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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

Frontline: Kuwait

Aired February 16, 2003 - 11:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

ANNOUNCER: This is a CNN special report. FRONTLINE KUWAIT with Aaron Brown.
AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello again from Kuwait. We spent the last week here on what most certainly is the front line of any potential war with Iraq. And we've been struck by a number of things.

First, the preparations for war. They are unmistakable. U.S. troops and war materiel are pouring in here daily, and the northern half of the country has been declared a military zone and sealed off from the entire civilian population.

Second, for a country that stands to be the prime target for Iraqi retaliation, in the event of a war, there is enormous support for the US position, and for a war on Iraq if it does come to that. But there is also concern about American intentions beyond Iraq and what the Americans really want to do is a question we've been asked time and again.

Finally, we have been struck by the odd beauty of the place, the desert. And the desert is virtually the entire country standing in such strange contrast to the modern city with all its conveniences. We've also been delighted by the warmth and kindness of the people here, people so grateful for what the Americans did to liberate them a dozen years ago.

In the remainder of this half hour we'll try to give you some snapshots of what's going on here. We'll meet a military unit designed to swing into action in the event of a chemical, biological or even nuclear attack. We'll see how the Kuwaiti oil fields have recovered from the devastation of the last Gulf War and we'll spend some time out in the desert with average Kuwaitis as they try to maintain some of the old traditions in face of a pending war.

Out in the desert in this small land there are literally tens of thousands of American soldiers and Marines right now and more are arriving every day. The convoys clog the roads. They are training, to be sure, but they're also doing what no amount of training can really prepare you for, they're waiting.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN (voice-over): Here in the vastness of the Kuwaiti desert, less than 20 miles from the border with Iraq, this is what the reality of war sounds like. American Marines, most of whom have been in the desert for no more than two weeks, are ratcheting up their training schedules, cleaning and adjusting their weapons and for these Marines, that kind of routine actually means something. These are combat engineers. They will be among the first to go in if American land forces are called upon to invade Iraq.

LUCAS PALLAN, LANCE CORPORAL, US MARINES: We're working with explosives. Basically they explode like a breach, a lane through minefields or wire, whatever we have to do.

BROWN: If you see concern on the faces of that these Marines, some of it is being erased by men like first sergeant Michael Miller.

MICHAEL MILLER, FIRST SERGEANT, US MARINES: Everybody understands how this come together now, right?

BROWN: The reason is that Sergeant Miller has been here before. He was in the Marines, on the ground, during the first Gulf War.

MILLER: Marines are the same. Think the job we're going to do is probably going to be about the same once this thing kick off. Don't see it no more than three months, we should wrap it up.

BROWN: And that, says the sergeant, is not borne of arrogance, but experience.

MILLER: With the doctrine that we've studied with Saddam, with him and the minefields, and the way that we are going to breach his minefield, he needs artillery and air to support it. But by the time we go across the border, he won't have the air and artillery to support it. So we can take our time getting across the minefields and make it to our objectives.

BROWN: Every day more men and materiel are moving across the desert. The US forces are getting reintroduced to some powerful weapons. This, for instance, is a Mark 19, a grenade launcher that can take out an enemy troop carrier at a half a mile. They treat it with tender and loving care.

JOSEPH GREMLICH, LANCE CORPORAL, US MARINES: It's different, actually, training and knowing you're about to go into it for real. I'm pretty sure everybody is ready.

BROWN: Whether it is weapons like these or smaller weapons, like M-16s, that these Marines will carry into battle, they know that they are part of a land armada that is growing here in Kuwait quite literally every hour and every day. Equipment is being unloaded at Kuwaiti ports at a furious pace. American convoys growl through the streets of Kuwait City on a routine bases. And while there may be a great deal of nervousness, you can't find many of the Marines who will say so out loud. They are, after all, Marines.

MILLER: They've been trained by the best. They've prepared by the best, so the confidence level is there. I don't see any problem. maybe when we get the order to go across, there might be a few nerves. But we got good NCOs, got good small unit leaders, and they'll adapt and overcome. The way the Marine Corps has been doing it for over 225 years. (END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: Ahead from FRONTLINE KUWAIT, the military unit you hope you never see.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BROWN: We've often talked about the new normal, something born of the attacks of September 11. This new normal is not just an American thing, the attack on New York and Washington shocked every corner of the globe. It made every nation feel more vulnerable to the worst from the worst, and out in the Kuwaiti desert, we saw firsthand how the world has responded.

For all the disagreements these days with Europe, the French, and the Germans on Iraq, there is one thing these countries do get. They must prepare together, or they must work together, or surely they will suffer together from some of the deadliest weapons mankind has ever seen.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN (voice-over): If you see these guys coming, run for your lives. Well, perhaps it's more accurate to say, if you see these guys coming, it's too late to run for your lives. For these are international troops formed after 9/11 to deal with the worst of the worst, weapons of mass destruction.

REGAN WILSON, CAPTAIN, US AIR FORCE: This task force, in my mind, is a service to this region, to the Middle East, in the event that the unthinkable happens.

BROWN: With the latest in protective suits and the latest in heavy equipment, these are called Fox vehicles, military personnel from three nations have been combined into a joint task force with but one job, help everyone, soldiers and civilians alike, in the event of a nuclear, biological, or chemical attack, a prospect that here in Kuwait is hardly far-fetched.

MICHAEL OBERNEYER, LIEUTENANT COLONEL, GERMAN ARMY: We have to be prepared for the worst case.

BROWN: And this is a pretty bad case. Your preparation is in really bad stuff, if you will. I mean, the prospects of chemical or biological attacks, I think, as much as anything terrifies people.

OBERNEYER: Yes, we do a lot of training with that, also with real chemical agents, for example.

BROWN: In the middle of this giant American base in the Kuwaiti desert, German soldiers have joined with the Americans and with Czechs; this despite the German government's opposition to an Iraqi war. Iraq has nothing to do with this. This is about terror, plain and simple. And so despite the political maneuverings and the diplomatic fuss, should Iraq attack with weapons of mass destruction, Germans will deal with it alongside of Americans. On this, the two countries agree.

OBERNEYER: We clearly divide these two things, from a German point of view, we divide it into, on the one hand, the operation of "Enduring Freedom," and on the other hand, the likely operation against Iraq. And from our point of view, that one doesn't belong to the operation "Enduring Freedom."

BROWN: As in most things dangerous in the military, it is young lieutenants that get the duty on the front lines. Lieutenant Gregor Schmitz would be a point man in the event of a real attack, chemical or nuclear.

GREGOR SCHMITZ, FIRST LIEUTENANT, GERMAN ARMY: Here we have a probe for radiation. And we can detect it with this probe from outside.

BROWN: Everyone here, the men and, yes, the women in this unit, train virtually every day.

CORNELL WILSON, BRIGADIER GENERAL, CONSEQUENCE MANAGEMENT: We just have to be nimble and lean forward in the fox hole to make sure we're prepared for whatever comes along.

BROWN: Lean forward in the fox hole, which is to say be ready all the time to move?

WILSON: Yes.

BROWN: If they're not in the desert putting their vehicles through their paces, they are fitting and refitting their protective suits. In these days of modern warfare, there will be soldiers on the front lines, as always, but there will be these men and women right behind. Different risks, to be sure, but hardly less dangerous.

What are they walking into, if it happens?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Aaron, you have these units out in the desert and so much of the focus is on them and on their maneuvers, and, yes, they are the front line as it were, but if the unthinkable happens, if weapons of mass destruction are employed in this theater, then this unit is on the front lines of hell.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: Coming up on FRONTLINE KUWAIT, a trip to the oil fields, fields devastated by the last Gulf War and the herculean job of fixing them.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BROWN: Here in Kuwait and around the world memories fade over 12 years. Some of you may not remember well just what the Iraqi soldiers did to Kuwait during their invasion and occupation. But if you're here, you can't miss it. Some of the damage remains, and in many of the public buildings there are pictures, a sickening reminder of the before and after, the senseless destruction caused by a rampaging, and eventually humiliated, Iraqi army.

In no place was the damage greater than in the oil fields of Kuwait. The worst fears of worldwide environmental disaster proved to be overblown, but the economic disaster was real.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN (voice-over): In the case of Kuwait, it really is all about the oil. Whether it's a drilling rig in the far north of the country, pipelines snaking across the desert, or a spigot turned loose in the south, oil is the lifeblood of Kuwait. Without it this tiny country would have nothing, no economy at all. It's what the Iraqis coveted and tried to steal a dozen years ago, and eventually what they tried to destroy as they fled. Where you see pipes and pumps, Kuwaitis see their heart and soul.

SARAH AKBAR, PETROLEUM ENGINEER, KUWAITI OIL CO.: Most fields were very special because, you know, before that, for ten years, I worked in those fields. So I know every well, and like people, every well has its own identity.

BROWN: Sarah Akbar is unique. She is the only woman to hold a senior position at the Kuwaiti Oil Company, and she was on the front lines, right there, fighting fires when Saddam Hussein's army blew up more than 700 wells at the end of the first Gulf War.

AKBAR: The wells looked like small candles, you know, just tiny little candles, and the Iraqis were actually blowing some more wells at the same time.

BROWN: This is where the Iraqis came in when they invaded. And when it was clear they were being humiliated and defeated, this is how they got out. But before they left a decade ago, they did enormous damage to the Kuwaiti oil industry.

For all the damage and destruction the invading Iraqis caused, for all the buildings they destroyed, all the things they stole and ransacked, it was their attempt to destroy the oil wells that has left the deepest scars. The fires raged for months.

You literally went well to well to well, to see how bad it was.

AKBAR: Eighty-five percent of everything on the ground was damaged. Almost 85 percent of the wells were on fire, because you have high pressure wells here. You have some gas wells, so the destruction here was enormous.

BROWN: Twelve years later you can still see it. This is what's left of what petroleum engineers call a gathering station in the Kuwaiti desert, essentially the spoke of a wheel where oil from dozens of different wells is delivered. And more than a decade after the fires were extinguished, engineers are still recovering oil spilled during the disaster. In a business where oil is measured in the millions of barrels, here they think of drips and drops.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Every day sometimes 300 barrels to a hundred barrels, it depends the specificity of the oil.

BROWN: In the financial sense Kuwait's oil industry is recovered. There are more wells pumping oil now, and exports remain robust at around 2 million barrels a day. On the border with Iraq where you can see the gas flares from the Iraqi oil wells just across the border, U.N. helicopters keep an eye on a fragile boundary.

But talk for a while with Sarah Akbar, and in short order you come to understand that putting out a fire, repairing a facility drilling a new well, salvaging another barrel, is not the same as healing a troubled soul.

A decade later, a decade, and two years, and it's still, whether it's the oil wells outside or something inside, it doesn't still feel normal.

AKBAR: No, it's not normal. And the people, even from a psychological point of view, I don't think we feel normal yet. It's going to take some time to try to -- for those wounds to heal completely.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: Still to come on FRONTLINE KUWAIT, we'll head into the desert for some R & R, the old-fashioned way.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BROWN: Finally from us here in Kuwait, imagine spending your precious two weeks' vacation stuck in a bone-dry desert with not much more to look at than the sand. Endless, endless vistas of sand. To the folks back home this probably sounds like some sort of hellish vacation movie with Chevy Chase bumbling around in the dunes. But to Kuwaitis, this is their version of paradise, and we are pleased to say that some of them asked us to come along, to see it, to experience it for ourselves.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN (voice-over): It is, at first glance at least, of another time. The barren landscape, which has an odd beauty of its own, dotted with tents large and small. In another time this is how the people of Kuwait lived, in these days, it's where they play. They come out here in this middle of nothingness, stake out their land, pitch their elaborate tents, set up their jungle gyms for their kids, and like light the water pipes for the adults, they come home.

ADNAN AL-JASER, KUWAITI JOURNALIST: Originally we are desert people and to come back to nature, it's one of the greatest things that could happen to you. It's really great.

BROWN: This is camping Kuwaiti style. We laughed when one man told us the best places are on the high ground. We saw no high ground. The Rockies, this is not.

(on camera): What is it about? Is this a connection to the past?

ABDULKEER NASSARY, KUWAITI RESIDENT: It's not like that. It's all things I feel better when I finish my walk. I come here because now this is not town, I don't hear voice, too much cars or any building. I don't see any building, so it's -- I feel better.

BROWN: Why not sit in the living room of your apartment or your house, have your friends over and do the same thing? Why, why not do that?

BADER AL-JASER, KUWAITI RESIDENT: Well, because it's still in the city, and you're in between four walls.

BROWN: The desert is huge. You could pick any place. What is it -- what makes one a good location?

ADNAN AL-JASER: Well, I think mostly we're looking for heights and greenery.

BROWN: Don't take offense, but I don't see much height or much greenery here.

ADNAN AL-JASER: Well, it's a relative issue, see.

BROWN (voice-over): To be sure, this is not exactly roughing it. It's more of a winnebago without wheels. Our lunch was catered from the city. There's a satellite dish for TV. We have to stay in touch, we were told. Portable generators provide the light, a foreign servant does the errands, and everyone has their cell phones.

But it is a lovely tradition in its own way, a place and time with fewer distractions, a time to talk about life's issues large and small. And there is none larger than the invasion a dozen years ago, that changed life here forever.

ADNAN AL-JASER: The sense of security at that time before the invasion was not something that you anxious about. Now it's a problem. You think about it a lot.

NASSARY: Iraqi people, they don't have any mercy or something like that. I'm afraid for war now, so from guns or from some -- because I see what the children, what happened with the children and women. It's -- it's changed me.

BROWN: The conversation turns toward today, the possibility of war with Iraq. And then it turns again, on a simple question.

You think that's the biggest problem in the world, the Iraq problem?

BADER AL-JASER: The Palestinian problem is the biggest one.

BROWN: You think the Palestinian problem could be solved if there is a state of Israel.

ADNAN AL-JASER: I don't think so, but the Palestinian thing still there. It is a reminder for us, that we were, one day, kind of slaves to other empires. And it's -- Israel became a proxy empire, in another sense, always going to remind us that we were, one day, under this kind of oppression.

BROWN: This is delicate stuff, the only time our host demurred. They did not want their visitor to think them harsh, and mostly they are not. Let's talk of something else, they said.

ABDULLAH RAHMAN, KUWAITI RESIDENT: I am living in Kuwait. My government is very good, and everybody in Kuwait and everybody -- all the people in Kuwait, live, Iraq and anywhere, we don't hate anybody. We want to live in peace.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: That's our look at FRONTLINE KUWAIT. Thanks for joining us.

We'll be back home Monday night, back in New York, 10 o'clock Eastern time for "NEWSNIGHT."

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