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Bowe Bergdahl Heading Home; Iraq Under Siege

Aired June 12, 2014 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, a SITUATION ROOM special report, "Iraq Under Siege," terrorists now threatening to march over dead bodies on the way to Baghdad, seizing more ground, settling old scores.

Iraq is bombing militants, but the government also is asking for help from the United States. Will American troops be dragged back into an Iraqi nightmare?


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Iraq is going to need more help, is going to need help from us and it's going to need more help from the international community.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: It's not like we have not seen the problem coming for over a year. And what's the president doing? Taking a nap.


BLITZER: Plus, Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl is head back to the United States right now. We have an exclusive on the letters he wrote while he was a Taliban prisoner explaining why he vanished from his base.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We begin this hour with the breaking news.

The terrorist onslaught in Iraq appears to be moving closer to Baghdad right now. There's a new report militants have seized two strategic areas just northeast of the capital. The vice president, Joe Biden, phoned Iraq's president a short while ago promising U.S. cooperation and support as the fighting intensifies.

We have our analysts and our correspondents standing by with the latest on this exploding crisis, and what it means for the United States and the world.

First, let's go to our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, tonight we're told U.S. contractors are now being evacuated from a military air base in Balad, just north of Baghdad. The contractors were there to train Iraqis in advance of the planned delivery of F-16s later this year.

The contractors are returning to the highly secured U.S. Embassy in the capital, this just the latest sobering sign of the militants' growing momentum, which is now carrying them closer to Baghdad.


SCIUTTO (voice-over): On the ground and from the air, the Iraqi security forces in a desperate attempt to retake northern cities now under the control of Islamic militants.

But many Iraqi forces are not proving up to the task. In Tikrit, ISIS fighters paraded hundreds of captured Iraqi police through the streets. And in the oil -rich northern city of Kirkuk, Kurdish militants forced to take over military outposts abandoned by the Iraqi army -- nearly three years after he ordered U.S. troops home Obama from Iraq, today, President Obama acknowledged the country needs more American help.

OBAMA: It's going to need help from us and it's going to need more help from the international community.

So my team is working around the clock to identify how we can provide the most effective assistance to them. I don't rule out anything.

SCIUTTO: What that new assistance will be remains unclear. Iraq has asked for U.S. airstrikes. U.S. officials say they are now focused on developing options other than just training and equipping Iraq security forces.

On Capitol Hill, some Republican lawmakers could barely contain their anger at the administration's response so far.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: The president should get rid of his entire national security team, replace it, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of staff, and bring in General Petraeus, General Keane, General Mattis, and others who won the conflict in Iraq, including Ambassador Crocker, and turn this whole situation around.

SCIUTTO: Many Iraqis aren't willing to wait. An estimated 500,000 have fled as the militants moved in, seeking safer ground in Kurdish-controlled areas.

Former commander of U.S. Central Command, Admiral Bill Fallon, says any lasting solution lies with Iraq's Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, bringing together Iraq Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds to fight for their country.

ADM. WILLIAM J. FALLON (RET.) FORMER COMMANDER, U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND: They have got a lot of equipment and they have -- some of their forces are pretty well-trained, I believe, by our folks and the NATO allies before we left. So, I think they have the capabilities to do this. They need to get the political will.


SCIUTTO: Nouri al-Maliki has been a massively divisive Iraqi leader, alienating particularly Sunnis, many right into the hands now of ISIS. If Iraq is to face off this threat, it needs a true unity government, and al-Maliki might have to go for that to happen.

But any political peacemaking will take time that Iraq does not have. It needs an urgent response or there are real questions being raised now about how the country survives intact -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jim Sciutto, reporting for us, thanks very much.

Let's go to Iraq right now for a first-hand look at the actual fighting.

Our senior international correspondent, Arwa Damon, is joining us from the northern Iraq city of Irbil.

Arwa, first of all, what are you hearing, what are you seeing as far as this threat to the Iraqi capital of Baghdad?

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, we have that audiotape that released from the spokesman for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, saying that they were planning on advancing on Baghdad and on Karbala.

At this stage, that would pose them a much bigger challenge than taking over Mosul and Tikrit did, most certainly. The soldiers there, one would hope, would put up a bit of a better fight, as opposed to just dropping their weapons, leaving behind their armor, and shedding their uniforms and trying to escape the battlefield.

We spent the day out at one of the checkpoints here in Iraq Kurdistan that is the last checkpoint along the main highway that leads to Mosul, people still continuing to flee that city, although, interestingly, Wolf, say that at this stage the vast majority of them were not necessarily fleeing because of ISIS.

Yes, they said the fighters were there. They had no idea who they were. They were kind of intimidating, parading around with their weapons, but for the most part they were leaving the population alone. On the other side, people were beginning to trickle back. ISIS did put out a statement asking residents to return, and some people we spoke to said, well, so far, they're not going around executing individuals, carrying out those mass executions.

And they felt as if, at this stage, ISIS was a better option than that of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's forces being on the ground instead of them. And it just shows how deep the sectarian divide here really is, bearing in mind too -- and it's important to bring this up -- and that even though ISIS the main, key organization that we're all talking about, this is not just an ISIS operation.

The various other significant elements of the Sunni insurgency are also now taking a stand against the Shia-led government, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, this is really shaping up as a civil war, pitting the Shiite Iraqis on one side against the Sunni Iraqis on the other side. Potentially, we could see what is happening in Syria clearly spilling over into Iraq right now.

Arwa, be careful over there. We will stay in close watch with you.

Still ahead, he's the top terrorist behind these horrifying videos and the bloody battle to take control of Iraq. We have new details on the man who has been called the new Osama bin Laden.

And we also have video from the Iraqi city of Tikrit. It shows American-trained Iraqi troops surrendering in droves, giving up their weapons, taking off their uniforms, simply surrendering without a fight at all. What is going on? Stay with us. Our SITUATION ROOM special report continues.


BLITZER: Videos like this one gave the world a horrifying glimpse of the terrorists who are now fighting for control of Iraq. Some believe their leader could be the next Osama bin Laden, but maybe even more brutal.

Brian Todd is joining us with a closer look at the man behind this wave of terror.

What are you finding out, Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is about 43 years old, has a background as a teacher, and many Americans could not pick him out of a lineup, but he's now considered by many to be the most dangerous terrorist in the world and he is the man leading the brutal campaign in Iraq that has got U.S. officials so worried.


TODD (voice-over): Some call him the new bin Laden. He's ruthless, known for ferocious attacks, his mission, to fight for an Islamic fundamentalist takeover of Iraq and Syria.

Much about Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is a mystery, but not his viciousness.

DOUGLAS OLLIVANT, FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL OFFICIAL: Very brutal, very extremist fighter who would execute his rivals.

TODD: As the leader of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, al- Baghdadi is seen as the man behind the capture of Iraq's second largest city, Mosul, and now a push toward Baghdad.

But al Qaeda leaders recently severed relations with him, saying he was insubordinate, killing too many civilians.

OLLIVANT: Al Qaeda thought his infliction of random violence was too extreme even for them.

TODD: Yet now, with his recent victories on the ground, he is growing in power.

PAUL CRUICKSHANK, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is emerging as a central figure in the jihadist movement and his organization is growing ever more popular.

TODD: A counterterrorism officials tells us al-Baghdadi is based primarily in Syria and is just as ruthless as his well-known predecessor, Abu Musab al Zarqawi. But while Zarqawi released menacing statements and videos before being killed by American forces in 2006, al-Baghdadi keeps a lower profile. Some call him the invisible sheik.

OLLIVANT: Except among his very, very inner circle, he is rumored to disguise his identity, wears masks, war turbans, wear face cloths, not let his identity be known.

TODD: According to this biography circulating on jihadi Web sites, he got a Ph.D. in Islamic studies in Baghdad, then formed a local militant group. American forces had him in custody for four years in a prison for insurgents, where he may have built ties with other jihadists.

He was freed in 2009, and within a year was the leader of Iraq's al Qaeda affiliate, heading up a renewed campaign of bombings and assassinations. What is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's future?

CRUICKSHANK: If he is able to hold on to territory in Northern Iraq for an extended period of time, he may well eclipse Ayman al- Zawahri in terms of being a leader figure in the global jihadist movement.


TODD: But to do that, he has got to survive. All three of his immediate predecessors as the top jihadist leaders in Iraq were killed. And right now, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has got a U.S. bounty on his head of $10 million -- Wolf.

BLITZER: What are you hearing, Brian? Can he take Baghdad?

TODD: Well, one analyst we spoke to, Doug Ollivant, doesn't believe he can. Ollivant says there will be some very devoted, very tough Shia forces in Baghdad who are going to fight him and keep him from moving into the city.

Ollivant sees some very determined resistance in Baghdad. And you have also got the Iraqi security forces, but, of course, they were the ones who let him get this far in the first place.

BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting for us, thank you.

Let's talk a little bit more about this battle for Iraq. Joining us, Ken Pollack. He's a senior fellow for Middle East

policy at Brookings Institution, the former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, and Chris Heben. He is a former U.S. Navy SEAL.

Chris, so what happened to the Iraqi military? So many of them, they were trained by the United States, armed by the United States. All of a sudden, there is a large battle going on in the second largest city of Mosul. They have got two million people there. They put down their weapons, they take off their uniforms and they surrender to these terrorists.

What happened?

CHRIS HEBEN, FORMER U.S. NAVY SEAL: Their performance was abysmal.

And I think they were truly frightened and they didn't have the backing of the U.S. government. They didn't have boots on the ground next to them. And, Wolf, in a combat situation, When the men that trained you are fighting with you, that emboldens you. That empowers you.

These guys didn't have that advantage. They were mentally defeated at the onset of the conflict. They drop their equipment, their weapons, their uniforms, and fled. We have seen it in other battles in other cities in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those guys should have been fully supported with special forces guys on the ground, no question about it.


BLITZER: That was clearly not going to happen.

I want you to listen. And Ken and Ambassador Khalilzad, I want you to both listen. Here is the vice president of the United States, Joe Biden, back in 2010 at the time of the U.S. pullout from -- getting ready for the U.S. pullout from Iraq. Listen to his optimistic assessment.



I think it's going to be one of the great achievements of this administration. You are going to see 90,000 American troops come marching home by the end of the summer. You are going to see a stable government in Iraq that is actually moving toward a representative government.

I know every one of the major players in all the segments of that society. It has impressed me. I have been impressed how they have been deciding to use the political process, rather than guns, to settle their differences.


BLITZER: All right, Ken, that was a pretty optimistic assessment from Joe Biden. It reminded me of the optimistic assessment we heard from President Bush in 2003, and Donald Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney, how things were great, going to be fabulous after Saddam Hussein.

Neither of those assessments has exactly worked out.


I always that was also wildly overoptimistic. But in the case of 2010, what I think that the Obama administration failed to recognize is that Iraq was and now is once again a classic intercommunal civil war. Right?

And what happened in 2007, '8, '9 with the surge was the United States basically put a cast over the broken limb of Iraq, and we were holding it together while the bones started to knit together. And Vice President Biden was right that there was progress in 2098, '9, '10. It just wasn't nearly enough to be able to sustain itself without that cast of the United States, not yet. It was too soon.

BLITZER: But, Ambassador Khalilzad, you know this, because you have studied the history of this region. The hatred, the warfare, the tribal, the sectarian violence between Iraqi Sunnis and Iraqi Shiites and Kurds, for that matter, that has been going on for hundreds and hundreds of years, and for the U.S. to think you can go in there and stop that, that was with hindsight clearly naive.

ZALMAY KHALILZAD, FORMER UNITED STATES AMBASSADOR TO IRAQ: Well, I think when you have communal identities become politicized that it has, in recent times especially, you need power sharing. You need federalism. You need confederalism.

And what has happened since we left in particular -- what -- I agree with what Ken said -- since we have left -- is that ability to heal the relationship, to share power, to work together that we encouraged was not sustained. It fell apart.

BLITZER: Well, we're hearing -- Ambassador, we're hearing the president convened his top national security advisers today. He wanted a meeting on Iraq.

They have got to make a major decision right now.


BLITZER: Does the U.S. once again get involved militarily in Iraq right now? If the president said, Ambassador Khalilzad, you were the U.S. ambassador there in Baghdad, you know the -- what would you tell them?

KHALILZAD: I would say you need to move on three tracks, Mr. President. Track one, yes, you have -- we have to help the Iraqis deal with

the threat from ISIS. This could grow into a threat not only for Iraq, the region, and even to the United States. But to succeed with that mission, military effort is not enough. We need to work on the political track. Pressure Maliki and the other Iraqi leaders to have a truly unity government, power sharing, federalism, confederalism, and also the third track, humanitarian support and assistance to the Iraqis displaced from Mosul.

BLITZER: Chris Heben, you're a former Navy SEAL. You think if the U.S. introduces ground forces, and the White House says that's not really on the table right now, but if they were, when all is said and done, would it really make much of a difference, given the hatred, the brutality, what has been going on in Iraq for so long, a subject you know firsthand?

HEBEN: I think it would make a difference initially to stem the tide of what's happening right now. We would get some stability there, stop the forward advance by ISIS, and just stabilize everything, until we can get these other avenues in place.

And I completely agree with that three-pronged mission that needs to happen going forward, absolutely 100 percent agree, but we need to stop what's happening right now. There's nothing -- we Abu Bakr a battle plan. We said at such and such a date and at such and such a time we are going to remove 90,000 of your adversaries, which gave him plenty time to plot and plan. And a lot of his army is made up of former Iraqi generals and high-ranking officers. So, he had a very good plan and he's putting it into effect right now.

BLITZER: Chris Heben, thanks very much. Ken Pollack, thank to you -- Ambassador Khalilzad.

We will continue this analysis. This story, unfortunately, is not going away.

Just ahead, we will have the latest on Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl's return to the United States two weeks after he was freed.

Plus, we're getting new information about why he left his base, wound up as a Taliban prisoner. Stand by for exclusive details.


BLITZER: Got the breaking news, the Pentagon now confirming Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl is on board a military aircraft right now heading home to the United States from Germany.

Two weeks after he was freed in that controversial Taliban prisoner swap, there are many questions about his state of mind when he was actually serving in a prison in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Kimberly Dozier of The Daily Beast is here. She has some exclusive new reporting to share with our viewers, specifically letters that he apparently wrote.

What are you learning?

KIMBERLY DOZIER, THE DAILY BEAST: Two letters, one sent in 2012, and one in 2013, delivered via the Red Cross, written by him in captivity.

Now, in one of them, he is aware of the investigation into his disappearance, and he urges his parents to tell those in D.C. that they have got to wait until all the evidence is in. He complains about the security on his base. He also complains about the orders that he got as a soldier and said the situation was not safe for either him or for the Afghans working with them.

BLITZER: Because in one of the letters -- maybe both the letters -- he starts rambling at times and you also point out that his handwriting is not necessarily consistent.

DOZIER: It's really hard to put yourself in the mind-set of someone who would be in captivity. We know that he was held under harsh conditions, sometimes in a cage, often without light.

Even so, these letters are kind of strange. The handwriting doesn't match. And he does go off on a tangent talking about math, God, the weather. But U.S. officials who have seen them and talked to the Bergdahl family, they would not speak to me about this -- the family says that there is enough in both of them that tells them Bowe really did write these.

Now, we're going to have to wait until he comes back to the States, meets with them, and eventually speaks to the public to find out if these were really what he was thinking at the time.

BLITZER: Can we draw any preliminary conclusions from these letters about his state of mind?

DOZIER: Well, the letters do match the Pentagon investigation into the unit where he was stationed.

They said there was a leadership problem, and there was also a safety problem on the base. That said, they're also saying that's not a reason for walking off your base. Yet, one thing that the Pentagon and Bowe Bergdahl seem to agree on, they both say, please wait until all of the evidence comes in before you judge him.

BLITZER: And these letters, based on everything you're hearing, are deemed to be reliable, authentic, not just somebody -- some phony letters?

DOZIER: Deemed to be reliable, and also the letters that I have read from his family back to him cover a lot of the same subjects, as if these the kinds of things that they talked about around the dinner table. This is just the sort of back and forth in the Bergdahl family.

BLITZER: It is encouraging he can now leave the Landstuhl military hospital in Germany. He is on a plane right now. I think he's going to be getting in later tonight into this military hospital in San Antonio. That is an encouraging sign that he can make this transfer.

DOZIER: Encouraging, yet Pentagon officials tell us that this next transitional phase can take anywhere from 24 hours to, for some of the detainees who have gone through this process, up to five years before he is ready to talk to the public and tell his side of the story.

BLITZER: Kimberly Dozier of The Daily Beast, thanks very much for coming in.

DOZIER: Thank you.

BLITZER: Remember, you can always follow us on Twitter, and go ahead and tweet me @WolfBlitzer. Certainly, tweet the show @CNNSITROOM.

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That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.