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Israelis/Palestinians at Peace Talks; Is U.S. Escalating Military Involvement in Iraq?; al Baghdadi the New bin Laden; Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton to Attend Same Party

Aired August 13, 2014 - 13:30   ET


REZA SAYAH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Bottom line, it's about 8:30 p.m., local time, about three and a half hours to go, and a lot of people watching to see if these two sides come to any kind of agreement.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: The Israelis what they say is they're ready to see the cease-fire continue. The Egyptians want it to continue. I think the Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas, they want it to continue. But Hamas is holding out for at least some gesture from the Israelis that they will ease, let's say, the blockade of Gaza, something along those lines. Do they want something tangible from Israel to key the cease-fire going? Is that what you're hearing?

SAYAH: Absolutely. I mean, Hamas and the Palestinian delegation, their position is this has gone on for too long, that they've lost too many people, that they've given up too much for them not to get some kind of concession. Again, their demands, the lifting of the blockade, the opening of the border crossings. They say they want an airport, a seaport. They say that's the only way they can live a dignified life with some sort of access to the outside world, Wolf.

It's important to point out that during these talks, even though these are Hamas' demands, the Palestinian delegation has remain unified, and that's a big factor in these talks.

BLITZER: We'll stay on top of it. The next three and a half hours will be critical.

Reza, our man in Cairo.

Reza, thanks very much. You'll keep us informed about what's going on.

We're also learning the U.S. is now considering a rescue mission in Iraq to save thousands, maybe tens of thousands of refugees trapped on a mountain by ISIS fighters. Our next guest has been there. He's going to tell us what the U.S. is up against.


BLITZER: Welcome back to our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer, reporting from Washington.

The U.S. is now considering a possible air evacuation to save thousands of Iraqi civilians stranded on a desolate mountain. Another 129 military advisers arrived in Iraq today. They'll come up with some options for President Obama to consider. The U.S. Marines, the Special Operations force, they were dispatched to Erbil in Iraq. So does this amount to an escalation of the U.S. military involvement in Iraq?

Bobby Ghosh is managing editor of "Quartz," former managing editor of "Time" magazine, a good friend of CNN. He's joining us now.

The defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, says this is not a boots on the ground operation. But let's be blunt, if the U.S. does get involved in a rescue operation to save thousands of Yazidis, Christians, others in northern Iraq, that does mean not only boots on the ground but potentially combat operations.

BOBBY GHOSH, MANAGING EDITOR, QUARTZ & FORMER WORLD EDITOR, TIME MAGAZINE: Well, they're already -- for one thing, you're absolutely right, Wolf. For one thing, they already are combat operations. U.S. Air Force pilots count as combat troops. We know they're in the air above Iraq. If we're sending Marines and Special Forces people into Iraq, even if they are classified as advisers, they'll be armed and prepared, I assume, prepared to use those arms in situations where -- that are called for. So I think we can parse the terminology here for American domestic politics, but the facts on the ground, there are American soldiers there, they are boots on the ground.

BLITZER: They all have boots, they're all on the ground. Potentially, they could be involved in serious combat, given the nature of the threat, the ISIS troops surrounding that mountain, to go in there and rescue thousands of Yazidis and others, that could require some major combat on the ground, not just air strikes, right?

GHOSH: Absolutely. Here's one other thing to consider. ISIS will welcome the news that there are 150 American soldiers arriving close to their patch because they want a confrontation with the American military. They want this very badly. It is good for their propaganda. It sort of raises them in their own esteem. So if those troops are anywhere near where ISIS can make and attack towards them, you can bet that they will.

BLITZER: With those 130 additional U.S. military advisers -- we did the math. There are now about 1,000 -- 1,000 active duty U.S. military personnel in Iraq. This, after the president said all U.S. troops were out of Iraq. Now active-duty personnel, whether in Baghdad, Erbil or elsewhere in Iraq. You've been to that Sinjar Mountain where these thousands of refugees are stranded right now. Tell us a little bit about the terrain there and what it's like.

GHOSH: Well, it's been about 10 years since I was there, Wolf. I'll tell you this. I don't think that place has changed in 1,000 years, perhaps 2,000 years. There's something powerfully biblical about that place. It's like a scene from "The Ten Commandments." There's this enormous bare, mostly reddish rock. There's very little vegetation there. It is large and forbidding. It is also, despite the fact that it is elevated, is also very, very hot in the summer. There's very little cover. There are no caves that I remember seeing. So all those thousands of people, the Yazidis, whether there are tens of thousands, they're exposed to the elements. There's no water. There's no -- as I said, nothing really grows there except for some brush. And it's very, very hot. It's hot from above and, because it is rock, it feels hot even at night when you touch the ground. It's a really -- it's not a place that anybody would go to for fun.

BLITZER: How fierce are these ISIS fighters who have now surrounded that mountain and have taken charge of, what, a big chunk of Iraq right now, in the face of a complete abdication, withdrawal, by the regular Iraqi military?

GHOSH: I tell you, years and years of covering conflict and terrorism, I have never encountered people this savage. This is a group that has descended into levels of depravity and atrocity we've never seen before. They are not simply pursuing some kind of political or religious agenda. This is a death cult. They enjoy the act of killing. When you line up 400, 500 people and kill them in cold blood, just slaughter them Nazi-style, in some cases, bury them alive, that speaks to a level of savagery that I don't think we've seen since the medieval ages.

BLITZER: Who's going to take these ISIS terrorists on? The U.S. pointed out repeatedly, American public opinion doesn't want to get back involved in Iraq with tens of thousands. You probably need hundreds of thousands of U.S. ground forces to do the job. The Iraqi military, I don't know what they're doing. The Kurdish Peshmerga, they're great fighters, but they don't have the weapons to deal with these guys either.

GHOSH: They're begin to get some weapons, as we learned, from Washington. The other thing to consider about the Peshmerga is that their reputation for ferocity and bravery is about 20 years old. They haven't challenged -- they haven't been challenged this way in a long time. A lot of those great Peshmerga commanders that I remember from 10, 15 years ago, have since gone into business, gone into politics. You know, they've moved on from the Peshmerga life. So a lot of the fighters and commanders now are not battle trained. They don't actually have the experience, which gives you a sense of the scale of the problem here. Those are the only boots realistically that are on the ground, the Peshmerga, to some degree, the Iraqi army, but they're not a very potent force right now. They will depend on American air cover but that might not be enough by itself.

BLITZER: I'm sure it won't be. They need a lot of sophisticated weaponry to deal with the armor, the sophisticated weapons that the ISIS troops stole from the Iraqi military, almost all of it U.S. manufactured and left behind by the departing U.S. troops. And we'll see what the U.S. is willing to provide these Peshmerga/Kurdish fighters.

Bobby, it's a pretty depressing situation, as you and I agree.

Thanks very much for joining us.

Bobby Ghosh, the managing editor of "Quartz."

GHOSH: Thanks. BLITZER: We'll continue to have him here on CNN all the time.

Up next, the man who lived in the shadows has now shown his face. We have the inside story of the leader of these ISIS fighters. Is he the world's new bin Laden?


BLITZER: The man leading the terror takeover in Iraq now says he's the leader of the Muslim world and he's been called the next Osama bin Laden. Some believe he's more dangerous than bin Laden.

Brian Todd reports the ISIS leader is coming out of the shadows to strengthen his power in the region and possibly beyond.


BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Clad in a black turban with the humble bearing of the most respected imam, he appeared in an ornate mosque.


TODD: But this was no man of peace.


(through translation) "You should take up jihad to please God and fight in his name."

TODD: This video from early July purportedly shows Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the mysterious leader of ISIS, declaring a new caliphate, an Islamic State in Iraq. His grandiosity was striking.

WILLIAM MCCANTS, BROOKES INSTITUTION: Everything about the caliph's outfit is meant to evoke the earliest Islamic empire and the rulers that governed it. He didn't just come out to say hello to his followers. He came out to say, I am the new leader of the entire Muslim world.

TODD: This from a man who kept such a low profile, he was known as the invisible sheikh.

PAUL CRUICKSHANK, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: There are rumors this is a guy, who used to cover his face even when meeting with some of his own people, someone who took extraordinary precautions when it came to his own security.


TODD: Al Baghdadi was thought of as little more than a local thug when he was captured by U.S. forces in Fallujah about a decade ago. When the Americans released him from Camp Bucca in Iraq, he turned to the camp commander with a chilling message.

KENNETH KING, FORMER COMMANDER AT CAMP BUCCA: He looked over to us and as he left, he said, see you guys in New York.


TODD: Now, analysts say al Baghdadi leads a group run almost like a corporation, with spreadsheets on assassinations and operative's missions. U.S. officials tell us it's unlikely al Baghdadi has hands- on command of units on the bat battlefield. He leads with inspiration and strategy, they say.

What about the paradox between a figure who presents himself as holy and gentle, but leads a group behind these image, of executions and crucifixions?

(on camera): Is that his signature what he wants?

CRUICKSHANK: Every indication we have is this campaign of terror by ISIS has sign off from the very top of the organization, has sign off from Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. This is a figure even more puritanical and much more extreme than people like al Qaeda, even bin Laden himself.

TODD: And analysts say, the U.S. air strikes against ISIS have likely elevated al Baghdadi's stature among jihadists around the world. The fact the so-called crusaders are attacking them, they believe, will only get other terrorists to rally around him.

Brian Todd, CNN, Washington.


BLITZER: President Obama comes face-to-face tonight with his former secretary of state and current critic, Hillary Clinton. Now that potentially awkward meeting, how will it play out? That's coming up next.


BLITZER: It was "On this Day in History," in 1961, that East German soldiers began building the infamous Berlin Wall.

It will be an interesting evening on Martha's Vineyard later tonight as both President Obama and Hillary Clinton expect to attend a birthday party for a mutual friend, Ann Jordan, the wife of Vernon Jordan, a long-time Democratic adviser. This comes after the former secretary of state criticized the president's foreign policy, telling "Atlantic" magazine, "Great nations need organizing principles and 'don't do stupid stuff' is not an organizing principle. It may be a necessary break in the actions you might take in order to promote a vision."

Let's bring in chief political analyst, Gloria Borger.

I'll play a clip, one of President Obama's press secretaries on Martha's Vineyard today. He said this, listen to what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) ERIC SCHULTZ, WHITE HOUSE DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY: President appreciated her call yesterday, as he does every opportunity to chat with Secretary Clinton. I know the Secretary Clinton's folks put out a short readout of that call. But we are looking onwards and upwards.


BLITZER: The readout was she wants to hug it out with the president.


BLITZER: It's a little awkward, though, isn't it?

BORGER: Yeah. Look, I think she's well aware she stepped in it. She had in her book said there were differences with the president on Syria. But what she did was she took a policy difference and she made it personal, calling Syria a policy of failure. And then, of course, David Axelrod, his former aide, tweeted something people in the White House were saying privately, which is 'don't do stupid stuff' means stuff like occupying Iraq in the first place -- And you have this up on the screen -- which was a tragically bad decision, hint-hint, reminding everybody that Hillary Clinton voted for the war in Iraq.

Don't forget, this is a president who when she was retiring went on "60 Minutes" with her, sort of some of his staff has gone to work for her super PAC, et cetera, et cetera. So I think lots of hurt feelings here that she's got to try and fix.

BLITZER: The criticism is she is trying to distance herself from a president whose job approval number on foreign policy is in the 30s.

BORGER: Yes. Well, and she might be doing that. But in doing that, she also creates another problem for herself. Because what people forget is that while the president's approval rating with the general public may be low, the base of the Democratic Party still likes him very much, still agrees with him on foreign policy as opposed to Hillary Clinton, who is a little bit more hawkish than he is, a lot more hawkish than he is. And in reminding the base of the Democratic Party that she is that different from President Obama, may not serve her well. Of course, we have no idea who would run against her.

BLITZER: The kind of criticism that I -- the last few days we have heard in that "Atlantic" interview with Jeffrey Goldberg took me back to the days of 2008 when we were both running for the Democratic presidential nomination. I moderated presidential debates and you heard that friction and tension.

BORGER: Look, it's still there. You remember the moment in New Hampshire as well, you're likeable enough, Hillary, which backfired on then-candidate Obama. You know, this is the kind of thing, when you take a policy dispute and you disparage the president and you kind of make it personal, which I would argue she did, it can backfire on you. And I do believe that people in the White House are very upset about this. You know, they have been given a heads-up on the book. When she came out and distanced herself from him on Syria. But this kind of an interview is something I don't think they expected, particularly with the wording she used, the "'don't do stupid stuff' is not an organizing principle." It's a little demeaning to the president of the United States.

BLITZER: That was what the president had supposedly said, his policy is, don't do stupid stuff, like getting involved in a war in Iraq.

BORGER: Right. That's been cleaned up for us.

BLITZER: This is a family-oriented program.

BORGER: Absolutely.

BLITZER: Gloria, see you later.

BORGER: Let's hug it out in "The Sit Room."


BLITZER: Gloria Borger, joining us right now.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. Once again, I'll be back, 5:00 p.m. eastern, another special two-hour edition of "The Situation Room."

For our international viewers, "Amanpour" is next.

For our viewers in North America, NEWSROOM with Brooke Baldwin will start after a quick break.