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@THISHOUR WITH BERMAN AND MICHAELA

ISIS Advances on Baghdad; Obama Weighs Options in Iraq; Bowe Bergdahl Back on U.S. Soil

Aired June 13, 2014 - 11:00   ET

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


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JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: @THISHOUR, Bowe Bergdahl's return to life in the United States going into its final phase. The investigation into why he disappeared in Afghanistan, well, that's just beginning.

And on the brink near Baghdad, militants on the march as President Obama urgently weighs options on how to stop them in their tracks, if he can. Is the U.S. preparing to go back into Iraq?

Hello, everyone. I'm John Berman. Michaela Pereira is off today, and let's get straight to what could be the battle for Baghdad. And the fact that we can even say that is shocking in itself. Radical Islamists are pushing forward after capturing one city after another in just a matter of days.

We're now learning that President Obama could decide what action to take in Iraq by this weekend but what action and where and how? Time is running out. The militants have faced little resistance from U.S.- trained Iraqi troops who just melted away in many cases.

We'll bring you all the angles @THISHOUR, beginning with senior international correspondent Arwa Damon inside Iraq and senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta in Washington.

Arwa, I want to go to you right away here. What's the latest on the situation on the ground because there have been developments almost every hour.

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: There most certainly have, and now we're hearing about pitched battles taking place in Diyala Province -- that is just north of Baghdad -- with news coming out right now that Iran has deployed three units of its Revolutionary Guard to Diyala Province fight alongside Iraqi security forces in an attempt to push back ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Now If you look at the trajectory of what has happened over the last few days, ISIS has been moving in an arc from northern Iraq pushing its way to the south but moving -- and this is very important -- through predominantly Sunni areas.

ISIS at this stage may be in the spotlight, but other Sunni insurgent groups that were very prominent during the U.S. occupation of Iraq are now also joining in the fight, believing that this is an existential battle between the Sunni population feeling very marginalized since the toppling of Saddam Hussein, feeling very marginalized, disenchanted with the politics of the predominantly Shia government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

So what we're seeing right now is the country really dividing, fighting along these sectarian lines with the Sunni insurgency trying to push its way toward the capital of Baghdad, again with those Iranian Quds Force fighters now joining in the battle with calls from Shia mosques of fighters, and we've seen video of this, to rise up and join the fight alongside the Iraqi security forces, they being viewed as a majority Shia fighting force, part of the reason why they abandoned their positions and fled, with various other Shia militias also being called to arms alongside a call by the spokesman for the most prominent Shia cleric here, Ayatollah Ali al-Kistani (ph), calling on people to volunteer and join in the fight alongside Iraqi security forces.

The country right now, in words of one Iraqi politician, is on the brink of a sheer and total catastrophe.

BERMAN: On the brink, those forces moving toward Baghdad, gaining momentum, Arwa Damon, thank you so much.

Let's go to Jim Acosta now at the White House. Jim, you just heard Arwa's report. The situation there on the brink of catastrophe, she is being told.

So give us a sense of what's going on behind closed doors at the White House right now.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, I think, as Arwa put it, because of the crisis on the ground in Iraq, there's a real sense of urgency over here at the White House.

As you mentioned just a few moments ago, we've been told by senior administration officials that a decision by the president on how to move forward could come as soon as this weekend.

He's been weighing these options, including air and drone strikes, and that potentially is on the table for this president as well as ramping up military assistance, and we can only point to the strong hints that are coming from administration officials, Secretary of State John Kerry who's in London this morning, saying you can expect a timely decision from the president based on the gravity of the challenge in Iraq right now.

And he also volunteered that the U.S. has been conducting surveillance over Iraqi sites over the last several days, and so that is an indication that the Pentagon is gathering intel in order to make a decision, if the president decides to make that decision.

But we have been told that he has not yet made a decision on how to move forward yet. One thing we're going to be looking for, John, in the next hour or so is the president and Mrs. Obama are due to depart from the White House here, hop on board Marine One, head over to Andrews Air Force Base for a trip to North Dakota. The president's going to be meeting with Native American groups before going to California this weekend to deliver the commencement address at U.C. Irvine. But how the weekend proceeds after that, we just don't know at this point.

Does the president stay out there all weekend long? Could there be changes to his schedule based on what's happening in Iraq? We don't know the answers to those questions.

But, John, a very critical moment at this White House, as you know, you've covered a lot of these issues, this is a president who campaigned against the war in Iraq, promised to end the war in Iraq, and then did so nearly three years ago.

So a very big political moment for this president at this point, John.

BERMAN: Jim Acosta, the president will be on the road over the weekend but be will making these decisions, as you say, as soon as this weekend, whether to carry out any airstrikes. Thank you, Jim.

Joining me now from Washington, retired Army Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, who served in Iraq for a number of years, and on the phone, former New Mexico governor and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson.

General Kimmitt, I want to start with you, because people toss around terms like airstrikes and drone strikes so casually, but this isn't easy.

Our Barbara Starr is reporting from the Pentagon that officials say there's great difficulty now identifying targets because of the lack of intelligence on the ground.

So to be blunt here, what does the U.S. shoot at?

BRIGADIER GENERAL MARK KIMMITT, U.S. ARMY (RETIRED): Well, especially since we're talking about a relatively modest size force -- some of the approximate numbers are somewhere in the order of 800 to 1,000 -- what they would probably be looking at targeting would be columns of vehicles heading from the north down to the south, heading toward Baghdad.

That would be the most likely target, or any command-and-control centers that ISS may have established to execute these operations.

BERMAN: So, Governor Richardson, the question is, if they do shoot at it, is there a justification to do so?

The Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki has been accused of being closed off. It's been accused of being unfair to the Sunni population. They've been accused of not doing enough to stem the flow of arms to the Assad regime in Syria. It's been far from a unifying force in Iraq.

So, Governor Richardson, for the U.S. right now, is the Maliki government worth fighting for? BILL RICHARDSON, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO UNITED NATIONS (via

telephone): I would have serious reservations. I would try to encourage Iraqi leaders to basically dump Maliki right now.

This is a man that has made strategic mistakes. He's fostered this sectarian violence by not including the entire population. He's fostered this climate where militants have been gaining traction.

So I would try to get a political reform, a new prime minister who shares power, makes needed reforms, includes all sectarian and ethnic groups.

I would hold off on military action right now. I would consider more drones, more Hellfire missiles, possibly some Apache helicopter gun ships.

But the problem is the army is deserting. They're leaving. There's no foundation for support of a military, but we do have to try to maintain some kind of Iraqi stability. We don't want a militant Islamic state on the Iraqi/Syrian border.

What's interesting is that now we're on the same side as Iran on this terrible situation. But I think the president -- we cannot have troops there. We possibly should look at some kind of military assistance.

But, you know, if you recall, al-Maliki refused a residual force. We offered to put that there, and he said no, so they need a dramatic change in the political leadership, and maybe these kind of changes of Maliki getting moved out might stem the flow that is almost irreversible right now.

BERMAN: Getting him moved out in this situation when this situation is already so chaotic may be difficult in and of itself right now.

General Kimmitt, you heard the governor mention the U.S. doesn't want Islamic unrest or control in that region between Iraq and Syria.

Is there a simple way for you to explain and our audience what you think the U.S. interest is in Iraq right now. Simply put, why bother at all?

KIMMITT: Simply, we don't want a caliphate sanctuary and safe haven for another 9/11-type al Qaeda organization residing in northern and western Iraq.

If we give up that territory and allow it to become ungoverned space, ISIS will use it as a base not only to attack Baghdad, not only to attack targets in the region but it could become an existential threat to the United States of America.

BERMAN: If they're allowed to stay there, the fear is what might happen down the road. We'll talk more about that in a second.

Governor Bill Richardson, thanks so much for calling in. General Kimmitt, please stay with us. We have much more to talk about ahead @THISHOUR (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Iraq's going to need more help. I don't rule out anything.

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BERMAN: He's ruling out ground troops, but he's saying that airstrikes could come soon . A decision could come by this weekend.

We'll talk of the effects here at home if it does happen and if it doesn't. Stay with us.

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JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: Iraq is facing a brutal enemy that also poses a threat to America's interests and to the interests of our allies in Europe and in the region.

Given the gravity of the situation, I would anticipate timely decisions from the president regarding the challenge.

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BERMAN: Timely decisions by President Obama, but how timely and to what end? That of course was Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking this morning in London about the possibility of U.S. military strikes in Iraq, air strikes, this as terrorist militants with the group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria push toward Baghdad, getting ever closer.

Back with me now is retired Army Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt. General, if there are these air strikes, then what? What's the world left with in Iraq?

KIMMITT: Well, what's left is for the Iraqi security forces to go on a counteroffensive and push elements back out of Mosul, out of Tikrit, and back into Syria, quite frankly.

BERMAN: General, you served for a number of years in Iraq. I attended a number of your briefings there.

When you look at that country now and you see the fighting force that you worked so hard to train melting away, when you see Sunni militants marching toward Baghdad, gaining support, as our Arwa Damon reports, as they move toward the capital and you see the Kurdish fighting force, the Peshmerga, maybe take over Kirkuk, as you see these Shiite militias in the south rise up, how does that make you feel? Does it feel worth it now to you?

KIMMITT: I just left Baghdad on Wednesday so I have some pretty recent views of what's going on on the ground. I think what we're seeing is, up in the north there was a significant antagonism between forces on the ground and the local civilians. So I'm not surprised to see that the primarily Shiite military up in the north melting away when they did not have the support of the local population and when they were hit by a terrorist threat. But I think the situation is going to be quite different as they get closer and closer to Baghdad. I believe what is really needed more than anything else is the leadership, because certainly you have the quantity of troops and you've got the military equipment that you need, but Prime Minister Maliki and his military commanders have to make it very clear that they're going to go on a counteroffensive and push this enemy back out, otherwise if they just roll over and give up, we're in a completely different situation.

BERMAN: Counteroffensive with whom and with what though? Are you talking about the Iraqi military or are you talking about these militias from the south? Moqtada al-Sadr and his men all of a sudden taking up arms again?

KIMMITT: That's a very, very alarming scenario that you just presented. Because up to this point, Prime Minister Maliki and his government has retained a monopoly on the use of force. But if he forfeits that use of force and brings back in Jaish al-Mahdi, Abdul Haq (ph), The Badr Corps then you truly have that sectarian fight between militias. And at the point Prime Minister Maliki is not a leader of a country, but he is an observer of battlefield between Sunni militia's and Shiite militias.

BERMAN: Frankly, how close are we to that though, sir?

KIMMITT: Well, in the next couple of days, we're going to find out. If we are able to, No. 1, on the diplomatic side, persuade Prime Minister Maliki to make the necessary concessions and, No. 2, on the military side assist them and basically give them a little bit of spine to go back on the counteroffensive, this may work out well.

BERMAN: That sounds like a big if and it's awfully perilous general. Is there a lesson here with what's happening in Iraq for U.S. forces and U.S. future in Afghanistan?

KIMMITT: The lesson has already been stated in terms of the security agreement. There will be 9, 800 forces left in Afghanistan upon the signature of the BSA in order to provide mentoring and advising and assisting of the forces. We chose not to do that because we are unable to secure a status of forces agreement in 2011. Since the days that our advisors and mentors and helpers inside the Iraqi military left the battlefield, there's been a downward push, a downward thrust in capability of Iraqi security forces.

So my advice to the government would be push very, very hard in getting the BSA approved in Afghanistan so we don't see this kind of situation happen in Afghanistan that we're seeing today in Iraq.

BERMAN: A situation as Arwa Damon describes it on the ground there as being on the brink of catastrophe. General Mark Kimmitt please stick around, again, a lot more to discuss. Ahead @THISHOUR, we are going to talk about Bowe Bergdahl. He's back in the U.S. The hunt for the truth is on. Could letters from his time in captivity of the Taliban help investigators figure out what happened in Afghanistan five years ago?

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BERMAN: @THISHOUR, the last American prisoner of war is back on U.S. soil for the first time in five years. Bowe Bergdahl came back in the middle of the night and a cloud of controversy came with him. As people question how, and why he ended up in Taliban hands in the first place. And now we're getting an idea about his state of mind during those years.

Our Martin Savidge is in San Antonio, General Mark Kimmitt, also with us @THISHOUR. Martin, first I want to start with you there, give us a sense of what's happening at this hospital right now?

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN COMMENTATOR: Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl was flown in in the middle of the night. 1:40 local time. Transported by a van and brought to the facility behind me here. This is San Antonio Military Medical Center. This is the area that U.S. Army south has dedicated now to helping all former POW's and those held captive in the Army to return.

These are the experts, these are the specialists here. It's not that this is being done because Bowe Bergdahl is somebody special. They stress here, this is being done because he's a member of the U.S. Armed Force, he's Army and this is where they treat all returnees. So there was no fanfare. There was no special greeting. HE was brought here, they are going to follow it by the book. They have got a very specific plan. They'll check him out again medically. They'll check him out again mentally. There will be more debriefs going through to figure out why he fell into enemy hands, how he left his post and how did he stay alive?

And then lastly, there's going to be a family reunion but to that point, there has been a change. I've been told the family would be here first and sergeant Bergdahl would then arrive. His family is not here. They've asked for privacy and they say they're not making their travel plans public, John.

BERMAN: Very interesting. All right, General Kimmitt, how much do you think that his -- the investigation into how he ended up in Taliban hands will be kept separate from his reintegration and the medical care and the psychological care he's given?

KIMMITT: Well let me first state up front I'm not an expert in this process. I would think the U.S. government would be very, very careful about ensuring those are firewalled. There's no hurry to get Bowe Bergdahl in front of the investigators so they ought to be taking as much time as necessary to return him to a good sense of mental health and physical health before they start that process. Otherwise, quite frankly, if there is an investigation, that investigation could be tainted because of his status at which point he was asked the questions.

BERMAN: Martin, I want to ask you because overnight the Daily Beast published some letters that sergeant Bergdahl allegedly wrote back home. What are we to make of these letters do you think? SAVIDGE: They are definitely unusual. There are a number of things

you would have to point out. But first and foremost, those letters were written when he was in captivity. Clearly they were written when he was under duress. Other people who have been held captive have said they have been ordered to write letters and told every word, word for word. We don't know that just because he may have actually written them, whether those are his views, his mind states or anything. You have to take that with large grain of salt. They are unusual. Grammar is wrong. Spelling is wrong. You have to figure something is not quite right in the way he was communicating.

BERMAN: Senator John McCain was a POW for a number of years. Told us, you know what, just don't pay attention to these letters. Anything you write in captivity simply can't be trusted.

Martin Savidge, General Mark Kimmitt, thank you for being with us. Really appreciate it.

Ahead for us @THISHOUR, they were even more brutal and fanatical than al Qaeda, if that's ever possible. And right now they look unstoppable as they march toward Baghdad. Find out just who these militants are, and why they are advancing so quickly across Iraq.

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