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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

Strike on Iraq: Ground Forces on the Move

Aired March 20, 2003 - 22:30   ET

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

AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: General, has this kind of warfare, obviously, the mechanics of it have changed. Have the strategies of tank warfare changed over time a lot?
GEN. WESLEY CLARK, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: They change with the quality of the equipment.

And so what we developed in the 1970s was the ability to actually fire on the move with the tank. Before that, the procedure was, you would halt the tank. We call it fire from a short halt. So, the first command of the tank was, driver, stop. And the tank would stop and then you'd fire. Now you maintain a smooth movement and the tank fires. It's all stabilized in there, the sight, the gun, and so forth. So that's the first thing.

The second thing is, with better command-and-control, you can bring your forces together much more smoothly and you can synchronize the air, the artillery, the ground maneuver in a way that they couldn't do in World War II.

BROWN: That's what I was thinking about, in World War II. There's that sort of -- anyone who loves to go to movies and has seen war movies over time, there is a sort of "Rommel in the Desert" quality to what we are seeing here. But you have to imagine the enormous difference it is. They couldn't talk to him then.

CLARK: They couldn't talk to him. And those tanks that you see in the corps racing across the desert, with the 37-millimeter guns of about one-third the size or one-fourth the size of this gun, accurate out to 600 meters -- this one is out to maybe 3,000 meters -- they would stop to shoot. This would move on.

They had no night sights. We've got night sights. We see as well at night as we do in the day with these tanks. It's an entirely different kind of battlefield today, thanks to technology and good training of these troops.

BROWN: Jamie McIntyre.

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN MILITARY AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Aaron, as I watch these remarkable pictures, the one thing that strikes me about what's going on here is that this really, clearly, shows that the ground war is well under way, far in advance of the air war, except for those very limited cruise missile strikes. I'd be curious to know, General Clark, what do you make of the fact that this really seems to go against sort of every convention of what we expected to happen, where there would be at least a simultaneous air and ground war, if not a air war and then a short period after that we'd see the ground war start. But here we see the tanks racing northward and the air war really hasn't started, at least not yet. What do you make of that?

CLARK: Well, I think it's obviously working so far. This is the enemy's security zone. And we wouldn't have expected much air defense out in this zone. We've been flying over for a long time and there's absolutely nothing doctrinally wrong. And, obviously, it's working here. It's moving ahead on the ground without having to wait for the airpower to pound this area. There's nothing to strike in this area.

Now, when we get up close to Baghdad, then there's a choice. You could do what we've said before, which is a simultaneous attack, try to take out his air defense at the same time you're moving forward. You could pause the ground force, allow the force to close up, catch up, in there, get back in battle formation, refit, rest a little bit, and then put the heavy airstrike in. Or you could actually use the ground force to attack at night and clean out the air defense in a way that would kind of open up a corridor for the air to come through.

So you've got a lost different plays when you have this kind of a force and this much superiority over the enemy's capabilities.

BROWN: What's to stop...

MCINTYRE: Do you...

BROWN: I'm sorry, Jamie. Go ahead and follow it up.

MCINTYRE: I'm just -- I'm curious. Do you think it was planned this way originally or do you think this is something that they've adapted now as they've taken a look at how things have unfolded, especially with those limited strikes first? Are they taking advantage of what they see on the ground?

CLARK: Hard to say, because, of course, none of us have seen the plan and wouldn't have wanted to. But we always believed that they would move quickly and simultaneously. So we didn't get the big heavy air operation. But the big heavy air operation wasn't going to have any impact on the movement in this area anyway.

They've gone ahead with this move. Something else is happening, of course, that we're not seeing over where Basra is. And Basra is the second largest city. We know the Brits and we know the Marines have moved in that area. We don't know exactly what is happening over in Basra. Presumably, they're in there trying to sort out the situation. It was a militarized area. Also, it was an area where there was tremendous fighting in 1991 after the Gulf War.

BROWN: Yes.

CLARK: When the Shiites tried to react. And so that's probably where the action is right now, in the sense of hand-to-hand engagement.

BROWN: And to the extent that any of us really knew the plan -- and I think all of us are wondering how much we really knew the plan -- Basra was a very important city in the plan to take, to take early. This population, the Shia population there, was considered most unfriendly to Saddam Hussein.

There was a sense that, if they could get to Basra they would be well received, if they could get there quickly and establish an important -- I'm going to use the wrong term -- beachhead there, but a location there from which operations could then move. I just -- look how clear -- I'm sorry. I don't mean to gee-whiz you all to death here. But just look how clear that picture is of that movement across the desert.

What is to stop the Iraqis from watching CNN and saying, look at those tanks coming. Let's send up some airplanes and take them out?

CLARK: Well, first of all, they are watching CNN.

And it must be incredibly demoralizing to them. We just blew through their security zone. And that was their doctrinal way of knowing where we were and slowing us down. That was the three or four tanks and the few trucks that were dispatched like that by this force. But when it comes to taking aircraft off, they don't know where this is. We don't know where this is and they don't know where it is.

And when those aircraft go to the airfield, we're watching those airfields. And we've got radars that are trained on those airfields. And when those aircraft start to lift off and go, they're dead. They're out. They'll never get there.

BROWN: And they don't have a lot of airplanes left. I suppose they don't want to lose them in this sort of situation.

CLARK: Well, it would be a total loss, because, if you did send aircraft up there, they'd never get this far.

BROWN: And just to put a period on that, it is hard, in many ways, to visualize, until you're out there -- we were out there a month ago -- the vastness and how barren this desert is. To say it stretches for as far as the eye can see is about the biggest understatement I've ever made in my life on television. It just -- it seems this endless sea of sand.

And so this is one small path being drawn in that vast sea of sand -- Walt.

WALTER RODGERS, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hello, Aaron.

We just passed a wonderful vignette, a huge bedouin tent, open- facing. We saw three, four, a family maybe of six or eight people in there. And all these tanks were rolling by them and they were just sitting there, dumbfounded, these Iraqi bedouin tribesmen and tribeswomen. And they were just shaking their heads as these clouds of dust and this huge modern mechanized armored unit is rolling past them.

We really need to give a plaudit at this point to our cameraman, Charles Miller (ph), who's bouncing on the hood of this Humvee and taking these magnificent and historic pictures for us. The camera -- the tank he is focusing on now is of Captain Clay Lyle originally of Tampa, Texas. Captain Lyle is the commander of Apache Troop. And Apache Troop is the unit in the 7th Cavalry which is leading the 7th Cavalry onward and forward in the race toward Baghdad -- Aaron.

BROWN: General, what are they feeling? You've been in situations like this. You were a young man not that long ago in a moment like this. Their hearts racing?

CLARK: Well, Captain Lyle is very proud of -- he's very proud of the troops and he's very proud to be in command.

He knows it's something that he's never going to do again, maybe, but it's something that -- he's wondered how he would do at this. He's feeling good about it. They got off. They did well. He's in communications. He's in control. He's anxious.

BROWN: As a captain, it's not likely that he was in the first Gulf War, correct?

CLARK: Probably not. We don't know how old he is. He's maybe 27, 28, something like that. And he's enormously proud. He's very concerned. He knows every one of these people in this unit by name. He knows their families. Many of them are married. And he wants to bring every one of them back safely. And he wants the mission done.

BROWN: And those 19-year-olds, 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds, are their hearts racing? Are they thinking about all those hours of training that have been going on probably up to and including yesterday, if not the day before yesterday, to get prepared for this moment? A little fear, a lot of adrenaline, the whole thing?

CLARK: I hope they're doing that. I really do. But you never know, because they're also probably pretty tired. This is probably the second night they've moved without rest. They were awake moving in an attack position last night. They got some shut-eye during the day probably yesterday. They started moving...

BROWN: That would be in the tank?

CLARK: In the tank, yes, no tent, no sleeping bag out on the ground probably, in their seats sleeping.

And it's confining. It's noisy. It's deadening inside that tank. They've got a helmet on. They're chattering with each other. The driver's not going to go to sleep. But you've got to have everybody alert as long as possible. And it takes a lot of discipline and a lot of training to keep that alertness up. I hope they're ready.

BROWN: Walt, did the captain -- before they moved out, rolled out, did he talk to them as a group? RODGERS: Indeed, he did, Aaron. Captain Lyle held a pep talk of sorts. And he spoke to each of his soldiers in the Apache Troop you now see rolling toward Iraq. He began by saying -- and I'm quoting Captain Lyle here -- "We're just doing what's right. This is a case of them, him, and us, them being the Iraqi people," Captain Lyle said, "him being Saddam Hussein, and us being the United States Army."

Captain Lyle went on to say: "The Iraqi people have been gassed and murdered by this tyrant. He has to be removed." He said, "We are marching, we are invading to liberate the people of Iraq." He said, "This is one of the greatest events the world has ever seen and we want the American people to see it" -- back to you, Aaron.

BROWN: And did they cheer? How did those young men react to that talk?

RODGERS: Well, they gave the cry, they gave the call of this unit, which is, of course, "Garry Owen." And the historic background on that -- and I won't try to sing it for you -- but "Garry Owen" was Custer's marching song. It has always been the 7th Cavalry's marching song.

And, of course, the original 7th Cavalry was formed at Fort Riley, Kansas, in 1866. And it later, of course, became the famous division, or famous cavalry unit which was wiped out by the Sioux and Cheyenne at the Little Big Horn. Times have changed since then, of course, but the 7th Cavalry now has a watch-word, which is "Garry Owen." And, of course, they have their Army cheer whenever they hear something they approve of. And the Army cheer which Captain Lyle was given was "Hoo-hah!" -- back to you, Aaron.

BROWN: The history of these units and all of that, cheers, is it all important, and what sense?

CLARK: It's really important in bringing a unit together. Bringing a lot of people from different backgrounds together, you want to meld them into a unit. They're all wearing the same uniform, you know. And so what is it that makes their team distinctive?

And they've got regimental histories. This is the 7th Cavalry. This is a certain squadron of the 7th Cavalry. There are different squadrons at various different divisions. But they're all part of the tradition of the 7th Cavalry Regiment, which has a great and proud tradition in the United States Army.

BROWN: These units are -- they are, in many respects, marvelous things to see. You've got a kid from Anniston, Alabama, and another kid from Brooklyn, New York, and somebody out from Arizona somewhere, someone out in Texas, and all over the country, and Alaska, and here and there and everywhere.

And one of the things that has to be done is to make them -- I'll use the word bond, to become a unit, a team. And all of the things that are done, the training that's done, the cheers, the gathering, to make them a family, if you will, because, when it goes down, that's when they have to be. CLARK: It can be hard, absolutely. You've got to have some good times to get ready for the bad times. And part of the good times is belonging to a unit that's got a great tradition, that you can be proud of and you can talk about and you can write home about. And you've got your own motto and your cheer. And when you do your sports, you might have a T-shirt with your crest on it and so forth.

BROWN: We ran a story the other night about a young Marine who was having a tough time. And it was a bit uncomfortable to watch. I mean, he was quite scared. And a number of viewers wrote in and said, you shouldn't have run that.

And it was interesting. What I liked about the story and still like about the story was not that it was a story about a scared young man, because there are lots of scared young men out there on the eve of war. That's human nature. It is how the rest of the unit still held on to him, still cared about him, still tried to get him through it. This was a young Marine.

And it was so noble, I thought, how they had not shunned him, despite the fact he really was, as I remember them saying in boot camp a long, long time ago, a real screw-up at that point. They were not going to leave him behind, in any sense of the term. And that's really what you're talking about.

CLARK: That's exactly right. We take care of the men and women in the United States armed forces. They belong to us. They belong to each other. We love them. We respect them. We develop them. We want them to be all they can be. And we're not going to let any of them fall behind, if we can do anything to prevent that.

And that's what's so great about the volunteer force, if I can say that, Aaron, because back in the draft force, we had great young men and women also in that force. But many of them, they didn't exactly -- some of them didn't want to be there. And...

BROWN: A lot of them didn't want to be there.

CLARK: A lot of them would say, I had a great experience because it was really tough and I watched a lot of people fall out. But in those days, if you wanted to fall out, we would have kept you in: Ah, he's not going to get out that easy.

Now, you have to want to stay in and you want to be part of that team. And so it's a very positive, constructive force. And when all the patriotism is done, what study after study in battlefields show is that the troops end up fighting for each other. They fight for the team. They fight for their self-respect. They fight for what they share with each other in that tank, that Bradley, in that infantry squad. That's what it's really all about.

BROWN: Just -- David, stay on this for a bit.

Just for people who have joined us just in the last, oh, 15, 20, 30 minutes, at least who were not with us at the top at 10:00 Eastern time, let me just get a couple of things in. This is the 7th Cavalry. These are live pictures. They are moving across southern Iraq. They had a little resistance when they came across. They've had none since. They are moving pretty quickly. And, ultimately, they will be heading to Baghdad. And they are the tip of the spear, to use the term.

As we report this and as we watch this, with some excitement certainly in our voices, we ought not forget that the headline of tonight is the worst of the sort of news we can possibly report, that a helicopter, Marine CH-46 helicopter, crashed in Kuwait tonight, 16 people on board, some of them American, some of them British. And we don't know precisely the breakdown yet. There was one report that it was 12 and four. But it may turn out to be some other number.

In any case, at some point, it doesn't matter whether it was 12 Americans or 11 and the rest were British. There are good young men who died in that helicopter accident. There's no evidence that there was any hostile fire that brought it down. It was an accident. These things have happened before. There was an accident not long ago, a week or so ago, that also claimed four lives, a similar sort of thing, but a smaller helicopter. This was a pretty good-sized helicopter that was carrying 16 young men.

We know, as General Clark pointed out a little bit ago, there is something. As you look at this narrow slice of the ground war -- and that's what you're seeing -- we know that the Marines have moved across. We've known that for some hours now.

And one of the questions, General, is, we haven't heard from -- there are correspondents embedded with the Marine units. And it is very possible that they have not been -- they are not able to file, tell us what they're doing. But we believe they are headed for Basra, right?

CLARK: We think they're headed in that direction, certainly. And what they're doing there and what they're going to do when they get there is unclear. We know there was a big artillery barrage that targeted -- I guess they were targeted on known Iraqi positions, some occupied, some unoccupied previously.

BROWN: OK, Jamie McIntyre, hang on one second. I know you have more on the helicopter. I was just handed a note. And just let me read it to you.

This is according to "The Washington Post." "U.S. intelligence officials believe Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, possibly accompanied by one or both of his powerful sons, was still inside the compound in southern Baghdad early yesterday when it was struck by a barrage of U.S. bombs and cruise missiles." This takes us back almost literally 24 hours ago. It was a little later when we started reporting what it was, the sense that it was Saddam Hussein.

But "The Washington Post," in a story by Walter Pincus and Bob Woodward and Dana Priest, are reporting that intelligence officials believe that he was in that bunker, perhaps with his two sons. And I think the story of his two sons is pretty well known by now, both powerful and dangerous people, that he was in that bunker. And it, I guess, again, brings up the question, did he survive, was it a double, and all of the other things. So we'll come back to that.

Jamie, I interrupted you. You were about to talk, add to the detail on this helicopter accident earlier tonight.

MCINTYRE: Yes.

I just wanted to clarify that we do -- we were being careful about what we said about the crew makeup, because there was some confusion. It has been sorted out now. And it turns out that this was an American helicopter, a U.S. Marine helicopter, with a crew of four U.S. Marines. And they were carrying a dozen British commandos, presumably to take them to a mission in Iraq, when the helicopter crashed about nine miles south of the Iraqi border.

So it turns out at this point, Great Britain, the United States' staunchest ally, has actually suffered the greatest number of casualties so far: 12 British commandos, four U.S. Marines killed in that accident.

BROWN: It'll be interesting to see how the British -- how this changes the mood in Britain. As most of you know, the British population, perhaps 25 percent supported the notion of sending British soldiers into this conflict.

And now they will deal with the worst kind of news, that some of their young men have died. And they will -- because this is what always happens in moments like this, certainly in the early moments like this -- we would presume they will rally around their soldiers, if not their prime minister, but perhaps their prime minister, too.

MCINTYRE: Can I say something about these pictures that we're seeing?

BROWN: Yes.

MCINTYRE: There was a great bit of angst at the Pentagon about whether it was such a good idea to allow reporters to actually accompany units into combat, a lot of debate back and forth. Of course, the reporters have been whining for years that the Pentagon doesn't allow adequate access.

And then the military has always said that having reporters along would complicate the mission, would distract commanders. They'd be worried about protecting the reporters. Logistically, it wouldn't work. It would be hard to file. So it's very interesting to see how this is working. Now, of course, this is the very early stages.

Walter Rodgers did encounter -- they did encounter some opposition. He even, I think, had a shell go off near him. So he's certainly in the thick of combat. But they could be heading for a real firefight at some point. And it will be very interesting to see how that turns out and how it all works.

The other thing, of course, that strikes me is, we're interested in these pictures and the Pentagon is interested. And, of course, everybody watching is interested. But how about the families of all of these soldiers in the 7th Cavalry who are sitting at home now, watching their loved ones as they're actually engaged in combat? This is just really unprecedented, that they could be watching live on the battlefield as their loved ones, their family members, race across the desert of Iraq for what may be a potential confrontation.

BROWN: Well, we share with them, with those families, if they are watching -- and how fast must their hearts be beating, those moms and dads and brothers and sisters right now?

MCINTYRE: I can't imagine anybody who has a relative in this unit not calling a friend or a family and saying, look, they're on CNN. I can't imagine they wouldn't be glued to the television at this point, if you had a personal stake in what's going on here.

BROWN: It's a remarkable thing. Our hearts are with all those families tonight.

One of the things, it seems to me, about being able to show this sort of thing live is that it brings the reality of what is going on into much sharper focus. And we're not embarrassed to say that we worry about the well-being of those people out there, those young men out there. They are at the earliest and best stages of their lives. So much is fun when you're 19 years old. And they're about to deal with some of the ugliest things that humans do. We hope that they all come back safe and sound and soon, and very soon.

I wonder. Ryan Chilcote is with the 101st, if my memory serves me right. He's one of our embedded reporters out there. They're preparing to go to work, if you will. This is another one of the great and legendary units.

Ryan, can you hear me?

RYAN CHILCOTE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, Aaron.

I'm with the 101st Airborne right now at an assembly area. The 101st moved out of its camp. It's now at this assembly area, basically, in a posture ready, should they get the call to go to war, to move into Iraq.

Now, we're going to take the camera off me and show what you they're working on right now, before that happens. What you see in front of you is, well, it's about 7:00 in the morning here in the Kuwaiti desert. Soldiers waking up. They slept in these sleeping holes. They're digging them. This is a defensive mechanism to protect them from any kind of incoming fire. Also, hopefully, you can see some of the 5-ton trucks. That's what these soldiers have been moving around in.

Each 5-ton truck takes 18 soldiers, two squads of soldiers in each truck, so, a lot of attention paid to where they put everything, because that's a lot of people, a lot of effort right now being paid to where to put all the backpacks, water, and food. Soldiers are pretty much up now, been getting up over the last hour.

Pretty interesting, though, pretty -- I don't know how well you can see this picture, Aaron. Can you see this?

BROWN: Oh, we see it very, very well. We could hardly see it more clearly: helmets scrapped on, a little milling around.

General, when you look at a...

CHILCOTE: This is the 187th Infantry...

BROWN: I'm sorry. Go ahead.

CHILCOTE: Sorry. This is -- this is the 187th Infantry Regiment, also known as the 3rd Brigade, that you're seeing right now, 3rd Brigade of the 101st Airborne.

Most of these soldiers that you're seeing actually just finished a tour, a six-month tour of duty in Afghanistan and returned home to the states about seven months ago. So they have been on the road, so to speak, not at all green when it comes to desert warfare. These guys know what they're doing.

But that's the scene here at the assembly area in the Kuwaiti desert, 101st Airborne still here in Kuwait in a posture now awaiting word. Should they get the word, they are now prepared to move into Iraq -- Aaron.

BROWN: And do they -- you want to jump in?

CLARK: I do, because you were going to ask me what do I think about when I see those troops?

BROWN: Yes, of course.

CLARK: Look, those troops look great.

Now, I'm looking at the troops. They're all in uniform. They've got their gear. They've got their stuff together. They're working on load plans. You look at those men. They're physically fit. They're ready. That's a great Army. You can take one look at that and feel that.

BROWN: Just hang on one second.

Ryan, ask your cameraman just to pan over again off you and onto the troops for a second.

General, go ahead.

CLARK: Look at those troops, Aaron. And they've got their gas masks on. They've got their helmets on.

See, now, these guys are walking around there. They're loading. There's a guy finishing up shaving there. But he's got his gas mask on. He's ready. They've got their flak jackets on. These guys are -- they're well-disciplined. They're well-trained. If they had to move in five seconds, they could do it. Look at the bags packed on the side of that truck. They know what they're doing. That's a disciplined, capable outfit.

And when you look at the faces of the troops and you look at the physical fitness that's there, these are men who mean business.

BROWN: That little apparatus on the top of the helmet is a nightscope?

CLARK: Yes, that's a device to hold the night-vision goggles. And it flips down, so they can put it in front of them and in front of their eye and see with it. The chin straps are down, fastened.

And compare that to the pictures that you remember from our days in Vietnam. Remember those guys, with the ragged T-shirts and the helmets off and -- this is a different Army today.

BROWN: And, just briefly, do you think a lot of that has to do with that it is a volunteer Army?

CLARK: A lot of it has to do with the volunteer Army.

A lot of it has to do with the fact that, in the last 30 years, we really have learned to develop the men and women who serve in the United States armed forces. They are given professional development.

BROWN: Lessons from Vietnam?

CLARK: Absolutely. You can't be a sergeant without going to school. You can't get your next stripe without going to another school. You don't get a second stripe without going to another school. You're constantly being challenged and developed.

And you take those lessons and you're trained and you bring them back and bring young people up. It's a tremendous organization that's been built.

BROWN: I always learn -- when you and I talk strategy, I learn something. But what I've always especially appreciated is, we'll look at the same picture sometimes, General, and how you see it and what you see in it, through a soldier's eye, that the rest of us quite honestly would not see.

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