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Iraqi Forces Launch Offensive to Retake Western Mosul; Trump Rips Media, Touts Accomplishments at Rally; Russia Says It Won't Return Control of Crimea; Syria in Spotlight at Security Summit. Aired 3-3:30a ET

Aired February 19, 2017 - 03:00   ET




CYRIL VANIER, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): The fight against ISIS ramps up as Iraqi forces begin the next chapter in their battle to retake Mosul.

U.S. President Donald Trump turning back the clock to his campaign days as he rallies supporters and whips up the crowd in Florida.

And CNN is working to bring you news from remote parts of Kenya. Millions fighting to survive one of the worst droughts in the country's history. The CNN Weather Center looks at the magnitude of this natural and human disaster.

Hi, everyone. Thank you for joining us. I'm Cyril Vanier, live from Atlanta. And CNN NEWSROOM starts right now.


VANIER: The battle for Mosul intensifies. Iraqi forces have launched an operation to regain control of Western Mosul, having recaptured all of the eastern parts of the city over the last few months. Iraq's prime minister called it a new dawn and chapter for the city's liberation.

Let's go to our Ben Wedeman, who's following developments from Istanbul -- Ben.

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Cyril. The announcement was made this morning at 7:00 am Baghdad time by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. This is what he told the Iraqi people on Iraqi television.


HAIDER AL-ABADI, PRIME MINISTER OF IRAQ (through translator): We are announcing the start of a new phase of We Are Coming Nineveh operations to liberate the right side of Mosul city as we had liberated other areas.

We call on our brave troops to start the push to liberate the rest of the city and to liberate people from the oppression and terrorism of daish.


WEDEMAN: Of course this operation has been ramping up for quite a few days. There's been an intensification of Iraqi air force and coalition air force bombardment of the western part of the city as well as some very heavy artillery barrages by the Iraqi military on the western part of the city.

But it is a very difficult operation, keeping in mind there's anywhere from 650,000 and 800,000 civilians within Western Mosul itself. And these civilians already living in difficult circumstances, with shortages of food, limited electricity, limited cooking and fuel oil as well. So they're in a difficult situation.

Now, overnight, the Iraqi military dropped millions of leaflets over the western part of Mosul, calling on ISIS to lay down their arms and surrender and warning civilians in the city to stay in their homes and cooperate with Iraqi forces as they advance into the city.

Now we understand at this point that the Iraqi forces are approaching Mosul from four different axes, from the west and the southwest. Their focus is, first of all, to try to regain control of Mosul airport.

But it is going to be a hard fight, keeping in mind, of course, that, that the battle to liberate the eastern part of the city began in the middle of October and just ended a few weeks ago.

And, therefore, the western part of the city, which is more densely populated, although a slightly smaller population with already about 2,000 to 3,000 ISIS fighters inside, fortified, they have been using lots of suicide car bombs, snipers, booby traps. So it's going to be a long, difficult and dangerous battle -- Cyril.

VANIER: Ben, if ISIS is indeed rooted out of Western Mosul, will they still be a threat to Iraq?

WEDEMAN: They will be. Keep in mind that they still do control the town of Hoija (ph), which is south of Kirkuk, and Telafer (ph), to the west of Mosul. So the battle isn't over yet. Clearly, this will be the largest battle to date.

But there is still a struggle to go. And keep in mind, for instance, even in the eastern part of the city, where the army is in control, they've had to struggle with remnants -- sleeper cells, so to speak -- of ISIS who have been left behind, who have been using bombs and snipers even there to make life difficult for the military and the civilian population.

VANIER: Ben Wedeman, reporting live from Istanbul, thank you so much.

Also breaking this hour, the death of the half-brother of North Korea's leader is getting even more mysterious. Police in Malaysia are looking for four North Korean suspects. Officials say they fled Malaysia the same day that Kim Jong-nam was killed at the Kuala Lumpur airport.

Police have already arrested four other suspects. One of those says she thought she was on a TV prank show --


VANIER: -- when she was paid to spray a liquid on his face. Malaysia is trying to get DNA from the next of kin before releasing his body.

U.S. President Donald Trump marked his first month in office by returning to a format that helped get him elected, a freewheeling campaign-style rally before thousand of cheering supporters.

Mr. Trump's remarks Saturday in Melbourne, Florida, hit on many of his most populist themes: restoring American jobs, slamming international trade deals and defending his controversial travel ban.

But some of his harshest words were aimed at the media, especially news organizations that he recently denounced as "the enemy of the American people."


DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: They've become a big part of the problem. They are part of the corrupt system. Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln and many of our greatest presidents fought with the media and called them out oftentimes on their lies.

When the media lies to people, I will never, ever let them get away with it.


VANIER: Let's get more from CNN's Athena Jones in Melbourne, Florida.


ATHENA JONES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: This rally was like a flashback to campaign 2016. And in many ways it was an extension of the campaign. It was paid for by the campaign. The White House described it as a campaign rally.

Asked before he got off of Air Force One upon arrival why he was doing a campaign event so early in his presidency, the president told reporters, life is a campaign. Making our country great again is a campaign.

What was interesting here was there you had the president, repeating a lot of the same rhetoric we've heard on the campaign trail. A lot of the same arguments we heard just a few days ago at that press conference on Thursday in the East Room, laying out some of what he views as his administration's great accomplishments in his view in his first month.

He talked about the five-year ban on lobbying. He also complained once again about this travel ban and talked about the need to keep America safe.

We have been talking a lot about how it is not unusual to see a president go out on the road early in his presidency to sell something, to sell a specific policy. We have been talking how President Trump wasn't pushing one specific policy, like, for instance, the stimulus package back in 2009, when President Obama first took office.

But he did ostensibly try to sell one thing today. He tried to urge Democrats on Capitol Hill to cooperate with Republicans to pass his agenda. Take a listen.

TRUMP: It's also time for the Senate Democrats to take responsibility for ObamaCare and to work with us to replace it with new reforms that reverse this nationwide health care tragedy.

It is a tragedy. It's unaffordable. It doesn't work. And I said to the Republicans, I said, you want to do something great politically, don't do anything. Sit back for two years, let it explode. The Democrats will come and beg for us to do something.

But we can't do that to the American people. We have to fix it. And we will. We need members of both parties to join hands and work with us to pass a $1 trillion infrastructure plan to build new roads and bridges and airports and tunnels and highways and railways all across our great nation.


JONES: So there he was, urging bipartisan cooperation to get the things done that he wants to get done. I should note that Democrats on Capitol Hill have indicated they are interested in working with Republicans on an infrastructure package.

One more area where he called on Democrats to cooperate with Republicans was to approve his nominee to replace Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia, Judge Neil Gorsuch.

So he did end up trying to sell something when it comes to place here during this speech. But still this was very much something that he was looking forward to doing. He said early on in the speech that he wanted to get around the media filter to talk directly to the people.

And it was clear that this crowd really ate it up. These are people who had been standing in line for hours. Very, very interesting and campaign-like event here.


VANIER: Larry Sabato joins me now, director of The Center for Politics at The University of Virginia.

Larry, Donald Trump didn't announce anything particularly new during his rally. Much of his speech was actually identical to campaign rallies.

Politically, what was the purpose of that?

LARRY SABATO, UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA: Yes, I thought I had jumped in a time machine and gone back to the campaign because there was nothing new. And he was campaigning flat out. But this time, not for 2016 but for 2020.

There were really two purposes. One was to let everyone know he is running for a second term, as if anyone ever doubted it. But the more important reason why he is doing it is because he wants --


SABATO: -- to keep his base, the 46 percent of Americans who voted for him, excited, energized and ready to lobby Congress and others on behalf of his program.

VANIER: It is interesting; if you compare the tension in the room during his White House press conference on Thursday, if you compare that with the adoration, adulation, that we saw during that rally, what do you take away from that contrast?

SABATO: Well, Donald Trump does not respond well to critical questioning. We saw that throughout the campaign. We saw it at the press conference.

He much prefers what we saw in Florida, thousands and thousands of people, who hang on his every word and will actually believe his misstatements and sometimes outright lies. Some of them have been corrected over and over but he persists.

VANIER: The first few weeks in office for Donald Trump have been a little rough, especially if you look at the travel ban. You look at his relationship with the media. Ultimately, though, does that hinder his ability to govern and lay out -- roll out his policies in any way?

SABATO: Well, it doesn't help because some of the Democrats in the Senate, for example, anytime 60 votes are needed, will be less likely to vote with him if their constituents are opposed. And right now he has the support of just a few percent of Democrats.

Remember, he is at the lowest point that any new president has ever been in since polls have been taken, beginning in the 1930s. The last two very good polls, Pew Research Center and the Gallup poll, showed him between 38 percent and 39 percent favorable. The average new president is at 62 percent.

So this is an enormous gap. Still, he has the luckiest card game going because he got Republicans as a majority in both houses of Congress. And their fates are tied to his.

VANIER: Yes, but you did mention something very important, that super majority, 60 votes that he would be needing in the Senate to pass, presumably, presumably, any major big-ticket items.

So if you look at what Donald Trump set out as a priority, whether it's border security, health care reform, tax reform, where do you think he has strongest chance of success?

SABATO: He has to push for the border wall. He is going to have trouble getting nearly as much money as he wants for it. But it's pretty clear, even from the rally today, that that is what motivates people. That is what motivates his base.

He has to abolish ObamaCare but also find a way to replace it. That's an urgent priority of the entire Republican constituency. So there are a lot of things on his agenda. I am not sure how many things Congress can digest, even a Republican Congress.

VANIER: All right, Larry Sabato, great to speak to you again. Thank you very much.

SABATO: Thank you, Cyril.

VANIER: Russia says another cease-fire is set to begin Monday in Eastern Ukraine. Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov made that announcement on Saturday after meeting in Munich with top diplomats from France, Germany and Ukraine.

Now past peace attempts in the region failed to end fighting between pro-Russian rebels and Ukrainian troops. So let's find out more on this one with senior international correspondent, Ivan Watson, who joins us now from Moscow.

Ivan, this conflict has been starting and stopping for three years.

Do you see this cease-fire as a possible turning point or just one more lull in the fighting before it picks up again?

IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Probably the latter, Cyril, because it was just about a week and a half ago that we were reporting about a cease-fire going into effect. And there have been reports of violations of that cease-fire in the last 24 hours and, also, the timing of this is a bit suspect.

While this could be welcomed by people living in the conflict zone under horrific conditions, the timing of it -- again, I don't know if it's a coincidence or not. But the Russian president published an executive order, roughly the same time, announcing that Russia, the government here, would begin recognizing documents, identity documents and papers from citizens living in the so-called separatist republics of Eastern Ukraine that are fighting the Ukrainian government.

That's Donetsk and Lugansk and that citizens from those areas can travel freely across the border to neighboring Russia. That has been condemned by the Ukrainian government, which has called that basically an abrogation of the entire peace process and a Russian step toward formally recognizing these breakaway regions of Eastern Ukraine.

So judging by that rhetoric and --


WATSON: -- the fact that it has so angered the Ukrainian government, that does not suggest that both sides are moving closer towards a resolution of this conflict -- Cyril.

VANIER: And this conflict in Eastern Ukraine plays, of course, into a wider story, Russia's confrontation with the West, specifically the U.S.

How do you think this factors in?

WATSON: Well, I mean it is clear that this has become a sticking point, even with the new Trump administration, which came into office with Donald Trump himself frequently talking about how he would like to make some kind of a deal with Russia and that he'd like to cooperate with Russia to fight against international terrorism.

But the White House has also come out with statements criticizing Russia's actions in Ukraine, not so much about the conflict in the east of the country but more so about Russia's invasion and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 and demanding that Russia give that back to Ukraine.

That is pretty much a nonstarter for the government here in Moscow. And that flashpoint, that action in 2014 has kind of been the starting point from which the U.S. and the European Union imposed sanctions against Russia.

That's when the relations really, really deteriorated between the two sides. So that is going to be a big sticking point if the Trump administration ever wants to move forward with some kind of a peace deal with Russia.

It is an issue that was raised by senior officials in the Trump administration as they toured conferences and international meetings in Europe just this week.


VANIER: Senior international correspondent Ivan Watson, reporting live from Moscow, thank you very much.

We will take a short break. When we come back, Syria's brutal civil war in the spotlight at a high level security summit in Germany. We'll have details on that.

Plus the latest on the deadly storms still hitting Southern California. The worst may still be ahead. Stay with us.




VANIER: The war in Syria that has been going on now for six years will be the focus of the Munich Security Conference this Sunday. Israeli, Saudi, Turkish and Iranian officials all expected to speak at the summit in Germany in the coming hours.

Nic Robertson is in Munich. He's covering that for us.

Nic, Syria, of course, is going to be a big topic to you throughout the coming hours on Sunday. But for now, tell me what we have already learned from this Munich conference?

The U.S. vice president, Mike Pence, reaffirmed America's commitment to European security and NATO. And it's the first time since Donald Trump's election that that message has been put out so clearly by Washington.

So I'd like you to tell me how the chips are falling as a consequence of that. Let's look at perhaps, first --


VANIER: -- at the reaction from Russia?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Yes, I think, certainly, you know, having that very clear statement from Mike Pence, the United States, Donald Trump supports NATO, has sort of set the way now for diplomats across the world to see which direction the Trump administration is heading in.

Obviously, Russia was expecting a closer relationship; that very clear signal from Mike Pence, signals that that is not going to happen. And perhaps the first reaction is the one that we have seen from the Russian foreign ministry and from the Kremlin well, President Putin signing that executive order which goes against the wishes of the Ukrainian government.

In a way, it begins to sort of presage and hint ahead that Russia is potentially going to recognize this breakaway region. You know, one of the things that was stressed here yesterday, Angela Merkel was very strong on this particular point and it really referenced Ukraine, that the stability of Europe comes from -- and the stability of the world, as we know it, is predicated upon respect for international borders and boundaries and sovereignty.

So that sets the tone. But I think the sort of bigger picture, if we want to sort of look ahead to the Syria conversations that will be going on today, you have Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, speaking now; Avigdor Lieberman, the Israeli defense minister will speak this morning as well.

The Turkish foreign minister, Abad Jubeir; the Saudi foreign minister speaking this morning. A lot about the Middle East and a lot looking forward to Syria.

So what have we learned in the past couple of days that could inform us about that?

Well, the United States has shifted its position and it seems to have shifted it not to the favor of Russia. So, you know, the fact that there is a -- expected a U.N. -sponsored Syria peace talks supposed to start up in the next couple of days, it doesn't all go well for those talks. I met here and talked with Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. special

envoy. And he told me how in the past, the United States' role behind the scenes in those U.N. peace talks has been critical. And at the moment we don't quite know what that role is going to be. But it does seem to be one that's not aligning with Russia, which is something that President Trump had perhaps hinted at and talked about in the past couple months.

So I think when it comes to Syria, you have to put a big question mark over how that is expected to go forward. The United States' position now being clearer. It brings into uncertainty because this wasn't the way, perhaps Russia at the least, the big player in Syria, was expecting it to go.

VANIER: All right, Nic Robertson, reporting live from Munich on the big picture. International relations realigning after the message put out by Washington on Friday and Saturday in Munich. Thank you very much, Nic. We'll hear more from you throughout the day. Thanks.

A U.S. deployment to the South China Sea has drawn a rebuke from China. The U.S. Navy said Saturday that a carrier strike group began routine patrol operations in the area. It includes aircraft and a guided missile destroyer.

And this ship, the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Carl Vincent, China said Wednesday that it was aware of the activity. It urged the U.S. not to challenge its, quote, "sovereignty and security" in this area.


VANIER (voice-over): Tensions are rising between police and minority communities in France. This video shows the officers and protesters clashing again in Paris. Demonstrators want justice for a man who says a police officer raped him with a baton.

That officer is under investigation currently. Activists also say that they're demanding reforms after decades of police abuses against minorities. The protests come with France's presidential election only a few months away.


VANIER: And at least 19 people are dead after a bus crashed in Argentina on Saturday. The bus was traveling to Chile when it overturned in the Andes Mountains. Officials are not sure what caused the vehicle to overturn; 21 people were injured in the crash. Two drivers survived the accident and are being detained by police during the investigation.

At least five people have died in a severe storm in Southern California. The fierce weather system has caused massive flooding, washing some roads away. Thousands have lost power and some families evacuated.

One woman in Los Angeles was rescued after her car fell into a sinkhole. Now parts of Northern California are preparing for potential flooding.

And Derek Van Dam from the CNN International Weather Center joins us now for a very important story that you have been working on hard. Kenya's government has declared a national disaster over an ongoing drought that is impacting this very vulnerable region.

DEREK VAN DAM, AMS METEOROLOGIST: And now the Kenyan government is crying out for help from the international community for aid to help combat this drought. It is impacting wildlife. It is impacting livestock and also a huge risk to people as one can imagine. Take a look at the visuals coming out of this area. The Kenyan Red Cross estimating 2.7 million people in need of food aid after --


VAN DAM: -- low rainfall between October and November of 2016. This is causing mass migrations of cattle. The cattle herders, they're seeking water, they're seeking resources. And neighboring countries, including Uganda, unfortunately, this is causing a conflict on the ground as well.

So there have been reports of fighting just for these natural resources. This is one of the images that we have established here at CNN, you can see some of the cattle herders moving from one location to the next, just looking desperately for either water or food to feed their livestock or even their families.

Now this is the reason for the extreme drought conditions, the intertropical convergence zone. This is what dictates some of the wet weather across the equatorial regions of Africa. That shifts south in the summertime in the Southern Hemisphere. And that should usually bring rainfall to Kenya.

Well, unfortunately, that has just not panned out this year and we have had an extremely dry, October to November period, when we typically see an uptick in rainfall.

We have two rainfall seasons in Kenya, by the way, again, the short- range, just supposed to have occurred. And yet another long, rain monsoonal season heading into March, April and May. But the long-term forecast there shows drought conditions will persist.

Take a look at these staggering numbers. We are talking 2 percent of average near the Lodmore (ph) region. That's northwestern Kenya, Mombasa, along the coast, only 21 percent of average.

So this is impacting food security as we've discussed, Kenyan government declaring a natural disaster. They're limiting clean water sources, wiping out pasture and livestock.

You can imagine what kind of impact that has on the human population across the area. It's not just Kenya; it's all along the east coast of the African continent. Extreme drought conditions anticipated to continue. And major humanitarian crisis ongoing.

VANIER: All right, Derek Van Dam. Thank you very much for bringing that story --


VANIER: -- very important. Thanks a lot.

The best basketball players in the world are set to put on a show at the NBA All-Star game Sunday night. That's in New Orleans. But there is more to all-star weekend than just the game.


VANIER: Well, that's pretty good. Always a fan favorite. Saturday night's slam dunk contest, Glen Robinson III of the Indiana Pacers and Derek Jones of the Phoenix Suns, that's him right there, battled it out with high-flying theatrics.

But that first dunk you saw, though, is what won the night. Both players scoring a perfect 50 on several attempts. It was Robinson who walked off the court with the trophy. Well deserved. Congratulations.

And thank you very much for watching CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Cyril Vanier. I'm back with headlines in just a moment. Stay with us.