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Obama: Days Before U.S. Response to ISIS in Iraq; Kerry Says Iraqi Government Must "Do the Right Thing"; Obama: Long-Term Solution In Iraq Is Political, Diplomatic; Hillary Clinton Wants U.S. Military to Stay Out of Iraq; Will Americans Evacuate Iraq?

Aired June 13, 2014 - 13:30   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to our special report, "Crisis in Iraq." I'm Wolf Blitzer, reporting from Washington.

President Obama says it could take several days before any U.S. military response to the escalating crisis in Iraq. The terrorist group ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, is on the march towards Baghdad. The U.S. and Iraq are looking for ways to stop them.

Let's bring in our senior international correspondent, Nic Robertson. Also joining us, our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto; and Michael Holmes, a correspondent for "CNN International."

Nic, I understand you just spoke to a Sunni tribal leader who represents a lot of those fighters involved in the battles right now. What are you hearing?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, Wolf, he's a political representative from the Council of Tribal Sheikhs in Iraq, the Revolutionary Council of Trial Sheikhs. The reason that ISIS fighters made such a rapid gain on the ground is because there was an agreement and plan that they would get the support from the Sunni tribes in Iraq. These two groups have completely different agendas. ISIS wants an Islamist caliphate. The tribes, the tribal leader told me, what they what they want is a more representative government in Baghdad, that they want to take the fight to Baghdad. They're confident that they can take the fight to Baghdad. Baghdad is their aim. They don't want to storm into the city, they say. They want to negotiate. They want a government of national unity to be formed. But they are doing this side by side with these ISIS fighters. The tribal leader said we've been capturing and letting go many, many Iraqi army forces. He said this is not the way that al Qaeda operates. This is the way the tribes operate. He believes they have the upper hand over these ISIS fighters and that if ISIS starts turning radical Islamists, then they will turn their guns -- the tribes will turn their guns on ISIS. It's unclear which way this will unfold, but what is very troubling about what he told me -- and he is clearly deeply troubled with the news today that Iran has that put 500 troops across the border into Iraq. He fears the situation could turn into a sectarian blood bath. Yesterday, he felt confidence. Today, this news has made him very worried about the situation because he knows that this is provocation. And he also says it shows the true colors of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki that he is really siding with Iran. The world should wake up.

One other point on this tribal leader, Wolf, he was one of those working with U.S. Marines to force out al Qaeda only a few years ago. He wants to talk to Americans. He doesn't want American air strikes on his tribal fighters. They just want, he says, a national government of unity in Iraq right now -- Wolf?

BLITZER: Nic Robertson, stand by.

Michael Holmes, you covered the war for many years. Nic makes a good point. Some of these tribal leaders, they did eventually work with General Petraeus and other U.S. officials to ease the crisis over there as part of that U.S.-led surge, but a lot of it involved cash, U.S. taxpayer dollars. The U.S. paid off these Sunni leaders. Thousands, millions of dollars, in fact, in hard cash. And once that cash dried up, the support for the U.S. seemed to dry up, as well. Explain what happened there.

MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: And Nic's point, all incredibly valid. Back in those days, al Qaeda was in sort of the ascendency and the sort of beginnings if you like, the genesis of ISIS, as well. When the U.S. went in and engaged these tribal leaders, did bring them into the fold, if you like, and, yes, they did pay them, too. You had the Sons of Iraq, the awakening, as it was known. They turned their guns on al Qaeda and that changed and impacted greatly the course of the insurgency and the subsequence U.S. success when it came to the insurgency.

Enter Nouri al Maliki, the Shiite sectarian leader, who within days, literally hours of the U.S. leaving Iraq back in 2011, started rounding up his Sunni political opponents, persecuting Sunnis to the point -- and importantly, too, going back on an agreement to keep paying those Sons of Iraq. They were getting about $200 a month each. Stopped paying them. And completely shut the Sunnis out. That's where you get the deep-seated anger at this government. Maliki has brought power around himself and locked out everyone else. They're angry. They are now working with ISIS to beat back al Maliki and the Shia-led government. That's what they want. If you get them on side, -- and they will tell you this. They've told me, too -- they don't like ISIS. They don't like being governed by Islamic law. And they certainly, historically, for centuries, don't like being told what to do. They will turn on ISIS if the situation is right. And that situation requires politics, not guns.

BLITZER: Let me bring Jim Sciutto into the conversation.

Jim, the secretary of state, John Kerry, is saying the same thing the president is saying, it's up to the government in Baghdad to do the right thing. Listen to Kerry.


JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: Security is a priority, obviously. But make no mistake, this needs to be a real wake-up call for all of Iraq's political leaders. Now is the time for Iraq's leaders to come together and show unity. Political division fueled by ethnic or sectarian differences simply cannot be allowed to steal from the Iraqi people what so many have given so much for over the course of these last years.


BLITZER: So one of the reasons the president says he wants to study this more carefully, needs several more days to consider various options. He doesn't want to be dragged in to something. In effect, what he and Kerry are saying, it's up to Maliki to show they are ready to do the right thing.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: No question. At the root of this, a long-term solution requires a political solution and a truly inclusive government. The trouble is events may outpace that aspiration. You have these forces and, as Nic was describing, with their sights set on Baghdad. You cannot let Baghdad fall. So what can do you in the meantime to allow space for a political agreement? And that's the decision the Obama administration is faced with now. And they have a number of options. We've talked about air strikes, intelligence sharing, recognizance, possibility of a U.S. advisory role, helping the Iraqis plan and carry out their defense, in effect, their push-back against thse advances by ISIS. Not boots on the ground, not fighting, but an advisory role.

The trouble is each option has its own limitations and dangers. Air strikes, it's the Obama administration's position that they don't like air strikes because it doesn't change the dynamic on the ground. Good for going after individuals, drone strikes in Pakistan, but not in terms of changing the ultimate calculus, war fighting on the ground. Intelligence sharing, that is already happening. You can ramp that up. One of the issues with recognizance is that these guys are operating out in the open. So what does that add if you're going to beef up reconnaissance? Another option as well is accelerating some of the military aid in the pipeline here. F-16s, Hell Fire missiles, Apache helicopters, useful, but also a danger, as well. The U.S. evacuating American contractors from a base north of Baghdad. Those guys were there to train the Iraqis in advance of the arrival of the F-16s. Imagine if the F-16s were already there. They might have been lost assets, as well. So each of these options has its limitations. Each of them has its dangers. And that's the difficult proposition the administration is in now.

BLITZER: These al-Qaeda inspired insurgents, they've already collected a lot of U.S. military equipment left behind by these abandoning Iraqi troops.

SCIUTTO: You see it as you drive through the streets today.

BLITZER: It's one of the dilemmas the U.S. faces. Provide more military equipment that might be abandoned my Iraqi troops and put it into the hands of terrorists, that's a real potential problem.

All right, Jim Sciutto, Nic Robertson, Michael Holmes, guys, thanks very much.

Coming up next, a U.S. aircraft carrier now heading to the Persian Gulf. President Obama says diplomacy is still the preferred option in Iraq. We're taking a closer look when our special report, "Crisis in Iraq" continues.


BLITZER: President Obama says he's weighing military options to help resolve the crisis in Iraq, but he says the long-term solution must be a political and diplomatic solution.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This is a regional problem and it is going to be a long-term problem. And what we have to do is combine selective actions by our military to make sure that we're going after terrorists who could harm our personnel overseas or eventually hit the homeland. We'll have to combine that with what is a very challenging international effort to try to rebuild countries and communities that have been shattered by sectarian war. And that's not an easy task.


BLITZER: Jamie Rubin is former assistant secretary of state who served in the Clinton administration. He's joining us from London.

President says there is a need to diplomacy. Where is the diplomacy heading? Is this heading towards some sort of diplomatic peaceful solution or will there be all-out civil war this Iraq along the lines of what we've seen in the last three years in Syria?

JAMES RUBIN, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: Well, I think what we're going to see civil war in Iraq continue for some time. And we're seeing the combination of civil war in Iraq and civil war in Syria create this broader conflict between Sunnis and Shiites. If diplomacy will succeed, the Sunni forces that combined with the terrorist forces -- what you eventually had was a breakdown in the politics of Baghdad without America as a moderating influence. When we had forces on the ground, we were able to moderate the policies of Maliki. And with the rise of the Sunni terrorists in Syria, these two things together created a vacuum in which civil strive returned.

The only way to turn it around, other than the military steps that may be necessary, is to get some of our Sunni friends back in the game. That means Jordan, Saudi Arabia. Wolf, right now, we have an awkward bedfellow. We're on the same side of Tehran. We're working with the Maliki government trying to persuade them to take steps to improve their relationship with the Sunni community. Meanwhile, Maliki's government is getting help from Tehran, from al Quds forces perhaps going inside, Revolutionary Guard forces perhaps going inside Iraq. So it's a very awkward situation for the United States.

BLITZER: Speaking of awkward, not only is Iran supporting Nouri al Maliki going after these ISIS terrorists, but Assad is going after them, as well, because they represent a serious threat to his regime.

I want to read to you what Hillary Clinton told the BBC about the situation in Iraq. She says, "I agree with the White House's rejection and reluctance to do the kinds of military activities that the Maliki government is requesting. That is not a role for the United States."

She wants, basically from what I hear her saying, Jamie, she wants the U.S. to stay out of Iraq militarily.

RUBIN: I don't know what she specifically meant, but presumably, the air strikes called for by Maliki were in the newspapers when she was asked the question. And I suspect what the president is doing is putting aside the specific Maliki request, and saying, OK, I have two military challenges, one, I don't want these al Qaeda affiliated terrorists to create a base from which they can then attack our friends and our personnel in the region and ultimately our homeland. So what military steps, drones perhaps, will I need to take the way we have done it in Yemen, in Afghanistan, Pakistan area? And then the second military challenge is what happens if this Sunni force starts to sweep into Baghdad? Will we do anything?

I think what Hillary Clinton is saying, like the president, public focus ought to be on why this happened. And this happened because Maliki stopped working and moderating his policies and working with the Sunni community. If he doesn't turn that around, Iraqi will break up into three pieces, a Kurdish piece, a Sunni piece, through the civil war, and then the larger Shiite piece in the south. So it's up to Maliki to change policy on how he treats, how he deals with, and how he works with the Sunni community.

BLITZER: Do you think he will?

RUBIN: Some kind of unity form of government. I'm skeptical. Because right now, he's in a fight for his life I suspect, and he'll rely on the Iranians and wait and see what the United States does. So I'm concerned.

BLITZER: Jamie Rubin, thanks very much to joining us.

RUBIN: Thank you.

BLITZER: We've looked at the various U.S. options for Iraq. But what about the Americans actually inside Iraq right now? How many American citizens are working at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad? How many U.S. contractors are there? How many U.S. military personnel? We'll get an estimate of all of those numbers when our special report, "Crisis in Iraq," continues.


BLITZER: Welcome back to our special coverage of Iraq under attack.

President Obama says diplomacy is an important option to end the bloodshed and avert an all-out civil war in Iraq.

Our foreign affairs reporter, Elise Labott, is joining us now. She's here with me in our studio. Elise, how many Americans, American citizens, are in Iraq right now

whether diplomats, contractors, non-governmental experts, dual U.S.- Iraqi citizens? Do we have an estimate of how many are there?

ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: The State Department has about 5300 personnel in Iraq.

BLITZER: Diplomats and their families?

LABOTT: No, we're talking about 2,000 Americans. But the wider of that could be these dual citizens. You have nationalities, other countries. These are contractors, security personnel, the diplomats, about 2,000 U.S. civilians from various agencies, not just the State Department. You have the U.S. Agency for International Development. You have Agriculture. A lot of programs the U.S. was working with Iraq. This is going to be --


BLITZER: These are the people attached to the U.S. embassy in the Green Zone. The huge $2 billion embassy that the U.S. built there that was going to be the largest embassy in the world.

LABOTT: It's still the largest embassy in the world. It's about 10 times the size of a U.S. embassy. It was the size of the Vatican and it was built as a fortress to withstand this type of violence because the U.S. planned on having a long-term presence there.

BLITZER: But there are Americans outside of Baghdad, too. Some have been evacuated from Mosul, now under the control of these ISIS extremists, if you will. Do we have any idea how many Americans are in Iraq right now? There's concern that they may have to be evacuated if this civil war explodes.

LABOTT: About 2,000 Americans in Iraq overall. Most of them are at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad but you have U.S. conciliates in the south, but also in the north where ISIS is really gaining a lot of ground. So that's a very big concern about getting these people out right away.

BLITZER: Options are being considered if withdrawals, evacuations need to take place.

LABOTT: They're doing that now.

BLITZER: Elise, thank you so much.

Just ahead, a unique look at the Kurdish fighters taking on some Sunni militants in Kirkuk.


BLITZER: Welcome back to your special report, "Crisis in Iraq."

The lightning-fast advances by militant Sunni fighters has taken almost everyone by surprise but the extremists have not succeeded everywhere.

Here's ITN reporter, Jonathan Rugman.

JONATHAN RUGMAN, REPORTER, ITN (on camera): Outside Kirkuk, Iraqi troops from the 12th Division were filmed trying to hold the Islamists advance, but it seems they didn't try for long.


RUGMAN: Somebody filmed the Iraqi soldiers fleeing, many of them in civilian clothing, and apparently leaving behind this military base as a playground for jihadists from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ph). Some playground. From this footage, we can count 14 abandoned tanks.



RUGMAN: So it was that Kurdish Peshmerga fighters moved in to occupy Kirkuk. They said, to stop it from falling. Kirkuk, the city the Kurds long claimed as their capitol.

(on camera): The Kurdish fighters here argue that they're the only force for stability in this region because so much of the Iraqi army has collapsed. But the temptation for the Kurds is to hold on to Kirkuk, come what may. Not just because of its oil wealth but because they always wanted it as part of a future Kurdish state, and a Kurdish state is what might eventually happen here if Iraq does, indeed, collapse.


BLITZER: Jonathan Rugman, from ITN, reporting.

That's it for me. I'll be back 5:00 p.m. Eastern in "THE SITUATION ROOM."

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