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U.S. Weighs Rescue Options; Four Hours Left in Cease-Fire; U.S. Considers Air Evacuation in Iraq; Dealing with Exodus of Yazidi Refugees; Iraqi Leadership Power Struggle; Deadly Bombings Rock Baghdad; Iraq Future; Hamas-Israel Cease-Fire
Aired August 13, 2014 - 13:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Also right now, the Iraqi prime minister, the outgoing one, Nuri Al Maliki, he is digging in. He says efforts to replace him are part of a conspiracy and he won't leave office until a court tells him to leave.
And right now, just four hours left in the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. Still no sign of progress in talks between the two sides in Cairo. Is there still hope they can reach a lasting truce?
Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting from Washington it. I'd like to welcome our viewers from the United States and around the world.
The U.S. is now considering possible rescue missions in Iraq as more U.S. military advisers arrive in the country. It's part of the effort to help save thousands of Iraqi civilians trapped by terrorist fighters. Some members of Iraqi's Yazidi religious minority have made it out of the Mt. Sinjar area to a refugee camp near the border with Syria. But according to latest estimates, 10,000 to 20,000, maybe even more, may still be stranded. Just a little while ago, the deputy national security adviser to President Obama, Ben Rhodes, said President Obama should get options in the next few days on how best to help them.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BEN RHODES, DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: We don't believe it's sustainable to just have, you know, permanent air drops to this population on the mountain. Some of them have been able to escape. But, again, we want to get options in place to move them to a safer place. There are a range of ways for doing that. Again, we're going to be cooperating with Kurdish forces who are also operating in the region, other international partners.
And, again, our goal here is to work with the Iraqis and with international partners so that these people can get off that mountain to a safer place. Again, we don't believe that that involves U.S. troops to be entering a combat role in Iraq.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Let's go to the Pentagon. Our Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr is standing by. What kind of rescue operation are they considering? BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, there are basically
two options on the table, at the moment. One would be by ground. Transport these people by some sort of vehicle convoy to a safer location. This may be problematic because that is a very long, dangerous ride. A lot of territory that would have to be secured. And many of these people are simply not in the physical state to make that journey.
The next option, of course, is get them out by air. The U.S. would work with international partners, but it's clearly the U.S. military that would have the airlift capability to generate such a large significant operation around the clock. It could still -- all of it could take weeks.
So, the bottom line question -- you know, right now, there's an indication they're leaning towards air because they think they can get that done more quickly. They think they can hold ISIS at bay with air strikes, push them back from the mountain, get those aircraft in. But the bottom-line question is does it mean U.S. boots on the ground? And the answer to that most certainly is yes. There are already some 800, 900 U.S. military personnel in Iraq. They would have to go onto the mountain. They would have to secure landing zones. They would have to provide security along
But the White House, the Pentagon is making a very strong point, this is not the -- according to them, the reintroduction of U.S. forces into a combat role in Iraq. That has been ruled out. The U.S. is not going into combat in Iraq. They are going to do a humanitarian mission, if approved by the president. If they came under attack, as all U.S. forces do around the world, they would have the right to defend themselves.
But the White House, the Pentagon knows full well, they are walking into a political minefield on all of this. However, they really are moving ahead and as Ben -- you saw Ben Rhodes say, they expect options from the U.S. military in the next several days. It will be up to the president to decide.
And, Wolf, I can tell you, they are planning to send a small number of U.S. military personnel to that mountain in the coming days to have a look first hand. It may not be publicly acknowledged. It may not be publicly discussed. But they are going to go have a first-hand look, at some point, at what exactly is going on there -- Wolf.
BLITZER: That's why they sent those 130 military advisers in. They're now on the ground in northern Iraq. Some of them, presumably, will go to that mountain, get a first-hand assessment of what's going on, report back to the top brass and the Pentagon and to the president.
STARR: That is correct. It will, ultimately, by all measure, certainly be President Obama's decision and the Pentagon also and the White House making clear they want international partners in this. You know, once again, they are looking for people to join a coalition here. The British, the French already joining in with some support. Weapon shipments to the Kurds, potentially by the French. The British air dropping supplies.
But what they do know is they just can't keep up with days and weeks on end of air dropping supplies to these people. It is over 100 degrees on that mountain right now. ISIS is being held in place. But these people are desperate. They need to get off of that mountain. One of the big issues is what can the United Nations do to provide safe camps, safe areas? And once they get them off the mountain, where do they take them? This is the kind of detailed, logistical analysis the U.S. military is doing right now, step by step. How would you make it work? What would you do?
BLITZER: What is a total failure is the fact that the Iraqi military of about 200,000 or 300,000 active-duty personnel, the Iraqi military trained, financed, by the U.S., they are staying out of it, barely involved at all. They should be the ones going in there and rescuing their fellow Iraqi citizens, not necessarily the United States. This represents a huge, huge failure over the past decade that the Iraqi military, for all practical purposes, is MIA, missing in action, when it comes to rescuing fellow Iraqis.
Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thanks very much.
The Iraqi defense force has just released some gripping images along Iraqi's border with Syria. Take a look at what it looks like over Mt. Sinjar where thousands of women, children, men are trapped. They're fleeing -- after fleeing ISIS fighters. The Iraqi military has been trying to drop some aid to the stranded Yazidis. But it is so limited, it barely exists, what the Iraqi military doing, given the huge numbers of refugees involved.
You can see a lot of people just running around toward an Iraqi military helicopter as it touches down. Some refugees are put on board, maybe a dozen, maybe 20. They're taken back to Kurdistan. A Kurdistan official, by the way, estimates that there are between 10,000 to 20,000 refugees on Mt. Sinjar. Maybe they can squeeze 20 refugees on these helicopter missions that go in and only a few wind up going in. The Yazidis who have managed to escape from the desolate mountains face still more challenges. The United Nations refugee organization is struggling to deal with the refugee exodus.
Our Correspondent Anna Coren is joining us now from a refugee camp set up near the Iraqi-Syrian border. Anna, give us a little sense of what the conditions are like there.
ANNA COREN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the people are desperate. There's no other way to put it. They have been to hell and back in what they have endured and what they have witnessed. You know, these families have been coming up to us today, this UNHCR refugee camp, sharing their stories, witnessing family members massacred, beheaded. You know, watching the young, the elderly perish on Mt. Sinjar. That is where they have been for days. And it was only thanks to the Peshmerga creating a safe passage off that mountain that they've managed to walk down. And then, the arduous journey to Syria, back into Kurdistan, to arrive here at this camp.
Now, officials here weren't prepared. You know, we've been watching the erection of these camps, these tents, I should say, over the last several hours. There's probably now about 100 tents set up. Bulldozers and graders have been working the area to set up more camps, to allow more tents to form because they are expecting more people.
COREN: Wolf, 70,000 people have arrived here in the last few days. And officials believe that there will be more to come as they -- they make their way from Mt. Sinjar. But, definitely, it's a desperate situation, Wolf. These people are pleading with the international community to give them asylum. They don't feel safe in Iraq anymore.
BLITZER: Yes, it says a lot that some of these people are actually trying to flee to Syria for some safety. It underscores how enormously painful and difficult the process is, Anna, where you are. We're going to get back to Anna Coren. She's in a dangerous location in northern Iraq. Anna, stay safe over there.
As the U.S. sends more military personnel to Iraq, the Iraqi prime minister, the outgoing one, is ignoring the calls for him to leave office.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
NURI AL MALIKI, PRIME MINISTER, IRAQ (translator): We are holding on to our stance because this is a conspiracy being weaved from the inside and from the outside and it is very dangerous.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: On Monday, the Iraqi president nominated Haider Al Abadi, the Deputy Speaker of the Parliament, to replace Nuri Al Maliki.
Our Senior International Correspondent Nick Paton Walsh is joining us from Baghdad. Nick, Nuri Al Maliki seems to be digging in further. So, what happens next?
NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it was an interesting speech. I mean, you can imagine, he could have been slightly more defiant. He didn't say the magic words everyone in Iraq seemed to expect him to say which is, I'm stepping down from power. But he didn't also say he would not leave under any condition. He said that he was waiting for the decision of the federal court.
Now, they're the ones who may eventually rule on the constitutionality of what's been happening with his successor, Haider Al Abadi, named prime minister-designate by the new president. He was embraced by Washington and, frankly, Iran, Saudi Arabia and much of the political leads here in Baghdad. Now, that is potentially giving him a way out. It may be suggested he's holding out for some sort of guarantee for his future safety or immunity from prosecution or pleasant lifestyle. We don't quite know.
But it was an interestingly lengthy speech. It was a speech in which he talked about the sacrifices, again, of those soldiers fighting ISIS on the front lines. But didn't contain the key words everybody wanted to hear. I was expecting him to have read, frankly, the writing on the wall about himself quite some time ago. He came, though, also to a capital that is extraordinarily tense now. We've been driving around seeing a lot of closed shops, lots of empty streets where there should be rush-hour traffic jams. A lot of police, too, and a real sense, I think, that this deadlock has to pass very quickly in order for them to be able to simply hold back any potentialized advance on the capital -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Nick, more car bombings, other bombings in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, where you are, is that right?
WALSH: I'm sorry, I didn't hear you there, Wolf.
BLITZER: I said, are there more car bombings, more bombings in Baghdad today?
WALSH: Forgive me, it's a terrible connection. Yes, we've had, today, two more blasts. One at a market which is seems it killed two people. Although we did talk to locals there who seemed to think it was (INAUDIBLE) using a grenade. But more legally (ph) here and more connected to any insurgency, a car bomb hitting a police station as well. Add that to the two blasts we saw yesterday, one, in fact, very close to our building here. To the site of which we went to today, that's proved a bad toll for the past 48 hours. Not uncommon, I have to say, for Baghdad. Although, the blast yesterday that transpired did detonate quite close to the family home of Haider Al Abadi, the prime minister-designate. Not clear if he was a target but it certainly caused a very angry reaction in the neighborhood, where amateur video capturing how people, in fact, ran down the streets and destroyed the police checkpoint shortly after the blast. Just furious, frankly, that they weren't being protected from this constant stream at the destination of the capital -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Nick Paton Walsh is in Baghdad for us. So many of our reporters right now in harm's way. Please be careful over there as well.
Up next, we're going to talk to a major critic of Iraq's outgoing prime minister who says this ongoing crisis was totally predictable and the U.S. could wind up being one of the biggest losers.
And in less than four hours, the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas is scheduled to end. Talks, though, are continuing. We're going live to Cairo to find out what's going on.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BEN RHODES, DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: I think our message to Prime Minister Maliki and to all Iraqi leaders is, this is the one process that is consistent with the Iraqi constitution that is going to lead to a new government and he needs to respect that process, let it go forward.
(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: That was the deputy national security adviser to the president, Ben Rhodes, just a little while ago trying to send a clear signal that the U.S. is ready for a new government in Baghdad. But what kind of role will America play going forward? Here to help us answer that question is Ali Khedery. He's a former senior adviser to several U.S. generals and ambassadors to Iraq. He's joining us from Dubai.
Ali, thanks very much for joining us.
I know you served under Presidents Bush and Obama. And in a recent op- ed in "The Washington Post," you wrote this, let me read a line or two for our viewers. "The crisis now gripping Iraq and the Middle East was not only predictable but predicted and preventable. By looking the other way and unconditionally supporting and arming Prime Minister Maliki, President Obama has only lengthened and expanded the conflict that President Bush unwisely initiated. America is likely to emerge as one of the biggest losers of the new Sunni/Shiite holy war with allies collapsing and radicals plotting another 9/11."
That's a pretty grim assessment, Ali, and I know you go on to explain some thoughts about what the U.S. can do to try to make things better. But in a nutshell, what can the United States do right now, given the fact that the Iraqi government seems hopeless and the Iraqi military just ran away in the face of a few thousand ISIS terrorists who came in, they threw down their weapons, they abandoned their posts, they left all that sophisticated U.S. military hardware available for ISIS and simply disappeared. What happened there?
ALI KHEDERY, FORMER ADVISER TO U.S. AMBASSADORS TO IRAQ: Right, Wolf. So as I wrote today in a piece on politico.com, really the key to our Iraq strategy needs to be grounded in a regional strategy. The first thing we need to do is admit that we have a problem and the president needs to admit that his strategy of sort of withdrawing from the region hasn't worked.
Second thing he needs to do is he needs to hire new staff who are real experts in the region. The third thing he needs is a Middle East czar . The fourth thing he needs to do is reaffirm our relations with our strategic allies. And the fifth thing he needs to do is be very clear that we have some strategic enemies in the region to include Iran's Revolutionary Guards who have been a major force in destabilizing Iraq.
With regard to Iraq specifically, again, this entire problem was preventable in 2010 because Prime Minister Maliki lost those elections and yet we, along with the Iranians, backed him for a second term despite the objections of myself and some other senior officials. Right now, I think the president's strategy finally, after five and a half years, is exactly right. He has explicitly and very clearly conditioned future assistance to Iraq based on the formation of a national unity government, not only with new faces like Prime Minister-Designate Haider Abadi, but also with a new way of doing business. The question for Abadi now is, is he going to, after nine years of Dawa (ph) party rule under both Jaffa (ph) and Maliki, is he going to lead Iraq for the first time, unite all the Iraqis for the first time since 2003, or is he going to continue with Maliki's divisive policies and thus drive Iraq toward fragmentation and a civil war and really toward a broader regional holy war between Sunnis and Shia.
BLITZER: Sounds like a major indictment that you're issuing, not only against the president for the failed policies, but for the vice president, who, as you know, Joe Biden spent a lot of time dealing with Iraqi politicians over the year, going back to when he was a senator. Also the secretary of state, John Kerry, you say they need a Middle East czar. What about John Kerry? Isn't he the guy who's supposed to be in charge?
KHEDERY: Right. Again, as somebody who proudly served both presidents, I think it's really important to emphasize that for our friends in Washington that really Iraq and the problems plaguing the Middle East right now are not issues of -- that should become partisan. We are facing an existential threat with the crisis around the Middle East right now. We know that jihadis and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al Qaeda in the Maghreb in North Africa and now ISIS, in addition to core al Qaeda still in Tora Bora and Afghanistan and Pakistan, they are especially vowing to plot another 9/11. So, again, the crisis in Iraq and in Syria, for example, they transcend Presidents Obama and Bush and their national security teams.
With regards to, you know, the individuals and the leaders that you mentioned, this is not meant to be an indictment, again, of any one or any party or any administration. This is meant to be a cold look at what's happened, what has worked and what has not worked. Clearly, after $1 trillion spent in Iraq, 4,500 lost American lives, 33,000 wounded, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed, millions displaced, our strategy has not worked.
With ISIS, now, we are facing a super charged element of al Qaeda that bin Laden only could dream of. It's now self-financing. It's got hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of U.S. military equipment in its hands. And so really what you need is a new approach. You need to break down the silos within the U.S. government. And the reason why I advocate for our Middle East czar is because this is a full-time job.
Just like General Eisenhower had a full-time job in freeing the European continent from Hitler and Nazism, we need a five-star general now to unite all elements of the United States government, diplomatic, military and intelligence, to work with our regional allies, to work with our NATO partners and even China and Russia potentially, to get a grip on this global threat of transnational jihad and ISIS.
BLITZER: But you know, Ali, there's no stomach, there's no popular will in the United States right now, after all these years in Iraq, in Afghanistan, for the U.S. to deploy what clearly would be needed, several hundred thousand ground forces to go in there and wipe out ISIS. There's no desire on the part of the American public to do that.
KHEDERY: Right. So as an American who spent over 2,000 days serving in Iraq over six years, believe me, I don't want to see a single American ever killed in Iraq or in the Middle East and I don't want to spend one more dollar of American taxpayer funds in the region. And I think it's important to clarify, what I mean by appointing a five-star general along with some civilian deputies to help us manage the situation in the Middle East, I don't mean sending hundreds of thousands of troop to the Middle East. I think, in fact, that would be the absolute worst thing that we could do and it's exactly what ISIS dreams that we would do so they could bog us down in the region like happened in the wake of 9/11 in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Again, what I'm advocating for instead is a - you -- right now, across the Middle East, our allies are divided. There is no force unifying their efforts, military, diplomatic and intelligence. And the only way we can defeat al Qaeda is not with American boots on the ground, is not with F-18 strikes, is not with drones, it is rather by resolving the underlying tensions and misrule that created ISIS, i.e. Assad's genocide, abetted by Maliki, the Iranians and Hezbollah and also the misrule of the government in Baghdad that reconstituted the Sunni insurgency and drove them to invite in ISIS. So the only way that you can resolve under -- Iraq's underlying problems and Syria's underlying problems is by taking an international approach, a regional approach that's primarily diplomatic, along with some covert assistance through military assets, though intelligence assets, along with some surgical airstrikes that knowledge the United States has the capability to do. But this cannot be a unilateral American approach. That will fail 100 percent and actually help ISIS in its recruitment and financing and in plotting a second or third 9/11.
BLITZER: Ali Khedery, thanks very much for your insight, which is powerful and very important. And we're going to continue our conversations down the road. Thanks also for your service to our country. Appreciate it very much. Ali Khedery joining us from Dubai in the United Arab Emirates right now.
We're going to head back to Iraq in a few minutes, but first, time is now running out on the latest cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. Talks are continuing in Egypt as we speak. We'll have an update. We're going to Cairo when we come back.
BLITZER: About three and a half hours from now before the temporary cease-fire between Israel and Hamas is set to expire, but there's no long-term truce in sight. This as Egypt keeps on pushing to keep that cease-fire alive.
Let's go to Cairo. CNN's Reza Sayah is joining us now live.
Reza, what is the latest as far as extending the 72-hour cease-fire. It's supposed to wrap up in about three hours - three and a half hours or so from now?
REZA SAYAH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it is still possible that the cease-fire will be extended. We know that's what the Egyptians are pushing for. However, there's absolutely no indication that that's going to happen and absolutely no sign at this point that these two sides are making progress. And, of course, time is running out.
We do want to pass along some new information. A short time ago, the Palestinian designation here in Cairo telling CNN that the head of the delegation, Azah Malhamed (ph), is going to make a statement to reporters. We're not sure what that statement is going to be about. We're not clear if it's going to be a progress report on these talks. But we're going to have someone there. And as soon as we get it, we'll pass it along.
Also a short time ago in Gaza, on Palestinian television, senior Hamas leader Ismail al Hamiya (ph) made a statement saying he's confident in the decisions of the Palestinian delegation here in Cairo. He also said, and these are his words, that he's confident that the delegation is not going to be blackmailed by the Zionists.
These talks have been difficult to monitor. They've been held in secret. We did speak to a senior Egyptian government official and he confirmed that Egypt wants to extend the cease-fire beyond midnight tonight. Seemingly that's what Israel wants. But, of course, Hamas and the Palestinians, they've never said they wanted that. They basically believe that the Israelis are using this as a delay tactic to return to the status quo. And again, the Palestinians have, so far, said they don't want that, Wolf.