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ISIS Offensive Nearing U.S. Marines; Obama's ISIS War Request Under Fire; Dramatic Rescue Efforts Revealed; Rebels Seize U.S. Embassy, Cars, Weapons; ISIS Claims Interview with French Terror Suspect; Dramatic Rescue Efforts Revealed; Intense Fighting Despite New Peace Deal; North Korea and Russia Getting Closer?

Aired February 12, 2015 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: Happening now, ISIS offensive -- terrorist fighters waging deadly attacks on Iraqi forces and now just miles away from a key U.S. military -- key Iraqi military base housing U.S. Marines.

Will ISIS try to attack these American forces?

Daring rescue mission -- we have new details of how Kayla Mueller's boyfriend risked his life in a bold effort to free her. And the White House now forced to defend its own attempts to save the young aid worker. We're going to talk about that and a lot more with the State Department deputy spokeswoman, Marie Harf.

Unholy alliance -- there are growing signs right now that two of America's biggest foes may be teaming up against the United States.

What are Russia's Vladimir Putin and North Korea's Kim Jong-un up to?

I'm Wolf Blitzer.


Breaking now -- dramatic offensives by ISIS and al Qaeda. ISIS forces in Iraq, they're waging a deadly campaign to claim even more territory and they're actually moving closer and closer to a major Iraqi government base housing hundreds of U.S. troops.

And in Yemen, al Qaeda fighters have taken over a major camp and seized a major cache of weapons after a gun battle that lasted for hours.

We're covering all angles of these stories and much more this hour with our correspondents and our guests, including the deputy spokeswoman at the State Department, Marie Harf.

But let's begin with our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto.

He has the latest on this war against ISIS -- Jim. JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, there's been a lot of talk recently about ISIS being on the defensive, losing ground. That is true in some places. But today, we're seeing ISIS making an attempt to show its strength again.

Look at the attacks that took place just in the last 24 hours, up in the north against Kurdish forces, including using suicide bombers, car bombs, but also down here, around the town of Al-Baghdadi.

What's key about this, it's in Anbar Province, just to the west of Baghdad, very close, just a few miles, from the Al-Asad Air Base, where you have some 400 U.S. military personnel there now training Iraqi pilots. The Pentagon says there was no assault on the base, but it's just a few miles down the road. And it shows that as you put U.S. military advisers outside of the main population centers in Erbil in the north and Baghdad, they're getting much closer to combat, even Wolf, if they're not actually in combat.

BLITZER: And in nearby Yemen, not that far away, AQAP, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, they are also on the move, especially now that the U.S. is basically out of there.

SCIUTTO: That's right, and also just taking advantage of the instability in that country. You have the collapse of that government in Sana'a, the capital, a key partner for the U.S. in the fight against AQAP. So in the last 24 hours here in the province of Shabwa, where al Qaeda has a very strong base of support. They took over a Yemeni -- what was a Yemeni military base with heavy weapons there, taking them not just from the Yemenis, the former partner government, but even the Houthi rebels who have taken over the capital.

It just shows that as this country becomes more unstable, not only does it become more difficult for the U.S. to fight the AQAP threat there, which Pentagon officials have acknowledged, but it also gives them more of a chance, AQAP, to take more territory, take more weapons.

BLITZER: Jim Sciutto with the latest.

Stand by.

President Obama's efforts, meanwhile to get Congress to authorize the war against ISIS running into some serious problems up on Capitol Hill. Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers are sharply critical of the president's proposals for different reasons.

Our chief Congressional correspondent, Dana Bash, is working this part of the story for us.

What's the very latest here?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, talk to any member of Congress and they will tell you the most difficult and solemn vote they ever have taken is a vote to wage war. And this is something that is weighing heavily on them. And lawmakers in both parties have been talking about whether or not they can actually find consensus on this, even though they've actually been demanding a debate for months.


BASH (voice-over): Tonight, with ISIS making new advances in Iraq and some questioning whether U.S. airstrikes alone can defeat the terrorist group, Congress is now starting to consider the president's request to finally authorize the six-month-old mission.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: I want to give our military commanders the flexibility and the authority that they need to defeat our enemies.

BASH: Today, most Republicans said while they support that mission, they strongly oppose President Obama's unprecedented call for restrictions on his own power to deploy troops.

BOEHNER: The president has tied his own hands and wants to tie his hands even further with the authorization that he sent up here.

BASH: The president and most Democrats say it's critical to limit the use of ground troops, especially for the next president.

SEN. CHRIS MURPHY, (D-CT), FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE: I'm worried about what a potential Republican president could do without an airtight limitation on ground troops. The American public, they don't want us to put major combat operations back into the Middle East because they know that it won't work.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It is time to start bring our troops home.

BASH: Obama became president by opposing an open-ended Iraq War others had voted to support more than a decade ago. Today, it still looms large.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D), CALIFORNIA: What I was told when I opposed the Iraq War, quite frankly, by members of our caucus was if you oppose this war, your future is ended in the leadership of the Democratic Party.

BASH: Democrats like House leader Nancy Pelosi took heat at the time, only to eventually feel vindicated. And that makes them reluctant to support the president's resolution now.

PELOSI: There is no question that there's no appetite in the public for us to go into any more war.

BASH: But tonight, Republicans like John McCain say no president has ever limited his own ability to fight or win a war.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: If the Congress of the United States wants to prevent the commander-in-chief from acting, you can cut off funds.

BASH: But that didn't work during the Iraq War. Once the mission was authorized, it was hard to stop. MURPHY: Those of us who came to Congress after the Iraq War, who have learned from those mistakes, I'm hopeful that that is going to be who wins the day here.


BASH: Now, with so much of a divide over limits on ground troops, lawmakers in both parties admit it's going to be very hard to find compromise that can actually pass both the House and the Senate.

But leaders in key committees are going to spend the next several weeks and months trying to do that. As one senator told me, if we can't find bipartisan compromise on a plan to confront the wretched terror group like ISIS, Wolf, he said we should just give up.

BLITZER: But then even if they find bipartisan compromise, they -- the president still has to sign it, right?

And he could veto it if he wanted to.

BASH: He could. But by the time they get to the point where they actually have consensus, presumably, they're going to have to have the White House buy-in in order to get that consensus.

BLITZER: Yes. That's going to take a while.

BASH: It sure will.

BLITZER: All right, thanks very much, Dana, for that.

Meanwhile, there are new details emerging right now of failed efforts to rescue Kayla Mueller, the American aid worker who died in ISIS custody, including a very dangerous and dramatic attempt by her boyfriend, who confronted the terrorists face-to-face.

Our justice correspondent, Pamela Brown, is working this part of the story for us.

What are you hearing from your sources -- Pamela?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, it is clear the Mueller family explored every option possible to bring their daughter home. Even Kayla's boyfriend in Syria risked his life to save her. And he recently posted a touching tribute to her on his Facebook page.


BROWN (voice-over): A heartbreaking message from the man kidnapped in Syria with Kayla Mueller, her boyfriend, Omar al-Khani. He posted this picture of Kayla holding a stuffed animal saying on his Facebook page, "I'm sorry I didn't hold onto you with so much strength that even God couldn't take you away. You left our world for a bigger and better place now."

CNN learned Omar risked his life to rescue Kayla. He went to a terrorist training camp pretending to be her husband. But the ruse failed. Arizona Congressman Paul Gosar has counseled the family and hinted more could have been done to rescue Mueller.

REP. PAUL GOSAR (R), ARIZONA: There is some conflicting evidence that maybe the White House and the administration didn't do all they could.

BROWN: The White House denies it delayed launching a rescue attempt to save Mueller and other hostages last July. A spokesperson for the National Security Council says U.S. forces conducted this operation as soon as the president and his national security team were confident the mission could be carried out. The president told BuzzFeed he did everything he could.

OBAMA: I deployed an entire operation at significant risk to rescue not only her, but the other individuals that had been held, and probably missed them by a day or two, precisely because we had that commitment.

BROWN: After ISIS issued an execution deadline to Mueller last August, her family reached out to the White House in desperation. And according to a family spokesperson, asked the administration if it would consider a prisoner swap, trading U.S. prisoner, Dr. Siddiqui, known as lady al Qaeda, for Mueller. Even though the swap never happened, it's believed Mueller was still alive after the execution deadline passed.


BROWN: And we reached out to the White House today about the family's swap request. It declined to comment -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Pamela Brown, thanks very much.

Let's talk about all of this and a lot more with the State Department deputy spokeswoman, Marie Harf, who's here with me in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Marie, thanks very much for coming in.


BLITZER: Do you want to respond to the charge that the raid to try to save Kayla Mueller's life was delayed, as a result, it failed?

MARIE HARF, STATE DEPARTMENT DEPUTY SPOKESWOMAN: Nothing could be further from the truth, Wolf. As soon as we had actionable intelligence and a military operation plan in hand, the president authorized this mission. And unfortunately and horribly, it was not able to bring these Americans home. But nothing could be further from the truth.

BLITZER: What about this notion that ISIS was seeking a trade, Kayla Mueller in exchange for this convicted terrorist, this woman, Aaifia Siddiqui, who was held prisoner in the United States, a convicted al Qaeda terrorist?

HARF: Well, look, we're just not going to get into what our conversations were with the Mueller family or what their conversations were, their communications were with her captors.

As we know, ISIS has a long history of -- with other situations putting out offers on the table and then not following through. So, clearly, we aren't just going to get into the details there.

But throughout this entire ordeal, have been working very closely with her family, with all the families of these hostages, to do anything we can to get them home.

BLITZER: There is a review underway right now of U.S. hostage policy, when the United States should do X, Y or Z, right?

HARF: Yes. There ISIS.

BLITZER: When is that going to be complete?

HARF: I don't have a date for completion of that. The White House and other agencies have reached out to some families of hostages or former hostages to get their input. This is something we take very seriously, talking about how we can do this going forward in the future. And we want to hear from the families. Obviously, they're really at the heart of what should be driving our policy.

But we do, even before the policy review, Wolf, did everything we could to try to locate and bring these Americans home. Obviously, we know how tragically this ended.

BLITZER: But you wouldn't anticipate major changes, for example, the U.S. willing to pay ransom to terrorist organizations in exchange for the freedom of an American?

HARF: Well, the no concessions policy is not part of the review. That is correct. We believe very strongly that if you start paying ransom, you're just funding more terrorism and you're putting more Americans at risk. But I don't know what the outcome will be of the review. I don't want

to prejudge that and we'll see what comes from it.

BLITZER: On Iraq right now, we're told ISIS, instead of cowering or retreating, they're are actually on the offensive in certain Northern Iraqi locations. They're actually moving closer to the al-Arabia, air base where there are hundreds of U.S. troops, including Marines supposedly training Iraqi forces, maybe 10 miles away.

What's going on?

HARF: Well, I would note that in many other places, they're in retreat, because the forces on the ground, the Iraqis or the Kurds, in conjunction with us, with the air power, have pushed them back so we know this is going to be a long fight. And there will be ebbs and flows in terms of the battlefield rhythm and what's happening. There will be times when they go on the offensive.

But I think we should put it in the broader context, that we have had success pushing them out of areas in Iraq and we'll keep up the fight here. BLITZER: Do you have confidence in the Iraqi military at the Al-Asad Air Base, for example?

It's near this town al-Baghdadi, that they can protect these Americans, because these Americans are there as trainers, advisers. They're not necessarily there in a ground combat role.

HARF: Well, we know the Iraqi military has really grown much stronger since what we saw last summer. Their capabilities are better. They're better trained, they're better armed. They're better funded, certainly. But no one area, no one battle, no one town is going to define the overall fight against ISIS in Iraq or Syria.

BLITZER: Because there's still MIA In other parts of Northern Iraq. The Peshmerga, the Kurdish fighters, they're getting the job done. But they're limited in their capabilities. They keep asking where is the central Iraqi government's military?

Why aren't they getting involved in trying to fight ISIS?

HARF: This is a tough fight. And there are limited resources here. That's why we've have done everything we can to expedite our at to the forces. And for the first time I think in a long time we see the Iraqi forces and the Kurdish forces working very closely together. This hasn't always been the case. So I think that's been one of the reasons we've been able to have so much success so far.

BLITZER: Well, the Peshmerga and the Kurdish forces that we're talking to in Northern Iraq, they say they don't see any Iraqi forces. They're sort of invisible right now. They abandoned their positions. The U.S. spent hundreds of millions of dollars training the Iraqi military over more than a decade and the fighting starts to heat up a little bit, they run away. We're going to continue this.

Stand by.

A lot more to discuss. We're also going to talk about the United States' decision to evacuate the U.S. Embassy in Yemen, and what that means for AQAP. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

That's where they are based.


BLITZER: We're following the growing unrest, the chaos in Yemen, where al Qaeda forces have seized a major military camp and a major cache of weapons while Houthi Shiite-led rebels, they solidified their control of the capital Sana'a where the U.S. embassy has now been closed. Staffers, all of them have been ordered to leave.

All of this happening in a country that at one point was a key U.S. ally in the fight against terror.

We are back with the State Department deputy spokeswoman, Marie Harf. This is the base, Yemen, of AQAP, al Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula, which represents a major threat to the U.S., to the Europeans, to others, and now the U.S. has abandoned that embassy in Sana'a. Months -- a few months ago the president was saying it was a success story in Yemen. Now the U.S. is gone. What happened?

HARF: Well, I think it's a very complicated situation. And when we made the decision about our embassy, obviously security has to govern what we do when it comes to our people overseas. But it certainly doesn't mean that we've abandoned Yemen. It doesn't mean that we're not incredibly focused on it. The military still has assets there to work on the counterterrorism issue, which obviously one of or key priorities there.

As you mentioned, AQAP the most dangerous affiliate of al Qaeda, certainly has threatened the homeland. So we'll keep working the situation, even though our embassy's not there. We have an ambassador. We'll keep talking to the parties and see if we can get...

Have these Houthi rebels actually gone into the U.S. embassy in Sana'a, they are enjoying the diplomatic life, if you will. They're taking the U.S. vehicles, the U.S. weapons, all the stuff inside. Is that true?

HARF: Well, there have been conflicting reports about the embassy, but when it comes to the vehicles, obviously, we've been very clear that this is unacceptable behavior, that they need to return them, that there are certain rules that govern diplomatic presence and people and stabilities and things like vehicles in another country.

BLITZER: You don't expect these Houthi rebels to be honoring these protocols, these diplomatic protocols, do you?

HARF: If they want to, you know -- if they say they want to be in charge of Yemen, they need to start.

BLITZER: I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for that to happen. Did you get everything out -- the classified documents, the hard drives -- when you abandoned the embassy?

HARF: We did. There are protocols in place here. We know how to do this. We know how to close an embassy to protect our facilities and particularly, like you said, classified information. And there were plans in place to do this. It was in no way a rush evacuation. As we said, this was an orderly departure based on the plans we had in place.

BLITZER: You've seen the video of these rebels in Tripoli, Libya, the U.S. abandoned that embassy not that long ago. They're swimming in the ambassador's pool. They're diving into the pool. They're all having a great time at the United States embassy in Tripoli. That was also supposed to be a success story when the U.S. launched Tomahawk Cruise missiles to get rid of Gadhafi. There seems to be a pattern going on right now, right?

HARF: Well, look, when you look at some of these countries, when you look at Libya, it is a good thing that Moammar Gadhafi is no longer in charge of Libya. What's happened -- if you look just from that narrow perspective, it was good...

BLITZER: Libya today, not far from Europe, is becoming a base for terrorist organizations.

HARF: Yes. So if you look at what happened since then, these kinds of generational changes just -- are just that, generational. And it will take a lot of time for Libya to get back on its feet. Obviously, there are a lot of people working on that right now. But it's complicated, and Yemen is, as well.

On the one hand, we have had success against AQAP. We've taken out senior AQAP leaders who tried to kill Americans.

BLITZER: But now in Yemen they're going to have an opportunity to get stronger.

HARF: Well, I don't -- I would be careful about that. It's complicated. The Houthi certainly are no friends of AQAP. They've actively fought them. We're certainly very focused on AQAP.

So I think, look, these are very troublesome times in these countries. There are a lot of factors at play here. And what we do is work with parties on the ground, work with our international partners to see if we can help get them on a better track.

BLITZER: The president yesterday came out with his war powers initiative to try to get congressional authority to engage, to go through with this war against ISIS. But he's getting a lot of grief, not only from Republicans but from a whole bunch of Democrats who don't like it either. You're passionate. You like this president. You work for the president so obviously, you like it.

But a lot of Democrats say it's way, way too vague, too fuzzy. It gives the president the opportunity to actually deploy combat ground forces in Iraq and maybe even Syria.

HARF: Well, I think it strikes the perfect balance between giving the commander in chief the kind of flexibility that any commander in chief would need to conduct this kind of military operation.

While setting up for the American people and more importantly, American men and women in uniform and their families, what will govern the kinds of limitations around this conflict.

So I don't think anyone would say we should not have the ability to send in American combat troops on a search-and-rescue operation or on a Special Forces operation to kill an ISIL leader. Those are prerogatives the commander in chief should have.

But we should also tell the American people how long we're going to have this in place, when we're going to go back and talk about it again and the kinds of geographic areas that we will operate in.

BLITZER: Why do so many Democrats now think it's way too vague, too fuzzy, they want major changes? These are Democrats we're talking about. I spoke to Chris Van Hollen, the Democratic congressman from Maryland earlier today. He wants major changes.

HARF: Well, look, we've been in a constant dialogue with Congress about the language here, leading up to the president setting up the AUMF. And we are confident that it strikes the right balance. We're working with Congress and obviously are open to talking to them about ways they think it could be made stronger.

But the two prerogatives, I think, are important that we should say that this is limited in scope, this is who we will be going after, but also, the commander in chief needs to have the ability, given unforeseen circumstances in war, to undertake certain actions if they're in our national security interests.

BLITZER: Well, he has the ability now. He says he doesn't even need this authority. He's got existing authority, but he is basically doing this because Congress asked him to do it.

HARF: And because he thinks that our partners and our allies, but more importantly, ISIL, will see that we are stronger as a country, as a coalition, when we speak with one voice and we make very clear how committed we are to this.

BLITZER: That might not happen. Speak with one. Wouldn't be the first time that there's multiple voices coming out of Washington. We'll see what happens.

HARF: That is certainly true.

BLITZER: Marie Harf, thanks very much for coming in.

HARF: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Up next, the world's most wanted female terror suspect is speaking out, or is she? Details of an alleged interview with the widow of one of the Paris attackers.

Plus, signs of troubling possible new alliances emerging between Russia and North Korea. Are Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un forming a new axis of evil?


BLITZER: She's the subject of a global manhunt. Now ISIS claims Hayat Boumeddiene, widow of one of the Paris terrorists, is in ISIS territory in Syria and speaking out in a brand-new interview.

Let's get some more with CNN terrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank, CNN intelligence and security analyst Bob Baer, CNN law enforcement analyst Tom Fuentes.

Paul, you've been doing some excellent reporting on this claim from a French language ISIS magazine of an alleged interview with Hayat Boumeddiene. She's the widow of Amedy Coulibaly. Remember he's the guy who carried out that attack on that kosher supermarket in Paris that killed four Jewish men.

What can you tell us about this new interview?

PAUL CRUICKSHANK, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: It's a two-page Q&A which started circulating yesterday on a French ISIS magazine, which then repeated, the interview, in their English magazine "Dabiq" today.

The claim is that she has reached the caliphate, that it wasn't difficult for her to cross over there and French terrorism experts believe this is a credible claim from ISIS but an unverified claim at this point because they offer no proof that she's reached Syria, Wolf.

But clearly a big propaganda coup potentially for ISIS because it allows them to claim ownership over those terrorist attacks.

BLITZER: But they didn't show a picture of her, did they?

CRUICKSHANK: No picture of her at all yet. If she is indeed with ISIS, I think that's going to change. I think that they would likely feature her in some kind of video. Of course, she wouldn't appear unveiled. You'll likely just see her eyes with the full veil. But I think very likely they'll want to make a lot of propaganda out of her to try and get more men and women to join them in Syria and Iraq and also launch attacks overseas.

BLITZER: Tom Fuentes, how will U.S. officials authenticate a claim like this?

TOM FUENTES, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Well, Wolf, what they would need is some information that comes out of her through that magazine or any other means that only she would know. And that the authorities know that there's no way to have that type of inside information, maybe the preparation of the attack or something personal about Coulibaly, her husband at the time, so something that only she would know.

BLITZER: That's how you go ahead and authenticate. We'll see what happens on that.

Bob Baer, what about this new information we're getting about these attempts to rescue Kayla Mueller, the 26-year-old American female aid worker killed in ISIS captivity? We are learning that her Syrian boyfriend actually went back looking for her, claimed to be her husband, but the plot didn't work because she told her captors she wasn't married.

If she had gone along with this, and she had no reason to go along with this, she didn't know who was there, you think they would have let her go?

ROBERT BAER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: No. She was too valuable, Wolf. He did -- I think he did show up at the base, he's Syrian, probably from a prominent family, and said that's my wife. In fact, they were not married. They were boyfriend and girlfriend. Whether ISIS knew that or not, I don't know. But the point is that wasn't going to convince them.

This is a ruthless organization and they have no empathy for two lovers. So I don't think -- it was a heroic attempt, of course, but it never stood a chance.

BLITZER: Yes, you're probably right on that.

Paul, you're also getting some new information on the suspected ringleader of that plot that was foiled in Belgium last month. What are you learning?

CRUICKSHANK: That's right, Wolf. ISIS are claiming that Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the suspected ringleader in that major plot in Belgium last month, has safely returned to Syria. Belgian counterterrorism officials believed that he was coordinating that plot from Greece but in a new interview with this ISIS English language magazine he's describing how he evaded that international manhunt to return to Syria.

It also features a picture of him, you see it on the screen right now, with two of the dead gunmen in that special forces operation from the Belgian point of view in eastern Belgium last month. All this really tying ISIS to this plot. This would be the sort of first ISIS plot against the West. There's been a lot of concern that pivoting towards this and of course, on your show last week, Wolf, Senator James Reese said that ISIS were moving beyond aspirational when it came to launching plots against the U.S. homeland.

A lot of concern right now that this group could target Europe but also the United States.

BLITZER: What was the target in Belgium of this ISIS plot?

CRUICKSHANK: Well, I'm told by a senior Belgian counterterrorism official that this plot was very ambitious, went far beyond just targeting police. They had all the chemicals necessary for high explosives. They had police uniform. The suggestion is they were trying to gain access to a sensitive site. This was going to be a major spectacular terrorist attack from ISIS.

The Belgian authorities believed that the ISIS leadership were very much behind this and now the ringleader they are claiming is back in Syria, back with ISIS. A very worrying development indeed, Wolf.

BLITZER: Well, let me get Bob Baer's reaction and Tom Fuentes.

Bob, what do you think?

BAER: Let me start, Wolf, I heard originally from the State Department that there was some suspicion they were going after the American embassy or an American base, a NATO base there. I've seen no confirmation of that but the Belgian Police, as Paul will tell you, are holding this very close to the chest, this investigation. What their ultimate targets are.

But I would imagine that the Islamic State was going way beyond just Belgian Police and were going for spectacular attack. And I think the details of that will come out fairly soon.

BLITZER: It would have been spectacular. Fortunately it was foiled. Obviously that does raise some enormous fears.

FUENTES: Well, the concern is, do they have everybody? He is back in Syria, you know, were his confederates still in Belgium, did they all get rounded up, did they all reveal information about the group, probably not. So there are probably still people in Belgium, throughout western Europe that might have been part of that particular attack plan and may have access to more weaponry and more explosives that weren't picked up.

BLITZER: All right. That's all pretty chilling. I want all of you to stand by because we have a lot more coming up. We're following the breaking news.

There's another important story we're following right now which involves North Korea. The leader there, Kim Jong-Un, may be getting together with Russia's Vladimir Putin. What kind of trouble would that mean for the United States?

Also ahead, the latest on the ISIS attack going on near an Iraqi air base where hundreds of U.S. Marines and other military advisers are working. Are they in danger right now?


BLITZER: We are keeping a very close watch on Ukraine right now, where intense fighting is raising serious doubts about a new peace deal. The agreement worked out among the Russian President Vladimir Putin and the leaders of Ukraine, France and Germany. That agreement calls for a cease-fire starting this coming Sunday.

Our senior international correspondent Nick Paton Walsh is in eastern Ukraine where the fighting continues right now.

What's the latest on the ground there, Nick?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The fear really is, Wolf, that in the next 48 hours or so, we will see an escalation in the violence because that agreement actually doesn't delineate where the borders potentially will be in this cease-fire until the end of Saturday. And there are a lot of places now contested. One key one is Debaltseve, a town to the northeast of where I'm standing now.

Vladimir Putin in comments he made around that deal suggested he thought that really, the Ukrainians should give up that particular town. They have potentially hundreds or thousands of troops inside it as part of the Minsk deal. That's going to be tough for Kiev to swallow.

We had an issue, too, though, where we discussed the cease-fire, in fact broke the news to it over its twosome separatist troops we met on the front line to the south of where I'm standing. A lot of them quite angry to hear about it. Some suggested that they couldn't trust the Ukrainians at all. Some felt there had been so many civilian casualties here in Donetsk, the separatist stronghold. They weren't willing to accept one. They wanted to fight on until the

next region could be totally retaken. So a lot of doubt on the ground here. And that's going to feed into the complexity of this. We have the need for a cease-fire at the end of Saturday, then potentially both sides will draw back their heavy weapons to quite different sets of boundaries, then potentially a demilitarized zone.

So much that could go wrong. And that major fear, 48 hours now in which both sides have to define the effective boundaries of where they'll be potentially months from now. And that could really cause more civilians to lose their lives in the hours ahead -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. A lot of people complaining that they should have had an immediate cease-fire. A cease-fire in place right away by giving it 48 hours or even longer until Sunday. That's causing exactly what you're describing, an enormous amount of fire power and potentially a lot of people are going to die in the next 48 hours.

WALSH: That's the major fear, particularly here in Donetsk and particularly around Debaltseve. Now Debaltseve is key because Vladimir Putin did reference in a speech it's a strategic hub for the Ukrainians. They don't want to give it up and the separatists absolutely want to take it because it sort of rounds off the borders of what will effectively end up being not a new state but a very different region part of Ukraine.

The major fear, Wolf, though, is that how we've seen the separatists play this in the previous month, take a little bit, a little bit, and a little bit, never lurch forward so far that Washington or NATO have to respond. And that could be what we see happen in the weeks ahead -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Nick Paton Walsh, be careful over there. He's in Ukraine for us.

Up next, what might happen if Russia's Vladimir Putin and North Korea's Kim Jong-Un actually get together. Guess what? It could happen. It could happen soon.


BLITZER: Tonight, there are troubling signs two of the world's most unpredictable leaders, North Korea's Kim Jong-Un and Russia's Vladimir Putin, they're actually working toward a closer alliance.

Let's go to CNN's Brian Todd. He's here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

What's going on, Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, one of these leaders is constantly threatening to annihilate the United States. The other pushes every confrontation he can get away with against America and its allies. This is potentially a very dangerous partnership and tonight, there are signs that it's growing.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) TODD (voice-over): They're two of America's biggest antagonists and tonight there is new concern over Kim Jong-Un and Vladimir Putin teaming up, creating an ominous alliance against the United States.

The Russians say they are negotiating with North Korea to hold joint military exercises.

PATRICK CRONIN, CENTER FOR A NEW AMERICAN SECURITY: There is nothing good about a growing relationship between Moscow and Pyongyang. Things could escalate.

TODD: Putin has also invited Kim Jong-Un to Moscow in May to celebrate the anniversary of the end of World War II. Russian officials are quoted as saying North Korea's leadership has accepted but it's not clear if Kim Jong-Un himself will go, and if he does, there is danger.

CRONIN: Kim Jong-Un has a plane but he doesn't fly anywhere. I think this is a man who is frightened from leaving the safety of his security network inside North Korea. And there is of course a danger that he may not be invited back because there could be generals who decide you know what, this is a convenient time to make that adjustment we've been talking about privately.

TODD: Russia and North Korea had strong bonds against the U.S. during the Cold War, and afterward when Kim's father visited Putin in Moscow. The partnership eventually faded.

What's in the rekindling of this friendship for Kim? Essentially, he needs a new friend. China, North Korea's most steady ally, is angry with Kim over his nuclear program and over the execution of his uncle, Jang Song-thaek, who was close with China's leaders.

What's in this for Putin?

ANDREW KUCHINS, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: I think number one, I think to some degree this is sticking it in the eye of the United States. Putin and the Russians have been talking to the North Koreans and the South Koreans trying -- hoping to get them together on gas pipeline deals that would take Russian gas out to the Pacific as well as a railroad.

TODD: And how would this new axis of antagonism threaten the U.S.?

CRONIN: Russia has lots of intelligence. They've got Snowden, for goodness sakes, in Moscow. They have a lot of intelligence about the United States. This gives Kim Jong-Un potentially the ability to miscalculate in a very big way, thinking he knows what's really going on or what vulnerabilities are that may not really exist inside the United States and U.S.-South Korean alliance.


TODD: Other potential dangers? Russia also has nuclear technology it could share with the North Koreans. Their alliance could complicate dealings with China, not to mention a potentially dangerous personal dynamic between two leaders who have repeatedly proven themselves to be volatile and unpredictable, Wolf. It's a dangerous combination.

BLITZER: And as you say, this won't be the first time Kim Jong-Un could lead North Korea as the leader of North Korea. He studied in Switzerland as a kid.

TODD: Yes.

BLITZER: Or whatever. But if he leaves, that creates a whole new dynamic because he's -- all of a sudden he's out of his comfort zone.

TODD: Totally out of his comfort zone, Wolf. It would be the first time he's left North Korea as leader. Analysts say everything he does inside North Korea is so heavily scripted, so heavily choreographed.

The celebration in Moscow, you know, there are going to be other world leaders present. There could be moments there that the North Koreans have no control over. Unscripted moments with these other leaders. And analysts say the concern that Kim is going to do something that's going to make him look too young, too inexperienced for the job has to be weighing on the minds of Kim's inner circle. That maybe is a reason that they don't send him there.

BLITZER: We'll see what happens. Brian, thanks very much. Let's get some analysis of what's going on us.

Joining us now, Christian Whiton, he was deputy special envoy for human rights in North Korea during the Bush administration, and Gordon Chang, he's a columnist for, author of the book, "Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes on the World."

Christian, what do you think? Are these two guys going to get together?

CHRISTIAN WHITON, FORMER STATE DEPARTMENT SENIOR ADVISER: I think they may get together. It's not without precedent, Kim's father went -- made pilgrimage to Moscow from time to time, the last being in 2011, taking an armored train across most of Russia's time zones.

There's a longstanding relationship between Moscow and Pyongyang. North Korea was actually more of a creature of the Soviet Union than China. That ended with the end of the Cold War.

The thing is, I don't think it's going to lead to massive military cooperation or economic cooperation. It's probably more diplomatic pageantry.

BLITZER: If he feels emboldened, Gordon, to leave North Korea, Kim Jong-Un, what does that say about his own sense of security, if you will?

GORDON CHANG, AUTHOR, "NUCLEAR SHOWDOWN": Well, if he does go, I think it means he believes that he is secure because the one man in a one-man state does not want to leave, as Brian Todd pointed out, because he might not be able to get back. And so there's been a lot of questions. You know, last month, we saw the execution of a four-star general,

which indicates that the military still is not completely on board with Kim Jong-Un. And that means, this is a very dangerous time because we've seen so many executions, about 50 of them, last year.

BLITZER: Is there a downside or a major upside? Could there be an upside -- I'll rephrase the question, Christian -- for the U.S. and the West, if Kim Jong-Un does go to Russia? Because we know that the U.S. and Russia are cooperating, even though they have disagreements on other issues, for example, the nuclear deal with Iran that may be in the works.

WHITON: Yes. I think there's a hidden risk. And that is that once again we will get false indications that North Korea is willing to be reasonable.

You heard a lot of murmurs lately out of Beijing. Out of Moscow a little bit, including Foreign Minister Lavrov, and out of the U.S. government that they want to resume nuclear talks with North Korea and that they are having talks about talks. And the risk there is that once again North Korea will prevail at the negotiating table.

Remember it dipped the Clinton administration and dipped the Bush administration, pocketing foreign aid but never giving up its nuclear weapons and that this may actually encourage yet another one of those cycles.

BLITZER: This will be his first visit out of North Korea, Kim Jong- Un, if he goes.

I want to show you a terrific cartoon that Jeff Danziger put out not that long ago. Take a look at this. I don't know if you can see -- you can read it or you can see it. But these two guys, Kim Jong-Un and Vladimir Putin, they're on horseback without shirts. Kim Jong-Un will visit Russia. Jeff Danziger says, "You sure this will make my people respect me more?" Kim Jong-Un says to Putin.

And Putin says, "Definitely. Especially when coupled with a ruthless secret police, a captive press and political prisons for any annoying person who doesn't respect you."

Gordon, you've seen this cartoon. What do you think?

CHANG: Yes, I think that that actually is -- tells us something very important. And that is, you basically have Putin who is not really hesitant to deal with the most -- worst elements in the international system. And Putin right now is really, of course, with his initiatives in Ukraine giving everybody a hard time. Now he very well may do the same thing in Asia, especially with changing diplomatic relationships in East Asia right now.

This could be a problem. And we could also see Russian equipment end up in the Iranian hands like this anti-ship cruise missile that North Korea tested about eight days ago.

BLITZER: Christian -- Gordon Chang, Christian Whiton, guys, thanks very much. We'll stay on top of this story.

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