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John Kerry Delivers Stern Message in Iraq; Kurdish Troops Holding Off ISIS Fighters; Face to Face with ISIS Fighters; Revolt Against Iraqi Leaders; Former Iraqi Vice President Says Al-Maliki to Blame; Iran's Strategist in Iraq; V.A. Patient Neglect

Aired June 23, 2014 - 13:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Right now, secretary of state John Kerry has been spending the day in Baghdad. The stern message he's had for Iraqi leaders, stand by.

Also right now, shocking new details about the treatment of American veterans in a scathing report just sent to the White House. We're going to tell you what's in it and how the V.A. is responding.

And right now, Team USA is staying positive after a stunner in Brazil as they look ahead to their next World Cup challenge. We're live in Rio.

Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting from Washington. We begin in Iraq where the secretary of state, John Kerry, personally delivered a message to the Iraqi leadership. At a press conference following the meeting, Kerry told reporters he unequivocally stressed the urgency of the situation.


JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: Iraq faces an existential threat and Iraq's leaders have to meet that threat with the incredible urgency that it demands. The very future of Iraq depends on choices that will be made in the next days and weeks, and the future of Iraq depends primarily on the ability of Iraq's leaders to come together and take a stand united against ISIL, not next week, not next month but now.


BLITZER: Our Senior International Correspondent Nic Robertson is joining us now live from Baghdad. So, was he at all positive about the outcome? I know he had some lengthy meetings with the prime minister Nuri al Maliki.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: He did. It was one hour, 40 minutes long which is long by any standards. And, certainly, he did seem -- did feel that it made some progress. Secretary Kerry said that the prime minister had given his -- given him his commitment that he was committed to the constitutional timetable which means that the new government will begin to be formed on the first of July. It'll take 45 days, at the maximum constitutionally, to come up with a name for the prime minister another 30 days to form a government after that. But that seemed to be a very key point, that Maliki saying that he was committed to a new government.

Now, we didn't get any clues as to whether Maliki considered himself in the running for that government. But I think one of the other important things we heard was that President Obama, Secretary Kerry -- Secretary Kerry said President Obama would not wait for the forming of this government if there was a need and an opportunity to take air strikes or direct action against ISIS, such as the threat, an existential threat to Iraq, but a threat to the region and a threat to the rest of the world as well. That was part of the urgency. So, I think, learning here, President Obama won't wait for Maliki to get out of the way, necessarily, before strikes are put in place -- Wolf.

BLITZER: What's the latest, Nic, with those 300 or so American military advisers, as they're being called, who are either there already or on the way?

ROBERTSON: Yes, we're not really getting an update on the time line there. Certainly, Secretary Kerry talked about, you know, the continuing supply of military aid and support and assistance to the Iraqi military, in particular in terms of weapon systems and ammunition that, in some areas, they seem to be running low on. Yes, obviously, at the back of that concern about what may happen. We've seen so much of Iraq's army literally dump weapons at its bases and take their uniforms off and leave. So, clearly concerns about that.

But when do these special military advisers arrive? It's not clear. I mean, it does appear as if this process is slightly slowing. And we heard late last week that they would be -- it was imminent, the next couple of days, that it was talked about that some of them were already there present in the embassy. Now, it appears as if they're coming but not quite yet -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We'll stay on top of that. Meanwhile, I know ISIS fighters, they took several key towns over the weekend. Is there any indication -- the Iraqi military, largely trained and equipped and financed by the United States government, American taxpayers, is there any indication that they are putting up at least some resistance, at least a little bit more than they have been over the past couple of weeks? Because the resistance has been virtually nil.

ROBERTSON: Yes, the Iraqi army spokesman said that they've made a tactical withdrawal from Al Anbar Province. Well, he didn't say specifically where but the facts on the ground precisely speak to that. That they've made a tactical withdraw to refocus their efforts and energies elsewhere. What it -- what it appears to be, the Iraqi military is focusing on protecting Baghdad, that they're drawing a line around Baghdad. The rumors are rampant, particularly in Sunni communities here, that the army has given up on protecting the Sunni communities, withdrawing itself to protect the Shia communities.

The army -- you know, the army says that is not the case, but that is the impression and that is the map that's being created on the ground. The army is, essentially, drawing a line around Baghdad to protect that, around Shia shrines, Samarra to the north of Baghdad, and also the shrines in the south, Kabul and Najeh, places like that which would trigger a massive sectarian backlash and potential bloodletting if ISIS were to attack them, which they said that they wanted to. But the Iraqi military, at the moment, appears in disarray. We hear from tribesmen in the west of the country, they're telling the army, put down your weapons, take off your uniforms, put on civilian clothes and go home. And the army is doing that. So, in many cases, they are literally collapsing and not able to stand up to these Sunni tribal and ISIS forces arrayed against them -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, and if that's the way they're going to fight, the 300 American military advisers certainly not going to make much of a difference on that level. Nic, thanks very much.

Secretary Kerry also spoke about the need to bring Kurdish leaders into the fold as part of a new government. And it's been the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters who have had the greatest success, so far, in battling the so-called ISIS forces.

Our Arwa Damon has more on the battles being waged in northern Iraq.


ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Twenty-four hours before we arrived south of (INAUDIBLE), ISIS had attacked, catching the Kurdish Peshmerga unit off guard. It won't happen again. Peshmerga Commander Colonel Hakim Cudim Ahmad (ph) watched ISIS appear just an hour after the Iraqi army withdrew, casually staking their claim without firing a single shot. That used to be with the army, he points out a two-story building just a couple hundred meters away.

(on camera): That's the ISIS flag right there.


DAMON (voice-over): Another planted on the water tower. The battle lines drawn but for over a week, not crossed. Then came the ISIS assault. They came at us from three directions, Colonel Ahmad tells us. The battle lasted for six hours. In the distance, an Iraqi military vehicle commandeered by ISIS.

(on camera): The intersection that this combat outpost is protecting is incredibly strategic. Saddam Hussein's home town of Tikrit in that direction. To the north, the oil rich city of Kirkuk. Sulaimaniya (ph), an Iraq Kurdistan to the east and then to the south, a two-hour drive, a straight shot to the capital.

(voice-over): There were gunmen with them, people from the area, Colonel Ahmad remembers. It was ISIS fighters and also people from the tribes. It's a murky dangerous alliance. Opening multiple fronts towards Baghdad and testing the Peshmerga's resolve in the north.

(on camera): There were two casualties during the firefight, one of them happening right here. One of their commanders was killed and he was just saying that this is some of the blood stains that are still here.

(voice-over): The Kurds, a population with a long and tormented history, vow they won't give up this land. As ISIS and Sunni fighters carve out their territory, the Kurds are making sure they stay out of theirs.

Arwa Damon, CNN, Salawadin Province, Iraq.


BLITZER: One top former member of Iraq's government is now speaking out and placing direct blame for the escalation of the violence and the ISIS terrorist offensive.

Our Senior International Correspondent Ivan Watson is in Istanbul, Turkey. Ivan, tell our viewers who you spoke with.

IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: This is Tariq al-Hashemi. He is Iraq's former vice president. Two years ago, he had to flee the country while still technically in office facing murder charges. He had since gotten numerous death sentences in an Iraqi court in absentia.

Now, he blames this uprising on what he describes as the discriminatory policies of Nuri al Maliki against the Sunni Arab community, which Hashemi says he represents. So, he has this strange position where he is both denouncing ISIS as a terrorist organization but supporting the uprising against the Iraqi government as a Sunni Arab response to discriminatory -- what he describes as discriminatory authoritarian policies by the government. Take a listen to an excerpt from our conversation.


WATSON: Do you support this ISIS offensive?

TARIQ AL-HASHEMI, FORMER IRAQI VICE PRESIDENT: Not definitively. First of all, in fact, ISIS is just part of the spectrum. They are not representing the entire revolution. This revolution and clear-cut oppression, it's Arab Sunni community revolt. We do have a case. We reached a breaking point either to be or not to be. Our existence, our identity, our dignity, being threatened by Maliki.

WATSON: What concrete steps would you like to see the U.S. take right now?

AL-HASHEMI: We need an immediate action to be -- to be taken to avoid any sort of military escalation on the ground. One, to tell Nuri Maliki that your era is finished, and you have to leave the prime minister position. Second, to establish a real inclusive national unity government, just a caretaker government.


WATSON: So, Wolf, Iraq's fugitive vice president telling me that this is the worst crisis he's seen Iraq -- in Iraq, in the turbulent years since the U.S. invasion in 2003. And he says that it's the Maliki government's persecution of moderate Sunni Arabs like himself that have created a vacuum that ISIS has exploited. He says, I have lost control of the young Sunni Arab men, and they've gone to the side of extremist groups like ISIS, leaving men like him in exile here in Turkey, caught in the middle between what he describes as Sunni Muslim extremists and Shiite Muslim extremists -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Ivan Watson from Istanbul watching this story with huge, huge ramifications. Thanks very much.

Just ahead, our own Fareed Zakaria on the outrage over Egypt's prison sentence for three journalists.

And up next, he's Iran's key strategist in Iraq and why he personally -- why is he personally the target of U.S. sanctions?


BLITZER: There's another key figure now playing a role in the crisis in Iraq. His name, Qassim Sulaimani (ph). He's the head of the Iranian forces who've come to the aid of the Iraqi military. This is a man also seen as a key strategist for Iran, not only in Iraq, but in Syria and elsewhere as well. Brian Todd has been looking into this man.

What are you learning about this guy because clearly he has a lot of influence?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: He has a lot of influence in Iraq, Wolf, and in the region in particular. His name is General Qassim Sulaimani. It's kind of an irony for Americans now because he's now helping the Iraqi regime fight the ISIS militants. They have the same goal as the Americans, but this man, Qassim Sulaimani, has been an antagonist and has been behind some of the most notorious attacks against Americans in Iraq, Wolf, during the Iraq War, in those years of the American occupation. Qassim Sulaimani's Quds force was responsible for training Shia militants on how to attack the Americans, attack them with explosive devices that were, you know, they devised with the Iranians help there. So Qassim Sulaimani is a very dangerous and very well respected figure among the Iraqi Shia community there for his influence.

BLITZER: Is he in Baghdad actually advising Nouri al Maliki?

TODD: He may not be there now, but it was reported the week before last that he was there and that possibly hundreds of Quds force Iran Revolutionary Guards members were there in Iraq helping the Iraqis fend off ISIS militias in certain parts of the country. Now, Iran's president, Rouhani, denied that they were there, but intelligence and senior security officials in the region have told CNN that they believe he was there and helping to direct Iraqi forces against the ISIS militants.

BLITZER: Because it's interesting, you've got John Kerry, the secretary of state, who's now in Baghdad -

TODD: That's right.

BLITZER: Even as we speak, meeting with Nouri al Maliki, other top Iraqi officials, and you've got this Sulaimani who either was there or may even be there right now.

TODD: That's right.

BLITZER: Sounds like Nouri al Maliki is trying to play the U.S. card and the Iranian card.

TODD: Nouri al-Maliki, Wolf, needs all the help he can get. He needs help from the Americans with certain weapons and probably some of these advisers that are probably going to be going in. He does need help from the Iranians because they know about how to raise Shia militias against these ISIS militants who are Sunni. They've trained these Shia militias before. They know how to get them to fight. And so they're valuable to the Iraqi regime too.

Also, Qassim Sulaimani is seen as being very responsible for Bashar al Assad's regime, turning the tide of that war in Syria. Sulaimani was in Baghdad helping Assad fight the rebels there and he's got, again, his influence is all over this area.

BLITZER: All right. I know you're working on this guy, working this story. You'll have more in "The Situation Room" later today.

TODD: Yes.

BLITZER: Brian, thank you.

TODD: Sure.

BLITZER: Coming up, the World Cup. Team USA is putting their tough tie in the rearview mirror as they look ahead to a win. And you're in, challenge.

Unsterile medical equipment, chronic staffing shortages, neglecting elderly veterans for years. There's a scathing new report. We have details of abuse at V.A. hospitals.


BLITZER: Shocking, some say damning new details breaking today about how patients were ignored, even mistreated at V.A. hospitals around the country for year. It's part of a new and scathing report given to the White House. Let's bring in CNN's Drew Griffin. It's been his investigation that first brought national attention to this issue.

Drew, the V.A. is now admitting patients were not only neglected but they were - but they are also denying that any were hurt as a result of this neglect. So what's going on here because there seems to be a contradiction. How bad is it?

DREW GRIFFIN, CNN SENIOR INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, and I think that's where you really have to dig down on this report. It comes, Wolf, from the Office of Special Counsel. These are the government prosecutors who protect government inside whistleblowers and investigate whistleblowers' complaints. They have sent a letter to the president this morning, basically saying, hey, we've investigated a lot of these V.A. problems, a lot of these health problems, and we've brought these to the attention of the V.A. They don't agree with us. And we, the special prosecutors here, believe that the V.A. is really not capable of investigating itself.

Wolf, they cite 10 different cases of what appear to us to be obvious patient neglect where the V.A. has determined, you know what, it was just harmless error. No harm done. In the letter, 50 different allegations of patient threat or safety are currently being investigated. Twenty-nine of those are so bad that they've been referred to the V.A. for further investigation.

Let me give you one example. In Brockton, Massachusetts, a vet with a mental illness problem checked into a hospital in 2003, was not evaluated by a psychiatrist until 2011. An eight-year delay before this mental illness patient was even evaluated. The V.A. determined, no harm, no foul in that case. It just goes on and on. And according to the Office of special Counsel, they say the V.A. routinely suggests that all these problems, all the problems that you mentioned, really are not affecting care. The OSC simply says that that is not possible and the V.A. needs to address this issue immediately.

BLITZER: So what's next? The Special Counsel, I assume, is still investigating. Where do we go from here?

GRIFFIN: Well, what the Office of Special Counsel is suggesting to the president now is that somebody at the V.A., at a very high executive level, goes back and independently looks at what the V.A. has inspected itself, trying to do some kind of back check on these medical examiners that have taken place, to determine truly if these veterans have been harmed or died as a result of these delays in care. The OSC thinks that this should be brought to the attention of the president, which is why this letter was sent this morning.

BLITZER: It should be brought to the attention of the president and everyone else for that matter, as you're trying to do.

Drew, thanks very much.

And this just coming in to CNN. A formerly classified memo detailing the case against Anwar al Awlaki was now been released. Awlaki was a U.S. citizen who was believed to be the leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The memo says the 2010 drone strike was ordered in Yemen because there was no way to arrest Awlaki. An appeals court in New York ordered the release of the memo. The government fought the decision saying it would damage national security. Anwar al Awlaki, a U.S. citizen, was killed in that U.S. drone strike.

Still to come, finding the right balance between work and family. It's a personal issue with the president.

Also coming up, we're going live to Rio, where American fans are getting over one disappointment but still have hope for World Cup gold.