know that Iran and Iranian leaders were actually behind this attack as in
planned, coordinated, or directed it?
SINGH: We know that Iran certainly plays a role with these groups. They arm and equip and fund these groups. I don't have more to share in terms of an
intelligence assessment on if leaders in Iran were directing this attack, but what I can tell you is that we know these groups are supported by Iran,
and therefore they do have their fingerprints on this, but I can't tell you more in terms of who directed the attack. Jen.
JEN, JOURNALIST: Sabrina, did this drone take off from an IRGC base in Syria?
SINGH: I don't have more on the point of origin just yet of where this attack originated from.
JEN: And was it human error that failed to recognize that this was an Iranian drone coming to the base?
SINGH: It's something that Central Command is looking into to find out exactly what happened. As I mentioned at the top, they're doing the
assessment on this. They're working through what they need to do to make sure our service members, whether being in Jordan, Iraq, and Syria, are
further protected. But I just don't have more to share at this time.
JEN: Lastly, what kind of drones struck the base? Is this the same kind of Iranian drone being used by the Russians in Ukraine?
SINGH: That's something that we're looking at right now. We're assessing the drone, but I don't have more to share just yet. Idris.
IDRIS, JOURNALIST: Just to follow up, you said Iran was behind the attack. What does that mean? Have you seen evidence of financing or directing
anything specific to this attack, not just generally, but specifically?
SINGH: So maybe I need to clarify further from what Lita had mentioned. We know that Iran funds these groups, like Kata'ib Hizballah. We know that
these IRGC-backed militias are the ones responsible for attacks on our troops in Iraq and Syria. Beyond that, we're doing an intelligence
assessment. We don't have -- I don't -- I can't give you today that --
IDRIS: -- this attack linking it to Iran.
SINGH: We just know that Iran funds these groups, like Kata'ib Hizballah and other groups that have attacked our forces, but I don't have more to
share on --
IDRIS: As a general matter, you're saying, right?
SINGH: As a general matter, yes.
IDRIS: And the second thing is, you've talked about how the conflict is contained, the Gaza-Israel conflict is contained. Now that U.S. troops have
been attacked in another country, are you willing to say that the conflict is no longer contained and it's spreading?
SINGH: I wouldn't say that the conflict is spreading in that we've seen over a hundred attacks on U.S. forces, unfortunately, over a hundred
attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria and, of course, now in Jordan. We don't want to see a widening of this conflict. We don't see this conflict
widening as it still remains contained to Gaza. But this attack was certainly escalatory in that it killed three service members, three of our
U.S. service members.
And as the president has said, we don't see conflict. We don't want to see a widening of a regional war, but we will respond at a time and place of
IDRIS: It's not spreading when troops literally have died in another country?
SINGH: Well, again, but they've also been launching these attacks since October 17th. And again, we can't discount the fact that these attacks are
incredibly dangerous, put our service members at risk, but they have not, Up until yesterday, inflicted lethal harm. They have been predominantly
minor injuries and minor damage to infrastructure. Missy.
MISSY, JOURNALIST: I just want to ask if you could address the broader trajectory for American forces in Iraq and Syria, and will these attacks
affect the ongoing discussions between the United States and the government of Iraq about the future of the American presence there or, you know, there
have been some reports that the United States is reviewing plans for the future troop presence in Syria. Can you talk about how this will or will
not impact that -- those deliberations?
SINGH: I think what you're referring to is the higher military commission that we discussed last week. So we're focused on working with our Iraqi
partner -- partners regarding how to respond to the attack that claimed three U.S. service members. We remain committed to the HMC process and will
continue to focus on it at the appropriate time.
I don't have anything to preview on troops levels or changes in Iraq and Syria, but we are committed to the HMC process, and that is ongoing.
MISSY: I mean, but could you just say -- I mean, would I be right to say that this lethal attack on American forces and the potential for a
response, which, you know, President Biden has kind of foreshadowed explicitly, would you say that it will not have an impact on U.S. plans for
the troop presence in Iraq and Syria, or is it too soon to say that?
SINGH: Well, I think it's too soon to say that. And also, I would say that you have to remember that the HMC was already happening and was something
that was announced back in August of 2023. The attacks on October 7th did delay some of those conversations from happening and the discussions from
starting with HMC, but we're still committed to that process. We're still committed to working with the Iraqi government, and we are going to
continue to do so. But I don't have anything more to preview on what that means for our force levels. Yes. Megan.
MEGAN, JOURNALIST: Can the Pentagon confirm any of the reports that the reason the drone wasn't shot down is because the troops on the ground
thought that it was a returning American drone?
SINGH: Yes, I've seen those reports. Again, that's something that Central Command is assessing right now, but I don't have more to share at this
MEGAN: So to follow up on that, you say that this is escalatory because troops have now died in these attacks, but it's not a spread, even though
it happened in a different country. Is there any indication that this attack, either the equipment or the way it happened, any of that was a
different kind of attack than what we've been seeing in Iraq and Syria? Or was it simply an escalation and people died because they weren't able to
shoot it down? They didn't detect it the way that they are in Iraq and Syria?
SINGH: To my knowledge, there was nothing different or new about this attack that we've seen in other facilities that house our service members.
Unfortunately, this attack was successful, but we can't discount the fact that other attacks, whether it be Iraq or Syria, were not intended to kill
our service members. It is a true tragedy that three of our service members died. And of course, Central Command is looking into what can be done when
it comes to our air defenses and looking into this incident to determine how best we can move or how best we can further strengthen our air defense
MEGAN: Was this base less well protected than other bases in Iraq and Syria?
SINGH: Not to my knowledge. Jeff.
JEFF, JOURNALIST: Thank you. Can you talk a little bit more about what this unit was doing in Jordan? And also, you have said that Iran has backed
these groups which have launched these attacks. Is this attack that has killed three service members an act of war by Iran?
SINGH: Well, look, I think I said this in -- earlier. We don't seek a war with Iran. We don't seek to widen this conflict. We have said, and we will
continue to call out, the fact that Iran does fund and equip these groups and provide them the capabilities that they use to attack our service
members, whether it be Iraq, Syria or Jordan. So, we're not going to hesitate in calling that out.
But we certainly don't seek a war. And frankly, we don't see Iran wanting to seek a war with the United States. We are there in Iraq and in Syria.
And the -- I think your original question was, what were these service members doing there? They are there in support of the Defeat ISIS mission.
That is their purpose there. They are part of a named operation that this that this department has and is committed to in both in Iraq and Syria. And
so, yes, I'll just leave it at that.
JEFF: If I could follow up, how is this not --
SOARES: Right. You have been listening there to the deputy's Pentagon Press Secretary addressing some of the questions from the journalists there
regarding that deadly attack in U.S. and on U.S. troops in Jordan, where three people, three soldiers were killed. We've learned in the last few
minutes that three -- we've got the names of the three U.S. soldiers. One is 46 years of age. The other is 24. And the other is 23. This coming from
the Defense Department.
What we have heard in the last few minutes there from the deputy Pentagon Press Secretary is an update on those who were injured in that drone attack
there. More than 40 injuries we've heard from the deputy Pentagon Press Secretary. More than 40 of the injuries. The number, she said, is expected
-- could continue to fluctuate in the coming days.
In terms of the perpetrators behind this attack, she said, "we know Iran is behind it." Those were her words. "We know that Iran arms, equips, and fund
these groups." When she was pushed back on this, have they seen evidence that it's Iran, they said that Iran's fingerprints are all over it.
They do not know where it originates from, but we will continue to hold them responsible. And they said the U.S. will not tolerate attacks to U.S.
forces and will take all necessary action. We're going to take a short break. We'll be back after this.
SOARES: And we have this update to bring you just in coming into CNN. The Ukrainian government is denying reports that President Volodymyr Zelenskyy
has fired the country's military chief, Valerii Zaluzhnyi. There has been tension between the two in recent months with one notable spat in November,
if you remember, after Zaluzhnyi said the war with Russia was at a stalemate. But a spokesman for the president says they haven't fired him.
Meanwhile, in the dead of winter, Ukrainian lines are struggling to hold off Russian assaults in the east, as our Frederik Pleitgen now reports.
FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): All-out warfare in unforgiving terrain. Forest battles in eastern Ukraine
mean facing a near-constant Russian onslaught, Vladimir Putin's army trying to break through Ukrainian defenses. Dmytro is one of those holding them
up. "The situation is very active and very tense," he says, "because the enemy has much more equipment and manpower. Basically, every day they try
to storm the positions."
A dead Russian soldier and a destroyed tank show just how close the Russians have come. It's a fight for survival and against the elements. The
trench, cold, wet and soggy, the only heat coming from candles the soldiers cower around, gathering strength to face overwhelming Russian firepower.
"They shoot direct fire. Planes are flying. Basically, they have it all," he says. But probably the worst are tanks. When they fire, you don't even
hear it. You hear an airplane when it comes over, with a tank, you're in God's hands.
Artillery fire, another threat here, as we found out when we came under fire trying to make it to the area.
PLEITGEN: And this is unfortunately something that, when we work here in the east of the country, happens all too often. We were getting ready to
film here, and then all of a sudden we heard what appeared to be outgoing artillery, but then a shell came in. 100 meters, got you. We're now trying
to make our way out of here as safe as possible. I mean we have to keep distance between our cars, but we also of course have to keep moving the
entire time to make sure that we can get out of here hopefully safely.
PLEITGEN (voice-over): We believe a Russian drone spotted us and directed the artillery fire. But two can play that game. Naziri is a Ukrainian drone
pilot. He guides Kyiv's artillery guns targeting Russian infantry, but also armored assault formations, including main battle tanks. He says ammo
shortages mean he has to be extremely precise. "It's no secret we're starved of artillery shells," he says. "We try to work as efficiently and
accurately as possible to hit the enemy's firepower."
Trying to fight back any way they can on one of the toughest battlefields of this war. Frederik Pleitgen, CNN in eastern Ukraine.
SOARES: And that does it for us. Thanks very much for watching. We'll be back after a short break with "QUEST MEANS BUSINESS." I'll see you at the
top of the hour.