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Jets Carried Out Srikes in Iraq; White House Comments on Iraq Airstrikes; Supplies Airdropped at Mountain

Aired August 8, 2014 - 13:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting from Washington. We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world.

We're following two major breaking news stories in the Middle East unfolding right now, U.S. Air strikes in Iraq and the renewed exchange of rocket fire between Israel and Gaza.

Let's begin in Iraq with the very latest. U.S. warplanes take to the skies over Iraq today. The military escalation comes more than two years after President Obama ended the Iraq war for U.S. troops, pulling out all American troops from the country. The administration now responding to a vicious onslaught by Islamic militants that have sparked a humanitarian crisis.

Here are the latest developments. The Pentagon spokesman says two U.S. fighter jets bombed artillery used by the group ISIS which calls itself the Islamic state. The artillery batteries were based outside Erbil in northern Iraq.

Also today, the FAA, here in Washington, restricted U.S. airlines from flying over Iraqi airspace. President Obama has authorized what he's calling targeted air strikes in Iraq, but the president is trying to reassure Americans that the U.S. will not be dragged into another ground war in Iraq. He comes -- he says no U.S. combat troops will return to Iraq. He says no boots on the ground.

U.S. military cargo planes carried out humanitarian air drops to thousands of Iraqis stranded in the mountains. Families with Yazidi minority, that's a religious ethnic minority, have been trapped without food or water after escaping possible slaughter by ISIS.

We have our correspondents, at the Pentagon, the State Department, on the ground in Iraq to bring you all the latest developments on this breaking news story.

Let's get details now on the air strikes carried out by U.S. warplanes. Our Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr is following this part of the story for us. Barbara, tell us about these air strikes, the type of aircraft used, the bombs that were deployed.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, there were two U.S. Navy F/A-18 aircraft hornet fighter jets that came off the deck of the aircraft carrier George H. W. Bush sailing in the Persian Gulf. They went over Iraq. They went to northern Iraq, the city of Erbil, and struck their target, dropping 500-pound bombs on an ISIS artillery position just outside the city. That position that artillery was firing at Kurdish fighters trying to protect Erbil, in fact where, of course, we have U.S. military and U.S. diplomatic personnel located, the people President Obama has said he will protect with U.S. air strikes if necessary.

We are told they hit their target. They hit the artillery piece. They hit the truck that was towing it and that they are very satisfied with this mission. And so, now, what comes next? Every reason to believe there will be additional air strikes against ISIS positions and there will be additional air drops to try and drop supplies by parachute to those 10s of thousands of Iraqis trapped in those northern mountains -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Do they know that the humanitarian supplies, the food, the water, the medical equipment, actually reached those Yazidis, maybe 40,000 of whom are trapped on that mountain top?

STARR: At this point, they, in fact, do believe that the majority of the bundles of food, water, some basic additional supplies, did reach those people, that they are able to get to them. But this is -- you know, this is a very difficult situation. 40,000 people, one air drop. That's just basically the beginning in order to help these people and keep them alive. So, you're going to -- there's every reason to understand that there will be additional air drops and when those air drops go into that area, they will be protected, as they were last night by fighter jets flying alongside them because those transport aircraft that, you know, push those pallets, those bundles of supplies out the back are large, rather slow-flying transport aircraft. They can be vulnerable to enemy action. So, they will have fighter jet escorts at all times -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Now, the ISIS forces, they do have surface to air missiles, whether they're shoulder fired, even more sophisticated surface to air missiles. Barbara, stand by. I want to Josh Earnest, the White House Press Secretary, discussing all of this right now.

JOSH EARNEST, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY (live): Pretty close, pretty close. Thank you. Well, come on. Setting the record straight. There we go. All right. I don't have any announcements at the top so we'll go straight to questions. Darlene, would you like to get us started?

DARLENE: Yes, thank you.

EARNEST: Yes, ma'am.

DARLENE: Just a follow-up on Iraq and the air strike outside of Erbil earlier today. Do you -- do you expect that there will be additional air strikes today or over the weekend? Can you also give us a sense of how long the president thinks or expects this limited campaign mode will last for?

EARNEST: I'm glad you described it that way because the president's -- the authorization the president has been given for military action -- or has given for military action is very limited in scope and was clearly described in the remarks that he delivered last night. I don't have any operational updates to share with you, in terms of additional military action. As you pointed out, the Department of Defense did confirm this morning that a military strike was carried out in Iraq, and the -- so any additional updates will come directly from them. The Department of Defense does have significant capability and will be prepared to use that capability in pursuit of the goals the president articulated last night.

DARLENE: What is your best definition of limited?

EARNEST: Well, there are two specific ways in which the president described -- well, let me see. I actually will describe them in three different ways. The first is -- and first and foremost is the protection of American personnel. There are American military and diplomatic officials in Erbil. The artillery position that was maintained by ISIL that was struck by the American military early this morning, east coast time, was from targets that were defending Erbil. And that is why that struck -- that military strike was authorized and why it occurred. So, the protection of American personnel in Iraq is a top priority and one that merits the use of military force.

The second is related to this urgent humanitarian situation that exists at Sinjar Mountain. There is a religious and ethnic minority, a population, thousands of people, men, women and children, who are stranded at the top of this mountain. ISIL forces are marshaled at the base of the mountain vowing to kill those who descend. And that is an urgent humanitarian situation.

And the United States military, last night, upon the authorizing of the president, carried out a -- successfully an air drop of supplies, food and water and some basic medical supplies, to those individuals who are stranded on the mountain to try to provide some humanitarian relief. The president has authorized military strikes that could be used to address that situation at the mountain. There are Kurdish security forces that are seeking to dislodge that siege there at Sinjar Mountain. And if the military assets can be helpful in supporting Kurdish forces, then air strikes could be carried out in pursuit of that goal.

The third is slightly broader but is related to our belief and commitment to supporting integrated Iraqi security forces and Kurdish security forces as they unite the country to repel the threat that is posed by the ISIL advance. What will be required for that, of course, is an integrated inclusive political leadership in Iraq. And it is why this -- this country stands ready to support the formation of an inclusive government in Iraq. There have been significant -- there has been significant progress on that front in the last few weeks. There has been the appointment of a president, a speaker and two deputy speakers that reflect the diversity of Iraq's population.

The head of government in Iraq, however, is the prime minister. And the prime minister has not yet been selected. That will be the responsibility of the Iraqi people. Once that government has formed, we would anticipate, and we will certainly be continuing to urge that government to pursue an inclusive governing agenda so they can unite the country to confront the threat that's posed by ISIL. And the United States stands ready to support the formation of that government, and that government's efforts to repel the advance of ISIL. And that includes, where necessary, the deployment of military force. It will not include the additional American combat troops being deployed to Iraq.

DARLENE: On the humanitarian situation, is there a plan to get those people off of the mountain and would there be a role for the U.S. in any such operation?

EARNEST: What is being -- the strategy right now is to try to meet the basic and immediate humanitarian needs of those who are trapped in these pretty terrible conditions. That is what prompted the air drop of supplies that occurred overnight. The second prong in that strategy, as the president described it in his remarks last night, is the possibility of targeted military strikes that could dislodge the ISIL forces that are carrying out the siege of that mountain. That would be in support of Kurdish security forces that are also trying to disrupt that siege. So, we will be acting in support of Kurdish forces who are trying to -- trying to free those who are trapped at the top of the mountain. But, again, this is -- what is what is not contemplated here is the introduction of American troops in a combat role to alleviate the situation.

DARLENE: Can you give us a sense of what the president's involvement on this has been today? We know about the phone call with Jordan's King Abdullah.


DARLENE: (INAUDIBLE) meetings (INAUDIBLE) with other leaders trying to get allies to join the campaign?

EARNEST: I'm not in a position to read out any presidential phone calls right now. If the president places additional phone calls that we can read out, we'll try to do that in a timely fashion today. But the president has met with members of his security team to get an overnight update about the situation in Iraq. He was, of course, as you would expect, briefed on the military strike that was carried out this morning east coast time. And the president will stay in close touch with his national security team over the course of the day so that he can be updated as necessary. OK?


MARK: Thanks, Josh. So, as we've seen the ISIS or ISIL make gains in recent weeks, the United States has sent military advisers and the president last night took the action that he took. You and he have said that there's no military solution to this, and that the United States should not get dragged into a war. What is to stop that from happening? And what is to stop the Islamist state forces from advancing further into Iraq?

EARNEST: Well, let me try to take that answer -- you've asked a couple different questions so let me try to take those individually. The first one, and this is, I think, in some ways, the most important for the American people to understand, and the president said this very clearly in his remarks last night, in fact, I have them here. So, let me just -- if you'll indulge me for a second, I'll repeat them. As commander in chief, the president said, I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq.

And so, even as we support Iraqis as they take the fight to these terrorists, American combat troops will not be returning to fight in Iraq. So, that is a pretty clear expression from the commander in chief about what our intentions are and what the limit of any sort of military action would be. And that is a clear annunciation of the kind of principle that's at stake here which is this belief that there are many challenges facing the people of Iraq right now, and it's the view of the president that the -- those challenges cannot be solved by the American military. They can only be solved through an inclusive government of the people of Iraq. And they've made progress in trying to form that government. And we are hopeful that once that government is formed, that they will pursue the kind of inclusive governing agenda that's required to unite that country in the face of the threat that they -- that exists in that country right now.

If there is a role for the American military to play in supporting the Iraqi people and that inclusive government and an integrated security force that is capable of defending the country, then we'll -- then we'll use that American military prowess in pursuit of that goal as well. It is, after all, in the clear national security interest in the United States for there to be a stable Iraqi government that can preside over a stable Iraq and a security force that has the necessary capability to address the security situation in that country.

These are all difficult challenges, and I don't mean to minimize them, but, you know, we have a very clear point of view that's based on our recent experience about the limits of American involvement in that kind of endeavor. And what that means is this is a situation that is a very difficult challenge. But it's not a challenge that can be solved by the American military. There is support that can be provided by the American military. But this is a situation that can only be solved by the Iraqi people and a government that reflects the views of Iraq's population.

MARK: Is it the belief or hope that the actions that he authorized yesterday effectively will buy time so that the Iraqis will be able to organize their government and their defense forces to repel ISIS?

EARNEST: Well, I don't think I would describe it that way and I don't think the president did either. I think -- again, what I would do is our -- the primary goal of the mission the president authorized last night was the protection of American personnel who are in Iraq.

The president authorized military action to try to address an urgent, even dire humanitarian situation on Sinjar Mountain and, more generally, a willingness on the part of the American people to continue to stand with the people of Iraq as they pursue a future that is reflective of the diverse population of the nation of Iraq.

And that future is under grave threat by ISIL extremists who are making advances across that country. And our desire - and it is in the clear interest of American national security for us to support the Iraqi people as they confront that threat. But, again, this is a threat that we cannot confront for them. It is a threat that can only be met and defeated by a unified Iraq in support of an integrated capable Iraq security force. If that requires the support of the American military, that is support that we're ready to offer, but we'll not offer it in the form of a prolonged military conflict that involve the United States of America and it will not involve American troops returning to Iraq in a combat role.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If I could just ask a question about immigration as well.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Border patrol data show a decline in the number of children being apprehended who are crossing the border illegally and adults as well. How does that data factor into the president's thinking, his urgency and acting unilaterally to address the immigration situation?

EARNEST: Let me say a couple things about the data and then we'll talk about the president's views. The first thing about the data that's important to understand is, we have seen a downward trend over the last four to six weeks of the rate at which unaccompanied children are being apprehended at the border. However, it's important to understand that compared to a year ago, or even two years ago, there still is - there are still apprehensions taking place at an elevated rate. So while they have come down from the peak -

BLITZER: They've moved on -

EARNEST: That we all saw earlier this summer -

BLITZER: He's talking about immigration.

EARNEST: The rate is still high when you compare it to broader --

BLITZER: All right, so the White House press secretary, Josh Earnest, moved on to another subject.

I want to go to Ivan Watson right now. He's our correspondent in Erbil. He's got an eyewitness account of what the White House and the State Department are now calling potential genocide unfolding in Iraq against Iraqi Christians, the Yazidis, other minority groups. They're basically, Ivan, correct me if I'm wrong, being told, convert to their brand of Islam or die. What's the latest? What are you seeing there?

IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think the Kurds have been breathing a collective sigh of relief with the announcement of U.S. airstrikes against ISIS targets not very far from Erbil. Just as recently as last night, Kurdish -- senior Kurdish officials were telling me they were worried that while more assaults from ISIS forces that are only about 30 miles, 50 kilometers, away from Erbil. They were quite worried about that. And they saw a night and a day that has proven to be much quieter than expected, perhaps because of the deterrent of value of President Obama's warning and then the subsequent airstrikes that hit, as the U.S. says, suspected ISIS targets not far from Erbil.

So that has helped a city that was quite shaken by the advances that the ISIS militants had made within the last couple of days. And also really overwhelmed by the flood of humanity that has poured into Erbil, that has poured into the Kurdish city of Dohaq (ph) as well. We're hearing numbers of upwards of 800,000 people who have flooded across these borders. They tend to come from the religious and ethnic minorities, Christians, Yazidis, Turkmen, Shiites.

And the warnings that their community leaders say they talk about the threat of genocide. And when you go to the churches, the youth centers, the unfinished construction sites where thousands of families have been sleeping for the past two nights, that is the feeling you get, that they had no choice of staying behind in their homes because, in the earlier waves of the ISIS offensive in northern Iraq, those alternatives were posed, for instance, to Christians, either convert to Islam, pay a tax to the ISIS militants, or face the sword.


BLITZER: The sword. That would mean death, obviously. Very quickly on that mountain top where we're told 30,000 or 40,000 of these Yazidis are stranded up on the top of this mountain, ISIS terrorists at the bottom of the mountain saying, you come down, we're going to kill you. The U.S. dropping food and supplies to help save the Yazidis up there. Is there anything being -- are these ISIS troops at the bottom leaving? Anything going on to ease the plight of these people?

WATSON: Well, we have heard through the Kurdish media that some of those people that are trapped on the mountain have escaped. And that that escape was helped and organized in part by fighters from a Kurdish faction known often as the PKK, the Kurdistan workers party. There's a strange coincidence here. The PKK is officially labeled by the U.S. government as a terrorist organization because it's fought a war against Turkey, a NATO ally of the U.S., for some 30 years. But some PKK militants appear to have come to the rescue of their stranded Kurdish brethren up on the mountain, come to the aid of other Kurdish Peshmerga fighters there, who we're told by Kurdish officials here, had run very low on ammunition.

But there are still believed to be thousands, if not tens of thousands of civilians still caught on the mountain, and those aid drops that the U.S. helped facilitate, obviously, possibly a life-saving, the very temporary measure to help those people who have been living out in the open in temperatures that soar above 128 degrees Fahrenheit here in August in Mesopotamia.

BLITZER: All right, Ivan, be careful over there in Erbil. Ivan Watson, as I often say, one of our courageous correspondents on the scene for us. A very, very dangerous part of the world right now.

The secretary of state, John Kerry, calls the situation in Iraq a wake-up call, but the threat from ISIS has been building for a long time. So why take military action now? Our global affairs correspondent, Elise Labott, is joining us from the State Department.

What are they saying over there, Elise? Why now?

ELISE LABOTT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, as the president said, Wolf, obviously it was to protect American personnel and to provide some relief to these poor Yazidis that are up on that mountain top. But senior U.S. officials also telling me that there was a grave concern that ISIS would take the city of Erbil and that would not just have consequences for the Kurds in the north and for Iraq as a whole, but you also have Turkey on the border with the north and that could have dramatic consequences not just for the region but for the United States as well. And that's the reason that the president has ordered air strikes against ISIS targets because of that very real concern that ISIS could take Erbil.

BLITZER: Elise, we'll get back to you. Elise Labott's over at the state department.

The militants in the terror group known as ISIS, they're fighting in northern Iraq right now. And guess what, they're using U.S.-made weapons that they stole from the Iraq army who abandoned their bases, abandoned their warehouses. Just one example of how politically entangled this region has become.

Let's bring in our chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto.

This gets more complicated. The president, you just heard Josh Earnest say, the U.S. is not going to get dragged into a combat operation, but the U.S. already is engaged in combat, I believe dropping precision- guided, 500-pound laser (ph) bombs on artillery targets by ISIS. That sounds like combat to me.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: It is combat. He says no combat troops, no troops on the ground, but clearly they're engaged in combat if you're blowing up ISIS positions on the ground.

I mean you have a dual message from the administration here because they define this military operation as limited purely to protecting U.S. personnel, not just in Erbil but also in Baghdad, and protecting the Yazidis, who are now stranded on that mountain. He goes on to say that there could be a somewhat broader mission to help Iraqis stand up to ISIS going forward.

Consistent with their past messages. They want Iraqis to do this. They say that a political settlement in the government, inclusive government, is a key part of that strategy. But it's interesting language he used there to say, there is this somewhat broader mission going forward. The president also talked about possible help that the U.S. could offer to Iraqis to stand up to the broader ISIS threat.

This is the open question, how will that be defined going forward because let's say you save the Yazidis, you save the Christians, you keep American personnel safe in Erbil and Baghdad, then what? Who starts to push back against ISIS to keep them from gaining more ground in northern and western Iraq? Because to this point, the Iraqi military has not been up to that. So, how much does the U.S. help the Iraqi military to do that? That's something that's undefined at this point. It's an open question.

BLITZER: Yes, but a rough ballpark, how many Americans are in Erbil, whether military personnel or diplomatic councilor officials?

SCIUTTO: Hundreds. More than 100 U.S. military advisers. Part of this surge of advisers that the president ordered some weeks ago in response to the ISIS threat. Plus you have hundreds of consular workers there. And in the irony, another -- yet another irony of ironies, several of those consular workers had been stationed to Baghdad, moved to Erbil when ISIS was threatening Baghdad because Erbil, the Kurdish-controlled areas, were presumed safer. Now ISIS is threatening Erbil. This is a - this is a real -- it shows that really no place in Iraq is safe from ISIS today.

BLITZER: I assume that they have an evacuation plan in place -

SCIUTTO: No question.

BLITZER: If they need to save the lives of those Americans.

SCIUTTO: They do. And, remember, some of the trooped moved into the region in response to the ISIS threat a few weeks ago were, in part, to guarantee an evacuation route if necessary.

BLITZER: All right, Jim - Jim Sciutto will be with us, obviously, throughout the day.

We'll take a quick break. When we come back, more on what's going on in Iraq. President Obama laid out his reasons to attack those targets in Iraq. Did he hit the mark? Our Gloria Borger will weigh in. She's got - been doing some reporting on what's going on.

Also, what do those airstrikes aim to accomplish? I'll speak with Congressman Peter King of New York. He's standing by live.