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Pentagon: Iran Fired More Than a Dozen Ballistic Missiles Against U.S. Military At Two Bases in Iraq; Rep. Mike Sherrill (D-NJ) is interviewed about Iran Firing Missiles at U.S. Forces in Iraq. Aired on 8-9p ET

Aired January 7, 2020 - 20:00   ET




Tonight, just days after a U.S. drone strike killed a top Iranian general and terror organizer, American troops who come under missile fire in Iraq and Iran is claiming responsibility. According to the Pentagon, more than a dozen surface-to-surface ballistic missiles were launched from Iran, targeting at least two Iraqi bases housing Americans and coalition personnel -- one at Al-Asad, the other in Irbil.

President Trump visited Al-Asad a little more than a year ago.

This is video from Iranian state TV. We can't independently vouch for it, but it claims to be of missiles falling on Al-Asad. The question is what happens next, of course. Will the president -- will President Trump respond or how will he respond?

Remember, just two days ago, this is what he promised in a tweet. Quoting now: The United States just spent $2 trillion on military equipment. We are the biggest and by far the best in the world. If Iran attacks an American base or any American, we will be sending some of that brand-new, beautiful equipment their way and without hesitation.

We have correspondents in all three capitals, Washington, Baghdad, and Tehran.

I want to first check in with our CNN's Barbara Starr.

So, what's the latest from the Pentagon?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: The latest from the Pentagon, Anderson, is they say that more than a dozen, we now know them to be short-range ballistic missiles, were fired from inside Iran against these positions at Al-Asad and Irbil, both locations inside Iraq, that host U.S. forces.

So, we now have firing of weapons, very significant weapons from inside Iran and that means absolutely, no question, regime backing. There's simply no question about that. This is something that the U.S. had been watching for. We don't know

that any of those incoming missiles were shot down by any U.S. assets. They had seen -- we had reported that they had seen Iran move its ballistic missiles around in the last few days, so they were certainly on watch for this.

But, you know, if you're talking about retaliation, Iran has a very large ballistic missile inventory spread out in key areas. They have also moved their areas around the U.S. assesses for essentially survival, worried about U.S. retaliation.

If the U.S. wants to move into Iranian air space and launch missiles against missile sites or targets inside Iran, it can be done, but it is a very dangerous business. Iran has significant air defenses. Their military is not one of the most modern in the world, by any stretch, but they would have the capability to try and shoot down any U.S. aircraft. We know that if the U.S. was going to go launch something against the Iranian regime, it would be by aircraft and by sea. U.S. ships at sea, perhaps launching missiles. This is the way they could avoid those air defenses most significantly.

But let's be clear. Tonight, the Pentagon says it is still assessing the situation on the ground inside Iraq, trying to determine exactly what damage, what has happened, and we will then see how President Trump decides to move ahead -- Anderson.

COOPER: And, Barbara, just talk a little bit about the significance that ballistic missiles were used.

STARR: Well, you know, what we have seen over the months is rockets and mortars. This is so-called indirect fire. It's those militia groups inside Iraq that can readily use those relatively lightweight, shoot and scoot kind of thing. They do cause damage, but most of the time, they don't, because they're very inaccurate. Those -- that's the category or rockets and mortars we have seen for months.

This, ballistic missiles, they have to be fueled up. They have to be put on a launcher. There has to be a crew to man it and fire it off. The Iranians would have to have the intelligence, they would have to understand in terms of weapons firing, exactly where Al-Asad is, exactly where Irbil is, and be able to fire against those targets with some level of precision.

The --


COOPER: Which obviously the Iranians have, I mean, given their involvement in Iraq, they have been backing these proxy forces.

STARR: Sure, sure. But this tells us -- what this tells us tonight, Anderson is they tonight, the real issue I think it's fair to say is the Iranian regime, from inside the safety -- relative safety of their own borders, the Iranian regime reached out and touched and they hit U.S. forces. We have no reports of casualties at this hour. And they reached out and touched basically sending a message to President Trump, you know, essentially, now what are you going to do about it?


Because they do have a very significant inventory of these missiles, both short range, medium range, which go longer distances. We know for the future, they're working on long-range missiles. That's not relevant terribly tonight.

But the Iranian regime, the supreme leader, the Iranian leadership tonight, they made a decision to reach out and touch the president of the United States' military force.

COOPER: Yes, Barbara Starr -- Barbara, thanks.

There's significant activity at the White House, including preparations for a possible Oval Office address by President Trump tonight. We'll obviously bring that to you live. The secretaries of state and defense were seen going into the White House just a short time ago. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs has arrived as well for what will likely be a very long night.

Our Jim Acosta is there as well.


COOPER: He joins us now.

Jim, any response so far from the White House?

ACOSTA: Not yet, Anderson. We understand from talking to officials over here that they're planning for the president to make some sort of statement tonight. Whether that's in the Oval Office, whether it's even via a paper statement, they are making those preparations right now.

We do believe that he will be on camera making some sort of televised address to the nation. Perhaps at the Oval Office at some point tonight about what has happened. This is, obviously, perhaps, the biggest test of his presidency. On day two of the president being back at the White House after his holiday break.

Anderson, you were just showing this video a few moments ago. Just to show you how dramatic a moment this is for the president, we did see exclusively over the last hour the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Mark Milley, the defense secretary, Mark Esper, and the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, all filing into the West Wing, just, you know, a few dozen yards from where we're standing right now to go meet with the president and talk about these next steps.

Now, obviously, we heard the president ratcheting up the rhetoric earlier today. He was essentially warning the Iranians that if they were to retaliate, he would strike back. So, at this point, he has essentially telegraphed his next move. And the question is, at this hour, Anderson, whether or not he takes that next step, which obviously would draw the United States closer and closer to war. One other thing we should note, Anderson, this evening, and I spotted

this with my own eyeballs coming into the White House grounds a short while ago, a law enforcement official tells CNN that security measures have been upgraded around the White House grounds. There are some Secret Service officers with assault rifles, at various checkpoints around this area. That is obviously a precaution that the Secret Service is going to take because of just how very delicate the situation is right now, Anderson.

COOPER: All right. Jim, I think we'll be talking to you probably throughout the night.

CNN's Arwa Damon is in Baghdad for us tonight.

Arwa, what are you learning about these attacks? What are you hearing?

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, what we have been hearing at this stage is that at least the initial assessment is that there are no casualties among the U.S. military personnel at these locations. When it comes to the Asad airbase, and remember, the vast majority of military installations here don't just house use forces, they house Iraqi security forces as well.

And what an Iraqi security source is telling us that there is an unknown number of casualties among the Iraqi forces that are at the Al Asad airbase. We do not yet know if this means that they have been killed or wounded, but it goes to show you just how entrenched this country is ending up being in this growing battle. And this is exactly what the Iraqi government has been fearful of.

It is unclear at this stage, if this is just a single isolated message that perhaps Iran is sending and if Iran's proxies here are also going to want to chime in on their own way. Remember, they are not just enraged over the killing of Qassem Soleimani, but here in Iraq also of the death of the Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, who was leader of Kataib Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy here, a very powerful paramilitary force that does have significant capabilities. This is a force that the U.S. has said has targeted its military installations repeatedly in the past.

We do understand that there has been some sort of a conversation between the upper echelons of the U.S. and the Iraqi government. This is right now a situation that is very much, as one senior Iraqi official was saying, staring down the abyss. This country does not know how to extract itself from this proxy battlefield, nor at this stage, how to prevent itself from becoming an even bigger one.

Remember, this is this huge push by the Iraqi government, by Shia parliamentarians, by these Shia paramilitary forces here to drive U.S. troops out of Iraq. That is Iran's main goal, as well. And it is the goal of its proxies in this country, despite the fact that there is concern among some members of the Iraqi government as to what that would look like moving forward.

[20:10:10] But this most certainly at this stage, Anderson, is going to cause a lot of fear here, not just for the potential security of U.S. military personnel, but also for the Iraqis who are alongside them, at all of these bases, and for the Iraqi population. What is this going to mean for them moving forward, if America and Iran continue playing out their war games in this country?

COOPER: Yes, Arwa, just for folks who haven't spent time in Iraq, if you could just talk a little bit briefly about the Shia paramilitary forces, about the Iranian proxies, just explain how that works, because it's sort of confusing for people who haven't been there. You have the Iraqi government, you have Iraqi military forces, Iraqi police personnel. And yet you have these paramilitary forces who have power, who have weapons, who, you know, have freedom of movement.

Can you just explain, how many are there and how could they play a role in this if Iran wanted to attack on multiple fronts at once?

DAMON: Well, look, the exact number at this stage is unknown, but easily thousands, if not tens of thousands at this stage, potential fighters that these forces could quite possibly call upon.

Look, Anderson, we have to go back to the years of America's occupation in Iraq, when out of the many militant groups that the U.S. was fighting also included Shia militias. Very powerful, mostly backed by Iran. They were the ones developing the EFP, those roadside bombs that were able to penetrate through U.S. armor.

Many of these forces, these militias ended up also as Iraq moved forward throughout the years creating political representation. They are political branches are in the Iraqi government.

When ISIS was sweeping through, Iraq, when it quite literally reached the gates of Baghdad, these various forces mobilized. They ended up being the initial front line on the ground force that was driving ISIS away from the capital. They were the ones who were instrumental in recapturing key cities and towns from ISIS.

Then the Iraqi government to try to gain a certain measure of control over them absorbed them into the Iraqi security forces. But they're only ostensibly actually under the control of Baghdad, hence the situation you have right now. This very powerful paramilitary force that has very close ties to Iran, that has this history in Iraq, not just of targeting U.S. troops, but also being heavily involved in the secretary warfare --


DAMON: -- that broke out in this country, that in the post-ISIS phase, Anderson, has become extremely powerful, both militarily and politically. And that dynamic really is at the very core of what is unfolding here.

COOPER: Yes. Arwa Damon, appreciate it.

Again, we have video from Iranian state television that claims to be of the strike on the Al-Asad base.

Shortly after the missiles began falling and what appears to be a jab at President Trump or at least a response to the killing of Iran's top General Soleimani. Iran's chief nuclear negotiator tweeted out this -- no words, just the Iranian flag, a response it seems to the president's tweet of the American flag after the killing of General Soleimani.

I want to go now to CNN's Fred Pleitgen who is in Tehran, Iran.

What's the reaction been in Iran?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, so far, it's been quite interesting, Anderson, in that the Iranians really -- since we heard there were missile impacts on or near those American bases inside Iraq, the Iranians immediately took responsibility for it. Almost immediately as that took place, there were banners on state TV saying that the IRGC was claiming -- the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps were claiming responsibility for these -- for these ballistic missile attacks. And then, also, news agencies were sending out messages saying that there was a second wave of ballistic missiles that had been fired.

So, the Iranians clearly taking responsibility for this, and that's something that's absolutely key, because I've been speaking , Anderson, to Iranian officials over the past couple of days.

And one of the things that struck the most is when the U.S. hit Qasem Soleimani, that Iranian general, that the U.S. took responsibility for it. And with the U.S. doing that, the Iranians say that to them made it an open act of aggression towards Iran. And with that, they said, it would require a response from the Iranians.


What the Iranians have been telling me over the past couple of days is that there would be a military response, Anderson, and that that military response would be against military installations. So that appears to be exactly what's been happening.

And then you've had some of the messaging, which is only really becoming clear right now. For instance, at the funeral procession for Qasem Soleimani, there were scores of people who had placards with simply two words on them, hard revenge or harsh revenge. Well, guess what? The operation, according to statement I've just gotten from the Revolutionary Guard Corps, saying this operation is actually called Operation Hard Revenge.

It's interesting, because on a telegram channel from the Revolution Guard Corps, the Revolutionary Guard Corps seems to indicate that if the U.S. responds to this retaliation, that the Revolutionary Guard Corps could respond then inside the United States. That's another threat coming out.

The Revolutionary Guard also warning the United States not to retaliate after these strikes that the Iranians are conducting right now. They're warning America's regional allies that have U.S. bases on their soil that if attacks against Iran are launched from those bases, those countries will become targets as well.

Of course, that's highly significant in itself, Anderson, that in the U.S. now seeing how it wants to respond to this Iranian retaliation, what are some of the countries in the region that have U.S. bases on them going to think of this Iranian threat? The Iranians also once again threatening Israel, as we've seen in the past as well.

But one of the interesting things is that the Iranians are using their ballistic missiles to do this. It's one of the most sophisticated weapons they have in their arsenal, and it's certainly a case right now, Anderson, why I think the Iranians want to make a point of the fact that they're not using their proxy forces to strike back at America, but using their own forces and they're using homemade weapons, Iranian-made weapons which they say are more sophisticated in their arsenal, Anderson.

COOPER: Fred Pleitgen, appreciate it. We'll continue to check back in with you.

It goes without saying, we're going to check with all of our correspondents throughout the night as new developments warrant.

Right now, we're joined by CNN military and diplomatic analyst, retired Rear Admiral John Kirby, retired Navy Commander Kirk Lippold, former commanding officer of the USS Cole. Along with us also, "The New Yorker's" Dexter Filkins, who's reported extensively in the region for years.

Admiral Kirby, let me start with you.

Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps taking credit for the attacks. It's obviously a significant escalation from Iran, a response. What do you make of the form this attack has taken given all the options frankly at Iran's disposal?

REAR ADM. JOHN KIRBY (RET.), CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: It's very clear to me that the way they did this was deliberately intended, not only to send a message to Donald Trump that they mean business in terms of retribution for Soleimani's death, but that they have the capability to cause real damage. That's why they chose three particular weapons and that they were willing, brazen enough to launch them from Iranian soil.

So, clearly, it's a statement of not only their capability, but their willingness to use that capability. And so, we're going to see the president hopefully later tonight.

What I think is going to be interesting to see is obviously how he responds to this, but the degree of to which -- trying to understand the degree to which for him decision space is now getting smaller. It's getting a little bit more closed, as this pattern of escalation continues to increase and that's the concern. That finding a de- escalation method, finding a diplomatic off-ramp here is going to become increasingly difficult for the administration, now that the Iranians have so upped the ante with the use of these particular systems.

COOPER: Commander Lippold, a former ambassador to Iran and actually one of the former hostages who have held, who I talked to earlier today who is also an historian said throughout history, countries have been drawn into war, each side saying they do not actually want to go to war, that it's the other side.

I'm wondering what you make of what we have seen tonight and what the next steps may be or could be avoided to be?

CMDR. KIRK LIPPOLD, FORMER COMMANDER, USS COLE: Well, I think right now, what you see, Anderson, this is a prime opportunity for everyone to take a step back and, in fact, de-escalate from the scenario that's developing. Obviously, we had the strike against Soleimani which was extremely effective and achieved our objective of taking out the number of one terrorist in the world that was working for the Iranian government. By the same token, the Iranians got their message across by sending these rockets into the base at Al-Asad and up into Irbil.

Right now, we're kind of like that operational pause. We're assessing damage, we're seeing what's going on, signals have been sent and received on both sides. This is actually the perfect opportunity to take that measured step back and determine, OK, do we need to continue an escalatory process? Or is this, in fact, the opportunity to allow diplomacy to step in, allow both sides to disengage, go to their neutral corners, figure out what we can do?

And in fact, I see a greater opportunity to now come to the negotiating table than I think we've had previously.


COOPER: Dexter Filkins, I'm wondering what you make of that. The president tweeted, which we read at the top of the broadcast a couple of days ago, if they strike an American base, we have all of these -- I'm paraphrasing -- highly beautiful new expensive weapons that we'll send over there.

DEXTER FILKINS, THE NEW YORKER: Yes. My sense of this strike that happened this evening is that everything about it suggests that it was done for -- primarily for Iranian domestic political reasons. They are basically speaking to their constituency and their public --

COOPER: Showing that we've done something.

FILKINS: Look, we did it. Yes. I mean, if you start with the national security meeting that the Iranians had yesterday, there was a story in "The Times" this morning, "The New York Times" in which the supreme leader was quoted as demanding a proportionate response. You know, I want us to do this and I want it to do it visibly and rapidly. And it was -- there were three sources for that story.

And it struck me as, that was an orchestrated leak. The Iranians wanted us to read that. They want to show, they want their own people to see it. They want -- they're trying to satisfy their public now, which is like very agitated and very angry and wants revenge. And I think this was more about them than it was about us. They

didn't kill any Americans, as far as we know.

COOPER: Right, yes. And we should say, you know, these are very early reports. We really have no idea. And as we all know, and as everybody who is watching knows, early reports in any kind of conflict, kinetic activity, are often wrong or just, it's just too early to tell exactly what has gone on on the ground there.

We're also joined by General Mark Hertling, who has spent a lot of time obviously serving in Iraq.

General Hertling, Dexter Filkins -- I don't know if you just heard what he was saying, that this seems like a very thought-out response and perhaps in response largely to domestic pressures within Iran, for some sort of response, given all the other options at the disposal of Iran.

GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: I agree completely with that, Anderson. We're talking about not only the timing of the attack, which appears to have coincided with the same time that Soleimani was attacked, with the drone strike, that it's messaging towards the Iranian people, saying that we pride ourselves on countering any kind of actions by the great Satan.

And then the third message, which I think is just as important, is it's done on Iraqi soil. It pulls them into this fray. Iran and Iraq have not had a history of great relationships. They have been trying to pull together a little bit more closely lately. There have been some dynamics involved in that.

But to strike a U.S. base on Iraqi soil is sending not only a message to the United States, but to Iraq as well, to stay out of this proxy war, because if you're sucked into it, you're going to bear the repercussions, as well. All of those are huge messaging attributes. To include the fact that they used ballistic missiles, not the kind of rockets that have been launched by Iranian proxies in the past, these create some devastating effects. And the fact that there were 12 of them in the first wave to both Al-Asad and Irbil is significant, because those are two major U.S. bases right now.

COOPER: Admiral Kirby, you know, the Pentagon said they're working on initial battle damage assessments. Not sure exactly how long that might take.

Talk a little bit about if there are American casualties, and there are some reports, based on at least one Iraqi source to our Arwa Damon, that there are some Iraqi casualties, although we don't know if that means wounded or casualties, if there American casualties, or if this attack has not killed anyone, hopefully, what the chances are for this breathing, as Commander Lippold said, might take place -- kind of some breathing room to kind of reassess and perhaps de-escalate?

KIRBY: I definitely think if there's casualties, particularly American casualties, that certainly closes down decision space for the president and makes it harder for him not to respond in some way in a military fashion. Hopefully, obviously, there aren't going to be any deaths caused by this.

But the fact that they conducted this strike in such a sophisticated manner from Iranian soil certainly itself is escalation enough. And I think, again, it's going to force the president to do something. And what that is, we don't know.

And as for the de-escalation, I certainly agree that right now is a good time for everybody to try to find a way to get off of this cycle of escalation and violence. The problem is that that's difficult to do now. This administration has basically cut off all ties and communications and diplomatic coordination with Iran when they pulled out of the Iran deal. So, they have not given themselves much leeway, much leverage, to have any type of direct negotiations with Iran.


I mean, it's not that it's not possible. Certainly, if things get tense enough, it could happen. It's just -- it's just less likely now than it was certainly before we got into these more recent escalatory moves.

COOPER: Commander Lippold, I mean, how difficult is it to maintain that communication once hostilities have actually started. I mean, in the past, there have been communications between countries, even if there are strikes happening, because you do want those channels to at least remain open to have some sort of potential for de-escalation or off-ramps?

LIPPOLD: I think right now, Anderson, what you'll find, is there are more paths open to communications than before. We have never had direct communications with the Iranians. We have always done it diplomatically through the Swiss emissaries who have been willing to relay messages back-and-forth.

But a key point going back to the strikes themselves that you have to remember is that we actually have shown restraint already. Earlier today, we knew that these ballistic missile batteries were coming out of garrison, they were positioning. The transporter erector launchers were setting up. They knew they were getting ready to fire.

Every indication was there. If we wanted to stop that, we could have struck as a preemptive or preventative measure and chose not to.

Instead, we let the Iranians --


LIPPOLD: -- go ahead and fire them, which is significant.

COOPER: Commander Lippold, I just want to go quickly to Jim Acosta at the White House with new information.


ACOSTA: Yes, we're still waiting to find out exactly what the president is going to do in terms of giving a station to the nation. We're monitoring that. He's apparently meeting with advisers as we speak. We saw those top advisers entering the White House a few moments ago.

But, Anderson, I wanted to pass along something I picked up from a source close to the White House who has spoken with the president in recent days. This source essentially saying that the president has no choice at this point but to retaliate against Iran, based on some of the talk that this source heard down at Mar-a-Lago and some of the other things that the president has been saying.

And according to source, Trumps already set a standard that he's going to do a massive retaliation, this source said, if he fails to do that, I think he looks weak. Those are the words coming to a source close to the White House that has spoken with the president in recent days.

I have spoken with other Republican officials up on Capitol Hill, and there is a concern, I will tell you, Anderson, even on the Republican side of the aisle that this thing could get out of control. Obviously, we haven't heard from the president yet. We don't have a full assessment as to what damage has been done on the ground in Iraq, but this is a significant moment for the president and people who are close to this president seem to understand that all too well at this moment, Anderson.

COOPER: All right. Jim Acosta, appreciate that.

Joining us right now is Democratic congresswoman and former navy helicopter pilot, Mikie Sherrill, who serves on the House Armed Services Committee.

Congresswoman, as I mentioned, you're a navy veteran. As a veteran, what is -- and as a member of Congress, what's your reaction to this attack tonight by Iran?

REP. MIKIE SHERRILL (D-NJ): Well, as a veteran, I think -- my first thoughts are really for the families. A lot of us have signed up in the past to go serve our country. We know that we might put ourselves in danger, but it's the families often that are sitting home, waiting for news from their loved ones, and right now, I just keep thinking of all of those families who are just waiting to hear from their service member.

COOPER: Are you confident that the Pentagon would have seen these attacks coming. That U.S. personnel equipment would have been protected in cases of something like that? I mean, I'm not sure what the hardened capabilities are on either of these bases.

SHERRILL: Well, we certainly weren't expecting an attack from Iran. And I know we were moving troops to try to protect them as best we could. And so, I know we've been very thoughtful about that.

I'm just hoping that we hear that there are no casualties. Certainly, you know, right now, seeing the number of missiles being shot at the bases there, you know, I have a great deal of concern, but I'm still very hopeful. COOPER: The -- we've been talking about the fact that ballistic

missiles were fired from inside Iran, according to the Defense Department, as opposed to smaller scale rockets fired from Iranian proxies. What -- what do you believe should happen next, could happen next?

SHERRILL: Well, Anderson, that's why we in Congress have been saying we need all of the information that the administration has so we can help make good decisions for our country. As you know, we are the body from the constitution that declares war. I certainly want to make sure that we don't end up from this administration finding ourselves in another unending war.

We want to make sure that we're very thoughtful that cooler heads prevail and we don't simply see escalation after escalation after escalation, and we find ourselves in a situation that we didn't thoughtfully and strategically determine was in the best interests of our country.

COOPER: Congresswoman Sherrill, I appreciate your time. Thank you very much.

SHERRILL: Thanks, Anderson.


COOPER: Back now with our military security and regional experts. Dexter Filkins spent a lot of time in the region out of extraordinary reporting. Dexter has done and continues to do.

Just in terms of -- you know, we were talking about the Iranian -- the proxy forces, the Shia paramilitary groups and stuff. If -- I mean, if there is now this drumbeat to respond for this administration, if there's a back and forth, you know, the options on the table for Iran, it just seems to me are multi -- they're multi-fronts and they were not just talking about in Iraq or Syria, it's really wherever U.S. forces are and/or other U.S. civilians or installations.

FILKINS: Anywhere, yes, absolutely. I mean, if you just take Iraq, they fired the missiles today but they could have used one of their militias inside the country. I mean, they certainly are -- those militias had proven themselves to be willing to act on behalf of the Iranians.

But you know, the Iranians, particularly -- historically, particularly through Hezbollah, they've shown a capability to act all over the world. I mean, Thailand, India, Nigeria, Latin American, they can strike pretty much anywhere they want.

COOPER: Right, there's U.S. troops in, you know, Somalia. There's operations going on.

FILKINS: And U.S. and civilians, too, you know.

COOPER: Yes. FILKINS: I mean, the things that the Iranians have proved themselves

to be very good at in the past are truck bombs and hostage taking. And they, you know, they haven't done anything like that yet, but they certainly could.

COOPER: General Hertling, just in terms of kind of next steps, you know, how in the past these situations have either, you know, kind of de-escalated or how they have escalated.

HERTLING: I'll preface by first saying, Anderson, that it's an old tenant, that it's very easy to fall into a war or stumble into a war and a whole lot harder to get out. Let's put this in perspective. Iran is four times the size of Iraq. They have about three times the population, and as we saw on the news over the last couple of days, they are very rabid for the most part in supporting their government.

You're talking about a very large military to include the Quds Force and the ability to strike back in not only conventional methods, but also in unconventional means, such as cyber attacks along with the conventional attacks.

You're talking about a nation that truthfully, probably Rear Admiral Kirby will say the same, that from about the 1980s we've looked at different exercises and in fact war games of how would we tackle an Iranian regime if we ever got into a conflict there. It's extremely challenging, not only from the standpoint of going out against a very challenging force, but a terrain and a demographic that's very tough as well.

The President tweeted out about how we have billions of dollars worth of new equipment. Well, frankly, that's not true. You know, anyone in the military that tells you we suddenly had -- went to a Walmart and got a bunch of new patriot missiles, and new tanks, and new submarines, and new aircraft carriers knows how long those things take to get into the pipeline.

We have a budget to purchase more and to refresh what we've seen over 20 years of war, take its toll on our equipment. But right now, it would be a very strong challenge to go up against the Islamic Republic of Iran.

COOPER: Admiral Kirby, you talked about those war games, the kind of the game to get out. How do you see the potential for this in terms of escalation?

KIRBY: Well, I mean, obviously, that depends on what decisions the President makes. I'm sure that they're teeing up some options for him probably from low to high in terms of intensity and the level of violence.

I think my supposition is that if they're looking at military targets right now, they're probably looking at command and control facilities or launch areas or, you know, trying to get at the source of these attacks rather than prepping for an all-out conventional conflict with Iran, which is General Hertling rightly points out, would be extraordinarily difficult and very bloody.

I mean, it's one of the top 10 armies in the world just in terms of size and Iran is a much bigger country than Iraq. So, I mean, I don't think -- and I'd be surprised if that's really where this is going. But I think in terms of kinetics right now, they're probably teeing up options that make sense to address the specific origin or capabilities that will put in place tonight against al-Assad.

COOPER: Commander Lippold, you talked about, you know, the possibility of de-escalation and the kind of taking a breath, taking a pause, seeing, you know, what the casualties are, what the situation is and what the potential for de-escalation is.


How does that work when there isn't -- or it doesn't seem as if there are diplomatic channels that are at least open or, you know, vibrant at this point?

LIPPOLD: Well, I think, Anderson, we take advantage of the channels we know are there. As I mentioned before, you've got the Swiss that we've always been open and be able to talk to the Iranians.

COOPER: Right, the Swiss represents the U.S. interests in Iran but, you know, there's not obviously an American embassy anymore in Iran.

LIPPOLD: Yes. The other ones might be actually the European powers. Obviously, they were very connected with the JCPOA or the Iran nuclear agreement. Germany, France, both of them obviously are going to have connections within the Iranian government that we could work through and use them as pathways for communication.

So I think there's a variety of ways to do it. It's whether we actually choose to do that, and we may do that in concert with or parallel with preparing for more kinetic options if the Iranians want to continue this fight.

COOPER: Dexter, one of the things -- and I'm just listening to Commander Lippold who's, you know, essentially talking about the possibility of using Switzerland or European allies. Obviously, our relationships with a lot of European allies is not what it was before. And it doesn't seem like they were necessarily informed about the attack on Soleimani and I don't know where they would be in terms of willingness to be involved.

FILKINS: Well, I think they'd be happy to try because I think --

COOPER: Just to avert any kind of --

FILKINS: Yes. I think this is like freaking them out. But I think the whole -- I mean, starting with President Trump withdrawing from the nuclear agreement, that his entire posture towards the Iranian government, which they see essentially as regime change, they don't like it. I mean, they've made that really clear.

I mean, if they could have their way, I think it's fair to say the Europeans would go back, they'd restore the nuclear agreement, they'd put it all back in place and kind of go back to essentially what the Obama administration have.

COOPER: As someone who's spent a lot of time in Iraq, what -- the fact that this -- you know, if there are Iraqi casualties here and this attack was, you know, an attempt to bring Iraq into this, how does that play out on the Iraqi front? I mean, not only are these Shia paramilitary forces, but you have the Iraqi parliament who's already said that U.S. forces should leave.

I mean if U.S. forces leave, and there's many obviously Americans who would like to see U.S. forces get out altogether from Iraq, the irony is that that's exactly what Soleimani and Iran have wanted all along from the beginning, is to get U.S. forces out.

FILKINS: It is. It's ironic. And that -- I think that it's classic. I mean, they are literally stuck in the middle. They have Iran, which is right next door, and they have the United States, and they're both coming at them all the time and saying, you know, I want you, I want you, and the other one is saying the same thing.

And I think the Prime Minister there, Abdul-Mahdi who is really about as pro-western, pro-American prime minister you're going to get in Iraq, he needs the Americans. I don't think -- you know, whatever he's telling, whatever he's saying publicly and whatever he's telling the parliament, I think in his heart he would like to keep the Americans there.

COOPER: He needs the Americans because?

FILKINS: To play them off against the Iranians.


FILKINS: Because otherwise -- yes, otherwise he's got -- he's powerless. I mean, they'll thoroughly dominate the government there.

COOPER: Yes. Jim Acosta is standing by at the White House. Jim, what are you hearing?

ACOSTA: Anderson, we should update our viewers that at this point it does not appear the President will make an address to the nation tonight. We are hearing from the White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham that the President will not appear in front of the cameras tonight, will not be making an address to the nation about what is unfolding tonight in Iraq.

The possibility of a paper statement, I suppose, still exists or a tweet of some sort, I suppose. But as of right now, we don't expect that to happen. Obviously, in situations like this, Anderson, we've seen this in movie before. They have made preparations for these kinds of statements in the past and then decided ultimately not to do them.

The other thing we should point out is that some of the top advisers who are meeting with the President, people like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and others who are here for meeting with the President this evening, they have also departed the White House. What all of that means? Obviously, we're going to be talking to our sources over the next several hours to determine exactly what was going on behind the scenes over here at the White House.

But at least for the very moment, we can at least update our viewers and say that the President does not appear to be looking to make a statement to the nation tonight here at the White House, Anderson.

COOPER: So just to be clear, you're saying that Pompeo, Milley, Esper, that they have left now?

ACOSTA: We believe they have all left at this point. We just saw -- that's right, the Defense Secretary, the Secretary of State, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs all file out of the White House within the last 10 or 15 minutes I would say, Anderson, the Vice President as well. They were all here for about an hour, hour and a half, meeting with the President behind closed doors.


The White House press secretary was also meeting with the President. They were all going over what has transpired in Iraq tonight, but it appears at the moment, at the very least, that the President is not going to be at least making a statement to the nation over the airwaves in terms of what the next step will be for the U.S. Obviously, this is a very tender, delicate moment and I think all of that is being taken into consideration at this point, Anderson.

COOPER: All right. Well, we'll see if he decides to communicate in another form tonight. Jim Acosta, appreciate it.

We're going to take a short break. A reminder, we're live at the 11:00 o'clock hour as well. CNN is live, of course, throughout the entire night.

Coming up next, how this crisis could open the door to the return of forces such as ISIS. We'll hear from someone who wrote the book on it as our live coverage continues.


COOPER: To bring you up to date on events of the last few minutes, top national security officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, have just departed the White House. Vice President Mike Pence has also left, so as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, we understand.


The meeting just hours after Iranian missiles fired from Iranian soil, ballistic missiles, more than a dozen according to U.S. authorities, targeting American forces in Iraq, landing at two big bases. No proxies, no Shia paramilitary forces, no deniability, a clear claim of responsibility from Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps. The question now, how will President Trump respond? What happens next? A source close to the White House who has spoken with him over the last several days telling our Jim Acosta, "Trump has already set a standard that he's going to do a massive retaliation. If he fails to do that, I think he looks weak." That is somebody who's had communications with the President in the last several days.

Dexter Filkins is back with us from "The New Yorker," joining us as well is Joby Warrick, a national security reporter for "The Washington Post," author of a book I'm a huge fan of, "Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS."

Joby, first of all, this attack tonight, what are your thoughts on it?

JOBY WARRICK, NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER, WASHINGTON POST: Well, I've just been struck by how many times conventional wisdom has gone out the window in the last couple of days. I think a week ago nobody would have ever predicted that the U.S. would go after such a public figure as Soleimani, who's not someone, not some terrorist who have been hiding for years, but someone who is out in the open, and someone who is a very bad guy, but not a typical case for us to go after someone so directly.

And then, who would have thought that the Iranians would respond so directly and so quickly. I mean, most people I spoke to thought it would be a measured response, maybe so much later, using proxies or something else, but this has been very direct, so were essentially and totally uncharted territory now.

COOPER: Also Joby, you wrote in "The Washington Post" today about what you called a quantum change in the missile technology being used by Iran.

WARRICK: Yes. So about a decade ago, a pretty significant decision was made at senior levels in Iran. They have a really crappy air force, essentially, you know, 40-year-old planes that aren't very effective. They decided to invest very heavily on their missiles, specifically precision guided.

So you see a whole new generation of cruise missiles, drones that are armed, missiles, ballistic missiles like we've perhaps seen tonight that have maneuverable reentry vehicles so they can control them after they fly. So they can be very precise to the tens of meters and that's new for Iran that gives them all kinds of new cards to play. They didn't have even a year, you know, five years ago. It's just quite dangerous.

COOPER: Dexter, what is the power that Iran -- I mean, obviously there is, you know, there was an Iran/Iraq war, in which a million people were killed on either side. I mean, a horrific war involving, you know, children in mine fields. How is Iran viewed now and how does that play into, you know, it's an attack on Iraqi soil?

FILKINS: Well, good question. I think in Iraq, Iran is seen as this kind of the big neighbor, who's never going to go away. He's always going to live next door.

COOPER: And Iran has obviously been putting a lot of money on all of these proxy forces, there's political forces as well.

FILKINS: Yes. They are deeply embedded in the Iraqi establishment and the Iraqi government in every way, and they live right next door, and they make that very clear. And if they need to exert leverage or pressure all the way up to assassination, they can do it. And so when the Iraqis try to talk to the United States, they have -- they say, you know, we've got to live with these guys next door. Don't forget that. So they're right in the middle.

COOPER: Joby, we were talking with Dexter before you joined us about, you know, the -- you know, we now have the Iraqi parliament saying that they want to expel U.S. forces, you know, the Iraqi cabinet has to take that up, the leadership as well.

And how if the U.S. actually -- you know, a sick irony would be if the U.S. did actually withdraw forces from Iraq under pressure, that's exactly what Iran has wanted. In terms of ISIS, though, what is the potential for ISIS to come back as they did the last time U.S. forces pulled out?

WARRICK: Well, if you think about why we have troops in Iraq to begin with, it's -- right now, it's mostly because we want to control ISIS, to go after the remaining pockets of ISIS that still exist, there are still networks that are there, and to prevent its resurgence. Already, you've seen a win for ISIS because we've stopped training. We've essential shut down training of the Kurdish forces and others who were helping us go after ISIS. The same is, you know, true with NATO, has just announced stopping training as well. So that's already a victory for ISIS.

If the U.S. has to leave, then that's an absolute windfall for ISIS because there's no question they're going to try to come back. We've already seen them try. There's, you know, a tempo of attacks in the last few weeks, something like 20 attacks in Iraq alone in the week of Christmas. So they're trying to do something now. If we leave, or forced to leave, or forced to even scale back, there's an opportunity for them to come back.

COOPER: It's not clear how President Trump would actually view that, though. Obviously, he's been very proud of the destruction of ISIS that has occurred thus far and has claimed credit for it, not really recognizing the efforts of the prior administration as well, which is certainly the rise of ISIS also happened under the prior administration's watch.


But if Iran is then drawn into a conflict with ISIS in Iraq, as they were through these proxy forces early on, before there are U.S. troops to also battle ISIS, it's not clear if the President would actually be OK with that.

WARRICK: There's so many ways this could go wrong. You know, you can potentially see the recreation of conditions that existed in 2012 in Iraq when you essentially had Sunnis feeling they needed to join ISIS or align with ISIS because they were being pressured by some of these Iranian groups. So that could happen again if the U.S. isn't there to refry. That was part of the problem in 2011.

We pulled all of our forces out, and so this sort of Shiite-friendly Iraqi government allowed some of these Iranian proxies to run roughshod over some of the Sunni groups and really persecuted them. And so there's that potential.

And there's just also, you know, just endless opportunities for ISIS to find ways to regroup in areas that are essentially lawless. And there are areas where they can go right now and try to train and try to plan and to do bad things. So those are all opportunities we see coming back right now.

COOPER: Dexter, it's also been -- I mean, it's been a fragile couple of years, I guess, you know, good compared to what it was before for Iraq over the last couple of years. It's sort of a fragile, you know, with the diminution of ISIS. But those Shia/Sunni tensions, which I think are confusing, again, for many people who don't really know the region well, that all still exists as well.

FILKINS: Definitely. And I -- you know, not to confuse everybody more, but one more point on ISIS, the Shiite militias and the Iranians, we were all fighting together against ISIS, the Americans, and Iran, and the Shiite militias that they basically oversee, they were basically cooperating in the fight against ISIS. So all that's kind of like trying to --

COOPER: You were saying fighting together. I mean, there weren't actually, you know, operating in the same units.

FILKINS: No, no, they weren't. They weren't communicating with each other, but they were coordinating, certainly.

COOPER: Right, yes.


COOPER: Dexter Filkins, thank you so much. And Joby Warrick, thank you so much. Appreciate it. It was great to have you on again.

Up next, we're going to go back to Tehran for the very latest from there. We'll be right back.



COOPER: A lot of movement obviously over the past few hours. Iran launching more than a dozen ballistic missiles at two Iraqi bases that house U.S. troops. A lot of threats and rhetoric from the regime since then, but no more missiles, it seems. Fred Pleitgen joins us now from Iran's capital, Tehran. Fred, what else are you hearing about these attacks from the Iranian side?

PLEITGEN: Well, the Iranians very early on, Anderson, came out and admitted and took credit, if you will, for launching these attacks. What's going on right now is that on Iranian state T.V., which is essentially the main way to get information at this point in time, they're sort of alternating between showing pictures of Qassem Soleimani, of course, that general who was killed in that U.S. strike in Baghdad, and then reading a statement by Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is the entity that fired those missiles, essentially explaining exactly what they did, saying that they fired these missiles, saying it was in retaliation for the killing of Soleimani, and warning the United States not to hit back.

So essentially, the message that the Iranians are trying to send right now is they fired back and they want things to end here. So they're warning the Trump administration not to escalate this any further.

Also, another interesting point, Anderson, there's a telegram channel that the Revolutionary Guard uses as well, and that sent out two names of the ballistic missile types that were allegedly used.

I was looking those up. Those are both short-range ballistic missiles, apparently capable of traveling a little less than 500 miles and both fairly new models, as well. So the Iranians obviously very much also showcasing their military technology, Anderson.

COOPER: So Fred, I just want to ask you to drill down a little bit on what you just said about their sort of -- their saying don't retaliate. I can certainly understand them saying, don't retaliate, and it meaning a whole bunch of different things. Is it -- I mean, are they saying -- they're not clearly saying this is a one-off, we're now done, or are they saying there's going to be more attacks? Are they just not saying anything about that at all and just saying, you know, no more -- you know, don't retaliate?

PLEITGEN: Well, look, what the Iranians have been saying, and it's interesting, because they've actually been really sending this message for the past couple of days now. They are saying that after the attack on Soleimani, there was going to be a military retaliation on their part. It was going to be against military targets. That's exactly what's happening right now. And they say that's going to be proportional attack and after that attack they want things to end. They don't want the U.S. to go any further.

Whether or not these missile strikes that we're seeing right now are the end of it is very hard to tell. But certainly, judging from the statement that we're seeing from the Revolutionary Guard Corps, it could very well be the case that the Iranians are saying, look, you hit our top general, we've just hit you back. We've shown that we have the technology to do so, to also wage open warfare. We can leave it at that or you can try to escalate even further. That's what the Iranians are warning against, Anderson.

COOPER: Fred Pleitgen, also I think we're just running -- our press T.V. is showing images of Soleimani being buried in his hometown or being at least returned to his hometown.

Our breaking news coverage continues right now. I want to hand things over to Chris Cuomo for "Cuomo Prime Time." Chris?