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Cease-Fire Shattered; U.S. Airstrikes in Iraq; New Round of U.S. Airstrikes in Iraq; Interview with Tony Blinken

Aired August 8, 2014 - 16:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Breaking news: The U.S. military has launched a second round of airstrikes in Iraq.

I'm Jake Tapper. This is THE LEAD.

The world lead, fewer than three years after the last U.S. combat troops left Iraq, American fighter jets are once again bombing targets in that country. Will it be enough to keep American advisers and religious minorities on the ground safe from those bloodthirsty jihadists?

Also, so much for the cease-fire. Missiles and rockets are flying once again between Israel and Gaza after that fragile truce ended early this morning with a barrage of Palestinian rocket fire.

And after pleas from humanitarian groups, the World Health Organization is finally calling for a massive international response to the Ebola outbreak. How many lives will have been lost before that gets mobilized?

Welcome to THE LEAD, coming to you live from Jerusalem today as rockets from Gaza and missiles from Israel are once again launching, now that a cease-fire is no more. We will get into all of that, but we're going to begin our world lead today with the breaking news out of another Middle Eastern country where the bombs are also dropping, about 1,300 miles away.

Within the last few minutes, we have learned that the U.S. military has launched a second round of airstrikes against Islamic extremists. The group known as ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria -- they call themselves just the Islamic State. This video just into CNN a short time ago reportedly shows smoke rising into the sky from one of the U.S. strikes.

ISIS has been carving a path of death and destruction across Iraq for months. They have assuredly cropped up in the president's intel briefings long before today. Why take them on now? Well, two reasons, according to the president. One, ISIS began threatening the city of Irbil, where the U.S. has a consulate.

The president warned the U.S. would strike ISIS convoys if they moved on Irbil. And the Pentagon says that's exactly what they did. The second reason, the president says, stopping ISIS from committing genocide. ISIS ran tens of thousands of Yazidis, a religious minority of Kurdish descent, out of their homes in Northern Iraq into the mountains.

The U.S. has started airdropping supplies to these starving, thirsty people who will very likely be slaughtered by ISIS the moment they leave the mountain. ISIS considers the Yazidis to be infidels. The White House again today vowed that American combat troops will not return to Iraq, not the ground anyway.

Remember, 4,486 service men and women, not to mention countless tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis, died in the war the U.S. launched there in 2003. Now, even if U.S. boots do not hit the ground, America is once again involved militarily in Iraq.

Let's go right to our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, who has more details on this breaking news -- Barbara.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Jake, the Pentagon announcing just moments ago a second round of airstrikes with a very interesting words, they are doing this to defend the city of Irbil, where of course those U.S. military advisers and diplomatic personnel are located, but as ISIS has grown closer and closer to the city of Irbil, now the words we're hearing from the Pentagon is they are doing these airstrikes in the words of the Pentagon spokesman Admiral John Kirby to help defend the city.

We have had that first airstrike in the early morning hours against an ISIS artillery piece on the outskirts of the town. Now we have two additional airstrikes that happened a short time later. We are now just getting the details. One of them was an airstrike conducted by a U.S. military drone.

As you know, those usually fire Hellfire missiles, very precise at going after very specific targets. That drone went against an ISIS mortar position. And we are told when the fighters returned to the site moments after it was struck. The -- they were attacked again by U.S. military assets.

So they attacked it. The fighters came back. The U.S. came back and attacked that mortar position again. About an hour and 20 minutes after that attack, there was a more comprehensive attack. Four U.S. FA-18 aircraft we believe off the carrier George H.W. Bush in the Persian Gulf launched a strike against an ISIS convoy of seven vehicles and an additional mortar position near Irbil.

That convoy was stationary at the time. We are told the four FA-18s passed over the target twice, dropping laser-guided bombs, a total of eight bombs dropped on the target of the mortar position and the convoy.

What we are seeing is these aircraft coming off the George W. Bush going on combat air patrol over Northern Iraq, as they see the targets now striking them with laser-guided precision, also guided by GPS coordinate to the target. Those kinds of bombs. We have seen 500- pound GPS-guided bombs.

There's a good reason for this. They are the weapon of choice when you are going after a potentially mobile target, and you want to be very precise to avoid civilian casualties. This is exactly what you would expect the military to do and, of course, well worth remembering, there are now U.S. pilots at risk over ISIS territory. The U.S. military takes all the precautions, but there is always a risk involved in this -- Jake.

TAPPER: Indeed. Barbara Starr, thank you so much.

Let's bring in Zalmay Khalilzad, the former ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ambassador Khalilzad, good to see you.

VICE News recently talked to press ISIS press officer Abu Mosa on video. Here's his message for America. Take a listen.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): I say to America that the Islamic caliphate has been established. Don't be cowards and attack us with drones. Instead, send your soldiers, the ones we humiliated in Iraq. We will humiliate them anywhere, God willing, and we will raise the flag of Allah in the White House.


TAPPER: So let me read this for those listening on the radio and for anybody who doesn't speak Arabic and didn't have a chance to read the screen there.

"I say to America that the Islamic state has been established. With God's permission, it will not stop your cowards. If you're real men, we're here on the ground. Don't send your drones. Send your soldiers, whom we have humiliated in Iraq. And with God's permission, we will humiliate them everywhere and, God willing, we will raise our flag in the White House."

How seriously should Americans be concerned about ISIS?

ZALMAY KHALILZAD, FORMER UNITED STATES AMBASSADOR TO IRAQ: Well, Americans should be concerned about ISIS, but these statements I'm very familiar with. Saddam Hussein used to say during the Gulf War after he invaded Kuwait that the Americans believe in airpower, and airpower is not decisive and that if America was -- it would send ground forces to Iraq.

And he lost that war. But I think the ISIS threat is serious. It's a threat. Obviously, we see it to the Yazidis, to the Christians, to the Kurds, to the Iraqi Arabs and to the region and ultimately to the United States. So we have to take it seriously, but we're strong enough with the appropriate strategies to deal with it.

And it will take time. There will be difficulties. It isn't going to be easy. But I think we and our allies are capable enough to deal with it.

TAPPER: Do you think airstrikes will be enough, sir? KHALILZAD: Well, airstrikes in combination with work with the Kurds,

with the local forces, Sunnis and Shias, would be enough.

ISIS reminds me a lot, Jake, of the Taliban in Afghanistan. They, too, moved very quickly to cover a lot of areas, but then we applied airpower in combination with Northern Alliance and other Afghan forces, were able to push them out of Afghan cities.

So I think what we need to do is to have a coordinated strategy with local forces moving as we take them down, degrade their capabilities for them to move against those forces. So that would be very important in my view.

TAPPER: Do you think this would be happening if there had been some sort of residual U.S. combat force left -- U.S. force left in Iraq?

KHALILZAD: I think that was a mistake.

I have said that before, because our presence would have given us leverage to discourage Maliki, Prime Minister Maliki from being sectarian and that would have kept the political process likely on the right track, meaning the Sunnis and Shia, and, of course, working together.

And, two, I think it would have also assisted with the Iraqi forces not fragmenting, not falling apart the way they did when they confronted ISIS because of the changes in part that Maliki brought to those forces. So I think, you know, hindsight is 20/20, but my judgment is that it probably wouldn't have worked the way it did if we had stayed.

TAPPER: What do you say to Americans who are watching this and they say their hearts go out to the Yazidis and the Christians who are being slaughtered, but this really isn't America's business? What's your message to them?

KHALILZAD: Well, in the current period, the biggest threat that the world faces, at least one of them, is the threat of terrorism.

You know, we saw it on 9/11 in the United States. And we cannot, unfortunately, isolate ourself from the world and build fortress America. In order to keep the threat away from the United States, we need to deal with them away from the United States.

And ISIS is a threat, a threat to the United States, and the better way to deal with it is now with assistance from local forces to contain them initially and ultimately to defeat them in the theater, in Iraq and Syria, rather than confront them in Europe or even in the United States.

TAPPER: Former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad, thank you so much. Appreciate your time taking the time to talk to us.

Coming up on THE LEAD, just months ago, he called them a J.V. team. Now President Obama ordering airstrikes to take them out. What drove the president to change his mind on the threat ISIS poses? Plus, a 10-year-old is dead and the fight rages on in Gaza and Israel as the temporary cease-fire ends. Is there any hope left that a deal will be made for a permanent truce?


TAPPER: I'm Jake Tapper live in Jerusalem.

The Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire has gone up in flames and the rockets and missiles are once again flying. Much more on this dangerous situation coming up.

But first, another dangerous situation -- a second round of U.S. air strikes has begun in Iraq.

Our chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto has been following the American response to ISIS, the deadly al Qaeda offshoot that has sunk its teeth into a huge swath of the country of Iraq, and sent hundreds of thousands of civilians literally fleeing for their lives.

Jim, good to see you as always.

Two Navy F-18 fighter jets dropped laser-guided bombs this morning. But what good is a limited airstrike against a group that even al Qaeda reportedly considers too extreme?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, despite all the territory that ISIS has managed to capture both in Syria and Iraq, as you can see here, these red and black areas, these operations are limited as defined so far because the objectives of these operations are limited to two main goals.

The first goal is here and these are the Yazidi people that you've heard about, holed up in these mountains just to the west or the east rather of Mosul surrounded now. They need food, as those were the humanitarian air drops yesterday, and now need protection, they need security, a secure corridor to get them away to safer ground in Kurdish-controlled areas. That's objective number one.

Objective number two is in Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish- controlled areas in the north. In Irbil, you have the U.S. consulate here in Ankawa, in the northern part of the city. Keep in mind, this is only about 20 miles to the border with Iraq where ISIS forces have managed to get. U.S. officials very concerned about the threat to American personnel there both military and consular staff and they want to protect them. And that's why they've been taking military strikes on ISIS targets just along the border of Irbil.

The open question, Jake, is this -- what do you do about all these here, all these other areas? How much help to you give the Iraqis? Josh Earnest today said that there could be a somewhat broader mission but did not define what U.S. would be going forward. That's the open question for the administration. Iraqi forces to this point have not been able to push ISIS forces back. In fact, ISIS had been advancing. What does the U.S. do to help them, if anything, going forward? TAPPER: Jim, ISIS has been slaughtering tens of thousands of innocent

Iraqis for months. Why act now?

SCIUTTO: It's a very fair -- it's a fair question. You know, those twos reasons that I gave you. One, you have a looming massacre for the Yazidi people -- clearly something that the administration could not stomach, the prospects of 40,000 -- some 40,000 Yazidis slaughtered, as many thousands, hundreds of others have been slaughtered in other parts of the country, one. Plus, the risk to U.S. personnel. That was enough.

You'll remember that when ISIS was advancing towards Baghdad, some weeks ago, the U.S. was talking about action to protect the airport, to protect American staff here. That was managed to be pushed back by Iraqi forces. Kurdish forces up here in the north could not apparently push back ISIS forces. So, the U.S. felt compelled to act now.

TAPPER: All right. Jim Sciutto, thanks so much.

Let's bring in White House deputy national security advisor Tony Blinken.

Tony, thanks for joining us.

As you know, air strikes can be effective but only so far. How far is the White House willing to go to stop this slaughter by ISIS?

TONY BLINKEN, WHITE HOUSE DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: Jake, Jim Sciutto had it exactly right. First, we're dealing with an urgent situation on two fronts. One, the humanitarian threat, potential catastrophe with the Yazidis trapped on the mountain, tens of thousands potentially. In an effort to relieve them and relieve the siege that they're encountering.

Second, as he said, the threat to Irbil, which is the largest Kurdish city, and where we have a significant American presence with the consulate to make sure that ISIS could not advance on the city, to give the Kurds time to regroup and prepare.

But, Jake, what we have here is also a much broader strategy that we're implementing to empower the Iraqis over time to deal with the threat imposed by ISIS. That involves bringing together a new government that can bring together all the Iraqi people. It involves assessing the needs of that government and its military forces to make sure that they have what they need. It involves empowering the Kurds and other partners, reaching out to the Sunni tribes, to bring them in and coordinating all the neighbors.

All of that is happening at the same time, but we had to act to take account of these urgent situations.

TAPPER: Tony, a lot of people have been warning about ISIS for months and months with no serious action by the White House. Was the intelligence not there? Why is it only now that you're acting? BLINKEN: Actually, we've been warning about this for a long time

ourselves, well beyond that. When initially in 2012, we said to the Iraqis, AQI, which is ISIS' predecessor, may be on its heels but the only way to keep them there is to go after them constantly. And we proposed to engage with them to help them do that.

The politics in Iraq wouldn't allow that. But it took awhile and finally, in 2013, a year ago, we began to increase the capacity of the Iraqis to deal with AQI and what became ISIS. And, of course, the Syrian conflict added fuel to the fire. So, we've been focused on this for well over a year. And, unfortunately, the ISIS threat overtook the efforts that the Iraqis were making to deal with it.

Now, unfortunately, everyone is seized with this. But what we're seeing increasingly is coordination among the Iraqis and Kurds, which is unique, we haven't seen that in a long time. And countries in the region who have responded to this threat which is a threat to them, as well, all getting together and looking to take action.

TAPPER: Tony, you say you've been warning about it, but in January, President Obama told "The New Yorker" magazine's David Remnick that ISIS which was then still considered a part of al Qaeda fighting in Syria was like a jayvee basketball team. He said the analogy we use around here sometimes and is accurate is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms, that doesn't make them Kobe Bryant.

Just how badly did President Obama underestimate the threat of ISIS?

BLINKEN: No, there are two different things going on here, Jake. One is the question of the threat that ISIS poses to us here in the homeland. Unlike core al Qaeda, right now, their focus is not on attacking the U.S. homeland or attacking our interests here in the United States or abroad. It's focused intently on trying to create a caliphate now in Iraq and a base from which over time to operate.

And that's what we're focused on. We're focused on making sure that we can help empower the Iraqis and others to prevent them from doing just that. The president was exactly right. They did not pose a threat like al Qaeda central to us in the homeland. We want to make sure they don't get to the point where they can pose that threat.

TAPPER: Well, going from calling them jayvee to ordering airstrikes against them certainly seems like a big turn around. But let's move on.

You were in the room when President Obama called the leader of Jordan, King Abdullah II, to talk about the slaughter. What is he, the rest of the Arab world, and more broadly the international community doing to join with the United States and stop this?

BLINKEN: Look, Jake, I think the region is seized with this, because again, ISIS poses a threat not only to the people of Iraq, by the way, every single community in Iraq, anyone they encountered, they are basically trying to slaughter, but to the neighbors, as well, including the Jordanians. So, what we're doing is helping to organize all of the countries in the region to bring to bear their assets, their resources, their support to deal with this threat.

First and foremost, we need to stand up an Iraqi government that brings the country together that everyone can join in supporting, building their capacity to deal with the threat. Second, we're working on supporting the Kurd who have a very cohesive military and given the right equipment and right support can also take the fight to ISIS. And then throughout all of this, again, there are resources that can be brought to bear, coordination that can be brought to bear. We're seeing that increasingly with all of the neighbors.

TAPPER: Well, let's hope that the neighbors join in and help the United States with this important task.

White House deputy national security advisor Tony Blinken, thank you so much for answering the questions.

BLINKEN: Thanks a lot, Jake.

TAPPER: When we come back, no food, no water, surrounded by ruthless killers, tens of thousands of Christians told to convert or be killed, and now fearing they might die anyway without the help they need. Our own Ivan Watson is on the ground there with these refugees. And we will go live to him inside Iraq coming up.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD, coming to you live from Jerusalem where hostilities have resumed after a 72-hour cease-fire ended today. More on that in just a moment.

But, first, our continuing coverage of the breaking news out of Iraq as the U.S. once again is bringing its military might to a country where it has waged war before. Launching a second round of airstrikes on ISIS jihadist targets as we have learned just in the last few minutes.

As religious minorities head for the hills and try to take cover, our senior international correspondent Ivan Watson is in Irbil, which is a city that U.S. strikes are designed to protect from the advancing ISIS hoards.

First, Ivan, can you tell us just how faraway ISIS is from where you are?

IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: They are about 30 miles by car, 50 kilometers from here in a town called Gwer. They're also south of here in a town called Mahmour.

The Kurdish leadership seems a lot more comfortable and confident today than they were just 24 hours ago when it seemed that some of the Peshmerga units had all but collapsed perhaps because of the heavy casualties they faced. The chief of staff of the Kurdistan regional government telling CNN at least 150 Kurdish Peshmerga have been killed since August 2nd and another 500 more wounded since that time.

So, the U.S. airstrikes appear to have given the Peshmerga, according to senior Kurdish officials that I've been talking to, time to regroup, time to re-form their defenses after a period when the defense were very shaky around the capital of the Kurdistan region of Irbil.

The defenses that they're protecting themselves on run more than 1,000 kilometers, Jake. There are only about 15 miles where the Kurds still control territory that is contiguous to territory still controlled by the Iraqi government. And that's on the far eastern near the border with Iran.