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Interview With State Department Spokeswoman Marie Harf; Crisis in Iraq

Aired June 16, 2014 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now: battlefield executions. Hundreds of Iraqi soldiers are killed by Islamic militants, as the terrorists close in on Baghdad. CNN's Anderson Cooper is now on the scene. He will join us live. Is the city on the verge of invasion?

U.S. airstrikes. CNN has learned the Obama administration is looking at a short list of options for action against the militants sweeping Iraq. The president is meeting with his national security team. Will he order U.S. warplanes to attack?

And tornado emergency -- rare double twisters touching down as severe weather threatens some 20 million people in the United States. Who's facing the greatest danger right now?

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

We're covering two major stories, including the breaking news, tornadoes on the ground in the Midwest, including very rare double tornadoes; 20 million people are in the path of this very severe and dangerous weather system. Our meteorologist Chad Myers is tracking it all for us. He will join us a bit later.

But we're also following major developments in the crisis in Iraq. President Obama has just returned to the White House and is calling an urgent meeting of his top national security team to review his options for potential military action in Iraq, possibly including airstrikes.

We're covering all angles of this fast-moving story with our correspondents and our guests.

Let's begin in Baghdad with CNN senior international correspondent Nic Robertson. He has the very latest -- Nic.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, as ISIS reveals its bloody tactics to promote violence in this country with execution videos, Baghdad itself is nervously awaiting what may happen next.


ROBERTSON (voice-over): ISIS gaining more ground, moving closer to Baghdad. The U.S. Embassy there fortified security, more U.S. Marines being brought in, some staffers being evacuated taken into other safer Iraqi cities. On the capital streets outside, an Iraqi policeman nervously eyes

passing cars, busier than the past few days, fears the city is about to be engulfed in fighting subsiding, but not gone. Prices in food markets are up, potatoes from 80 cents to $1.50, this lady says, but it's cooking gas up five-fold that really upsets her. "Why?" she says. "Everything is working fine."

Stores are well-stocked, on the surface, almost seems like normal, but it's not. This (INAUDIBLE) tells us for the first time ever, officials are clamping down on prices, as the government tries to stave off panic and price-gouging. It seems, though, almost the least of their worries.

The imminent threat from the north leaves the Iraqi government desperate for soldiers, calling on volunteers, hundreds of civilians young and old marching through the streets of Baghdad, now having to defend their country, and in the north, ISIS taking the town of Tal Afar, the terrorists possibly gaining control over its army base, which would mean more armored vehicles, weapons and ammunition up for grabs, some of the weaponry provided by the U.S.

Asking his identity be concealed, CNN's Arwa Damon interviewing an Iraqi colonel who says his unit alone left behind 25 Humvees, 80 other vehicles and trucks, 10 sniper rifles and 20 rocket launchers when they fled.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: If Baghdad falls, if the central government falls, a disaster awaits us of monumental proportions.

ROBERTSON: With minimal resources, or little control on the ground, the Iraqi military uses aerial strikes to target ISIS positions in Mosul, Iraq's second largest city.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Now it's more dangerous than before. And this will -- definitely would not be restricted to the boundaries of these countries. It will spill over to Europe, and the terrorism could spread to the world at large.


ROBERTSON: The Iraqi air force says it's killed 200 ISIS fighters (INAUDIBLE) advance may have slowed, but they're still on the move, and their aim is this city, Baghdad -- Wolf.

BLITZER: That's the capital, a city of some nine million people. Nic Robertson, thanks very much.

The disturbing developments in Iraq have oil prices spiking around the world to the highest level in almost a year, just as world demand is hitting its peak season. And that's even though the militants' advance hasn't impacted Iraqi oil production, at least not yet.

But there is growing concern as the militant group known as ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, seizes control of more Iraqi territory, including major cities which American troops fought to free from insurgents just a few years ago.

CNN's Anderson Cooper is now in Baghdad himself.

Anderson, you have only been there a few hours, but set the scene for us. What are you seeing, what where you hearing?

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Well, certainly, there's a lot of concern over the fall of the city of Tal Afar, which Nic Robertson mentioned a few moments ago, a city of some 200,000 in the northwest of Iraq, not too far from Mosul, a city -- an ethnic group called Turkmen of both Sunni and Shia, many of whom now are said to be -- to have fled into the desert now that ISIS has taken over that city, certainly raising a lot more questions, Wolf, about the capabilities of the Iraqi military, a military which vastly outnumbers ISIS forces, and yet seems incapable of stopping them on the field of battle.

As Nic mentioned, there have been thousands of volunteers after a call by the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani here, mostly Iraqi Shia heeding that call, volunteers saying they're willing to fight, but, again, real questions about their capabilities, their experience on the battlefield and exactly how they will be used to try to protect this city of Baghdad and also used to try to bolster the sagging morale of the Iraqi military forces.

So, there's a lot of questions here. Obviously, this city is very much on edge. It has probably changed over the last several days. There was a suicide attack yesterday, which certainly shattered a lot of nerves, killed about 10 people. It seems a little bit calmer today, but clearly a city on edge, unsure about the capabilities of their government, what their government really can do to try to stop these ISIS forces -- Wolf.

BLITZER: What was it like, Anderson, just coming into Baghdad? I assumed you arrived at the Baghdad Airport. You had to drive in to the city. Did you see troops on the way?


BLITZER: Did you see -- did you see any evidence of a heightened security presence there?

COOPER: Yes, without a doubt.

What's interesting, this is a city of rumor right now. This is really a country of rumor. Even flying in today, there were all rumors that there had been fighting at the airport, shelling at the airport, none of which we saw any evidence of. Those turned out to just be rumors.

But that was a real concern. Some flights were delayed. When we came in, again, it was nightfall. There is curfew here around midnight. We were able to make it in under the curfew. But the road from the airport to the city, which is a road which has always been dangerous, particularly the worst times, even when U.S. forces were here, is again a risky road, a lot of Iraqi forces, multiple checkpoints.

As Nic mentioned, checkpoints have increased here in this city, not just in the number of them, but the number of people manning each checkpoint. They check the vehicles very carefully. There's real concern not just about ISIS insurgents coming into the city of Baghdad, but the knowledge also that there are already insurgents here, the fact that there was a suicide bombing yesterday.

Someone walked in with a suicide vest, exploded -- exploded himself, killed a lot of people, and wounded even many more, tells you there -- what we have known for a long time, that there are insurgents already in this city and the security threat is not one that is just coming to the city, but one that is already here.

BLITZER: Anderson Cooper in Baghdad.

Anderson, we will stay in close touch with you. Be careful over there.

This important note to our viewers. Anderson, of course, will be anchoring his program from Baghdad later tonight. "A.C. 360" starts 8:00 p.m. Eastern right here on CNN.

Still ahead, will the crisis in Iraq bring together two bitter longtime enemies? We will have the details of how the U.S. and Iran -- Iran -- may be teaming up to defeat terrorists.

Plus, there's breaking news we're following, the tornadoes touching down in the U.S., the Midwest. There are now reports of some direct hits, new details coming into THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Certainly been bitter enemies for a decade, but the crisis unfolding right now in Iraq could bring them a bit together. Will the United States and Iran team up to stop Islamic militants from seizing Baghdad, taking total control of Iraq?

Our foreign affairs reporter, Elise Labott, is working this part of the story. She's here with me in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Elise, what are you finding out?

ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, there are U.S. and Iranian officials in Vienna this week holding talks on Iran's nuclear issue.

We're told that those talks between Iran and the U.S. on Iraq could be on the margins of that, because the U.S. is coming around to the realization that the road to Baghdad could go through Tehran.


LABOTT (voice-over): With Islamist forces advancing on Baghdad, will President Obama team up with Iran, America's sworn enemy for 35 years, to stop them? Secretary of State John Kerry told Yahoo! it's an idea the U.S. is ready to explore.

JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: We're open to discussions if there's something constructive that can be contributed by Iran, if Iran is prepared to do something that is going to respect the integrity and sovereignty of Iraq.

LABOTT: An about-face from last year, when Kerry in Baghdad blamed Iran for fueling the civil war in Syria and accused of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of turning a blind eye as Iran flew in weapons over Iraqi skies.

KERRY: Anything that supports President Assad is problematic. And I made it very clear to the prime minister that the overflights from Iran are in fact helping to sustain President Assad and his regime.

LABOTT: Since U.S. troops left Iraq in 2011, the Shia regime in Iran has cemented its influence with Prime Minister al-Maliki, also a Shia.

Now Iran's president, Hassan Rouhani, has offered help in beating back ISIS militants. Last week, a top Iranian commander traveled to Baghdad to advise the government. And Iran denies it, but a security official in Baghdad tells CNN Tehran has deployed three Revolutionary Guard units to Iraq, which is why even a conservative senator who once advocated striking Iran told CNN Washington needs Iran's help.

GRAHAM: Why did we deal with Stalin? Because he was not as bad as Hitler. The Iranians can provide some assets to make sure Baghdad doesn't fall.

LABOTT: A growing chorus of experts agree, including a former deputy national security adviser during the Iraq war.

MEGHAN O'SULLIVAN, FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL STAFF MEMBER: There's a political solution here that I think could be in both Iran's interest and the U.S. interest.

LABOTT: And a retired general who served in Iraq.

BRIG. GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: There are necessary steps that we have to take with Tehran that we have probably never taken before and would prefer not to take.

LABOTT: And says the U.S. and Iran should develop a set of shared objectives and rules of the road.


LABOTT: And, Wolf, there are some risks here. The U.S. is concerned that if they're -- appear to be teaming up with Iran, that could alienate Sunnis in Iraq, the U.S. Sunni allies in the Gulf. And they also don't want to jeopardize these nuclear negotiations ahead of that July 20 deadline that's coming up. So, they really have to tread carefully.

BLITZER: Elise, stand by for a moment.

We want to bring in the State Department deputy spokeswoman, Marie Harf. She's in Vienna, Austria, right now for those U.S.-Iranian talks on Iran's nuclear program. Marie, we're going to have some questions from Elise and from Jim Sciutto, who is me as well.

But what do you say? Will there be direct talks between the U.S. in Iran in Vienna this week, where you are, on the situation in Iraq?

MARIE HARF, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESWOMAN: Well, Wolf, happy to be here tonight from a late night in Vienna.

We're talking to all of the regional players about Iraq, about the security situation there. And there were very brief discussions on the margins of the P5-plus-one today with Iran about Iraq, again, very brief discussions there.

But these talks are really focused on the nuclear issue. Going forward, we will determine how -- if we want to keep talking to Iran about Iraq. That might make the most sense. But we both have a shared -- an interest in ISIL not getting a foothold anymore in Iraq, in fighting the shared security threat.

And we will talk to all of the regional players, as we have done, as we have done in the past, if you look at Afghanistan, about how we can all confront this threat together. But let me make one more point very clearly. No outside country can fix Iraq's problems. We need Iraq's leaders, its political leaders from across the spectrum to step up and bring the country together to fight this threat.

BLITZER: Have you see any evidence that Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister of Iraq, is doing that?

HARF: Well, I think Iraq's leaders recognize the severity of the situation.

I think they see the exact same things your viewers are seeing about what's going on, on the ground there. And that's what why we have been clear that we will assist them in this fight. As you know, the president is considering a number of options right now to do so. But none of those options, including military options, will work if there is not a sincere and serious effort by all of Iraq's leaders, including Prime Minister Maliki, to bring the country together, to govern in an inclusive way, and to stop the sectarian fighting.

BLITZER: All right, Elise, go ahead.

LABOTT: Marie, let me just follow up on that point. You have been pretty clear with the prime minister for about a year now, especially when he visited Washington late last year, about the need to take those steps and he hasn't done so. You're still considering aid.

Is there at any point that you're willing to condition some of this aid on him taking these genuine steps at political reconciliation, such as releasing political prisoners, dropping charges against his opponents, the kind of things that really could bring the country together?

HARF: Well I think you heard the president speak very clearly on Friday that in order for us to ramp up and continue our assistance, the government of Iraq, again, the prime minister and others, need to take concrete steps to bring their country together, to invest in their security forces, to do so in an inclusive manner, to reach out to Sunni leaders and Sunni parties and the Sunni people, because so much of what we have seen today is a result of the fact that there have been sectarian divides that have not been addressed in the right way over the past few years.

So, I think the president made clear that in order for us to do certain things, the Iraqis need to step up and do certain things as well.


I'm just curious why the degree of surprise. As we reported last week, there were multiple intelligence reports over the last year describing ISIS's intentions and planning for taking territory in Iraq as far as targeting Baghdad. Why is the president just developing military, and his team just developing military options to respond to something like that now?

In particular, why just the push and the urgency now to pressure Maliki to include Sunnis and Kurds in his government, when this has been a long-term problem, we have been aware of the way he's turned off these groups and excluded them? Why now? Why wasn't there better preparation and earlier pressure?

HARF: Well, Jim, I think that we have been very clear about the threat that ISIL represents to Iraq for a very long time.

It was a key topic of Prime Minister Maliki's last trip to Washington in the fall. We have been consistently increasing our support to the government of Iraq to fight this threat. We have continued with weapons and assistance and surveillance and other things as well.

And we have consistently pushed Prime Minister Maliki to govern in a more inclusive way. None of these are new issues, but I do think we have been very honest that we have seen over the past now I think 10 days or so an increase in the severity of the situation, in the threat.

We have been disappointed, quite frankly, by how the security forces in Iraq responded to this ISIL offensive, which is why the president right now is looking at additional options, ramping up our assistance and seeing what else we could do to give the Iraqi government some space for the security forces to regroup, to make the right decisions they need to make the bring the county back together.

BLITZER: Yes. All right.

HARF: And, again, none of this will work if the Iraqi leaders aren't willing to step up to the plate.

BLITZER: We will see if they do step up to the plate.

Marie Harf joining us from Vienna, where U.S.-Iranian talks on nuclear issues and, as she just said, also on Iraq have been taking place.

Marie Harf, thanks very much.

We have got some breaking news we're following when we come back, a tornado emergency unfolding right now; 20 million people are in the path of severe weather. Multiple twisters have already touched down in the Midwest in the United States. We're tracking the storms.


BLITZER: Got some breaking news out of Iraq coming out of the White House.

Our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, is joining us.

What's going on? What are you hearing, Jim?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we can tell you that in just the last few minutes, the White House has released a letter that the president has sent to the speaker, John Boehner.

This is a war powers letter that was sent over to Congress officially notifying lawmakers that the president has authorized the deployment of 275 U.S. armed forces personnel. Those personnel will basically be in Baghdad there to provide security and support for U.S. personnel on the ground in Iraq, in Baghdad, and also to the embassy in Baghdad.

One thing we should point out in this letter, I think it's very interesting, Wolf. It says that this force will remain in Iraq until the security situation becomes such that it is no longer needed. And an e-mail from the White House press secretary, Jay Carney, hit our in-boxes in just the few minutes, making the note that these forces are coming into Iraq with the understanding of the Iraqi government, with the support of the Iraqi government, so the president meeting with his security team to go over options for Iraq later on this evening.

And we will of course have more as the night goes on, Wolf.

BLITZER: So, in effect, the president acknowledging in this letter to Congress these potentially could be combat troops. Here's the question. Will they have immunity from any Iraqi prosecution if they go? Because, as you remember, that was a big issue when all U.S. troops withdrew at the end of 2011.

ACOSTA: I think that is unclear at this point, Wolf.

Obviously, that was a key sticking point. That is part of the reason why this White House says U.S. forces are still not on the ground in Baghdad or were not left in Baghdad as a residual force after the president pulled those forces out of Iraq in late 2011.

But I think that's a key question. It's a key question going forward, because as we understand, Wolf, one of the other options the president is looking at is deploying forces to Iraq to provide training to Iraqi security forces. It's certainly a question that will have to be worked out.

BLITZER: Two hundred and seventy-five combat troops, U.S. troops going to Baghdad right now to help protect the U.S. Embassy and other U.S. personnel. Jim, thanks very much.


BLITZER: A couple of programming notes.

Please be sure to tune in tomorrow for a CNN exclusive town hall event with Hillary Clinton. Our Christiane Amanpour will moderate, "Hillary Clinton's Hard Choices," tomorrow 5:00 p.m. Eastern, with a replay 9:00 p.m. Eastern.

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That's it for me this hour. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in "THE SITUATION ROOM." Now let's step into the CROSSFIRE with Van Jones and S.E. Cupp.