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Terror Group Rampages Through Iraq; Iraqi Army Flees From Terror Group; McCain Calls For Immediate Iraq Response; Militants Battle in Iraq; Nightmare Scenario in Iraq; More about ISIS

Aired June 12, 2014 - 13:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting from Washington. We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. This is a CNN special report, Iraq in crisis.

Thirty months after the last American military convoy left Iraq, the White House is now being drawn back in as a result of brutal terror groups that have routed Iraqi forces in several major cities and now they are moving closer and closer to the capital of Baghdad. ISIS, the Islamic state in Iraq in Syria has already taken control of Mosul, that's the country's second biggest city. Only moments ago, we heard this from President Obama.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: But what we've seen over the last couple of days indicates the degree to which Iraq's going to need more help. It's going to need more help from us and it's going to need more help from the international community. So, my team is working around the clock to identify how we can provide the most effective assistance to them. I don't rule out anything because we do have a stake in making sure that these jihadists are not getting a permanent foothold in either Iraq or Syria.


BLITZER: We're following all angles of this crisis. Our Senior International Correspondent Arwa Damon. She's on the ground in Erbil (ph). That's just north of the ISIS offensive. Our Chief National Security Correspondent Jim Sciutto is here in Washington looking at U.S. options. And our Chief International Correspondent Christiane Amanpour. She'll be joining us from London with a bigger picture.

Let's start with what's happening on the ground in Iraq. Arwa is there for us. Arwa, these Al Qaeda inspired ISIS fighters. They are dramatically moving now and a lot of U.S. trained Iraqi military forces. They are simply collapsing in the face of this offensive by these ISIS forces. What's going on?

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the Iraqi security forces most certainly have not been putting up a fight. We saw Mosul fall very quickly with estimates of around 800 ISIS fighters managing to drive out two brigades of the Iraqi army. And Tikrit video coming out of there. Tikrit, remember, being Saddam Hussein's hometown, showing what appear to be hundreds of individuals described as being members of the Iraqi security forces being detained by ISIS.

The Iraqi government now saying, though, it does now have Tikrit under control, another key city as well and that is the oil rich city of Kirkuk. ISIS also launching an attempt to briefly taking over some portions of that city, some villages in that province before Kurdish fighters, the Hasmurga (ph), very well-known as being a formidable fighting force by their own right, being the main entity that managed to drive ISIS out of Kirkuk, now saying that they are the ones that are largely in control.

The dynamics in Mosul, Wolf, very interesting. Overnight, one strike by the Iraqi government on a military base to the south of the city. But we spent all day on the border talking to residents who were fleeing who were actually describing life as being fine. They said, yes, there are masked gunmen roaming the streets. They are ISIS fighters. But they are not really bothering us. They haven't been carrying out mass executions. They haven't been looting and pillaging.

And some people, Wolf, even saying that they were going back because they believe ISIS when they told residents to return. A lot of this going back to sectarian tensions, Wolf. These are predominantly Sunni areas and residents who are telling us that they were going to go back because ISIS, they said, at this stage, to them, was a better option than being under the control of the government of Shia prime minister Nouri al Maliki.

BLITZER: Arwa, stand by. I want to bring in Christiane. Christiane, Arwa makes an excellent point. It looks -- it looks, to the outsider at least, this could be another civil war in the -- in the making between the largely Shia-backed Iraqi government versus the largely Sunni ISIS or these Al Qaeda inspired insurgents who are moving in, sort of similar to what's going on in Syria. What do you -- what's your take?

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, there's absolutely no doubt that it is Syria blowback that's happening in Iraq and vice-versa. What was going on in Iraq has blown back to Syria. But this is part of a whole. And as you know, Mosul is only about a hundred miles from the Syrian border. And what I'm being told by a senior U.S. commander, is that, quote, "It is hard now to avoid the conclusion that this is the beginning of the partition, the dismemberment of Iraq."

So, not quite the civil war scenario but could stand where Arwa is, splitting off this ISIS dominated western part of Iraq, Fallujah, Ramadi, Anbar Province, Salaudi and those kinds of areas. And then, the Shiites heartland of Baghdad and on south. And this is what people are incredibly worried about.

I'm also told by a former U.S. commander, they always warn that these hard-won gains that the U.S. had achieved, not only with the surge but with the training of Iraqi forces over the last decade or so, these were all, quote, "reversible" under situations when there was no supportive U.S. force. And that is what we're seeing now. He tells me that he does not believe they are capable of pushing ISIS back. They don't have the logistical ability and, as Arwa said, they don't have the will to fight for a Maliki government, and that is also what the former Iraqi prime minister, Ayad Allawi, just told right now.

BLITZER: Just a few moments ago. Arwa, standing by. Jim Sciutto, you just heard the president of the United States say all options, referring to military options, are on the table. I suspect the Iraqi government, prime minister Nouri al Maliki, he wants the U.S. airstrikes to go after these insurgents. But how far is the U.S. likely to go right now? I know the United States, under President Obama, does not want to get back involved militarily.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, listen, we know the Iraqi's have asked for airstrikes. I was able to confirm that last night. And, as the president said and officials have said a number of times, they're keeping all options on the table. We know that that includes kinetic options, options that include firepower.

That said, a number of U.S. officials have told me that the focus now is on increasing and enhancing the ability of Iraqi security forces to respond to this on their own which has been the strategy, to this point. The trouble is, of course, we've seen these Iraqi forces not perform so well in the last 24 to a 48 hours.

So, what can you do, short of air strikes, to increase that ability in the near term? You have a number of weapon systems that are in the pipeline now, F-16 fighters, Apache helicopters that the Iraqi's have asked for have now been approved by the U.S. You could accelerate bringing those in. It gives them more power from the air. The Iraqi's conducted one air strike today. It will give them more options going forward.

Of course, the trouble is, as we've seen, those assets become more vulnerable as well. We've seen the Iraqi's, these ISIS forces, pick up some Humvees and other weaponry, it looks like, so they claim, and we've seen a lot of pictures of that. What would happen if they can get their hands on a helicopter? I mean, these are the risks you have involved. And you also have other risks with airstrikes, right? We've seen this in Afghanistan. Airstrikes can cause civilian casualties. You can lose the support of the local population.

None of these solutions, you know, are easy ones or necessarily quickly change the calculation on the ground. That said, you can hear from the president, you hear from other members of the administration. They've been surprised by how quickly this has deteriorated. They're looking for ways to help. This may mean they consider options that, to this point, they weren't happy with. Maybe that includes airstrikes, maybe that includes other things. But remember, we saw when the administration considered airstrikes in Syria and turned away after the use of chemical weapons. How different is the calculus here? We'll have to see.

BLITZER: And, Christiane, you know that the -- that the Iraqi forces, largely Shiite but some Sunnis, the accusation is in Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq. They simply abandoned their positions. They took off their uniforms. And that all that U.S. equipment, that hardware, and let alone the hundreds of millions of dollars that may have been in banks in this -- the second largest city. A City of some 2 million people have simply taken over by these Al Qaeda-inspired insurgents. So, what gives anyone confidence that the Iraqi military, no matter what the U.S. does, is going to stand up to these insurgents?

AMANPOUR: Well, number one, I've been told that it's unlikely U.S. strikes could take place. They have nobody on the ground to direct those strikes, and, as Jim pointed out, it could simply make the situation worse by festering resistance if civilians are killed and the resisters will go into masks (ph) and all the rest of the stuff that we've seen over the years that they will do.

The question is also what -- it kind of gives the line seriously undermine the U.S. administration claim that it has left behind forces that are capable of taking care of themselves and their country. You've seen that that hasn't happened in Iraq and people are incredibly worried about what might happen in Afghanistan when the U.S. pulls out of that. Those forces are not ready. No matter what the U.S. and others say, they are not ready and this is an absolute example of that.

In terms of trying to figure out how to -- how to change what's going on on the ground, Allawi said -- and don't forget, he won the most votes back in 2010. He couldn't form a coalition and Malaki did. And this is what's happened. He thinks, and I think everybody thinks, that the only way to change this is by trying to move forward military but also changing politically. And he's talking about trying to get some kind of leadership council of national unity, including Malaki but not led by Malaki, to try to figure out a political way forward that's inclusive and that can inspire these armed forces to actually fight for their country.

BLITZER: And, Arwa, very quickly, because you've studied ISIS in Syria. You know what they're capable of doing, the brutality, the strength they have. Is it really realistic to assume they can move further south and go into Baghdad?

DAMON: That would be very difficult at this stage, Wolf, and the Iraqi security forces would gather all of their power to make sure they prevent that from happening.

A couple of other things to quickly bring up too though, and you mentioned it briefly there is that ISIS is not an entity that is just operating in Iraq. It grew out of the Islamic state out of Iraq expanding into Syria and now, as an Al Qaeda spin-off, it controls more territory than Al Qaeda ever did under the U.S. military.

The other key issue that Christiane was mentioning there as well is that the only solution out of this is going to be political. We have this broader Sunni-Shia war that is happening, this divide that is growing even greater. And if any nation, Syria or Iraq, both countries stay very closely intertwined, is going to have any hope in the future, it is going to be down a political path that is led by mature politicians who are able to put aside their various differences, their various own agendas, and truly try to build a nation of national reconciliation so that the vacuum that exists that allows into these like ISIS to grow and thrive is no longer there -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, that is going to be a difficult, difficult assignment. Arwa Damon, Christiane Amanpour, Jim Sciutto, guys, thanks very, very much.

Arizona Senator John McCain is calling for immediate U.S. action when it comes to Iraq. On the U.S. Senate floor earlier today, he said, the president should replace his entire national security team, put retired Army General David Petraeus in charge. Here is more of what Senator McCain said.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Iraq is a faraway place. But ask any intelligence leader in this country and that leader will tell you that this poses a takeover of Iraq and the Iraq-Syria area which is now the largest concentration of Al Qaeda in history, is a direct threat to the United States of America. So, at least take immediate action to try to break the advance of ISIS across Iraq today.


BLITZER: Soon after that, the house speaker, John Boehner, accused President Obama and his administration of, quote, taking a nap when it comes to Iraq. And we're going to have much more about the bitter political battle that is now brewing over the sensitive subject. Gloria Borger will join me later this hour.

Just ahead, our special report continues, extremists in Iraq press their offensive towards Baghdad. Tom Foreman will take a close look at which areas they now control.


BLITZER: Iraq is only slightly larger than the state of California, but for generations it's been fractured by deep ethnic and political divisions, especially among the minority Sunnis and the majority Shiites. Those historical rivalries are now very much at work as militants launch crippling offensives across much of the country. Tom Foreman is here to show us how this is all playing out on the ground.

The insurgents have been active now for months. How much ground did they actually gain, Tom?

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: A pretty good bit, Wolf. If you take a look at the map here, what you see is that all the red area up here, and I'll mark off the border here between Iraq and Syria, all the red area in here is basically either under control by the insurgents or heavily contested by them. And this matches fairly well to where you have the largest collection of the Sunni population. Yes, they are a minority in this country but this group of insurgents has been able to prey off the fact that these people feel that they have been marginalized at best, brutalized at worst, by the Shiite majority under President al Malaki. And so in places like Mosul, the second largest city, the insurgents have been able to get a toehold and work forward. And the same thing is happening in places like Tikrit. It's not necessarily that the local population likes the insurgents a whole lot, but they have so little faith in the centralized government, they're allowing this to move forward.

Now, who are these insurgents? The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is comprised of some very skilled fighters. And remember 10 years ago, when Saddam Hussein was toppled and people watched the military be disbanded there, there was a question of, what would all these military people do? Where did they go because so many of them were blocked out of the government by the new laws and the new regime there. This is where they went. Many of them wound up with this movement. They joined together with many other people who were very angry about the centralized government there and they formed this, which basically is imposing sharia law where it goes. And just like the name says, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. That not only tells you what they want, an Islamic state, but where they want it.

And if we go back to that main map there, you'll notice that even though I drew a line between the countries here, they're not drawing it. If you want to know what they're after, in simple terms, this is it. They are looking for a nation. A nation of their own that spans these borders that is an Islamic state and that they control, Wolf. That is one of the reasons this is such an explosive and worrisome thing to people over there because they start saying, once again, in the Middle East, you could see national boundaries changing if this goes on unchecked.

BLITZER: Yes. I suspect that if they were to get that graphical area you've just described, they would want more after that.

Tom, stand by. This is truly a nightmare scenario unfolding in Iraq right now as the terror group ISIS grabs more territory. Some Iraqi troops simply turning and running, throwing away their weapons, taking off their uniforms. Joining us now for more analysis in New York, "Time International" editor Bobbie Ghosh, who's also a former "Time" magazine Baghdad bureau chief. Also joining us, CNN international anchor Michael Holmes, who's spent a lot of time covering the conflict in Iraq.

Michael, you know, a lot of people are blaming Nuri al Maliki for this. This was so predictable. That he, a Shiite leader, he really never reached out to forge some sort of alliance with Iraqi Sunnis and this vacuum was created. ISIS now moving in. What do you say about that theory?

MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: Yes, well, he not only didn't reach out, he did precisely the opposite. Despite going into power promising the U.S. and others that he would be inclusive, he would share power with Sunnis and Kurds. In the case of the Sunnis, he's done precisely the opposite. And Sunnis see him as a kind of sectarian Shiite Saddam lite, if you like. He's not only cut them out of the political process, he has arrested a lot of their political players, he's not shared oil revenues with them.

And that anger and resentment - and let's talk about Anbar province, Fallujah and Ramadi, names familiar to many Americans. I was in Baghdad in January when ISIS basically came in and took over that area. And why were they able to do that? It was because the Sunnis there, the tribal leaders there, they saw their enemy's enemy as their friend. They don't like Nuri al Maliki. They're mad at him. They're angry, disenfranchised. And basically when the Sunni extremists came in and wanted to put a foothold there, they said, well, all right, why not.

Now, you've got to - you've got to remember, they don't - as Tom said there, they don't like ISIS. They don't like being governed under Islamic law. And historically, right through the ages, the Sunnis do not like being told what to do. But in this case, it's been a situation where they see Nuri al Malaki as a worse option. And these are too, crucially, Wolf, the same tribal chiefs that the U.S. reached out to in 2006, 2007, became the Sons of Iraq, the awakening, turned on al Qaeda and that changed the insurgency when the Americans were able to win them over. Nuri al Malaki's done the opposite

BLITZER: And, you know, Bobbie, further complicating this whole situation is the alliance that Nuri al Maliki's Shiite led government in Baghdad has really forged with neighboring Iran, also Shiite dominated, obviously, further complicating it from the U.S. perspective. Did the U.S. go in there in 2003 and try to forge a democracy only to see Iraq become such an important strategic partner with Iran?

BOBBY GHOSH, EDITOR, "TIME INTERNATIONAL": Indeed. And not only here in the U.S., where people are asking that question, many Iraqis, you have to remember, fought -- Iraq fought an eight year incredibly bloody war with Iran and a lot of those Sunnis, particularly those who are in ISIS, ex-military men, fought in that war. They were veterans of that war. And nothing annoys them more than the fact that Nuri Malaki is reaching out to the former enemy, the country that has so much Iraqi blood on its hands, metaphorically speaking, nothing upsets Iraqi Sunnis more than the idea that Iran is now the closest ally of the government in Baghdad.

BLITZER: We know that the Iranians, Bobby, they've supported the Syrian regime of Bashar al Assad in the cold (ph) war there. Do you expect that they will actually go in militarily and help Nuri al Maliki's Shiite led government in Baghdad?

GHOSH: I - I would be very surprised if they did that. For one thing, it's a - it's a -- it's not a simple matter of rolling tanks across the border. They're fighting against an insurgent army. It's not a conventional war. And for another, I think it would antagonize a lot of Iraqis, not just Sunnis. Remember, the bulk of Saddam Hussein's army was made up of Shiites, particularly those who were in the front lines. And hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Shiites died in that war with Iran. They may share the same sect. They don't share a lot of love amongst each other.

BLITZER: All right.

GHOSH: The political calculations that Maliki makes are very different from the personal ones that ordinary Iraqis make. If Iranians start getting involved directly in the fight, a lot of Iraqi Shiites, I think, would turn against Malaki as well. BLITZER: Excellent point. Bobby Ghosh, Michael Holmes, guys, thanks

very much.

He transformed a few terrorist cells into perhaps the most dangerous militant group in the world right now. When we come back, we'll profile the leader of this group, ISIS. We'll track the militant group's rise as it marches across Iraq.


BLITZER: It's a militant group that even al Qaeda considers too extreme. Now it has taken over Iraq's second largest city, that's Mosul. A city of some 2 million people in the south, threatening to capture more and more Iraqi territory. And there are fears that this group, the so-called Islamic state in Iraq and Syria, could establish a haven for attacks against the United States. So, what do we know about ISIS? What do we know about its leader? Brian Todd is following this part of the story for us.

Brian, you've been studying it in recent days. What do we know about ISIS and its leaders?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, speaking with U.S. officials about this man, Wolf, he's a very mysterious and enigmatic (ph) figure. His name is Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. He's been called the world's most dangerous man by "Time" magazine, the new bin Laden by "Lamonde" (ph) magazine. He is, as you said, the leader of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. ISIS, as we've been calling them.

He was born in 1971 in Samara, Iraq. According to a biography posted on jihadist websites, he has a Ph.D. in Islamic studies from a university in Baghdad. He formed his own loose groups before joining al Qaeda after the U.S. led invasion in 2003, Wolf. In 2005, he was captured by U.S. troops, held for four years at Camp Buka (ph). That's a prison camp in southern Iraq. He was released there in 2009.

Right now, Wolf, he's got a $10 million bounty on his head from the United States. A report in "The Guardian," just to give you an indication of how brutal this guy is, says that he publically executed people suspected of aiding the U.S. led coalition forces in Iraq. He is known as a man of real brutality. But not a lot else is known about him at this point. We're digging, trying to find some more information about him. But a very mysterious guy.

BLITZER: Why does core al Qaeda, the central al Qaeda that we're all familiar with, think this group, this individual is even too extreme for them?

TODD: Really because of the sheer violence. They're ruthless. They've cut a swath through Mosul. They've taken over that town. Again, this man has a reputation for publically killing people. You know, he -- what's interesting, though, is he tries to keep a low profile maybe to gather more support within the militant ranks. He's very much different from the previous leader that we know so well of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who used to like to make videos and shoot guns in videos and everything. This guy is known as the invisible sheikh. Reports say that he wears a mask on his face when he goes to meet other militants or maybe meet some other prisoners. He likes to keep a low profile. Brutal, nonetheless. He's a very dangerous man.

BLITZER: And when the U.S. killed al-Zawahiri -

TODD: Right.

BLITZER: Everyone thought, well, that's the end of al Qaeda in Iraq.

TODD: Not so.

BLITZER: Not so fast.

TODD: Right. Exactly.

BLITZER: All right, Brian, thanks very much.

Brian will have more later in "THE SITUATION ROOM."

Critics, meanwhile, say the crisis in Iraq is the result of President Obama's failed foreign policy. We'll examine the political fallout for the White House. Our special report, "Crisis in Iraq" continues right after this.