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Air Strikes Have Started; ISIS Inflicts Fear; U.S Drops Food to Those Stranded on Mountain; Cease-Fire Has Ended; Interview with Rear Admiral John Kirby

Aired August 8, 2014 - 06:00   ET


CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: A special edition of NEW DAY starts right now.

Good morning. Welcome to NEW DAY. It is Friday, August 8. 6:00 in the east. We want to welcome our viewers from across the country and around the world. This morning, the world is on edge. A cease-fire evaporated in the Middle East and renewed military action in Iraq.


CUOMO (voice-over): President Obama has given the green light, just last night, for targeted air strikes inside Iraq. Why? To stop the advance of ISIS militants, Islamist terrorists who have been ransacking the country. The president fears they may be getting too close to American personnel still in the country working with the Iraqi military.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): The other issue, these militants are rooting out Christians and religious minorities. Most from what's known as the Yazidi tradition. They have been driven out of Western Iraq, near Syria leading to what the White House is calling a humanitarian crisis. Tens of thousands facing a grave choice, flee their homes or face execution. Many who did flee have now been stranded on a mountain for days fearing for their lives. The U.S. military has been offering help overnight and dropping in food, water and some very basic supplies.

Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr has the details on the president's late night announcement as well as next step in this fight against ISIS.


BOLDUAN (on camera): Good morning, Barbara.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Kate. A very significant order from President Obama. Air strikes are authorized. That means they could happen at anytime without the military even going back to the White House for approval.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: We do whatever is necessary to protect our people.

STARR (voice-over): This morning, U.S. forces at the ready. President Obama authorizing targeted air strikes to protect American personnel in Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish region, now threatened by ISIS militants.

OBAMA: We intend to stay vigilant and take action. These terrorists have continued to move across Iraq and have neared the city of Irbil, where American diplomats and civilians serve at our consulate, and American military personnel advise Iraqi forces.

STARR: Overnight, a humanitarian aid drop was already made atop a mountain near Sinjar, where thousands of Yazidis, a religious minority group, have fled to escape a massacre by ISIS, actions which Obama says could constitute genocide.

OBAMA: And these terrorists have been especially barbaric towards religious minorities. These innocent families are faced with a horrible choice -- descend the mountain and be slaughtered, or stay and slowly die of thirst and hunger.

STARR: Three Air Force cargo planes escorted by two fighter jets supplied over 70 bundles of critical aid, including thousands of gallons of water and food. A race to stop catastrophe, after 40 children have reportedly already died from thirst, the president also authorizing more targeted air strikes to help Iraqi forces as they attempt to break the mountain siege.

OBAMA: Today, America is coming to help.

STARR: ISIS also targeting Christians, and attacking in areas around Ninevah Province, Iraq's Christian area, overrun by militants, forcing thousands of Christians to flee. ISIS fighters posing this ultimatum to Iraqis -- convert to Islam or die.

A reign of terror continues as ISIS gains control and takes over key parts of the country, including Iraq's largest dam, according to the militants, a key source of electricity and water.


STARR (on camera): Administration -- the U.S. administration still adamant there will be no U.S. military boots on the ground. This will not be ground combat action. Right now, the situation on that mountain top desperate. The United Nations estimates across Iraq now there are now some 200,000 Iraqis simply with nowhere to go. Kate?

BOLDUAN: It's getting a more desperate situation as we speak. Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thank you so much, Barbara.

Joining me now to talk about this and what the United States can do, should do to slow the is surge. Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona is a retired U.S. air force intelligence officer assigned to the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. He is now a CNN military analyst. Colonel, its great to see you. A lot to discuss. So let's get right to the area to show our viewers the area that we are talking about here. This is the area in Northern Iraq. And we're going to show you these areas. This is where the latest attacks, if you will, the focus of the ISIS surge has gone. This kind of spider web like, red area, this is where ISIS has taken over, over the last couple of months. When you see this area, you noted that their strategy here in this push that ISIS is making, what does this show to you?

LT. COL. RICK FRANCONA (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Oh, absolutely. If you look at where they are, they have come down the Euphrates valley, they've come down the Tigris Valley, they've gone up another small valley called the Diyala valley. If you look at what's in these valleys, are dams. All of the power generation is located in these areas, so if they take the Mosul dam, the Haditha dam, the Dokan dam, they pretty much control all of the power north of Baghdad.

BOLDUAN: And there's strategy behind this. This is not a rag tag group of militants that are pulled together. There is -- there is operational kind of, there's a mentality here.

FRANCONA: Oh, absolutely. As you watch how they move, they move like an army. They move with armored support, artillery support, they take everything with them, they go after designated targets and they fight very well. They are not a bunch of guys running up with rifles. They are using the tanks and uparmored Humvees they have taken from the Iraqi army. And that's what's pushed the Peshmerga back, the Kurds.

BOLDUAN: That's exactly what I wanted to ask you about. I want to talk about, some of these terms are new to some of us, not new to you. This Peshmerga security force, this is the security force for the Kurdish region, well regarded. Why have they not been able to hold off ISIS?

FRANCONA: Man for man, they are excellent fighters. They've been doing this a long time. They fought Saddam's army, now they're fighting the influx of the ISIS people. But the problem is, they just don't have the weaponry they need. They have been kind of ignored by the Maliki government. As we've been providing support to the Iraqis, some of that is supposed to go to Peshemerga, which would be the military arm of the Kurds and they're not getting what they need.

BOLDUAN: Also, what we have been talking about earlier when we were covering this crisis is ISIS is taking over all the supplies, the artillery, everything the United States has provided and that was supposed to go to the Iraqi security forces.

FRACONA: A lot of this is state of the art stuff. Now the Kurds find themselves out gunned, out manned, out matched. So if we don't provide some sort of material support to the Kurds the Peshmerga will not be able to stand up to ISIS and they will continue to roll toward Irbil. As we mentioned earlier, that's where you not only have a small U.S. military contingent, you also have all the embassy people that were moved from Baghdad. They thought this would be a safe place to go. Well, not so safe now.

BOLDUAN: I want to get to that in just a second. But lets talk about the, you have the immediate and the broader crisis. The immediate crisis, tens of thousands of folks stuck on the top of a mountain and this humanitarian aid that the United States has flown in overnight. They are dropping this in by C-130s you said, right?

FRACONA: Well, there's a C-17 and two C-130s. Together that puts about 20,000 meals on the ground. The problem is - -

BOLDUAN: This is obviously what it would like for this humanitarian drop. This is the area - - let's say they are stranded, they are stuck with nowhere to go and they are dying up there because they don't have water to survive. But in doing this drop, these planes have to fly very low. This is risky.

FRANCONA: Yes. You have to put -- you don't just push things out of a plane. You have to actually plan where you are going to put this because you want the people that you are trying to help to be able to get to it without risking their lives to get to it. One thing we have to remember is this is not a one time thing. They will need supply every day. That's enough for one day. Now they going to have to do this every day. This is an ongoing effort. Do we do this forever or do we have to work on some way to get these people off of that mountain and out of there?

BOLDUAN: And then this leads to the broader question, not only how do you do that in terms of the humanitarian crisis, but then when you talk about let's show where the air strikes that have been authorized, what we are talking about. The president has always said that if U.S. national security is at risk, that is when the United States would want to move in. Irbil is the area where you have consolate workers and you have these military advisers who are on the ground. That could be under threat. Why authorize air strikes, why now do you think?

FRANCONA: Because now we see a threat emerging. This is something you can actually see. They're 30 miles from Irbil, its a short drive, good roads. ISIS has shown the ability to move very quickly with a lot of force so air strikes is one way to blunt that advance.

BOLDUAN: Do you think it's a smart move?

FRANCONA: I think it's the only move right now. We have to do something. If you read what the president said, he said it would protect Americans in the country. If there's a threat to Baghdad airport, we could also see air strikes in that area because we have to keep that airport open. So its not just in the north, we could see air strikes all over the country.

BOLDUAN: Alright, we'll continue that conversation. Colonel, thank you very much. A lot to work through this morning on this breaking news story.

We are also going to be getting a live update from the Pentagon press secretary in just a few moments about all of these operations that have happened, really, overnight. Let's get you back over now to Jake Tapper. He's on the ground in Jerusalem for us following the breaking news in the Middle East. Jake?

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST, "THE LEAD": Good morning, Kate. The three-day cease-fire between Israel and Hamas is history. The Israeli military says rockets were fired into Israel before the cease-fire even ended and those rockets have continued well after. Now Israel is responding, quote, forcefully, unquote, with a relaunch of air strikes in Gaza.

That's where we find John Vause with the latest. John?

JOHN VAUSE, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, right now, I can hear the sermon from a mosque not far from here. It is Friday prayers, after all. Some people are out and about, they are attending Friday prayers. There are a few people out on the street and that's despite the fact that Israel renewed their military offensive probably about two hours ago now. It seems the first target was probably west of here, in the western part of Gaza City. Since then, according to the Palestinians, a number of other targets have been hit. According to the Palestinians, appears to have been a strike near a mosque, they say, that left a small child dead.

There's also been artillery tank and artillery fire in the northern part of Gaza. We haven't heard a lot from Hamas in the last couple of hours, but we have heard from another militant group here, Islamic jihad, they're claiming responsibility for firing a number of those rockets into Israel. They say they started firing once the cease-fire had expired. They say they are doing that because Israel violated the cease-fire by not agreeing to Palestinian demands at those peace talks in Cairo, Jake?

TAPPER: Thanks, John. The Israelis have made it very clear they were not willing to continue with peace negotiations in Cairo once the rocket fire resumed from Gaza. Let's go now to CNN's Reza Sayah in Cairo where talks were being held the last few days. Reza?

REZA SAYAH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Jake, Israel's position is that they were willing to extend the cease-fire beyond the 72 hours and Hamas broke it. Hamas has a different take. They say they didn't fire the rockets before the 72 hours was over. They also believe that Israel came here on a bluff, that they were not willing to address the core issues, the core demands. They were only using delay tactics to get back to the status quo, which was something that was unacceptable to Hamas. The minimum demand Hamas put forth to the Israelis was getting a sea port that would give them access to the outside world. Israel did not give that to them, apparently. That is why we are at this impasse and that's why the fighting has started back up again. What's worrying is that there's no indication these two sides are indirectly negotiating at this hour. The Israeli's left at 7:00 a.m. this morning local time. Palestinians stopped talking to the Egyptians at about 4:00 a.m. And obviously if you are going to solve this conflict, Jake, at the very least you're going to have to communicate. That's not happening, unfortunately, at this hour.

TAPPER: Reza Sayah in Cairo. The Israeli defense forces announces that two Israelis have been injured by rockets coming in from Gaza. Injured, these are individuals in Southern Israel. Back to you in New York.

CUOMO: Thanks, Jake. We'll be checking in with you throughout the morning. Coming up on NEW DAY the situation in Iraq is not about politics, it is genocide. Thousands of Iraqis are being hunted by ISIS terrorists who are trying to create an extremist religious state. It is literally hell on the ground there. The question is, how do we stop it? And who is we? Is this just about the U.S.? What can the U.S. do? We are going to talk to the Pentagon press secretary coming up. We'll find out what happens next.

BOLDUAN: Also ahead, the World Health Organization declaring the Ebola outbreak an international public health emergency. Dr. Sanjay Gupta is going to join us live. What does this mean?



OBAMA: Stop the advance on Erbil. I've directed the military to take targeted strikes against ISIL terrorists' convoys should they move toward the city. We intend to stay vigilant and take action if these terrorist forces threaten our personnel or facilities anywhere in Iraq including our consulate in Erbil and our embassy in Baghdad.


CUOMO: ISIL, ISIS, the Caliphate, whatever you want to call them, they are terrorists and they are chasing Iraqi Christians and minorities, looking to hunt them down and kill them in their efforts to create a religious state out of Iraq. And that is President Obama saying what seemed inevitable, that to stop the genocide and protect American interests in Iraq, he has authorized two things -- humanitarian efforts, air drops of food and supplies because literally these people are starving to death, and targeted air strikes to help the Iraqi forces and Kurdish forces fight them back.

So how will we pull this mission off? How bad is it? What could happen next as these tens of thousands of religious minorities are literally flying for their lives?

We have Rear Admiral John Kirby with us, the Pentagon press secretary right now traveling with the Defense Secretary in India. Admiral Kirby, can you hear us?

REAR ADMIRAL JOHN KIRBY, PENTAGON PRESS SECRETARY (via telephone): I got you loud and clear, Chris. Thanks for having me.

CUOMO: Well, look, thank you for taking the opportunity. I know you're dealing with a lot of urgencies right now. While you're in India, any chance that that government steps up and helps in what is an obvious cause for anyone who values freedom?

KIRBY: Well, I certainly wouldn't speak for the Indian government, but we're having good discussions here with them about our defense relationship between the two countries. But I'd let the Indian government speak for themselves on this.

For our part, as you rightly reported, Chris, we're committed to two things -- one is trying to relieve that humanitarian issue there on Mount Sinjar and of course being prepared and ready to conduct air strikes to protect American personnel.

CUOMO: As you know better than I, Admiral, it's not enough. The situation on the ground is dire, it's getting worse. No one seems to be able to stop these terrorists. What is the U.S. prepared to do? I know it sounds like mission creep, but what's going to come next?

KIRBY: Well, we're prepared to do what the president has authorized us to do, and as I said, it's to provide -- to -- well, we've provided these air drops of supplies to those Iraqi citizens on Mount Sinjar. And planners at central command are doing the necessary work to plan and be prepared to conduct air strikes against ISIL targets if and when required. But we've got the authorization to do that and we're being -- we're prepared to do that.

CUOMO: Is that enough? You think you can get this done from the air with a force that is spread out so wide and so random in its attacks and has no real base of power?

KIRBY: Well, remember, tough, Chris, the mission really is to protect American personnel in Erbil and potentially even in and around Baghdad. And also -- and this is an important point -- to try to help Iraqi security forces as they go after this threat. This is a threat inside their country, to their people, to their sovereignty, and ultimately this is an Iraqi fight to fight.

CUOMO: Right, but you also know that they seem to be losing it by larger and larger margins. And ISIS or whatever you want to call them, these terrorists, are getting more and more American assets that we gave to the Iraqi army. So at what point do you think that that country falls to the threat?

KIRBY: They're -- ISIL's progress in Iraq has been swift, there's no question about that. They're well led, they're well resourced, but it's mixed, Chris. We have seem them strengthened there in the north and that's what led to this humanitarian disaster on Mount Sinjar, this exodus of these people. But more towards the south and in and around Baghdad, we continue to see Iraqi security forces stiffen their resistance. They're being assisted by Shia militia.

So the fight is not uniform throughout the country of Iraq. Yes, they've moved swiftly and, yes, they've made progress in the north, but not so throughout the rest of the country.

CUOMO: Is from your understanding of what the mission is from the White House at this point, is the fact that these people are being hunted down and killed our problem? Is the U.S. going to protect them?

KIRBY: It is a -- it is a problem for the international community. And the international community has also responded with some humanitarian assistance. The government of Iraq provided some humanitarian assistance; we're chipping into that effort as well.

I mean, this is something that -- and, again, the president was very clear about this. This is something the world needs to take note of. I mean, these ISIL terrorists are simply brutes. They're thugs. They're murderers. They have no regard for human life or human dignity. And it's not just Christians or these Yazidis that they're threatening. They're threatening people of a different sect inside Muslim, the Shia. And there are Sunnis in places where once ISIL was welcome, ISIL was welcome that are now turning on ISIL as well.

So they are nothing but a bunch of brutish thugs and terrorists. And, again, I think everybody is mindful of the threat that they pose inside Iraq.

CUOMO: Right. And I think we have to make the audience mindful of the greater threat as well. Because you know, many people in our country will be shaking their heads and saying oh no, we don't want to go back in there. We've made it very clear.

But ISIS is now calling itself the Caliphate, OK? And that's a buzzword for people like you, Admiral, because that triggers their intentions, which is to create a religious state. You know the word on the ground is that they're training their fighters not just to fight in Iraq and those surrounding regions, but to launch attacks against the United States.

What do you believe the threat is, if nothing is done?

KIRBY: We do believe they pose a threat not just to Iraq, but to the region, and they do have certainly aspirational desires to threaten western targets, to include the United States and American citizens. There's no question about that. They pose a very serious threat. And, again, our focus is helping the Iraqis deal with this threat inside their country and in the broader region.

CUOMO: You know, first it just seemed Sunni/Shia, but now they're calling the Christians apostates, which are people who are deniers or non-believers, and they're just throwing them in a big category. That's going to include the U.S.; it's going to include everybody, basically, who is a non-extremist of their variety. So the longer we wait, aren't we just allowing the threat to grow?

KIRBY: Well, we're not waiting, though, Chris. And we've been very active here in this situation for many weeks now. We put an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf. We've intensified ISR over the country. We have put assessment teams on the ground. We've got advisers working in two joint operation centers, one in Baghdad, one up in Erbil, and now we have these operations conducted last night.

So the United States military, the United States, is not just standing by idly. We are working very hard on this. There is a sense of purpose and urgency here. But, again, this is ultimately an issue that the Iraqi government has got to come to grips with and solve, and the Iraqi security forces have got to continue to step up against this threat.

And part and parcel of this is a unity government in Iraq, a politically inclusive process, to look after their own people and to provide the kind of structure and stability that Iraq needs to prevent the growth of these kind of extremist groups inside. CUOMO: But that's an entirely different discussion, because, as you

know better than me, Admiral, Maliki does not seem inclined to get that done. There's a lot of criticism of him on the ground there.

And I also believe you're hearing from the ground that you need to give better weaponry to the Kurdish fighters, that they're not supposedly outmanned but that they're outgunned. Is there anything in that area of planning?

KIRBY: We're always looking at the security assistance for Iraq, Chris. And as -- one things I forgot to mention as I talked about the things we've been doing, we have expedited military assistance to the government of Iraq, mostly critically in the form of hellfire missiles to the tune of thousands of them that are on the way, which -- they've been used with good effect and the Iraqi government continues to need those.

So we're working with the Iraqi government on that, and that does include conversations and discussions with the Kurds and the Peshmerga up in the north. But we're continuing to evaluate those kinds of requests, absolutely.

CUOMO: Rear Admiral John Kirby, thank you so much. We know you have a lot on your plate. Please keep us in the loop. We're here to get the message out.

KIRBY: Thanks, Chris. Glad to be with you.

CUOMO: All right, coming up on NEW DAY, we do have more breaking news out of the Middle East. An opportunity for peace was just frankly wasted. The cease-fire has ended. Rocket fires are out there again. It's just what you've been seeing and it's going to be repeated.

The question is still -- can Israel and Hamas find common ground? Very difficult to negotiate with terrorists. We'll take you live to Jerusalem.

Plus, the World Health Organization is waving the white flag, declaring an Ebola emergency, admitting the virus is spreading faster than they can control it. The new catch word is a pandemic. How bad is it? How bad will it get? Dr. Sanjay Gupta has all of it for you.