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ISIS Pushes closer to Baghdad; Obama Expected to Make Statement on Iraq Crisis; Iranian Revolutionary Guard Helps Iraqi Government; Obama Talks Iraq Crisis

Aired June 13, 2014 - 11:30   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back everyone. Just a few hours ago President Obama met with his national security team to discuss the crisis in Iraq. A senior administration official tells us that the president could decide what action to take as early as this weekend. Time really is running out as militants continue their bloody march toward Baghdad. ISIS, which is the Islamic state in Iraq and Syria, has quickly become the world's most dangerous jihadist organization. Its methods so extreme that al Qaeda has disavowed any relationship with this group.

ISIS seized on the power vacuum left by the U.S. withdrawal in Iraq, the continuing civil war in Syria, and the smoldering hostility between different Muslim groups to grow in influence and bolster it ranks and is on the march now. The group controls crucial swaths of territory stretching from the Syria city of Aleppo all the way to the outskirts of Baghdad. And now battling to advance on Baghdad itself.

Mark Jacobson has served as the senior policy advisor to General Stanley McCrystal, who was the head of the international forces in Afghanistan and also worked for David Petraeus, who led the U.S. military surge in Iraq.

Mark, thank you so much for being with us.

I should say Senator John McCain earlier today said he thinks the president should bring General Petraeus back to deal with the Iraq situation right now. Not sure that's about to happen. Aside from that, what do you think the U.S. options, the realistic option are right now?

MARK JACOBSON, ADJUNCT PROFESSOR, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY: I think Senator McCain was trying to score a few political points there. There's a great deal of knowledge that not just General Petraeus, but General Maddas (ph) have with their experience in Iraq, and Afghanistan for that matter.

What I think the U.S. really needs to focus on are four things here. Up front, helping Iraqis to stop ISIS from advancing further. That's the immediate concern. But as you look at the longer term, it's an understanding that not only do we have to show support for the Iraqis but that this is a wider regional problem. You alluded to this earlier. You're talking about Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ph), the greater Levant (ph), later, Syria. This is not just a problem on one side of the border. Finally, this is going to be about political reconciliation. There have been a lot of people talking about whether or not Maliki has what it takes to bring the Sunni and Shia together.

BERMAN: What people are discussing right now is a possibility of air strikes, whether it be from U.S. aircraft or from drones. Could you make a case that doing nothing and waiting and watching for a bit is a better play?

JACOBSON: I think it is always critical in situations that are complex like this. We're talking about five armies really engaging it out throughout Iraq. To sit and take a look at what's actually going on, you can make the situation worse. Now, I'm not talking about a pause of months. I think if you look at people who suggested the administration should have reacting yesterday or last week, I think that was a bit premature. As we watch the situation evolve on the ground right now, I think there's a chance that the militias that have been called out and now that Iraqis have woken up, that the stem of ISIS can be held for a bit. Tactical air strikes by the United States, great in support, but those are only really short-term tactical solutions to help support the Iraqis.

BERMAN: Of course, there are key questions about whether these militia groups are better filling the vacuum than perhaps U.S. air strikes or U.S. assistance of some kind.

Mark Jacobson, stick around.

I want to bring in Wolf Blitzer.

We've been talking about the idea that the White House says they'll make a decision as early as this weekend about what to do in Iraq. Wolf, we have news about what the president might do or say even in the coming minutes.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: We expect the president to walk out of the White House, head out toward Marine One, the official helicopter, that will take the president to Joint Base Andrews outside of Washington, D.C. But we do expect now the president will make a statement on the situation in Iraq within the next few minutes, before he leaves the White House on this previously arranged trip.

As you know, John, we've been anticipating some sort of statement from the president. Yesterday, he said all options are on the table. Then his press secretary, Jay Carney, said, except for one option, mainly, U.S. troops, no boots on the ground in Iraq. Whether or not the president authorizes new military action, whether air strikes, drone strikes or whatever, that certainly is on the table right now.

The situation is very dire in Iraq. There's a lot going on. The president has been meeting extensively with his top national security team to come up with some plans. We don't know if the president is going to announce anything within the next few moments but it certainly will be something that we'll be listening to very, very carefully to get a direction, if the U.S. is, now two and a half years after leaving Iraq militarily, is about to reenter that conflict one way or another.

We're standing by, John, for that.

BERMAN: Wolf, I believe I still have Mark Jacobson with me.

Mark, are you still here?

JACOBSON: Still with you.

BERMAN: Mark, the question I was getting at before -- and, Wolf, chime in too -- we're talking about what's happening on the ground right now in Iraq. There are Shia militias that appear to be taking up arms in the southern part of that country. The Peshmerga, the Kurdish fighting force, appears to be moving and helping at least to defend the area around Kirkuk. If these groups fill the vacuum, does that make the situation on the ground there even more complicated?

JACOBSON: That's exactly what's making it more complicated. As you said, the Peshmerga, the Kurdish militia forces, doing pretty well. Also, they are there attaining Kurdish political goals, which are control of Mosul. Now we have a political balance that's shifting north. In the south, it should have been expected that al Sustani (ph) would call for the Shia militias to come up. There's reports now that Muqtada al Sadr is out controlling his forces as well.

The problem is long-term for Maliki. There is a view now or there may be a perception amongst the Iraqi people that not just political power but military power resides elsewhere, other than in the governmental seat of power. So all these short-term actions to deal with the short-term problem of ISIS have longer-term consequences.

BERMAN: Wolf, it does beg the question and this is what the White House has to consider right now, how much does the White House want to get involved in this soup in Iraq right now especially when the American people seem so unwilling to commit forces abroad especially in Iraq?

BLITZER: Especially a president who didn't want the United States to get involved in the first place back in March of 2003 when the Bush administration authorized the invasion of Iraq and the toppling of Saddam Hussein's government in Iraq. This is a president who didn't want to have to deal with Iraq. He inherited a problem with a promise the U.S. would get out of Iraq, and the U.S. is out of Iraq. But the key question now, given the dire situation that's developed inside Iraq, will the president of the United States reenter the situation in Iraq militarily?

Barbara Starr is our Pentagon correspondent.

Barbara, what are you hearing at the Pentagon? The president says all options, with the exception of military boots on the ground, all options are on the table. What are you hearing?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: What we understand is the president has not at least at this moment publicly made a decision about how to proceed in Iraq. The Pentagon clearly offering the president all of the options as they do on the table. He has ruled out boots on the ground.

But what I can tell you is we have learned just a few moments ago that the Pentagon now is planning, planning, to send the aircraft carrier "George H.W. Bush" from its current position in the north Arabian Sea on into the Persian Gulf. This is a plan. What it would do is give the president the option if, if he were to order air strikes. You then have those F-18 fighter jets on the deck of the carrier inside the Persian Gulf much closer to being able to strike targets in northern Iraq. They can't really get that far from the north Arabian Sea. That's several hundred miles further away.

So our understanding at this hour is the Pentagon is now planning to move the carrier to give the president the options so he's got everything in front of him when he makes a decision. If he makes a decision for air strikes, they can move very quickly.

Everyone I'm talking to seems to be ruling out the notion of drones in any significant way. They really are not capable of going after large formations of military forces. But the big problem for the Pentagon, Wolf, is who do you target? ISIS fighters are guys riding around in pickup trucks with weapons up and down the roads in and out of cities. There are civilian populations at risk. The U.S. military has virtually no precise specific intelligence on the ground. Before they launch weapons, they have to know exactly what their target is, who the people are, who they are bombing, and make sure they are taking every precaution against civilian casualties. And right now, that is one big question, and they are not at all sure they can do that.

BLITZER: Hold on for a moment. I want to make sure our viewers not only in the United States but around the world are up to speed on what's going on here in Washington right now.

I'm Wolf Blitzer, reporting from Washington.

We're standing by. President Obama is about to make an important statement at the White House. The president getting ready to leave Washington but he's been meeting for hours, around the clock over the past few days with his top national security team. He's coming up with some options presumably on what to do about the dire situation unfolding in Iraq right now.

This ISIS group, Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, a terrorist organization, has moved from Syria into Iraq and taken over major parts of northern Iraq and moved into Mosul, the second-largest city of Iraq, a city of about two million people and moving closer and closer -- you can see the red spots there on that map -- toward the Iraqi capital of Baghdad. The president has to make a major decision on whether to get involved militarily in Iraq once again two and a half or three years since the U.S. pulled out all of its troops from Iraq.

Barbara, you say the aircraft carrier, the "George H.W. Bush," is in the Arabian sea, but has been told to go towards the Persian Gulf, move towards Basra, move toward southern Iraq. How long will it take before that aircraft carrier will be in place presumably to launch air strikes if the president gives that order? STARR: As you can imagine, Wolf, with sort of security tensions so

high about all of this and the administration not talking publicly yet about any specific options, we're not being told exactly where the Bush has been in the north Arabian Sea. Depending on where it is and where it will go in the gulf to position itself if, again, strikes were ordered, certainly, perhaps more than a day, perhaps two days. But they may not have much better option if they want to go with a military option. There are also Navy ships in the Mediterranean with Tomahawk missiles. Cruise missiles are precision guided. There are over-flight issues. If you're going to launch out of the Mediterranean, you're going to have to fly over Syria, over other nations in that region. It's going to destabilize things. That's not an option they are really looking forward to. There are U.S. F-16 fighters in Jordan, next door. Jordan does not want attacks launched off its territory by the United States. Jordan already very nervous about the situation in the region. There are also B-1 bombers in Qatar at a military base. They could be used.

But if you're going to really have a military situation, if that decision is made, and you want to generate air strikes around the clock and make a difference not just a pinprick, you're going to have to use an aircraft carrier and get that air wing of F-18s up there and have them operating around the clock. But that is a big "if." There is no indication at this point, as we stand here, that the president has made that decision -- Wolf?

BLITZER: No indication yet. We'll see what's going on.

Stand by over there at the Pentagon, Barbara.

Jim Acosta is over at the White House.

Jim, they are clearly getting ready for a statement from the president. We see microphone stand has now been set up right in front of Marine One, which will take the president over to Joint Base Andrews, outside of Washington, for his previously scheduled trip. What are you hearing at the White House, this statement from the president coming up momentarily?

ACOSTA: Wolf, I don't think we'll hear the president announce a decision at this point as to some sort of military action he's going to take in Iraq. I don't think he's there at this point. I don't think his national security team is there at this point.

Earlier this morning, we heard from senior administration officials that that decision could come as soon as this weekend but that he's not made a decision yet. But you heard earlier this morning Secretary of State John Kerry over in London saying that we should expect a timely decision from the president, given the grave situation on the ground in Iraq. And obviously, they are watching these developments with great concern. I was talking to one senior administration official earlier this morning, Wolf, who said that they are moving on this crisis with an urgent sense of action at this point, that they feel like something has to be done. But at this point, it's selecting the right course of action. And as Barbara Starr has been talking about, there are misgivings over at the Pentagon as to exactly what to do when it comes to delivering air strikes. Would they be effective? Could they turn the tide against these ISIS militants? I don't know how far out the White House gamed these scenarios and, because of that, this decision will take longer than in the next several minutes. I think what we'll hear from the president is restating what he said yesterday, that he's considering all options, barring boots on the ground. Senior administration officials have said over and over again that is not going to be considered. That's not going to take place.

Another thing to keep in mind, Wolf, is there will be members of Congress, particularly from the president's own party, who will demand this president consult with Congress and seek authorization from Congress before delivering any air strikes against Iraq. Obviously, all of this is irony layered on top of irony because the president was very much an anti-Iraq War critic running for president. It was a big part of the reason why he became president. Then he ended the war nearly three years ago.

But keep in mind, Wolf -- I think this is important -- the Authorization to Use Military Force in Iraq that was passed by the Congress in October of 2002, that has not yet expired. And some have suggested that perhaps the president could use that as a legal basis to conduct air strikes over the next several days. He would not need to go back to Congress and seek authorization. So a lot of moving parts. A lot of moving pieces for this president. But no question about it, a huge political moment for this president, a president who said he's going to be more about ending wars and not starting wars. This comes at a critical time for his presidency. If he does not act against these militants, and Baghdad falls, I think that's a scenario that this White House just doesn't want to face at this point and that may force his hand.

BLITZER: Potentially, could be forcing his hand.

Jim, just a reminder, quickly, where is the president going after he makes this statement?

ACOSTA: He and the first lady are set to depart any moment now for a trip to meet with Native American groups in North Dakota. That was going to be a stop for several hours there in North Dakota before he heads off to California. He's giving the commencement speech at the University of California Irvine, and then spending the rest of the weekend in Palm Springs.

But, Wolf, the one thing we don't know at this point is, if these decisions are coming this weekend, could the president's scheduled be tailored where he returns back to Washington over the weekend? We just don't have the answer to that. The latest guidance we have from the White House is the president will remain overnight in California. That's as far as we've gotten at this point. But the thought all along was the president and first lady would spend the weekend in Palm Springs. We don't know if that's still going to happen.

BLITZER: Obviously a fluid situation. A crisis has developed.

Jim Acosta, stand by.

Fareed Zakaria is with us as well.

Fareed, you are looking at the microphone. You see one of the president's aides. We're getting ready to hear from the president. He'll make a statement. We'll be reading it and listening to it very carefully. One development that has occurred, Fareed, that further complicates this already very complicated situation is we've now learned that Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops, some units have actually moved into neighboring Iraq to help the government of al Maliki deal with the threat from al Qaeda-inspired terrorists, this ISIS group. How does that play into the president's decision making?

FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN HOST, FAREED ZAKARIA, GPS: It highlights the central problem we face with regard to Iraq, which is the government of Iraq that we are supporting, that we would be potentially aiding and helping and maybe even acting as the air force for, is a pro- Iranian government. It's a Shia government that has persecuted the Sunnis of Iraq.

The reason this insurgency has grown -- remember, this is a few thousand fighters who from ISIS who are up against a 600,000 or 700,000-man Iraqi Army, and they are winning. And the reason they are winning is because they have local support among disaffected Sunnis. So in the Shia/Sunni context, you have a Shia government in Iraq supported by a Shia government in Iran. And as you point out, elite guards from Iran are coming to support the Iraqi government. And the U.S. would be placed in the extremely awkward position of being the air force for essentially Iran's Revolutionary Guard and the Iraqi government. That's the dilemma. This government has not been inclusive or democratic, has been pro-Iranian and pro-Syrian. So before the president decides he wants to act to support it, he's going to have to ask if there is something he can ask of this government in terms of reform.

BLITZER: I know U.S. officials are deeply concerned, Fareed. We'll discuss this later, about the possibility that some of these groups, Sunni groups, al Qaeda-affiliated groups could go ahead and attack some Shiite shrines in Iraq. That would simply explode this situation totally, as you and a lot of our viewers would fully appreciate.

Let's take a quick break. We'll continue our special coverage here on CNN. We're waiting for the president of the United States to tell us, is the United States about to get militarily involved in Iraq once again? We'll be right back.


BLITZER: Welcome back. We're following breaking news. The president of the United States getting ready to make a statement on the crisis in Iraq.

I'm Wolf Blitzer, in Washington. We welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world.

Fareed Zakaria is with us. We're going to go to Arwa Damon -- she's in Iraq -- in a moment, Fareed. But as we await the president, he's about to make the statement before he boards Marine One to take him to Joint Base Andrews for a previously scheduled trip outside of Washington. He's been meeting with his top national security advisers.

I know from my sources that U.S. officials are deeply worried that some Shiite shrines, mosques, other shines inside Iraq right now could be in danger by this ISIS terrorist group, one reason presumably why Iranian Revolutionary Guards, elite forces, are moving in to help the government of Nouri al Maliki. Explain what would happen if one of these major shrines were attacked.

ZAKARIA: This is a movie we have seen before. I think it was in 2006, Sunni militants affiliated with al Qaeda blew up what is regarded as the third-holiest Shia shine. It has a beautiful golden dome. And when they blew it up, it produced in incredible reaction from the Shia population, who are the majority in Iraq. So now you had a disaffected Sunni minority, but also engaged Shia majority. And that's what began the Iraqi civil war that continued for a few years until General David Petraeus was able to stabilize the situation militarily, but most importantly, also politically, by reaching out to those Sunni tribes and groups, bringing them in, trying to create a government of national unity. And what has happened since then is that Prime Minister Maliki has once again turned on the Sunnis. He stopped funding them, persecuted them. So we're back very close to those conditions that sparked the civil war. And if that happens, violence will probably go up five-fold and it will become as deadly and dangerous a place as Syria. So you will have this vast stretch of land, Iraq and Syria, which becomes essentially a battle link.

BLITZER: The civil war in Syria could clearly be emulated in Iraq and may already be on the verge.

Let's go to Arwa Damon. She's inside Iraq.

Arwa, set the scene for us as we await to hear the president tell us the U.S. is about to get militarily back involved in Iraq or not. But set the screen for us. What are you hearing? How close are these insurgent Islamist groups?

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Right now, they have made their way into the north of Baghdad. We're hearing that there are battles taking place in a town about an hour north of the capital. That is part of the reason why the Iranians presumably decided to send those brigades of special Revolutionary Guard forces into Duyala Province to push the ISIS fighters back away from the capital. This is also not just to protect the Shia shines, but also because the Iraqi security forces are not exactly standing up and fighting.

Another thing to look at, Wolf, is the trajectory that this violence has taken, the way ISIS has chosen to go through the territory toward the capital Baghdad. These are predominantly Sunni areas where they do have a certain degree of support from the Sunni population and where also, even though ISIS is the organization in the spotlight, it is getting support. This battle between Sunni and Shia, which is what is unfolding right now, is being joined by some well-known Sunni insurgent groups prominent during the U.S. occupation of Iraq, not necessarily fighting alongside ISIS, because they believe and want to see an Islamic caliphate established, but because they do feel that they have to fight for their very existence in the face of what they view as being a Shia fighting force. And that is the Iraqi Army being led by Shia Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki and his politics.

We're also hearing about various calls from Shia militia leaders trying to re-activate their militias that were so deadly during the previous civil war. The most famous and revered cleric here, Ayatollah al-Sustani (ph), also his spokesman putting out a call to people to volunteer and join the Iraqi security forces.

So when it comes to any sort of options with regards to what the U.S. may have, even if it they do decide to get involved with air strikes, it will be very difficult to figure out who to strike and where. ISIS has embedded itself within the civilian population. There are no clear defined front lines. Add to that, of course, the dynamic of the Iranians being involved on the ground and those various Shia militias that also waged a brutal battle against U.S. forces being re- activated, as well -- Wolf?

BLITZER: Hugely complex situation. A very dangerous situation. Cleary, the stakes for everyone are enormous.

Arwa, stand by.

Michael Holmes is joining us.

Michael, as we await the president of the United States -- the microphones have already been set up in front of Marine One which will take him to Joint Base Andrews. He's leaving town with the first lady on a previously scheduled weekend trip. But the president is meeting with his national security advisers, trying to come up with some sort of formula. Yesterday, he said all positions, military options, were on the table. His spokesman later said no U.S. boots on the ground.

Why -- here is the question. There are hundreds of thousands of Iraqi trained military personnel, mostly trained by U.S. forces who were there nearly a decade, funded by the United States, armed by the United States. Why are so many of them -- and, Michael, you spent a lot of time in Iraq. Why are they taking their uniforms off, putting their weapons down and effectively handing over their weapons to these Islamist insurgents who are moving in? A rag-tag Army, if you will. Why are they giving up so quickly?

MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR & CORRESPONDENT: I think one of the issues is ISIS isn't as rag-tag as people think. They are fairly well organized. As we've seen in the last few days, they have been able to take enormous swathes of land without too much trouble.

As far as the army, on the face of it, it seems absolutely extraordinary. You had 30,000 troops up in that part of the country, trained by the U.S., incredibly well armed and equipped. And yet, they donned weapons and uniforms, dropped them on the ground and ran. Why? The initial reason has to be that they don't feel loyalty to the government. Some of them sympathize with the uprising, if you like, against the government.

Wolf, every time we look at this story, it all comes back to Nouri al Maliki. This is a man who did not win the election in 2010. He didn't get as many votes. However, he was able to cobble together with U.S. backing and Iranian backing a coalition and continue to govern. I was there on the Q80 border in 2011 when the last U.S. troops crossed out of Iraq, and I can tell you, Wolf, within 24 hours, Sunni politicians were being interrogated, taken out the picture. That was just the beginning. As he continued to marginalize the Sunni side of things, they stopped paying the Sons of Iraq, those men on the U.S. side in battling al Qaeda -- stopped paying them. They are annoyed about that. He cut them out of the political process. Wouldn't share oil wealth. After promising he would share power and be an inclusive leader, he did the absolute opposite. We're seeing the fallout now -- Wolf?

BLITZER: Hold on, Michael.

The president is about to walk up to the microphone. This is the South Lawn of the White House. Here comes the president. He's been meeting with his national security advisers. Let's listen to the president.



I want to take some time to give you a quick update about the situation in Iraq. Yesterday, I convened a meeting with my national security council to discuss the situation there. And this morning, I received an update from my team.

Over the last several days, we've seen significant gains made by ISIL, a terrorist organization that operates in both Iraq and Syria. In the face of a terrorist offensive, Iraqi security forces have proven unable to defend a number of cities, which has allowed the terrorists to overrun a part of Iraq's territory. And this poses a danger to Iraq and its people, and given the nature of these terrorist, it could pose a threat eventually to American interests, as well.

This threat is not brand new. Over the last year, we've been steadily ramping up our security assistance to the Iraqi government with increased training, equipping and intelligence. Now, Iraq needs additional support to break the momentum of extremist groups and bolster the capabilities of Iraqi security forces. We will not be sending U.S. troops back into combat in Iraq.