Return to Transcripts main page


Iraqi Prime Minister Refuses to Go Quietly; People Being Rescued Off Mt. Sinjar; More Food and Supplies Dropped; Iraq's Yazidis Face Dire Situation; Kurdish Official Warns of Genocide

Aired August 11, 2014 - 13:00   ET


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

There is breaking news we're following. A new threat from terrorist militants. A humanitarian nightmare and a growing political power struggle. All those forces now plunging Iraq deeper into crisis.

Here are some of the breaking developments. Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Al Maliki, is refusing to go quietly. In fact, he says he plans to stay in office for a third term. But Iraq's president, the new president of Iraq, has nominated a new prime minister, a political power struggle underway right now.

The U.S. military is assessing the impact of the latest air strikes against ISIS militants. A U.S. official telling CNN the strikes have curtailed the movements of an extremist group in northern Iraq.

Overnight, the U.S. military dropped more food and water to thousands of Iraqis stranded on Mt. Sinjar. Members of the Yazidi minority were trapped after escaping ISIS militants. But there is a sign of hope. Kurdish forces were able to rescue 20,000 Yazidis from that mountain.

Our Senior International Correspondent Ivan Watson has just returned. He's just there. In fact, Ivan is joining us now from Zakho, that's near Iraq's Kurdish region. Ivan, a Kurdish official warning of potential genocide. What have you learned?

IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I'm standing on the tarmac, Wolf, of a helicopter landing pad. And we accompanied a helicopter from the Iraqi Air Force and several Peshmerga fighters on board on a dangerous chaotic and, dare I said, heroic mission, to deliver aid to some of those people, those Yazidi, who have been trapped on Mt. Sinjar for the better part of a week now and to evacuate some from that mountain.

So, we took off from here on this aging helicopter that was loaded down with baby's diapers, with condensed milk, with food and water and, in some cases, even boxes of shoes to give people. And as we flew over the plain in the direction of Mt. Sinjar and went over the ISIS positions, the two machine gunners on the side of the aircraft began opening fire on suspected targets below. They told me that every time they fly in and out on these missions, they take fire from down below. And I saw them go through cartridges and cartridges, entire machine gun belts of ammunition. And then they got over Mt. Sinjar, and it's this incredible geological formation that comes out over the plane. And there we saw, hiding under some of the trees, some of these desperate people who have been trapped up there for a week, hiding in the shadow of trees. In some cases, there were a couple half-built structures that people were hiding around. And they all started waving to us and waving white flags as we came over. And that's when this chaotic process of trying to throw out assistance, aid, to these people began. The gunners were quite literally hurling diapers and food off the helicopter. At some points, at heights of up to 50 feet to the extent that I was worried that people would get hurt below.

And then, we landed, on several short occasions, and that's where amid this explosion of dust and chaos, these desperate civilians came racing towards the helicopter, throwing their children onboard the aircraft. The crew was just trying to pull up as many people as possible. A little baby, a redheaded baby that ended up in my hands. It was chaotic. It was crazy.

But we were able to then lift off with about 20 civilians. Some elderly. Some of these people had scratches, had wounds that were clearly getting infected. The crowd onboard the helicopter burst into tears as did some of the Peshmerga fighters who were onboard that were trying to help them. Just the relief was palpable. Not everybody, though, was celebrating. There was a 15-year-old girl there who was weeping almost the entire trip home because her father wasn't on board the helicopter. Her father got separated from the family, her older brother told me, and was able to call from where he was trapped in a house on his cell phone for two days and then his line went dead. So, Aziza was crying, this 15-year-old girl, where's my father, for much of the flight back home.

Now, to protect this precious cargo as we went over the front lines, yet again on the way back, and it's more than a half hour flight, the machine gunners then opened up again, blasting at targets down below. And this was understandably terrifying for the people on board the helicopter. The kids were crying. The women were screaming. They were crying. But this is the only defense that the helicopter has from the ISIS militants down below who could be taking fire at them.

And then, at sunset this helicopter landed here. It's one of several flights that have taken off throughout the date today. The Iraqi Air Force crews, the Peshmerga with them, are heroes. They are truly saving the lives of people who have been trapped on that mountain for seven days. People telling us that they didn't have access to food or water for days. They're terrified and traumatized.

And I think you're starting to see some of the footage we saw up there. Wolf, I've been doing this job for more than 10 years. I have never seen a situation as desperate this -- as this, as emotionally charged as this. And I've never seen a rescue effort as ad hoc and as improvised as this. I think we were all crying on our flight back from there. And I can say that these men were able to save about 60 people today, but there's still, the Kurdish commander says, 10s of thousands of people still trapped on that mountain, about 45 minutes flight from where I am right now -- Wolf. BLITZER: It's an amazing journey, Ivan. Obviously, we're showing the

viewers video now of people coming aboard the helicopter where you were. We see those little children. We see you right there. They're struggling just to get out of that situation. You said about 20 people managed to get onto your helicopter. There are a few other helicopters. But, really, when you think about the 10s of thousands who may be in danger right now, the food that you dropped, the lives that you save, clearly important. What about the American food and water and medicine, the pallets that are being dropped by the U.S. military? Did you get -- did you see any evidence that it's reaching the folks there?

WATSON: You know, we were only, I think, over the mountain for about 10 minutes. And in that time, we couldn't see a lot. We weren't able to get out of the helicopter. There was no organization on the ground to usher in the sickest, the most vulnerable people to the helicopter. So, it was very chaotic. And there was the danger, quite literally, that too many people would swarm the aircraft.

And, in fact, I saw -- this was unpleasant to see, one old man was actually kind of kicked away as the helicopter had to take off. Because it had its -- I'm told it seats about 15, and there were for more than that onboard the helicopter. There were a cluster of shacks, at one point, on the mountain. And I did see that there was barbed wire protecting some kind of a crude perimeter around this cluster of shacks, a few barriers as well. And I saw one Kurdish fighter with a Kalashnikov. I didn't see much of an armed presence there at all. The conditions there looked pretty grim. I mean, there were -- there were people sitting under the shade of trees who kind of -- who kind of came out. I saw somebody laying in the back of a truck who may have been dead or very, very ill. And I saw another woman being moved in -- or an old man in a wheel barrel. And we have to remember, these people have been up there for seven days after they fled the ISIS militants.

Now, the Kurds have organized the land corridor on occasion to Syria. And we're told that they've managed to evacuate by land about 6,000 families. They have to make a 15 kilometer, that's like a 10-mile walk, to Syria, and they get shelled periodically on that walk. The most young, the most elderly, those who are wounded, clearly can't make that journey. And it is incredible to think that a week into this crisis, you're still having this kind of ad hoc evacuation process, where a couple of rickety Iraq Air Force helicopters are kind of blowing in, picking up a handful of people in these really chaotic circumstances and then taking off and doing it again and risking enemy gunfire while making that journey. It's kind of incredible to think, in this day and age, that that is one of the only ways that you can evacuate civilians from this place. And that's why the Kurdish commander on the ground here is making an appeal to the international community to apply international law to stop what he describes as the genocide being committed against the Yazidi religious minority here in northern Iraq -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Were the people that you rescued on your helicopter, you and the Kurdish Peshmerga forces, the Iraqi military who all risked their lives to go in there, were they all Yazidis or were they -- some of them Kurds, were the -- some of them Shiites? What do we know about the people who were saved, the 20 or so, on your helicopter?

WATSON: I'm told that most of these people are from the Yazidi religious group, Wolf. I didn't have time to ask people what faith they came from onboard the helicopter because many of these people, I cannot stress this enough, were totally traumatized. These people were weeping. There were little kids crying on this helicopter. There was not a dry eye on the aircraft. These people have been trapped there for seven days.

Now, I spoke to the older brother of this 15-year-old girl, Aziza, who was crying the whole flight because her father got lost as they fled the ISIS militants. Now, he's -- her brother described really chilling circumstances. He said that the ISIS fighters were stopping vehicles loaded with basically refugees and pulling people off of those like tractors pulling wagons, pulling the families out and putting them into two buildings. One was a wedding hall and one was some building that was used to store water, and keeping them in there under guard and they were locked up in there. And he says that his family narrowly escaped getting grabbed. They had to run and hide in a sewer to escape the ISIS militants.

He said that the fighters -- I asked him what nationality they were. He said they were ethnic Arabs. They were Arabs from the area. That's what he described them as. Not the foreign fighters, the Jihadis who have come in but likely people from neighboring communities that these people have lived next to for generations. And that's chilling because what seems to be taking place here across northern Iraq is ethnic and sectarian cleansing because everybody I've talked to who fled, and the estimates are in the hundreds of thousands, come from these religious and ethnic minorities. And the Kurdish authorities are directly accusing ISIS and their allies of ethnic and sectarian cleansing here in northern Iraq -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Hard to believe, in this day and age, these kinds of atrocities can happen and the word, genocide, is coming back.

Ivan, I know you -- it was a very courageous move, on your part, to go on this helicopter. Ivan, you're going to stay with us. Don't go too far away. We're showing our viewers some of the dramatic video you and your team shot over there on this helicopter. You went in there to save lives, to provide some food to some desperate people. A potential genocide in the making right now. We'll stay with the breaking news, and we'll resume right after this.


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: A bold and very risky rescue operation. Our Ivan Watson is on the scene for us. He's near the Kurdish area where so many, tens of thousands of Iraqis, minorities, they are in danger right now. Ivan is joining us.

Ivan, you just came back. We showed our viewers some of the dramatic video you shot while you were on this Iraqi military helicopter. Peshmerga fighters, the Kurdish fighters, were with you. You went into this area where there are literally thousands of Yazidis and others who are being threatened with genocide by the ISIS terrorists who are in control of the area nearby.

We see - we see the helicopter coming in, Ivan. We see that some food and other supplies being dropped. People running to try to get some of this badly needed food. But then they make a run to try to get on the helicopter. Pick up the story, Ivan. What happened? I can only assume -- I know about 20 civilians got on the helicopter. We see you're helping some of the young kids whose parents just sent them on that helicopter. I assume everybody wanted to get on that helicopter. That's a very dangerous situation.

IVAN WATSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It was dangerous. It was chaotic because, you know, the choppers are shooting their way in to Mt. Sinjar. They're firing at what they think are ISIS targets as they cross the front lines, as they make this journey to the mountain. And then there's no structure on the ground. There's not a landing area that's been delineated. And so basically the chopper just flies in circles and the crew hurl the emergency aid from heights sometimes of 50 feet.

As I mentioned before, to the extent that I was worried that people would get hurt by these boxes of kind condensed milk and these water bottles that we were kind of throwing down to the people below who were running around desperately waving to the helicopter. I was surprised the first time we landed, the crew was trying to call people to the helicopter. They were trying to evacuate people. And some of the people were saying no, no, no, they didn't want to leave.

We did another circle and landed again. And at that point, people did start coming forward. And it was this chaotic scrum of just civilians piling on from both sides of the helicopter. And it was all hands on deck. And, sadly, it was also first come, first serve. So, of course, people are throwing their children in. And this was just a terrifying experience for those kids and for those families. People who have already been through an ordeal that I can hardly imagine because they have all picked up and fled their homes in a matter of hours under ISIS militant guns and had to flee up to a mountain in the 21st century and take shelter up there for seven days.

One man I talked to said he only ate one cookie for about three days. He had no access to food. He had some water. So the deliveries that were being made were important. And some of the things that were being dropped to these people were baby's diapers and milk. There are a lot of children over there. And we could see as we circled Sinjar Mountain, which kind of rises up, it's probably, I don't know, several miles long. It's a remarkable geological formation that rises up out of the flat plain here. You could see clusters of more than 100 parked cars. I don't know if that was part of the convey of people fleeing their hometown when ISIS conquered it. Parked in ravines and gullies that lead into the mountain. So that gives you a sense of the exodus of people who fled up to this place.

And what was really sad was after we got the civilians on board the helicopter, on the flight out, and the civilians were -- these people were crying. They were overwhelmed. They were traumatized. But then the machine gunners opened fire as we flew back out. They flew in shooting, they flew out shooting, because they're flying over ISIS front lines. This is the way that they can most easily reach these people.

So it is a dangerous trip. They are taking immense risks. And the only protection that this aircraft had were two twin machine guns opening up on the plains below, which, of course, made these children, these women, these people terrified after the ordeal that they've been through. But I can say that these people landed here.

Their ordeal is not over, Wolf. These people have fled their homes. Their lives have been uprooted. And all around this area where I am here in Iraqi Kurdistan, you see these kind of impromptu tent cities coming up. But they're not even tents. People just putting up blankets and things like that living on the roadside. It's likely that some of these people who just got evacuated got off a mountain and now they may be living under a sheet tonight on the side of the road.


BLITZER: And, Ivan, some of the parents, they just told their children and threw their kids on that helicopter, the parents stayed behind and the kids were rescued. Did you see that?

WATSON: Well, I saw one elderly man who -- it was a disturbing sight, was kicked off. There were too many people on the helicopter. And there was a little girl who I just couldn't take my eyes off the whole flight back. She was 15 years old. Her name was Aziza (ph). We were trying to calm everybody down on the helicopter flight back, but she wasn't going to stop crying because she kept saying, "where's my father, where's my father." And as her older brother explained it to me, her father was separated from the rest of the family as they flew Sinjar and flew the ISIS - fled the ISIS offensive. And the brother described in detail how the father was separated and ended up trapped in a house while the rest of the family had to hide in a sewage pipe, it sounds like, before they were eventually able to make it up to the mountain. The father was able to call the family on his cell phone for two days before the line went dead. So they have no idea where their father is. Three kids and their mother have made it here to safety, but it is not a celebration that they're experiencing tonight, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, I'm sure.

Ivan, you're going to be with us and we're going to get more of the video, the dramatic video that you shot on this heroic helicopter mission to save people, to get them some badly needed supplies. We know the U.S. is dropping supplies as well. But as far as we know, the U.S. is not sending in forces to actually rescue people out of that Mt. Sinjar area.

Ivan, stand by with us. We're going to get some U.S. reaction. Jim Acosta is going to be joining us. He's with the president at Martha's Vineyard.

Much more of our special coverage right after this.


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Heroic rescue mission. Our Ivan Watson was on this Iraqi military helicopter with Peshmerga Kurdish fighters as they flew into this dangerous region where literally thousands of minorities, Iraqi Yazidis, Kurds and others, are stranded. They are fearing genocide by these ISIS terrorists who have surrounded the area. They are without food, without water, without medicine, without supplies. The Iraqi military flew this helicopter in. They had a limited amount of supplies. They dropped what they could. Even as they were firing their machine guns on the side of this helicopter going in as they came in under fire.

Ivan Watson was on board. And they managed to get there in the process. They brought back about 20 -- 20 civilians who managed to get on board that helicopter. Thousands of them remained behind. There were two or three Iraqi military helicopters, other ones, that did the same thing and then they flew about a half an hour back to Zako (ph), not far from this region, where Ivan has been reporting for us.

It's a dramatic and very, very powerful moment as the Kurdish officials are warning that these ISIS terrorists want to do nothing short of committing genocide against these Iraqi minorities.

Let's go to our White House correspondent, Jim Acosta. He's with the president at Martha's Vineyard.

You know, Jim, this is so dramatic, so powerful. We know the president has authorized U.S. air drops of humanitarian supplies to these stranded people. We know the U.S. -- the president has authorized limited airstrikes against various ISIS targets, artillery. As far as we know, the U.S. has not authorized what the Iraqi military is now doing in very, very basic, crude, limited fashion, going in there and trying to actually rescue people and get them out, right?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf, that is not part of the mission at this point. It's not what the president has authorized. But I think Ivan Watson's reporting that brave effort that those Iraqis undertook to rescue those people, I think it demonstrates what the administration has been saying, what the president has been saying over the last several days, that the key catalyst for the U.S. to take this action in northern Iraq was this very big humanitarian crisis in the Sinjar Mountains with respect to those Yazidis.

You heard the president - we've heard various White House administration officials saying that that humanitarian near genocide situation up there is really what sparked the president's interest in launching these airstrikes and launching this humanitarian aid mission. And, Wolf, we know the president has been getting regular updates from his national security team. His national security adviser, Susan Rice, is with him, the deputy national security adviser, Ben Rose, also is up here in Martha's Vineyard. The president is at the beach right now with the first family, but earlier this morning he made phone calls to the Italian prime minister, the president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko. So the president not only keeping up to speed on what's happening in Iraq, but with these other foreign crises, what's happening in Ukraine right now.

But Vice President Joe Biden has been making some very important phone calls. He called the new Iraqi president and the new Iraqi prime minister-designate earlier this morning. Why is that important? Wolf, for the last several hours, the administration it making it all too clear they're using everything but a bright neon sign to say to the current prime minister, Nuri al Maliki, it is time to go. They're basically showing Nuri al Maliki the door without saying it explicitly. And the vice president saying in his phone call with the new Iraqi prime minister-designate that should he quickly form a unity government, quickly form a cabinet that the United States will respond with more aid, more supplies, more assistance.