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White House Continues to Weigh Options in Iraq; Should U.S. Put Special Ops on the Ground?; Dual Tornadoes Rip Through Nebraska

Aired June 17, 2014 - 11:00   ET


JOHN BERMAN, CNN CO-ANCHOR: The clock is ticking. A terror group moves toward Baghdad as the White House weighs its options, manpower, firepower, moving to the region to beef up security, but will it be enough.

Air strikes are on the table, so is teaming up with Iran? So when will the Obama administration decide?

MICHAELA PEREIRA, CNN CO-ANCHOR: And will special forces and drones be part of that plan? A former top U.S. authority in Iraq seems to think so.


PAUL BREMER, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL ENVOY TO IRAQ: We will have to have special forces and intelligence observers, fire control officers, people identifying targets in these cities, so that drones can hit them.


PEREIRA: But should more U.S. lives be put at risk?

BERMAN: And then --


CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: These are major tornadoes on the ground.


BERMAN: Dual tornadoes rip a path through Nebraska, amazing pictures, and we have a live look at the devastation this morning.

Hello, everyone, great to see you today. I'm John Berman.

PEREIRA: Great to see you, and you too. I'm Michaela Pereira. It's 11:00 a.m. in the East, 8:00 a.m. out West, those stories and so much more, right now, @THISHOUR.

Almost 300 U.S. troops are on the ground in Iraq, about a hundred -- 50 -- 500, rather -- my numbers --

BERMAN: Keeps going up, though.

PEREIRA: Five hundred Marines are on stand by. They are ready to make a move if the order comes in from Washington as brutal fighting between Islamic militants and Iraq's security forces gets closer to Baghdad and, of course, the U.S. embassy.

BERMAN: The terror group ISIS now unleashing chaos in Baquba and reportedly taking weapons from a police station and killing dozens of inmates at a jail.

Baquba is really just outside of Baghdad, a short drive, 40 miles, less than an hour saw so much violence over the last 11 years.

Our Arwa Damon, covering this crisis right now, she's in the north in Erbil. Arwa, what can you tell us about the situation on the ground right now?

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it seems at least the Iraqi security forces are attempting to do a bit better than they did in the north, managing to keep ISIS away from the city outskirts in Baghdad.

They are fighting alongside various other Shia volunteers, Shia militias that have been reactivated, putting up a much stronger defense, battling with ISIS, as you were saying there, about an hour north to Baghdad, at least on that frontline, bearing in mind that this is a war for the heart of the country that has multiple frontlines and ISIS trying to push forward in various different directions to include from the west.

ISIS also has the potential, should it choose to do so, to move some fighters in from the south. This is a very tricky situation for the Iraqi security forces, in and of themselves, to try to navigate, Baghdad banking on the fact that, since most of the Iraqi security forces that are deployed in and around the capital are Shia, they will actually stand and fight.

But the foe that they are facing is quite formidable. ISIS is more powerful than al-Qaeda ever was. It has more money and it has more fighters and suicide bombers at its disposal, and that is to say that America is not on the ground here right now with the Iraqi security forces significantly weaker than the Americans ever were.

PEREIRA: It's a sobering notion to consider that ISIS is more formidable than al Qaeda.

To that point, you were mentioning about the United States. What are you hearing that the Iraqis want from the United States? That they want them to move in and help? What are they expecting?

DAMON: In an ideal scenario, the government in Baghdad of Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki would like to see the American come in and launch a number of significant air strikes and effectively save his Shia-dominated government.

Now, if that were in fact to happen, it would potentially have a catastrophic impact on the country. The Americans have to make a very careful calculation. They have made numerous demands of al-Maliki, asking that he make certain political moves before they would even begin to perhaps consider the notion of launching air strikes.

But, bearing in mind, they are negotiating with a man, Nouri al- Maliki, who has broken his promises on numerous occasions in the past, so placing their trust in him at this stage is going to be a very challenging decision, if they do in fact choose to make that gamble.

Plus, if the Americans are perceived as fighting in this battle alongside the Shia, potentially even alongside Iran, that would further aggravate the Sunnis and ISIS and create an even bloodier battlefield than what already exists.

PEREIRA: Arwa, we actually want to pick up that conversation about Iran with our next guest. Our thanks to Arwa Damon there on the ground.

We want to bring in our military analyst, Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona, along with our national security analyst, Peter Bergen.

Rick, we'll start with you since you're sitting right here beside us. Good to see you this morning.

So there seems to be this growing sense of urgency. We hear what is being told to us. We see what's going on. We know president met with the National Security Council. What do you see as the best course of action?

LT. COL. RICK FRANCONA (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: It's a bad situation no matter what we do. There's two things we need to be doing. We need to be thinking tactically, and that means stopping these guys as far as we can whether they are before they get any further to Baghdad.

As she said, they are on the outskirts of Baghdad. Baquba is just less than an hour away and there's very little between them to stop them.

But, strategically, we have to look at the Maliki government. The Maliki government, as she indicated, is the problem, and if we jump in on the side of the Maliki government that just strengthens the resolve of all these Sunnis who believe that they have been disenfranchised by that government.

So we're kind of in a bad situation here. We should help stop ISIS, but we in the long run have to change this government and have it become more inclusive for the Sunnis or nothing changes.

BERMAN: Peter, I want to ask you this because you've done so much work study terror groups over the years. The success that ISIS has seen, is this just because they are so well trained, or doesn't this require some complicity or at a minimum acquiescence among the Sunni population in these towns that they are moving through?

PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: I think it's even more than acquiescence, to be honest. I think it's -- they're allying -- it's not just ISIS that are doing these operations. There are a whole slew of other Sunni tribal groups or Sunni insurgent groups, and also people who think that they're doing the right thing.

You can't take a city of millions of people, as they did in Mosul, with 800 soldiers. It just doesn't happen like that. And it goes to what everything Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona or Arwa have just been saying, which is they have -- the Sunni population has been so alienated by the actions of the Maliki government, and they have every reason to be.

This is a guy who has excluded any kind of Sunni politician from important roles, even ones that have been elected. He's arrested them. He hasn't put -- there has been a whole Sunni awakening movement, which are basically local militias that once the United States paid for.

They were supposed to go into the Iraqi army. They didn't. That's a hundred thousands guys without jobs and guns who are pissed off, so you know, that's basically what we've been seeing is -- it's been a long time coming.

PEREIRA: Peter, Rick, we want you to stay with us. We have more things we want to talk to you about. In fact, coming up, we want to take a look at U.S. options.

BERMAN: Move forward with air strikes, send drones, special forces, and if we do, could that be for the long haul?

PEREIRA: Also, Bowe Bergdahl has been back in the States -- what -- less than a week? Already a couple of projects are in the works in Hollywood about the swap of five Taliban Gitmo detainees for him.

You know we'll discuss that, coming up.


BERMAN: This has been making a lot of waves. The former top U.S. diplomat in Iraq, the regent, or some people say, the viceroy of Iraq at one point, said the U.S. must now put special forces on the ground there to fight the growing insurgency.

PEREIRA: Paul Bremer was in charge of running Iraq in the early days of the war. Last night, he spoke with our Erin Burnett about the current crisis.


ERIN BURNETT, CNN ANCHOR: You are talking with air strikes and retaking cities and intelligence people on the ground.

As you know this number, 4,490 lives have been lost in the Iraq War, American lives, $1.7 trillion spent already.

How can you advocate any more people, any more lives, going to risk for that country? BREMER: Because it's in our interests, and there are two points about

our interest. Number one, as the president pointed out on Friday in his first statement, we cannot allow a -- the world's worst terrorist group to get a base of support in a failed nation.

This is not Afghanistan, which is remote and behind the mountains. This is the heart of the Middle East with a lot of wealth, and we cannot allow that to happen. So that's in our interests to stop that.

You've got foreign fighters there. We know an American conducted a suicide attack recently for this group in Syria. Those people have American passports. They can come back here and conduct terrorist attacks.

So it's in our interests. That's number one.

Number two what we're seeing is the potential falling apart of the entire -- as you read, as I wrote this morning --


BREMER: -- the entire regional structure which threatens our allies in the region, not the least, the king of Jordan.


BERMAN: As we said, this is making a lot of waves, in part because of who is saying it, Paul Bremer, but for the moment, let's focus on what he's saying. Should the U.S. send in special forces?

PEREIRA: Bring back our panel now, Rick Francona and Peter Bergen.

Rick, what do you make of Bremer's comments, and should the special forces be sent in, and would they make a disagreement?

FRANCONA: I hate to be in a position of agreeing with Paul Bremer, but he makes -- he does make some good points.

I believe the special forces should be sent in but in a limited role, and that role to advise the Iraqis what to do. They've got to get this Shia-dominated army back on its feet and stand up and fight these guys.

And the other reason is I think you need special forces teams to designate targets, to control -- if we're going to have air strikes, they're much more effective if they are controlled from the ground by U.S. eyeballs.

BERMAN: You know, Peter, I guess I have two questions for you right now. We're talking about U.S. interests in that region right now. That's what Paul Bremer was talking about. Do you see ISIS as a threat to the United States -- let me ask that first -- directly to the United States?

BERGEN : Right now, ISIS and the other al-Qaeda affiliated group there, Nusra, which is in Syria, they are basically -- they've got their hands full doing what they are doing.

But we know from history, whether it was the Afghan War in the '80s and other kind of jihads that typically, once the jihad is over, these guys come home, some retire, some may die on the battlefield, but some go on to lead other jihads or get involved in other forms of terrorism.

So history would suggest that, yes, ISIS in the long-term is certainly a threat to the United States. And we've had hundreds of foreign fighters, many of them from European countries, go and fight. They are from so-called visa-waiver countries, which means they can come to the United States without getting a via or a sit-down interview with a consular officer.

I think it's only prudent to be concerned about ISIS in the future, and also by the way, the conflict in Syria, which is really not at all distinct from the conflict in Iraq can go on for many, many years.

There's a whole slew of very good research on how long civil wars go on for, how long insurgencies last. They usually last at least a decade. Now we've seen the one in Iraq go on now for at least a decade. The one in Syria is just in year four. So these things have a tendency to go for a very long time.

PEREIRA: Rick, I want to talk to you about one of the other options we've been hearing floating around is working with Iran to somehow stem some of this. That seems like an unpalatable option for a lot of people. What are your thoughts on that?

FRANCONA: It's very unpalatable. We are getting forced into one of these situations where we have got to arrest this development. These guys are on the outskirts of Baghdad. What do we do to stop them? Can we do it ourselves? Do we need to have the Iranians?

The Iranians are already in. There are already two battalions of Iranian troops there. They are a good troops. There is the old Quds Force, they are qualified. They were responsible for training the militias that were killing American soldiers a few years ago.

So I don't think we want to be in a position of working with them. Unfortunately, as I said, tactically we may have to do this. Strategically we've got to do other things. But I tell you, if we work with the Iranians it's going to alienate all the Sunnis.

BERMAN: So Peter, you know there is a whole range of problems here. One of the biggest ones being that we don't trust the government in Iraq. The Maliki government, the U.S. doesn't trust them, clearly. So who does the U.S. trust there right now? There is a New York Times article that says that Ahmed Chalabi, of all people, is angling to come back to power. And that is name that sends shivers down the spin of a lot of people who --

BERGEN: Wow, that is a blast from the past. Ahmed Chalabi, at the beginning of the war he was going to train up this massive army and it turned out to be 70 guys, many of them overweight who got trained and made no impact on the war. So, you know, what we're facing in Iraq is very similar to what the president faced in Syria which is, what does day two look like after you intervene. There's a bad set, you have to make a least bad decision. In Syria, al Qaeda and Hezbollah were effectively the two most effective fighting force, and they were fighting each other.

Here, the most effective fighting forces are going to be the Quds Force which is an Iranian group that Lieutenant Colonel Francona referenced. And also ISIS which is an even worse form of al Qaeda. And so at the end of the day, if you intervene, you are helping at least one of those sides and neither of them seem like they are allies of the United States that you would want to help in anyway.

BERMAN: The least bad decision. No wonder it's not building a lot of enthusiasm right now in the United States. Rick Francona, Peter Bergen, thank you so much for begin with us. The situation, obviously, in Iraq changing by the hour, by the minute in fact. And CNN Anderson Cooper is on the ground there in Baghdad. You can watch his live report tonight at 8:00 eastern.

PEREIRA: Another big story that we are following today, bad, bad weather. Severe storms have threatened the Midwest again after nearly 30 tornadoes ripped through that region. We'll bring you a live report from the ground coming up next.


BERMAN: Deadly devastating tornadoes just tearing through the Midwest. As of last count, nearly 30, including these dual tornadoes. That means two of them tearing through, special storm chaser Ben McMillan called this weather event historic.

BEN MCMILLAN, STORM CHASER: We started out the day north of Columbus and the storms just went very violent rather quickly. Almost as fast as I've seen storms go from a cloud to a tornado and then what happened next, we saw a violent tornado translate into two and even three tornadoes at once on the ground.

PEREIRA: As cool as it is that's not the kind of history you want to make. Those tornadoes were quick to form. They left a wide swath of destruction and heart break. Most of Pilger, Nebraska, they are saying something like half of the town was destroyed according to the sheriffs office there. Indra Petersons is on the ground in Pilger, bringing us the latest. We can just see the devastation behind you, Talking about the fact that half of this town has been decimated. Give us the latest from where you are at, I can see the wind is still going.

INDRA PETERSONS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: One of things I actually want to clarify, Michaela, you talk about these two tornadoes. It's not rare, necessarily, to see two tornadoes but what is rare to see two large violent tornadoes, both at pretty much equal magnitude. Both hit a town directly. Just both of them only being separated a mile or so. That's what happened here yesterday.

You were talking about half this town. We're seeing reports that possibly 75 percent of this town was completely demolished by this tornado. The entire town is only about one square mile, holding about 350 residents. But this morning, now that they are slowly being allowed to trickle back here, we are talking about 40 if not 50 of these home completely leveled. The fire station gone, even the middle school that was there, they are saying, looks like it's past the point of being repair.

So that's the concern his morning, a lot of the residents -- remember they declared a state of emergency, actually spent the night in a red cross shelter in the city nearby. They are just now slowly being able to come back in, and this is the sight they are seeing. It was actually pretty hard to see earlier this morning.

Now you can actually see these are power lines. I don't know if you can see the power poles. This is from the complete opposite side of the highway. This is highway 15. You are talking about these polls being completely split in half and dropped across the highway. Here are those power lines lying on top. What was actually supposed to be a two story building now completely down to the ground. Michaela and John.

BERMAN: It's not crazy to look at what this storm has already done where you are Indra. But it's not through yet. This system is really moving across the United States right now.

PETERSONS: That's exactly the concern. Earlier this morning, it was 40 million people, it's now been expanded to 80 million people, even including places like D.C., New York City. We're talking about a huge population now being threatened by severe weather. Especially as we get more sunlight and fire up toward the afternoon.

PEREIRA: I had a chance to speak to someone earlier today on "NEW DAY." A resident that has been there for many, many years and she was saying that they felt that that area that they live, their area where they live in Pilger, they were too close to the river. They had this false impression that they wouldn't see tornadoes, especially of this magnitude, there. This is an unusual sight for this area?

PETERSONS: What they are used to is seeing is tornadoes, what they are not used to seeing is two of them of that size. When we were talking about storm chasing, I talk to some of my friend who come out here, and they have been coming out here for nine years, they have never seen anything like yesterday. You are talking about two violent tornadoes of equal magnitudes that close together, that is what made yesterday so exceptional. Unfortunately so devastating.

PEREIRA: Yes, half the town gone. Indra Petersons, thank you so very much for bringing us those live images from that town. As we mentioned, the town that was of about 350 people, mostly destroyed by the tornadoes there. If you would like to find out about ways to help those affected by the disaster, visit our website

BERMAN: Coming up for us next, Iraq dissolving into chaos. While pressure mounts on President Obama to make a decision, the former U.S. administrator in Iraq is blaming the president now for the instability. But is this the time to blame and is that the right person to blame? And is this the guy to be doing the blaming? Our political commentators weigh in ahead @THISHOUR.