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New U.S. Air strikes in Iraq; Interview with Qubad Talabani

Aired August 8, 2014 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, new Iraq air strikes -- U.S. aircraft drop bombs on ISIS targets and drop food for tens of thousands of trapped refugees.

So what's the mission?

The Obama administration warns of potential genocide by ISIS terrorists against Iraq's minorities, but says it won't put boots on the ground.

Can U.S. efforts really make a difference?

And Ebola emergency -- health officials say the world must unite to battle the deadly virus, as an American patient treated with the experimental serum makes a stunning announcement.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: And let's get right to the breaking news. A fresh round of U.S. air strikes in Iraq. American war planes attack targets belonging to ISIS, as the jihadists who call themselves the Islamic State close in on a major city in Northern Iraq. Hundreds of thousands of Christians and other minorities are now on the run. U.S. aircraft have also dropped food and water, as the Obama administration warns of what it's calling a potential genocide.

Our correspondents and guests are standing by with the kind of coverage only CNN can deliver.

Let's begin with our Pentagon correspondent.

Barbara Starr.

What are you learning -- Barbara?

BARBARA STARR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we have now, in less than 24 hours, had three rounds of air strikes against ISIS militants in Northern Iraq. It began early today with a strike by FA-18 aircraft against a mobile artillery position that ISIS had outside the city of Erbil in Northern Iraq.

A short time later, a couple of hours later, two additional strikes. A U.S. military drone fired a shot against a terrorist mortar position. When the ISIS fighters came back, the drone came back and attacked again.

A short time after that, a third air strike. U.S. FA-18s also flying off the deck of the carrier George H.W. Bush in the Persian Gulf struck against an ISIS convoy of seven vehicles and an additional mortar position.

What we are seeing is very precision strikes either by drones using Hellfire missiles or by laser-guided GPS satellite-guided bombs from these FA-18s, very specific weapons to go after potentially mobile targets with great precision. It's exactly what you would expect the U.S. military to use.

They now have pilots in the air over Iraq, so they're taking all the precautions to keep these air crews safe.

What about the air drops of supplies to those people, the tens of thousands of minority Iraqis stranded in the mountains?

What they are telling us here at the Pentagon is almost all of the pallets did make it to these people. They flew a drone overhead to be able to confirm that the pallets dropped where they were supposed to drop and the Yazidi people could get to them and get these supplies. They have about nine pallets that they could not locate with that Predator drone flying overhead. They just don't know, did they miss the drop zone, did ISIS fighters show up and -- and maybe get the pallets?

Are the pallets just lost in those mountains?

They don't know.

Expect to see more air drops. Expect to see more air strikes -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Barbara Starr at the Pentagon.

Thank you.

The United States is, as Barbara reported, dropping bombs and relief supplies in Iraq, as it warns the targeting of the minorities by the ISIS terrorists could lead to genocide. But the Obama administration says it won't put troops on the ground.

So what is the military and the strategic strategy that's unfolding right now?

Let's bring in our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto -- Jim.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this is the map that shows all of the territory that ISIS has taken over, both in Syria and Iraq, a massive advance just in the last several weeks. But the strategy now focused on two very specific areas. The first one up here, Sinjar. This is where the Yazidi people are trapped in these mountains, surrounded by ISIS forces. The focus now getting them food and aid, but also getting them to safer ground.

The second location, in Erbil, here. This is where the U.S. has a consulate, with hundreds of consular staff, some of them transferred here from Baghdad recently, as well as U.S. military advisers. And the concern is the consulate here, only about 25 miles from the border areas where ISIS troops -- ISIS fighters now are shelling the city. And that's a very intermediate concern.

The open question, though, is what kind of help the U.S. offers to Iraqi forces in dealing with this. All the other ISIS territory that's been captured, that is still an open question.


SCIUTTO (voice-over): With the looming massacre of minority Yazidis and hundreds of Americans now under threat, President Barack Obama did what many believe he least wanted to do, go back into Iraq.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Earlier this week, one Iraqi in the area cried to the world, "There is no one coming to help."

Well, today America is coming to help.

SCIUTTO: Still, the administration insists operations will be strictly limited. Mission number one, protecting the Yazidis. U.S. forces delivered food and water to some 40,000 stranded Yazidis and may help open a humanitarian corridor to safer ground in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Thousands of Christians are now also in danger. ISIS threatens all non-Sunni Muslims to convert or die.

JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: Its grotesque targeted acts of violence show all the warning signs of genocide.

SCIUTTO: Mission number two, protecting the nearly 6,000 American Embassy staff and military advisers now stationed in Erbil and Baghdad.

OBAMA: We intend to stay vigilant and take action if these terrorist forces threaten our personnel or facilities anywhere in Iraq.

SCIUTTO: The more difficult question for the president is, what then?

He has repeatedly said Iraqis must take on ISIS themselves. However, as ISIS continues to advance with little challenge from Iraqi forces, both Mr. Obama and his advisers are offering as yet undefined American help.

JOSH EARNEST, DEPUTY WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The third is slightly broader, but is related to our belief and commitment to supporting integrated Iraqi security forces and Kurdish security forces.

SCIUTTO: Some lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are pushing the president to do more, and right away. "It takes an army to defeat an army," said Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat. "And I believe that we either confront ISIL now or we will be forced to deal with an even stronger enemy in the future."


SCIUTTO: The administration's critics are also already raising the question of mission creep. And it's a fair question. The biggest one, what does the administration do to push back ISIS' advance across Iraq and Syria. But also more near term questions. The president, last night, raised the possibility of U.S. air strikes to help open a humanitarian corridor to rescue those Yazidi people.

How long is that air support necessary?

That's an open question.

And, also, Wolf, what do you do as other minority groups come under threat here, including the Christians?

You've launched a major operation to protect the Yazidis.

Do you do the same to protect Christians?

Shiites, if they come under threat?

Another open question, which raises the prospect of mission creep over the coming weeks and months.

BLITZER: Senator Dianne Feinstein, the chair of the Intelligence Committee, she makes a fair point. If you beat an army like ISIS, which is now well-armed, well-equipped, it's got very, very fierce fighters, you can't just do it from the air, you need an army to do that.

SCIUTTO: No question. And that is exactly the way U.S. intelligence officials describe ISIS to me. They say they behave like an army, they take territory like an army and they hold territory like an army. And we've seen that, for instance, with them with them taking the crucial Mosul Dam just recently. This is -- this is a key asset, it powers Mosul, but also threatens others in the south if you potentially open that dam.

So they behave like an army. And as Senator Dianne Feinstein said, you may need army-like tactics to push them back.

BLITZER: Yes, because the Iraqi Army is sort of MIA right now...

SCIUTTO: Absolutely.

BLITZER: -- missing in action. As great as the Peshmerga, the Kurdish guerrilla fighters are, and they are fabulous, they're well- armed at all. They -- they won't be able to do it. It's the US. I mean I don't see a whole lot of other armies, NATO allies or anyone else, getting involved.

SCIUTTO: The great irony is, of many ironies, is the Kurds are outgunned by American supplied weapons that ISIS stole from Iraqi forces.

BLITZER: Right, including M1 battle tanks, Abrams battle tanks.


BLITZER: All right, Jim Sciutto, thanks very much.

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, Christians, Yazidis, other minorities fled their homes ahead of the brutal onslaught by the ISIS terrorists. And many are now seeking refuge in and around a Northern Iraqi city of Erbil.

That's where our senior international correspondent, Ivan Watson, is based right now.

What are you seeing where you are -- Ivan?

What's the situation like?

IVAN WATSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, we're on the edge of clearly what is a new humanitarian crisis in the Middle East. Hundreds of thousands of people forced to flee their homes in a matter of hours, basically, after Kurdish Peshmerga forces withdrew from a string of villages and towns. And that basically triggered an exodus Wednesday night. Cities like Erbil are inundated in these displaced -- by these displaced people, who are taking up shelter in churches, in community centers, in parking lots, basically.

The Kurdish authorities are struggling to provide some kind of food and water to these people.

I'm seeing ordinary Kurds donating money, trying to bring some aid to these people.

And this is just the very beginning of what's clearly a much bigger problem, because everybody I talk to, Wolf, says they do not expect that they'll be able to go home any time soon. That's how afraid they are of this ISIS offensive that has moved forward into new areas.

One bit of perhaps positive news. The aid organization, the International Rescue Committee, it reports that some 4,000 of those trapped Yazidis who were surrounded by ISIS on Sinjar Mountain succeeded in escaping across the border to nearby Syria Thursday night, where the International Rescue Committee is now providing them with water and emergency medical supplies to these dehydrated people who managed to make it out.

We're hearing that that was part of a daring operation by Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, bolstered, it appears, by fighters from the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which is officially registered as a terrorist organization by the US. The U.S. also bombing, reportedly, targets or threatening to bomb targets -- ISIS targets around that same mountain.

So you have two potential enemies now working together to rescue the Kurds still believed to be numbered in the tens of thousands on Sinjar Mountain, exposed to the elements, and, Kurdish officials, dying each day due to dehydration and the extreme heat here in August in Iraq -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Erbil is how big?

How many people live there under normal circumstances -- Ivan?

WATSON: The governor of this province told me it's about 1.8 million people in the province, 1.8 million. And he estimates more than 300,000 have come into the province in the last 48 hours. He was also very grateful about President Obama's message that Erbil would effectively be protected by air strikes. He was basically begging for assistance, because as of this morning, the ISIS militants were only about 35 miles away -- 35 miles away. That's half an hour's drive maybe. And he was definitely, definitely worried, calling for air strikes, calling for weapons, calling for ammunition. The reports coming from the Pentagon is that the Air Force, the drones have been in effect. And that is definitely giving a sigh of relief to the Kurdish officials here, to the population, some of which had taken to the hills on Wednesday night, as this refugee exodus came from the towns and villages that had been captured by ISIS on Wednesday night -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Ivan Watson reporting from Erbil in Northern Iraq.

Ivan, thank you.

Up next, ISIS militants reportedly using American-made weapons to capture Iraq's largest dam, potentially putting millions of people at risk of catastrophic flooding.

And they have a powerful militia, but they're taking heavy casualties.

Can the Kurds of Northern Iraq hold off the ISIS onslaught?

I'll speak with a top Kurdish official.


BLITZER: Breaking news right now. U.S. jets, they are in the air over Iraq. They're striking targets belonging to ISIS, the jihadists who sent hundreds of thousands of Iraqis fleeing for their lives.

These terrorists, they are well-armed with captured heavy weapons, many of those weapons U.S. weapons. But they may now have an extraordinary weapon of mass destruction. CNN's Pamela Brown is here in THE SITUATION ROOM looking at this part of the story.

This is very terrifying.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It certainly is. And, Wolf, I've been speaking to U.S. officials today. And they said that ISIS may very well be one of the most well-equipped jihadist groups in the world, with its cache of weapons, sustaining a savage offensive in Iraq, with tanks, rocket-propelled grenades, Humvees mounted with weapons and small arms.

And it's believed the dangerous Jihadist group has the capability to threaten aircraft in the area. In fact, one U.S. official I spoke with today says with this firepower, ISIS is obviously emboldened by its heightened lethality.


BROWN (voice-over): ISIS fighters seen here using weapons seized from the Iraqi Army, parading around on armored tanks, showcasing ISIS's signature black flag and hauling a massive missile through the streets of seized Iraqi territory.

REP. PETER KING (R), NEW YORK: ISIS is more of a threat to the United States now than al Qaeda was prior to the September 11th.

BROWN: Perhaps ISIS most lethal weapon, the capture of this massive dam in Mosul. The U.S. itself warned during the Iraq War that its failure could create create 20 meter waves and result in a significant loss of life and property.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We'd just better have our eyes wide open about the possible range of potential casualties here.

BROWN: A source telling CNN the Islamic militants attacked the dam with an American-made M1 Abrams tank like this.

ISIS has been stockpiling artillery ever since it began commandeering Iraqi territory, taking some American-made machinery left over from the war and weapons dropped by fleeing Iraqi troops.

A senior administration official tells CNN ISIS is well resourced and well organized militarily.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think it's also entirely possible that the ISIL or ISIS group has found various kinds of either anti-tank weapons or anti-aircraft weapons and mounted them on vehicles to have maximum mobility.

BROWN: And based on ISIS videos posted online, experts believe it's possible ISIS could have access to portable air defense systems, which has a range of approximately 10,000 feet, and 37 millimeter anti- aircraft guns with a range of approximately 27,000 feet -- high enough to bring down one of the U.S. planes dropping humanitarian relief. The Navy jets involved with air strikes fly at around 40,000 feet.

On Friday, the FAA banned U.S. flights over Iraq, citing the potentially hazardous situation created by the armed conflict.


BROWN: And the Kurds who are fighting ISIS right now in Northern Iraq, the problem is, they are outgunned by the Islamic militant group. A senior administration official saying, though, that the U.S. is expediting assistance to the Kurds.

And meantime, ISIS has all of these weapons, but it's also gaining steam with the amount of money it's acquiring. In fact, according to some experts, Wolf, this amounting to millions of dollars from seized bank accounts, from taxes that they're imposing in the towns that they've seized and also from oil that they're selling.

BLITZER: Yes, I've read that they -- they stole hundreds of millions of dollars from banks in Mosul when they took over Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq. And they have all this cash. They're the wealthiest terror organization, by far in the world right now.


BLITZER: Pamela Brown, thanks very much.

The United States may now be dropping bombs and relief supplies in Northern Iraq. But if the ISIS advance in Northern Iraq is to be stopped, it will be up to the militia of the largely autonomous Kurdish region to help out. But the Peshmerga, as it's called, is outgunned by the jihadis right now.

Meantime, the region is being overwhelmed by a flood of desperate refugees.

Joining us now is the deputy prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government, Qubad Talabani.

Qubad, thanks very much.

Qubad and I know each other from his days here in Washington.

So, first of all, Qubad, remind our viewers, ISIS, these ISIS terrorists, who are they and why have they become so powerful and such a major threat to the Kurds, to the Christians, to the Shiites, to so many people in Iraq?


Thanks for having me on.

It's -- it's good to be back on THE SITUATION ROOM.

As you said, rightly said, the ISIS are a group, a terrorist organization that really started off in Syria, that have now come across the border into Iraq and have taken over a large piece of territory of the country.

They launched a savage war against the Iraqi Army and quickly took over a big part of the territory in the country. And since their conflict with the Iraqi forces have stopped, they've turned their attentions to the north. And they -- they've turned their attention to the north and they're now engaged in direct conflict with the Kurds and with our forces in Kurdistan.

BLITZER: How endangered are your Peshmerga forces right now?

We know they're very courageous fighters, but they're certainly outgunned. They're lightly armed, relatively speaking, compared to ISIS.

What do you need from the United States?

TALABANI: Wolf, well, our force, the Peshmerga forces, are very brave and they've put up an amazing fight to date. And there have been some -- some very, very tough battles. We've suffered casualties on -- on both sides.

But we are a light infantry force and -- and predominantly had the backdrops of our mountains as our defense force.

But now we are facing a very sophisticated terrorist organization with heavy weapons and -- and up-armored U.S.-issued -- U.S.-manufactured Humvees and -- and mtrrs and tanks and it's a -- it's a very formidable force that we're fighting.

So we need to be able to have the kind of weaponry that can penetrate this kind of armor, that can stop these Humvees in their tracks, that can hurt these tanks as they -- as they try to move in on our positions.

We have the people to do it. We have the heart. We have the ability. We have the will. And we have the people to do it. We just need the weapons now.

BLITZER: Is the Obama administration providing you with those weapons?

TALABANI: The -- we are in good discussions with the administration. We are very grateful for their policy. We are very grateful for the president's message and very grateful for the actions of the U.S. Air Force that have started to target ISIS installations.

We're thankful to the Iraqi Air Force, as well, for coming to our assistance in this battle. This is a -- a very important time for the country. So we cannot stress enough our appreciation, especially to the United States, to coming to our aid. That we believe that there is assistance on the way. We're hoping that this assistance can be expedited.

But we're also hoping that this air asset assistance can continue, because it's not just about stopping these attacks on Kurdish territory, because so long as there is ISIS in Iraq, so long as there is this threat in Iraq, this terrorist organization with this firepower and with the kinds of money that you mentioned yourself in your report, it's a very dangerous situation. It's a danger to Iraq. It's a danger to the region. And it's certainly a danger to democracy around here.

BLITZER: The bottom line right now, do you believe that U.S. air power alone will destroy ISIS in Iraq or will a ground assault be necessary? TALABANI: We're not asking for boots on the ground at this moment.

We believe that with U.S. air power, but supplying us with the ability to launch the kinds of offensive that we need to launch, to assist the Iraqi forces to be able to hit them from the south, as well, if we move in on them from the north, the Iraqis move in on them from the south, and the U.S. and others hit them from the skies, I think this is a pretty brutal combination and we can do significant damage to them.

But I'm sure that there is going to be a lot of assistance that is going to be required. A city like Mosul, which is a big city, for that city to be cleared, we're going to require a lot of tactical and strategic assistance from the United States.

BLITZER: Yes, Mosul the second largest city in Iraq, almost two million people there. Erbil, another million plus over there. So this is obviously a heavily populated area.

Qubad Talabani is the deputy prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government, joining us from Erbil.

Qubad, thanks very much.

We'll stay in close touch with you in the coming days.

Coming up, can U.S. air strikes alone halt that ISIS advance?

And what is the U.S. goal in Iraq?

I'll ask a key State Department official.

Stay with us.



BLITZER: Get back to the breaking news. The United States has launched the second round of air strikes against ISIS. Also dropping relief supplies to thousands and thousands of refugees trapped on a mountain in Northern Iraq.

President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry both warn that the brutal ISIS campaign against Iraq's minorities has the makings of in their word genocide.

Joining us now is Brett McGuirk. He is the deputy assistant secretary of state with responsibility for Iraq and Iran. Bret, thanks very much for joining us. Do you really believe that air power alone, US air power, no U.S. boots on the ground can get the job done and destroy ISIS in Iraq?

BRETT MCGUIRK, DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF STATE: Well, as the president laid out last night, that's not what these missions are about. These missions are designed specifically two exigent situations. One is a humanitarian crisis on top of Mount Sinjar. As the president said very clearly. We're going to drop supplies to the people on top of that mountain to ensure that they can survive with water and food and we are also going to work with Kurdish forces and any other forces to break the siege of that mountain and get them off the mountain.

That's going to take some time. We're committed to do everything we possibly can. And secondly, after ISIS launched this offensive in the Kurdish region starting Saturday night, they really opened up an offensive avenue to the capital, the regional capital of Erbil.

So we had to act with decisiveness and the president did act with decisiveness to make very clear that we're going to defend those routes and we're not going to allow ISIS to approach that capital for a host of reasons.

BLITZER: Let's talk about both of those missions. How close are you to resolving mission number one, saving those thousands of refugees who are stranded on top of that mountain with all those ISIS troops below?

MCGUIRK: Well, Wolf, it is a very difficult situation. The first thing we had to do was to make sure that they had humanitarian supplies. From the moment this crisis started we worked around the clock with our Kurdish partners and those in Baghdad to get Iraqi air force planes over that mountain dropping supplies.

They had very effective drops. When it comes to dropping water, it's very difficult. The water breaks on impact. It's only something we can do. So the president ordered and military executed a mission last night to drop supplies to the mountain. The mission was flawlessly executed. We're prepared to do additional drops as needed.

BLITZER: What about the ISIS troops, the fighters at the bottom? Are they still there threatening how many thousands of refugees who are stuck on the top of the mountain?

MCGUIRK: Well, I'll just say this. It's up to tens of thousands. The mountain is about 3,000 feet high. As the president said, he has already given the authorization to our commanders to take action against ISIS to break the siege of that mountain.

So this will unfold over the coming days and we are prepared to look at all potential options. We're developing those now. The president will have additional options to consider.

BLITZER: In other words, air power to go after those ISIS troops at the bottom of the mountain, which could be significant. How many Americans are in Erbil right now when you add up the military personnel and the diplomatic and consular officials?

MCGUIRK: Well, Wolf, we don't talk about numbers. I will say our consulate in Erbil is doing truly heroic work at this particular moment. It is essential to the humanitarian response. They're working directly with our U.N. colleagues in a number of NGOs who are coordinating this humanitarian response. So we need to make sure that they are able to do their work safely. We also have in Erbil as the president announced on June 19th when he last addressed the American people on the Iraq situation, he established a joint operation center in Erbil and in Baghdad.

And it was because of that decision that we were able to act with the decisiveness that we needed given the exigency of the situation. So those DOD personnel are doing their work. The State Department personnel are doing work.

They're working seamlessly with partners from the United Nations and the international community and our Kurdish partners and our partners in Baghdad. The Iraqi Air Force, there's a lot of focus on the U.S. air strikes today.

The Iraqi Air Force has also been conducting strikes since Sunday in support of Kurdish forces and with the facilitation of our or operations center in Baghdad and in Erbil.

BLITZER: Bret McGuirk joining us from the State Department. Bret, thanks very much. We'll stay in close touch with you, as well.

MCGUIRK: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: We're following breaking news here in THE SITUATION ROOM. U.S. air strikes on ISIS targets in Iraq. Just ahead, we'll discuss the ISIS terror threat with our national security experts and a former U.S. Air Force intelligence officer.

We'll also go live to the White House. I'll be speaking with one of President Obama's top national security aides.


BLITZER: We're following the breaking news, a new round of U.S. air strikes in Iraq more presumably on the way. Joining us now our national security analyst Peter Bergen, a retired U.S. Air Force intelligence officer, Colonel Cedric Leighton and our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto.

Colonel, you heard the State Department official we just spoke to said the U.S. basically has two missions, save those people who are stranded, tens of thousands of them on top of this mountain, the bottom of the mountain is ISIS forces.

Secondly make sure the folks in Erbil, this big city in the north, are safe. There are hundreds of Americans there as well. Can you do that with air power alone?

COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON (RETIRED), FORMER INTELLIGENCE OFFICER, U.S. AIR FORCE: I don't think so. I know the administration is trying to put a very good face on this. If you use air power alone you can do interdiction missions and you can keep people from getting to certain places for a while.

At some point in time, you are going to run out of weapons, munitions if you don't have the logistical train to supply that. Now the U.S. has a significant logistical train to do that.

But they have to be very careful because the ISIS forces are very adept at moving even without modern conveniences and they can do it very, very quickly. So I don't think that's going to be sufficient to stop them.

BLITZER: So the only ground forces there if the U.S. maintains its policy, Peter, no U.S. boots on the ground, Kurdish fighters and the Iraqi army of the central government. Can they get the job done?

PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: I think they've already demonstrated that they haven't got the job done and doesn't seem to be any indication that they will get the job done unless some kind of miracle happens right now.

BLITZER: Which raises the question, Jim, you and I have discussed this of the U.S. getting sucked into another war in Iraq, a third war in Iraq and to get the job done, the U.S. presumably would have to deploy thousands of ground forces.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: In effect as much as the administration has limited this operation, there are three missions, two very easy to define, protecting the Yazidis and U.S. personnel in Erbil and Baghdad.

But both the president, Josh Earnest today and other officials have talked about this third as yet undefined portion of this, which is somehow aiding the Iraqis to push back against ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

Those positions there, deciding how -- they've got the 300 military advisors in there now for this reason to see how we can help you. The question is how much does the U.S. help?

Does that include air strikes beyond the outskirts of Erbil, beyond helping the Yazidis? That's a possibility. That's still the open question. It hasn't been defined.

BLITZER: Why is the Iraqi army so inept? The U.S. spent hundreds of billions of dollars over there, trained a force of a few hundred thousand Iraqi troops and they can't stand up to a few thousand ISIS terrorists who come in from Syria?

LEIGHTON: It's frustrating beyond belief. As somebody who worked with people who trained the Iraqis. The big thing is that they are professional military people in Iraq. The only problem is they don't get promoted or paid and they fall victim to political patronage.

What you see is an Iraqi army that is basically Al-Maliki's army that is designed to fit his political patronage model because of that, we have a weak and inefficient army.

BLITZER: Peter, some Middle East experts have said the U.S. bombing ISIS targets in Iraq right now is going to strengthen them because it will look like the crusaders are coming in, the bad guys and these guys are standing up to the crusaders. BERGEN: If there is an effective bombing campaign and the colonel's outlined what an effective campaign is not necessarily going to solve the problem, at the end of the day, we mounted a very effective drone campaign on al Qaeda in the tribal areas in Pakistan and basically obliterated them.

So I wouldn't buy the argument if they're going to be damaged militarily, that's just going to -- that's the end. That's what the goal here. So I don't bite that argument.

BLITZER: All right, guys, I want you to stand by. We're going to continue our analysis of what's going on, Peter, Jim and Cedric. We're following the breaking news, a new round of U.S. air strikes in Iraq. We're about to go live from the White House and hear from the president's deputy national security advisor, Ben Rhodes. Stay with us.


BLITZER: New U.S. air strikes on ISIS, terrorist targets in Iraq. We're standing by. We'll speak momentarily with the White House deputy national security advisor, Ben Rhodes, but a quick question Peter Bergen, to you. Is it fair to call ISIS an al Qaeda-inspired terror organization?

BERGEN: Yes, it was originally al Qaeda in Iraq. They've broken away from al Qaeda central. Arguably they're worse. It's part of al Qaeda, which -- they've divorced themselves from al Qaeda, which raises an interesting question, which is what are the legal authorities we're conducting this campaign against them?

Because theoretically, these kinds of activities are conducted with the authorization for the use of military force which is against al Qaeda and this group split away. So it's not clear of exactly what the legal authorities here are.

BLITZER, CNN: All right. Let's go to the White House, Ben Rhodes is the president's deputy national security adviser. He's joining us now live.

Ben, thanks very much for joining us. I want you to respond to the criticism you get from a Lindsey Graham, from a John McCain.

If only you had left some U.S. troops in Iraq instead of pulling them all out, this would have never happened.

You say?

BEN RHODES, DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Well, Wolf, look, the fact of the matter is there's not a U.S. military solution in Iraq. When we had troops in Iraq, there were differences between the director Iraqi sects.

After we had troops taken out of Iraq, those differences continued. What we saw over the course of the last several months was a disaffected Sunni population and a terrorist group, ISIL, that took advantage of that disaffection as they moved in and Iraqi security forces melted away.

But again, U.S. troops are not going to be able to impose a political outcome on Iraq. I think that's a lesson that the American people have learned from the last decade and it's one that we're going to heed going forward.

BLITZER: So do you believe the Iraqi military, the Kurdish Peshmerga, can they get the job done?

RHODES: Wolf, we believe they can. They clearly need support. In the immediate future, what we've said is if we see movement by ISIL against Erbil, we're going to take action because we have people in Erbil. We need to protect that city. The air strikes that we did today were intended to send a message that there's a periphery around Erbil, that we're not going to allow to be breached.

At the same time we're providing training and equipping and assistance to both the Iraqi security forces and those Kurdish forces. They are regrouping. We believe that they will get back into the fight.

But this is critically important. Iraq is also going to government formation. We believe that if they complete formation of an inclusive government there could be greater buy-in from the Iraqi communities, including the Sunni community. And that creates a stronger basis for the Iraqi security forces to go on the offensive.

BLITZER: Senator Dick Durbin, the Democrat from Illinois, a great friend of the White House, he said this -- I'll put it up on the screen -- "The Iraqi people must step up to govern their own country in an inclusive manner. Ultimately no number of American troops can solve these underlying problems."

Unfortunately Nouri al-Maliki and his government, they have been MIA in all of this, right?

RHODES: Well, first of all, we agree with Senator Durbin that American troops aren't going to solve Iraq's problems. With respect to the Iraqi government, they've been in a period of formation. They had an election and now they're putting together that new government. They clearly have not done enough to reach out to the disaffected Sunni communities where ISIL has moved in.

But what we're doing now is we've seen a new Kurdish president chosen, a new Sunni speaker chosen and now they're choosing a prime minister. That should be done as early as Sunday. What that would do, again, is provide the basis of a more inclusive government.

In the immediate term, though, while they're in this space, we're not going to allow our people to be threatened. That's why we took the action that we did around Erbil today so ISIL cannot threaten a city where there are several hundred Americans serving in a consulate.

BLITZER: Why not just take those Americans out of there, evacuate them -- the military personnel, the diplomatic personnel -- and get them out of Erbil? RHODES: Because we want to keep our facilities in Erbil and Baghdad open. We believe it's important for the United States to have a presence in Iraq to try to bring about these solutions and try to bring support to the Iraqis.

We also have a joint operation center in Erbil where we're supporting the Kurdish forces. And we have an invitation to take this action from the Iraqi government. We have intelligence resources that allow us to see where these ISIL targets are. And we have a military that has the capacity to use targeted air power to great effect.

So that gives us confidence that we can take strikes that allows us to keep these facilities operating and keep supporting the Iraqis.

BLITZER: I asked about an evacuation because that's precisely what you did as far as Libya was concerned when it got too dangerous in the Libyan capital of Tripoli. All U.S. diplomatic, military personnel, the Marines at the embassy there, they were pulled out because it was too dangerous.

Could you see that happening in Erbil?

RHODES: I think it's a very different situation, Wolf. In Tripoli, what you had is block by block militia fighting. It wasn't contained outside of the city. You didn't have the type of U.S. intelligence resources in place. You didn't have the invitation from the government to take these types of strikes.

So we believe what we want to do is keep ISIL out of the city so you don't have the fighting come in like it did in Tripoli. That's what we're doing, get a periphery out there. And the Peshmerga, the Kurdish forces are taking the fight to ISIL, too. So if we are taking those air strikes, ultimately the Kurdish forces can push them back out. And then we won't have the need to do this. The Kurdish and Iraqi forces are the ones who will be in the lead in the fight against ISIL.

BLITZER: Is there a timeline how long these U.S. air strikes are going to continue?

We know there have been two rounds of precision strikes, 500-pound bombs going after ISIS targets around Erbil.

How much longer do you think the air campaign will continue?

RHODES: Well, on the two missions the president outlined last night, on the mountain we're going to provide humanitarian support to those populations and prevent ISIL from attacking them. That's a finite mission until we can get those people to a safe place where they can receive international assistance.

With respect to Erbil, the principle is protecting our people and facilities. We don't put a timeline on that mission because we're always going to protect our people and facilities.

However, the long-term solution in our view is not simply a cordon of U.S. air strikes. This is an emergency where we have to do that. The long-term solution is those Kurdish forces regrouping, resupplying and we're helping them do that, and getting back into the fight and pushing back ISIL.

And the Kurdish forces have proven able and willing to fight in the past. We believe that will be the case and that will mean that we won't have to take air strikes when the Kurds are able to secure the perimeter of that city.

BLITZER: Ben Rhodes, I've got to take a quick commercial break. I don't know if you can, stay. If you can, stick around. If you can't, we understand completely. Thanks very much. We're going to have more on the breaking news, the new U.S. air strikes on ISIS terrorist targets. Stay with us.