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Biden, Iraqi Prime Minister to Announce End of U.S. Combat Mission in Iraq; Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) to Give an Opening Statement at Tomorrow's January 6th Hearing; Georgia School Reopenings Cause Confusion over Varying Mask Policies. Aired 10:30-11a ET

Aired July 26, 2021 - 10:30   ET




POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back. A significant meeting at the White House today, President Biden is meeting with the prime minister of Iraq today, hoping to redefine the role of the U.S. troops in that country. The leaders are expected to reach an agreement shifting the U.S. mission in Iraq from combat to an advisory role by the end of the year.

Our White House Correspondent John Harwood joins me live this morning. John, you have got about 2,500 U.S. troops in Iraq right now. This is a big deal if they issue this joint agreement that the role will change for them. And it's a big deal also in terms of what it means in terms of Iran's view that wants all U.S. troops completely out of the country. What should we expect today?

JOHN HARWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, it is certainly, Poppy, a big deal symbolically. Iraq is a mess right now and the Iraqi government is under pressure because it is got conflicting impulses from its two leading allies, the United States, of course, which has had a security presence there for ever since the Iraq war, and Iran, which it is increasingly reliant on Iranian-backed militias.

And ever since the drone strike in 2020 that killed the Iranian general, Soleimani, and also an Iraqi security official, there has been pressure to get American combat forces out. They're going to announce the end of the American combat mission. Of course, this is the second time that's happened. First under President Obama in 2011 ending the long war in Iraq and then, of course, President Obama was forced to sent troops back because of the rise of the Islamic State.

But senior administration officials on a call with reporters wouldn't say how many of the 2,500 would actually be leaving the country as opposed it being reclassified into an advisory role. So we're not sure how much is substantively going to change but, certainly, this is going to meet some of the political imperatives of the Iraqi government and President Biden is going to announce that today. And, of course, this comes as President Biden is removing combat troops from Afghanistan, which is also a fraught decision because some people worry that if the Taliban takes over that country, the United States might be forced at some point to send troops back. Joe Biden says that is not true. We've had 20 years of war there and it is time to bring that to an end. But this is underscoring of how complicated, difficult, fraught all of these decisions of U.S. involvement in that part of the world are.

HARLOW: John Harwood, thank you for setting the scene under the important context ahead of this meeting for us, John Harwood at the White House.

Let's talk more about this with CNN Military Analyst and former Army Commanding General for Europe and the 7th Army, Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, who also previously served in Iraq. General, good morning and thank you.


HARLOW: We see the Taliban gaining so much territory in Afghanistan so quickly with every passing day. But there is a key difference here, right, between what is happening on the ground as the U.S. pulls out of Afghanistan and the situation in Iraq, where they have Special Forces that are some of the most capable and battle-tested in the region.

You say it is a mistake to compare Afghanistan and Iraq and that Iraq is in a much better place to take hold of its own security now than Afghanistan. Why?

HERTLING: Yes, absolutely. Comparing Iraq to Afghanistan is like comparing apples to tennis rackets, Poppy. They are -- Iraq, first of all, has a very solid new prime minister, the one who is going to meet with President Biden today, Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi. He's solid. He's an independent. He, formerly, was the director of the Iraqi National Intelligence Services. He knows what he's doing.

Iraq also has a very informed parliament. They certainly have political implications within that parliament. But they also have a great president by the name of Barham Salih, who has been president for a while. They have a solid government. They also have very strong security forces.

Now, there was a hiccup during the ISIS invasion, but that was because they had a different government in charge.


There was a lot of corruption, a lot of political problems in their leadership and their connection with the military and the military, truthfully, went AWOL because they weren't getting paid, leaders were being replaced in Iraq.

None of that kind of instance, as we do the analysis in the dissection of Afghanistan, is what is happening in Afghanistan. There is a corruption within the government, the security forces have not taken hold in Afghanistan other than the special operators. There is just challenges across the board.

They also don't have the culture in Afghanistan or the economic structure that Iraq has. All of those things make a difference. It is more than just the number of military forces on the ground.

HARLOW: For sure. There are a number of factors at play here and it is important to be clear that Iraq was not happy at all about a number of steps that the U.S. took under the Trump administration without Iraq's knowledge or consent, right, namely the attack on and the taking out of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, other actions, again, without Iraqi consent within the own country. Iran is still going to have a big influence in Iraq.

Listen to this. I was struck by what Prime Minister Kadhimi told Washington Post David Ignatius just a week or so ago. Quote, some of the influence that the Iranians have in Iraq, he said, is because of their concerns about the United States and the role that the U.S. is playing in Iraq. We need to reassure the Iranians that this relationship with the U.S. is built on common interests. Iraq must pursue its interests first and foremost.

So, given that backdrop and that complexity of this for Kadhimi having balancing the United States, what it needs from the U.S., and the realities of Iran as its neighbor, what is the most critical thing to come out of the meeting with Biden then today?

HERTLING: Well, I thought you were going to read another statement by Prime Minister Kadhimi, which was, Iraq will not be used as a battleground for other nations. You're right, the Iraqis were furious when Trump conducted the missile strike against Qasem Soleimani, not all Iraqis but certainly the Shia population within Iraq and specifically the Shia politicians. So, Kadhimi has to measure that a little bit. He doesn't want other nations fighting in his territory.

So I think President Biden has a better feel for Iraq. He certainly was a senator when we went in and was president and watched the ebb and flow under the -- or vice president and watched the ebb and flow under President Obama's administration. So I think he is more willing to look at Iraq as a strategic partner but also understand the political implications that Prime Minister kadhimi has to face.

All of those things are problematic but they are a very good partner and part of my heart is still in Iraq, truthfully. They're a good partner and they could be a very good advantage for the United States in this area.

HARLOW: Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, thank you so much for your expertise.

HERTLING: Thank you, Poppy.

HARLOW: Well, millions of students are just about to head back to cool in a week or a matter of weeks and the debate over masks and classrooms continues to rage, a closer look at the confusion and frustration after the break.



HARLOW: All right. Two big headlines just in from Capitol Hill, we are learning that Republican Congresswoman Liz Cheney will also give an opening statement at tomorrow's hearing, the first hearing for this House select committee on the insurrection.

Manu Raju joins us live with that. Of course, it is significant, right, given that there are only two Republicans on this committee. Do we know anything about what Cheney will say?

MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, not yet. We could probably expect her to raise her concerns that she's been raising for weeks and weeks and months since January 6th about the grave attack on this institution and this issue being above politics and reason why that she has taken that position.

And, typically, what would happen in a hearing like this is that the chairman would give an opening statement followed by the ranking Republican on the committee. But since there are no ranking Republican because the Republican leader, Kevin McCarthy, pulled out all five of his picks and instead Liz Cheney will assume that role. Cheney, of course, was given that position along with Adam Kinzinger, the Republican from Illinois from Nancy Pelosi to serve as one of their appointees on this committee.

So, they're trying to show some level of bipartisanship here, even as Republicans pulled out and contend this is a partisan investigation.

HARLOW: Manu, you also just got some significant new reporting or disappointment from Republicans about what the White House and Chuck Schumer have come forward with in terms of the infrastructure on this effort to get a bipartisan deal. Biden was so optimistic in the CNN town hall last week that Monday would be a good day for this.

RAJU: Yes. And it looks like it is the opposite. In fact, it looks like talks are in a very precarious state. It could certainly collapse, more likely to collapse than come together at this point.

This comes after there have been a weekend of furious negotiations and tried to bridge major differences on ranging from issues about transit funding, to dealing with how labor laws, prevailing wage laws are dealt with for construction projects as well as how to pay for this package dealing with COVID relief money that's already been spent redirecting in certain ways, so some major, major sticking points.


Democrats came back last night and tried what they called a global offer, along with the White House, to resolve all these major sticking points. But just moments ago, a Republican source familiar with the investigation said that Republicans have rejected that. They said that this offer was not in their view in a serious one because it reopened issues that they said had already been resolved and they said that Democrats need to come forward with something much more serious.

But time is ticking. They have been negotiating for months here on a deal to try to get a $1.2 trillion infrastructure proposal, which would be one of two efforts to try to implement Joe Biden's agenda, the other larger $3.5 trillion plan.

So now it could be decision time for Democrats. Do they pull the plug on these talks? Do they instead try to roll in that $1.2 trillion package as part of that larger, massive package to expand the social safety net? That is a big question for Democrats and Chuck Schumer, as well as the White House, President Biden. They have to get their members in line to agree to that.

So, major decisions here, a major crossroads for the Biden agenda, Poppy.

HARLOW: Huge development, Manu, thanks very much for the reporting. We'll be right back.



HARLOW: Many students in the state of Georgia are going to go back to school next week. It seems early, right, but it's soon. Despite the CDC guidance that unvaccinated over two years old should wear masks indoors, many school districts are still weighing whether it require them. Atlanta public school says it will require students and teachers to wear masks regardless of their vaccination status, but some of the state's largest communities have made masks optional.

Our Amara Walker joins me now. As a parent, I am very interested in this debate because we go to school here in New York about a month after kids there in Georgia. Where does this leave parents?

AMARA WALKER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Trying to figure out the rules in their district or in their particular school. And a lot of the parents, if you talk to them, some of them are frustrated. Some of them are frankly angry, at least the parent that we spoke with, because they have to make sense of this patch work of rules that they're seeing across the state. And that is what we're really seeing across the country.

So, for example, Atlanta public schools, including the middle school here behind me, as you said, implementing a universal mask mandate. Schools begin next week. But in neighboring Gwinnett County, Poppy, that is a different story.


WALKER (voice over): Over summer break, six-year-old Audrey Gard rarely left the house without a mask.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So you have to wear a mask to school every day.

WALKER: Audrey can't wait for August 4th, the first day of first grade at Peachtree Elementary School.

SARA GARD, HUMAN RESOURCES PROFESSIONAL: Are you excited for school to start.


WALKER: Her mother, Sara, feels differently.

GARD: I am furious. I am irritated that these are the people that I elected.

WALKER: Sara Gard is furious over Gwinnett County Public School's policy that only strongly recommends masks on school grounds.

GARD: I worry that she's going to get into school, come home one day and say nobody is wearing their masks and then I'm going to say then, I have to pull you out of school.

WALKER: Sara, a human resources professional, worries about the fast- spreading, highly contagious delta variant, now making up 83 percent of new COVID 19 cases in the U.S., according to the CDC.

The delta variant was not nearly as widespread when the Gards opted for in-person learning in April after a year of virtual school.

GARD: I want a mask mandate at school because I know my child can't be vaccinated yet.

WALKER: Georgia Governor Brian Kemp's executive order on school masks does not prevent districts from implementing a universal mandate. Gwinnett County Public Schools, the largest district in the state, says its decision is still fluid just days before school is set to start.

BERNARD WATSON, DIRECTOR OF COMMUNITY RELATIONS, GWINNETT COUNTY SCHOOLS: Well, we are in -- we are constantly reviewing guidance that we get from our local and state health partners, as well as the CDC and the Georgia Department of Education.

WALKER: Could the mask policy change between now and the start of school, August 4th?


WALKER: In neighboring DeKalb County and the city of Atlanta, the school districts there taking a stricter stance requiring masks for everyone.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is an issue that superintendents and school leaders are grappling with across the country.

WALKER: In DeKalb, low vaccination rates statewide and the growing number of delta variant cases were factors in the decision for a universal mask mandate.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Overwhelmingly, I have received positive feedback from families who were so nervous about sending their children back to school.

WALKER: The piecemeal approach over masks in schools is causing confusion across the country. At least eight states from Arizona to Vermont prohibit school districts from requiring masks. And in many states, it is up to the districts with the largest ones, like New York City, L.A. and Chicago requiring masks, while Miami, Houston and Hillsborough County in Florida are keeping it optional.

DR. SARA BODE, CHAIR-ELECT, AMERICAN ACADEMY OF PEDIATRICS COUNCIL ON SCHOOL HEALTH: Monitoring who is vaccinated, who is not, having some kids wearing masks, some not, that is just fraught with error. And universal masking works. We know it works.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This one, I love it because it has clowns (ph).

WALKER: Uncertainty is all that certain right now for the Gards who considered at one point entering Audrey into a vaccine trial, but they say they're bracing for the worst case scenario.

GARD: I tell my husband he can no longer work because he needs to run at home school, Audrey comes home and then I am our single breadwinner for this family of four.



WALKER (on camera): And around the country, there is also this debate among many school officials whether or not they should require or at least offer routine COVID-19 testing. When classes resume here at David T. Howard Middle School next week, students, staff and faculty, we're told, will have the option of getting a COVID-19 test every week. That will be the policy for all Atlanta public schools.

As for Gwinnett County, where Sara Gard is sending her daughter, that remains unclear right now, Poppy.

HARLOW: Amara, thank you for your reporting. It is so important, so many families having to make these hard choices. We appreciate it.

And thanks to all of you for joining me today. I'll see you right back here tomorrow morning. I'm Poppy Harlow.

At This Hour with Kate Bolduan is next.