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U.S. Considering Other Military Options; Thousands Trapped On Mountain; Portion of White House Briefing Aired

Aired August 7, 2014 - 13:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting from Washington. We're following important breaking news. A humanitarian crisis and a wave of violence in Iraq unfolding right now. All of this, the result of a brutal march across Iraq by terrorists associated with ISIS, the Islamic state in Iraq and Syria. The group is targeting minority organizations, groups right now including Iraqi Christians as well as members of the Yazidi minority.

And now, the Pentagon is considering emergency air drops to the thousands of stranded Yazidis in the mountains of northern Iraq. Officials tell CNN the U.S. is considering, quote, "other military options as well."

Our correspondents are covering this story from all angles. A huge, huge development unfolding.

Let's begin, though, with our Global Affairs Correspondent Elise Labott at the State Department. Elise, if I interrupt you, it's because Josh Earnest, the White House Press Secretary, will be making a statement on U.S. options in Iraq right now. But go ahead and tell us what some of those possible options are.

ELISE LABOTT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. Well, the president has been meeting with his national security team. I'm told, a lot of meetings this morning across the administration on how to help this group. We're talking about some 40,000 Christians and Yazidis basically on a mountaintop surrounded by ISIS militants. And they're out of food. They're out of water. Many people have already died because of the sweltering heat. And now we understand the administration, the Pentagon is considering air drops of food, water, medicine.

BLITZER: All right, Elise -- hold on a minute, Elise. I want to go to Josh Earnest, the White House Press Secretary.

JOSH EARNEST, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: -- ISIL's assault on Sinjar and surround areas of northern Iraq. These actions have exacerbated an already dire humanitarian crisis, and the situation is nearing a humanitarian catastrophe. Tens of thousands of innocent civilians are reported to have been displaced, fleeing persecution, and we are gravely concerned for their health and safety including the vulnerable ethnic and religious minority communities who have been specifically targeted by ISIL. The cold and calculated manner in which ISIL has targeted defenseless Iraqis, like the Yazidis and Christians, solely because of their ethnic and religious identity demonstrates a callous disregard for human rights, and it is deeply disturbing.

In particular, we're concerned about the welfare of the large community of Iraqi Yazidis who are stranded on Mount Sinjar without food, water or shelter. And the Iraqi Christians who have been forced to flee their -- from their villages in the region. We're deeply concerned about reports that ISIL has abducted as many as several hundred girls from these vulnerable communities. We're working intensively with the government of Iraq, the Iraqi security forces and the Kurdish authorities in the immediate area to support their efforts to address the humanitarian situation in Sinjar.

JOSH: And in terms of what the U.S. might be able to do to stop this, is the president considering things along the lines of humanitarian aid? Might he consider going as far as airstrikes against ISIL to address this?

EARNEST: Well, Josh (ph), first and foremost, as I mentioned, Iraqi authorities and Kurdish authorities are focused on this very specific threat to the nation of Iraq and to the vulnerable populations that live in these areas. So, the United States government as well as the United States military is supporting the ongoing efforts of the Iraqi officials and Kurdish officials to address this urgent humanitarian crisis that exists. It is a situation that we are deeply concerned about and closely monitoring.

JOSH: And is the president in meeting with people about this recently? Can you give us a little bit of detail about how he's addressing it and whether we may expect to hear anything more from him about it?

EARNEST: Well, you know, the president, as he often does, met with his national security team or members of his national security team this morning. I don't have a specific readout of that meeting. But American officials in Iraq and American officials here in the U.S. are closely monitoring this situation.

JOSH: Is that why he was late, by the way? Was that right before the event?

EARNEST: I don't have any updates for the president's schedule, but go ahead, Josh.

JOSH: I just have one other thing. The White House said that the president, in a departure in what had been originally released as his schedule for his trip to Martha's Vineyard, will come back for a day or so. Can you tell us a little bit about why he'll be returning?

EARNEST: The president wanted to take advantage of the little time not next week but the week after to do a day or two of in-person meetings here at the White House. This is not in relation to an emergent situation. It's obvious we're -- because these meetings are being scheduled a couple weeks in advance. But this is an opportunity for the president to do some in-person meetings here at the White House just for a day or two before he returns to Martha's Vineyard.

JOSH: Do you know who those in-person meetings might be with? EARNEST: Not at this time. Roberta (ph)?

ROBERTA: You said that the U.S. is supporting the ongoing efforts of the Iraqi and Kurdish officials on the threats on the humanitarian situation. How is the U.S. supporting that?

EARNEST: Well, there are a couple of different ways, Roberta. The first is there is a longstanding military-to-military relationship between the United States and Iraqi security forces. And so, there is -- there is training and resources and supplies that are regularly provided from the United States military to Iraq security forces.

As you also know, there are a couple of joint operation centers that have been established in Iraq in the last few weeks, both in Erbil and Baghdad where close military coordination and cooperation can occur. That includes, again, American military personnel as well as some Kurdish security forces and some Iraq security forces, that all of this is integrated in those two places.

The final thing is there are also, as you know, the president announced a few weeks ago, American military personnel who are on the ground in Iraq to provide an assessment of the situation on the ground and an assessment of the capability of Iraq's security forces. And those individuals are obviously working closely with Iraq security forces and Kurdish security forces to evaluate that situation.

ROBERTA: So, beyond those things that have already been announced, (INAUDIBLE) said that it's ready to take action in addressing that humanitarian situation that you described earlier. Is the U.S. military considering specific action to support France or support the situation in that way?

EARNEST: Well, I don't have anything to announce from here. The American military personnel in Iraq are conducting an assessment at the direction of the president about the capability of Iraqi security forces and of the conditions on the ground. That sort of assessment is done after and in conjunction with careful coordination and cooperation with Iraqi security forces.

So, if there are specific needs that need to be met, in terms of enhancing Iraq's security forces capability, then we will look to provide it. Again, this is a longstanding military-to-military relationship that has existed for a long time. And we can operate through those channels to provide assistance to the Iraqis as they confront this very difficult and tragic situation in their own country. Jim.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Just to get a really straight answer, is the U.S. considering airstrikes among these options to make sure that humanitarian assistance is provided to those oppressed minority populations in northern Iraq? Are airstrikes on the table?

EARNEST: Well, Jim, I'm not in a position to rule things on the table or off the table in this context. What I can tell you is reiterate a principle that the president himself has articulated a couple of times. There are many problems in Iraq. This one that we're talking about right now has a particularly -- is a particularly acute one in that the stakes are very high. We're seeing innocent populations be persecuted just because of their religious or ethnic identity. The humanitarian situation is deeply disturbing there. And it's one that we are following closely.

That said, it's important for everyone to understand, and the president has made this clear, that there are no American military solutions to the problems in Iraq. We can't solve these problems for them. These problems can only be solved with Iraqi political solutions. That is the core of our thinking as we confront these kinds of situations.

Now, the president has, at the same time, demonstrated his clear willingness to take the kind of military action that's required to protect core American interests. Those interests include things like protecting American personnel around the globe. He's taken actions like that in other countries. The president has also made clear that American military action in Iraq would not include combat boots on the ground. That is a principle that the president laid out at the beginning, and that's -- that continues to be true today.

ACOSTA: And so, it sounds like what you're saying is that this is under consideration?

EARNEST: I'm not in a position to shed light about the president's thinking, at this point. He's been pretty clear about the broader problems and the broader challenges that are facing the people of Iraq right now. What is clear is that there are no American military solutions to those problems. Those solutions are only going to come about through the kinds of political reforms that only the Iraqis themselves can undertake.

ACOSTA: But it sounds as though, to deliver this humanitarian aid, something may have to be done militarily to soften ISIL, ISIS in that area so those supplies could go in. Is that a correct read of the situation?

EARNEST: Well, I'm not in a position to provide you a tactical assessment of the situation on the ground. What I can do is I can give you some insight into the president's thinking in general about the kinds of principles that would apply to contemplated military action, that would include no combat boots being put on the ground in Iraq. The president's been clear about that and that principle continues to hold.

The president's also been clear that any sort of military action that would be taken in Iraq would be very limited in scope and very specific to addressing a core American objective.

ACOSTA: So, what he laid out earlier this summer, that remains the case now.

EARNEST: Yes. And that would include things like protecting American personnel or confronting counterterrorism threats. The other thing that we've been also very clear about is that any sort of American military action would have to be closely tied to Iraqi political reforms that are long overdue.

Now, the good news on that is that we have seen in recent weeks some steps taken by Iraq's political leaders to form a government on a time line that's much more -- much faster than they've made these kinds of decisions in the past. So, just in the last couple of weeks, we have seen the election of a new Iraqi president who's a Kurd. We've seen the appointment of a new Iraqi speaker who is Sunni. And the appointment of two deputy speakers, one of whom is a Kurd and one of whom is Shia.

What continues to -- the work that remains to be done, in terms of those political reforms, is the -- is the election of a new Iraqi prime minister and a cohesive government that is committed to leading that country in a way that reflects Iraq's diverse population, and it gives confidence to the citizens of Iraq that the government is looking out for the interests and well-being of every citizen in Iraq.

ACOSTA: And last night, there was a poll report that said that the chairman of the joint chiefs was here meeting with the president in the Oval Office. Did they -- did this matter come up in their discussions?

EARNEST: I don't have a readout of that meeting. That's -- I think the poll report noted that chairman Dempsey traveled with the president from the State Department at the conclusion of the Africa leaders' summit back to the White House. (INAUDIBLE) the chairman did ride in the car with the president on the way back from that meeting. But I don't have any --

ACOSTA: They didn't discuss national security matter?

EARNEST: I don't have any readout of their discussion.


EARNEST: Let's move around a little bit. Anita.

ANITA: Would you respond to some of the criticism from members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Democrats, senator -- led by the chairwoman, Senator Feinstein, about the report about -- well, you know what report, the interrogation tactics after 911. What is the administration doing and has the president spoken to the chairwoman yet?

EARNEST: I don't know of any conversations, at least I don't have any to read out to you.

BLITZER: All right. So, there you have the news. There's major breaking news. You heard the White House press secretary, Josh Earnest, say the U.S. is considering some options right now. The president meeting with his national security advisers earlier in the day. Clearly, there's a huge crisis in Iraq right now. ISIS, the Islamic state in Iraq and Syria, the White House calls it ISIL, the Islamic state in Iraq and the Levant. ISIS terrorists in northern Iraq, they are going after Christian and other minorities in Iraq right now. This is a major, major problem. And there are some reports out there that the United States is considering not only humanitarian air drops to try to save these people but also maybe airstrikes. We were very precise in listening to what the White House press secretary had to say. He certainly did not confirm that the U.S. is considering airstrikes. He only said the U.S. has a good military-to-military relationship with the government of Iraq and considering various options.

Elise Labott is our Global Affairs Correspondent. Specifically in addition to the Iraqi Christians who are now being threatened and many of them have already been killed by ISIS terrorists, the Yazidis, another minority group of Iraqis, about 40,00 of them have now climbed a mountain in northern Iraq, but they are without food. They're without water. And they are being threatened with starvation, if you will, because of the ISIS terrorists who have taken over major parts of northern Iraq right now, even setting back some of the peshmerga Kurdish fighters who are supposed to be pretty good.

So, what are you hearing, Elise, from your sources? Will the U.S. begin a humanitarian air drop to save these persecuted minorities, the Yazidis and the Christians? Will the U.S. go so far as to launch airstrikes? The U.S. does have fighter jets in Turkey at Incirlik and other bases in that NATO country?

ELISE LABOTT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, I think as Josh Earnest had said, right now the president is meeting with his national security team and getting various options. And he also said, look, there are a lot of problems in Iraq right now, but this is a very acute one and one I think they know they need to deal with right away.

I think immediately what they're going to try to do is the Iraqi government is already taking on air drops. So they can help coordinate that. These people need food. They need water. They need medicine. They need shelter. People have died from the sweltering heat there, Wolf. So I think the immediate need is to make sure that they get some replenishments.

And then the question is, will the U.S. help rescue these people, help some kind of humanitarian corridor to free them? That's going to take U.S. -- obviously some type of air support, whether that's airstrikes or airlift, we're not really clear right now. But clearly they do not have a very good intelligence picture of what's going on, on the ground, and that's why Josh Earnest said that they need to make various assessments on how they could help. Right now, Iraqi central government in Baghdad and the Kurdish forces are in the lead. I think whatever the U.S. would do would be in support of that, Wolf.

BLITZER: Well, it seems to me that the Iraqi military, the government of Nuri al Maliki is doing very little to save -- try to save Iraqi Christians or these Yazidis, another persecuted minority right now. Are you getting any indication that the Iraqi military, which the U.S. has trained over these past - this past decade plus or so is doing anything to try to beat back the ISIS terrorists?

LABOTT: Well, we've seen over the last couple of months, Wolf, that the Iraqi central government forces have really buckled under ISIS. And one of the reasons is because they really don't have a lot of, you know, skin in the game, if you will, in the north. You know, obviously, the Kurds have a lot of control over the north, and they've used this opportunity to gain even more control over Kirkuk and other oil-rich areas. So I think the Kurds are going to be the ones that are taking the lead.

And this kind of feeds into these long-held disputes between the central government, the Kurdish in the north and this whole issue that Josh Earnest was talking about, about the need for the central government to be more inclusive. Now that you have a Kurdish president and a Kurdish speaker of parliament, perhaps the Kurds will have more say of what's going on in the north. But clearly, I think you're going to see the Kurds having a lot to do with anything that the U.S. would do. And they have a very good military relationship with this minority area in the north, Wolf.

BLITZER: Let's go to Ivan Watson. He's our senior international correspondent. He's joining us from Irbil right now in northern Iraq.

I know it's a very dangerous situation where you are, Ivan, but give us the latest. What do you know about this effort now that's underway by these ISIS terrorists to slaughter Iraqi Christians, to slaughter the other minority, the Yazidis, where you are?

IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the evidence of the fear and panic is here. It's dark but this is an unfinished office building, one of many, in Irbil, this Kurdish city, where thousands of Iraqis have fled to just today, fleeing villages. One in particular that these people are from called Handania (ph), which is east of Mosul, which are basically overrun by the ISIS militants as of last night. Isis militants who succeeded according to the displaced people here that I've talked to, in pushing back the Peshmerga Kurdish militias that were holding that town.

Now, the ISIS militants seem to have launched an offensive in the last couple of (INAUDIBLE) on a number of fronts and they have pushed the Kurdish Peshmerga and they are pushing civilians. The people here are not Yazidis, they're not Christians. These people are Shiites, also not Sunni Muslims and also feeling directly at threat from the ISIS militants.

They do not have a plan. These people are going to be sleeping in this place alone. There are only about 100 people and there are dozens of other sites like this in the near vicinity. They're going to be sleeping on cement tonight. They've been given some water by the Kurds, some food, but they have no plan of where to go and there is no plan for how to take care of them. The Kurdish authorities here say that more than 1.5 million Iraqis have been displaced in the last couple of months and they're increasingly facing not only a major military battle right now, but also a growing humanitarian crisis at the same time. And that's not even taking into account the thousands of Yazidis trapped on that mountain who are surrounded by ISIS militants and by the Kurdish authorities' accounts, dying from exposure to the elements. No fresh water, no food and temperatures soaring above 100 degrees Fahrenheit in August in Iraq. Wolf.

BLITZER: Ivan, is there any evidence at all that the military of Iraq, that the government of Nuri al Maliki and that military, the hundreds of thousands of security and military forces that the U.S. paid for, trained over the past decade, including an air force, including helicopters, fighter jets, tanks, armored personnel carriers, is there any evidence that they are at all visible in dealing with these ISIS terrorists right now who are threatening to slaughter tens of thousands of Christians, Yazidis, Shiite Iraqis as well? These are Sunni militants, as you well know. Any evidence the Iraqi military is doing anything?

WATSON: The Kurdish authorities say they are now coordinating with the Iraqi air force to try to hold back the ISIS offensive here in the north of Iraq. As far as ground troops, the problem is, is that the ISIS militants, when the Iraqi army collapsed around Mosul, they captured vast stocks of weapons, weaponry and armored vehicles that the U.S. military supplied the Iraqi army. Those same weapons now, Kurdish authorities are telling me, are being used against the Kurdish Peshmerga. They say that one strategy that's been used is for ISIS to attack in wide convoys of armored Humvees, the types that the U.S. government gave the Iraqi army, attack towns and villages controlled by the Kurdish Peshmerga with better vehicles than the Peshmerga have, with better weapons as well, and that has resulted in pushing back the Peshmerga from a number of towns and villages so that ISIS has moved within 50 kilometers of Irbil, which is the capital of the Kurdish region, which is traditionally has been a safe haven, which these people have fled to within the last 24 hours.

The Peshmerga, the Kurdish officials say, don't have the same weaponry. They say they're still using guns and machine guns that they got from Saddam Hussein's army. So they say they are outgunned by the ISIS militants. And one of the top Kurdish officials here is openly calling now for U.S. airstrikes, for NATO airstrikes, for ammunition and weapons which he says could very quickly change the situation on the battlefield.

But for now, what I'm seeing here is a growing humanitarian crisis where you have thousands of civilians coming out, packing all their goods, whatever blankets they have, and some food and their families into cars, into trucks, in some cases walking, hitchhiking, trying to pick up taxis to flee their homes and have no plan of where to go. And people will be sleeping in this open, unfinished construction site tonight, in many construction sites like this in the parking lots of gas stations tonight in Irbil. That is the reality on the ground right now in Irbil, this Kurdish city.


BLITZER: A whole country of Iraq seemingly falling apart right now. This was not the way it was supposed to be after President Obama announced that all U.S. forces would be leaving. He was hoping, obviously, that there would be some peaceful transition there. Certainly was not what former President George W. Bush envisioned when he removed Saddam Hussein from power, landed on the "USS Abraham Lincoln" with that banner that said "mission accomplished (ph)." Iraq, right now, falling apart and tens of thousands of minorities, Christians and Yazidis and others, Iraqi Shiites, are being endangered as we speak right now.

We're going to continue the breaking news coverage right after this.


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Let's get right back to the breaking news.

A humanitarian crisis in northern Iraq right now. ISIS, the terrorists, they're threatening to slaughter Iraqi Christians, other minorities, including Iraqi Yazidis. About 40,000 Iraqi Yazidis are stranded on top of a mountain right now. But they are without food, without water. The U.S. now considering various steps to try to help out, whether an airlift could be possible, some consideration. We're also told maybe airstrikes might be necessary to try to beat back the ISIS terrorists.

Let's go to Athena Jones. She's over at the White House for us. Elise Labott is over at the State Department.

Athena, the White House press secretary, he was dodging specific answers about what the U.S. is about to do other than saying the president's considering various options but has completely ruled out what they are calling boots on the ground. No U.S. troops will go in to try to save these people who are now being endangered.

ATHENA JONES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. And, you know, that talk of no American boots on the ground, it's what they've been saying for a month, so it's not really knew. What we are seeking clarity on is whether the U.S. is considering airstrikes. And all that Press Secretary Josh Earnest would say is, he's not in a position to rule things on the table or off the table. He said he's not in a position to shed light on the president's thinking on this point and he said he's not -- he cannot provide a tactical assessment of the situation on the ground. And so they are not confirming that that is under consideration.

But one thing that they are saying is that the situation in Iraq with the Yazidis, this minority group, with Christians, with Kurds, other minority groups is reaching a nearly humanitarian catastrophe is how Josh Earnest put it. He said it's something that they are gravely concerned about.

And we heard in the last couple of days from an Iraqi member of parliament who was from that Yazidi group, the only Yazidi member of parliament who said over 500 men have been slaughtered, 500 Yazidi men. She said, Mr. Speaker, our women are being killed or sold as slaves. There is a collective attempt to exterminate the Yazidi people. And so this is what the White House is watching. And they've also spoken about how ISIS is targeting these minorities.

And I should mention that right now, just outside the White House gates, just in front of the White House, there's a group of about 100 people, a pretty sizeable protest for this area, now calling on Obama to intervene in the Iraqi humanitarian situation. They're saying things like "Obama, save our kids," "Obama, stop ISIS now." So this is something that seems to be spinning out of control. It's certainly getting a lot of attention both here right outside the White House and within the White House. We know the president has been meeting with his advisors on this.


BLITZER: Athena, stand by. I want to go to the State Department. Elise Labott is standing by over there.