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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

Strike on Iraq: U.S. 7th Cavalry Rolls Across S. Iraq, Largely Unopposed

Aired March 20, 2003 - 23:00   ET

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

WALTER RODGERS, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: These people live by herding sheep and goats. And in a second, if Charlie can pan to the right, you can see a herd of goats here.
This is just mind blowing to see these huge armored units - you'd better slow it down there, stopping guys - these huge armored units moving through Bedouin encampments. The 7th Cavalry's stopped now. And out on the horizon we can continue to see the helicopters.

There's one thing, Aaron, I need to tell you, which is very interesting. The actual launch hour for the 7th Cavalry was not supposed to be until about midnight tonight.

But the decision makers in the Pentagon apparently were so angry at the tactical ballistic missiles that the Iraqis fired across at the United States troops in northern Kuwait - so angry that the tactical missiles were fired into Kuwait, that the H hour, that is the launch hour, was moved ahead by 24 hours.

And we're -- or the 7th Cavalry, at least, is a full day-and-a- half ahead of schedule.

Out on the horizon you're seeing the Kiowa helicopters. And if you can see a small assortment of animals out there, those are probably Bedouin goats. The Bedouins live off those goats.

There's a small shelter there in the foreground, and the Bedouin family lives there. This is about the third Bedouin encampment we've passed. And they just appeared dumbstruck -- awestruck -- by this huge mechanized unit, which is rolling across the desert.

These people don't have automobiles. Often they move by camels. And all of a sudden, they're seeing camels like nothing they ever saw before with 120-millimeter guns sticking out -- Aaron.

AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: It's just - you've obviously stopped. And just give me a sense of what's happening.

The whole movement has stopped down? For any particular reason that you can discuss?

RODGERS: When they stop like this, it is usually because they sense a - they have an indication there's a hostile force in the area. Every time that we've stopped previously in an array like this, we have taken an incoming shell. And consequently, the 7th Cavalry has stopped. And they are in a high state of alert while the helicopters are out doing a zone reconnaissance out over the horizon.

I can see at least four helicopters in the air. And the helicopters, as I say, are conducting surveillance to make sure that the cavalry, which is paused now, the tanks which have stopped, do not have hostile forces on their flank.

So, what you're watching is the -- is additional reconnaissance out over the horizon by the Kiowa helicopters. And the tanks are stopping for a few seconds at this moment.

But I believe it's reconnaissance. And as I say, that we've stopped before - once at the berm, once at the border crossing and once further into southern Iraq -- we took incoming shells.

BROWN: You can see -- Walt, we can see very clearly here. I see two soldiers who have jumped out of one of the tanks. They're now walking on the opposite side, the side we can't see. But we saw that very clearly.

Again, these are live pictures. Certainly never before in history have reporters been able to provide our constituents, our viewers, with this kind of access, and do it in a way that does not compromise in any way, shape or form the security of those young men.

And all part of this complicated relationship that's developed between the Pentagon and a multitude of news organizations. Five hundred reporters are embedded with units across the theater right now -- some on ships, some with Marines, some with these Army units.

They have been living with them, some cases for several weeks. In some cases -- probably no case any less than a week. They have been living with them, sleeping with them.

These units are not expected to care for them, though bonding is bonding and trust is trust. And hopefully everybody trusts everybody at this point.

I know that any time we do anything like this there is always concern viewers have -- and understandably so -- that something will say either in an effort to get something quickly on the air, or accidentally.

Look how clear that shot is. They're stretching their legs for one thing, I would think, General.

GEN. WESLEY CLARK, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: I would think so.

BROWN: Yes. We understand their concern. At the same time, General, you'd slap my hand pretty good if we did anything wrong here. And so far, I haven't been slapped.

You're not concerned we're giving anything away here. CLARK: There's no landmark out there. There's no landmark at all. I mean, there's no way that if anyone were watching this, they'd know where this is.

As far as the Iraqis are concerned, this could have been filmed in the United States and we could just be playing it now to amuse the listening audience, the viewing - I mean, that's not true.

But there's no landmark here. There's no way this - in no way does this compromise the operation, except by the fact that we are announcing that we're inside Iraq.

BROWN: And the rules of -- without going through all the detail, at some point over the next days or weeks, we really ought to set it up so we could see the Bedouin goats out in the desert.

It's just -- it's, you know, we've been looking at these pictures for an hour and five minutes now. And they are no less dramatic, if you will, than they were when we first started.

There's a couple of things that did go on today that -- just stay on the picture. Let me catch viewers up a little bit.

For those of you who haven't had TVs on all day, or haven't had the radio on and don't know the events of the day, there was earlier today -- the Americans launched an air attack into Baghdad, a couple of locations.

We clearly saw earlier in the day one building, a building that we believe Tariq Aziz, the deputy prime minister, had an office in, that was hit. It was burning. This is now all -- it seems like a long time ago. It was this -- early this afternoon.

In Kuwait -- and Walt alluded to this -- the Iraqis threw a number of missiles, I think 12 by our count, from their side over. Most of them landed harmlessly in the desert. No incidents -- no casualties at all there. But that actually did take place.

Periodically through the day in Kuwait the air raid sirens would go off, up on -- close to the frontlines. Soldiers would grab their gas masks and put them on, for fear of a chemical attack. Those fears thankfully proved unfounded, but nobody's taking any chances.

Again, that's a Bedouin tent out in the middle of -- and when I say nowhere, I mean nowhere -- out in the middle of nowhere in the southern Iraqi desert in a herd -- or I guess it'd be a herd -- of goats.

So there were these missile exchanges, if you will. There also is about a 50-mile line on the Kuwaiti border where there was a very heavy artillery barrage that went on earlier today. That was part of the preparation of the battlefield.

And as that was going on, or shortly after that went on is probably more correct, the Marines made their move across the border. And we believe that those Marine units are part of the units that will make their way to Basra, which is a major city.

I think it's the second largest city ...

CLARK: It is.

BROWN: ... second largest city in Iraq. They will make their way there.

That is a very important marker in how this thing is going. Basra is a city mostly of Shias. It was a city of considerable violence after the first Gulf War. A rebellion -- an anti-Saddam rebellion.

And there is a strong belief that when Americans and British soldiers or Marines get there, whoever gets there first, that they will be warmly received. And that will be a great aid to the operation.

Again, this 7th Cavalry unit has stopped down. We see, and you see as clearly as we can, soldiers getting down, stretching, perhaps preparing, as Walt indicated. There may be some suspicion that there is, there are hostile forces nearby that will have to be tended to.

The helicopters, which you can't now see -- I think Walt said four helicopters associated with this unit are flying around doing the reconnaissance.

There's one, at least, one of the pilots, a female pilot. Just for those of you who think that bridge has not been crossed, it has been crossed a long time ago.

And they are at now a little bit after seven in the morning, 7:10 in the morning in Iraq, making their way -- just if we can lose the banner for a second or frame the shot a little differently, that would help -- making their way.

And that's where we've been for the last hour. Thank you. And these young men, there are four in each tank, and they are -- and Bradley fighting vehicles, as well.

And they are by and large young men -- 18, 19 years old. Probably a sergeant who's a bit older -- 26 or so -- in charge of each one of those. And a young captain, as well, who has responsibility for all that you see unfolding -- the tip of the spear.

They will make the first contact. Behind them will come the infantry -- Walt.

RODGERS: Yes, Aaron. We're watching the helicopters again flying that zone reconnaissance.

We've been traveling in this very broad pattern, a fan-like shape, for several hours now. And I would assume that we're -- one of the reasons we're stopping now is just to let the soldiers inside the tanks and the Bradley fighting vehicles stretch their legs. We do not appear to be under any immediate threat. And the reason we can say that is because everyone's outside the tank now, just stretching their legs and getting some air.

Those tanks are extraordinarily cramped inside. I was sitting in the gunner's seat, riding in a gunner's seat last week. And I don't see how they can survive in there.

You bounce around so much that you have to wear a helmet, or you're going to get your head smashed in with all the steel around you.

The drivers -- or, excuse me -- the commander of the tank and the loader have been standing for probably seven or eight hours now, standing in that turret going up. So a little pause on the rush to Baghdad is probably more than a little in order.

Again, we are seeing the soldiers from the 7th Cavalry outside their tanks now. Again, perhaps even opening their MREs, getting a little breakfast, given the hour here. It's about 12 past seven in the morning -- Aaron.

BROWN: Walter, just hang on. We're not going anywhere. We're not going away from you at all.

We want to take care of a little more reporting that we can do. There are -- essentially now, if you will, are a couple of stories in play.

There is this terrible helicopter accident where 12 British commandos died and four Americans died, the four American Marines. That happened earlier. And that's one story we're keeping track of.

Second story we're keeping track of is the land war unfolds in front us -- literally in front of us is -- are reports, rather, that U.S. intelligence officials believe now that Saddam Hussein, perhaps one or both of his sons, was still inside a south Baghdad compound when the air attack that started this whole thing 26.5 hours ago, when those missiles hit that compound.

David Ensor, who does national security reporting for us, has been doing national security reporting for us tonight. David, can you add to what we know?

DAVID ENSOR, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, you've been showing the public the work in progress that the military campaign in Iraq is.

The intelligence war is a work in progress, too, and just to take you inside it briefly.

There is a real debate going on between intelligence officials and administration officials over whether Saddam alive -- Saddam Hussein is still alive or not, or whether he was injured, perhaps.

George Tenet, the CIA director, at the time that he reported to the President that there was this possibly unique opportunity to hit the leadership of Iraq.

Apparently, sources are saying, he really did have evidence that was fairly convincing, that Saddam Hussein himself, and possibly his sons as well, might be in that compound, which was, of course, subsequently attacked heavily by the United States.

So, there is still a debate and a lot of work going on, a lot of intelligence analysis of evidence going on as to really what happened. Is Saddam Hussein still alive?

Those tapes were, of course, produced subsequently, showing Saddam Hussein talking to the Iraqi people on television.

And the question is, some are arguing that those tapes might have been made protectively -- numerous tapes, perhaps, for different scenarios, and one of them, the appropriate one, brought up and broadcast after Saddam might already be badly injured or dead.

There are others, however, who are analyzing the tapes carefully, saying that on balance they think they voice is his. The way he talks, that's Saddam.

And that the fact that he talked about morning prayers and talked about the attack around the time of morning prayers suggests that this was what the Iraqis said it was. It was a leader who had survived an attempt on his life and was still talking.

So, this is very much a debate and a work in progress. As far as we know, it's not clear yet whether Saddam is alive or dead. There are some argue on both sides of it, and they are trying to gather more intelligence as we speak -- Aaron.

BROWN: David, let me just ask a couple of quick questions and none of them, believe -- or particularly not the first one -- is in any sense to embarrass you.

Are you able to match the reporting at this point, because it gives us a second source, and then we can comfortably report this, that intelligence officials do in fact believe he was in that bunker, and perhaps his sons as well, at the time that they were hit by the cruise missiles?

ENSOR: I have spoken to a senior intelligence official who said that at the time that George Tenet went and talked to the President, there was quite convincing evidence ...

BROWN: OK.

ENSOR: ... that there were senior intelligence officials there -- that there were senior Iraqi officials there, very likely including -- very likely including Saddam, but not definitely, no.

BROWN: And when you talk about this debate that's going on -- is he alive, is he dead, was that him, was that a double, was it an old tape, were those his glasses? I mean, we have all, those of us who have been doing this, we have all been -- we've been talking about this for a day almost literally.

The debate centers around what? What are the things that one side argues that the other side disagrees with?

ENSOR: Well, as -- you mentioned some of them. I mean, there's the question of the very strong evidence that he was there, they believe. And yet this tape was fairly quickly produced. It may have been produced after the event. That's what the Iraqis say.

It does look like it is him, the initial voice analysis and so forth. There are, however, also some other checks that are being run, and there is, you know, some controversy, certainly within the CIA that I know of, about whether the tapes really are him, or whether there's a body double.

Some people talk about those glasses and say he's never worn glasses like that before. All sorts of questions being raised.

So, I don't know all of what's going on, you know, behind closed doors in the intelligence community. I just know that there is considerable debate and ferment about this issue. And obviously, it's an important one.

Although, there are also officials who are saying, look, he's increasingly irrelevant. He's now having to run for his life and hide.

BROWN: Yes.

ENSOR: He can't really deliver orders to anybody in a meaningful way. Increasingly, his sovereignty is slipping away from him.

So, although the U.S. obviously wants to get him, they're less worried about what he can do.

BROWN: Now, David, please don't -- so please stay with us here.

General Clark, two things. Do you think it -- do you think this -- this is so speculative, so we label it as such.

Is it possible that what this debate -- as this debate is going on, the importance of whether he is dead or alive explains in any way, shape or form the way the battle plan is unfolding?

CLARK: I think that's the best explanation that I can imagine for why the battle plan is unfolding the way it is.

If you were certain that Saddam were alive, if you were certain that he had iron grip on the command and control and that he wasn't leaving, then by this time you'd either said, OK. We've struck at him. He's tasted a little bit of cold steel. But the best thing to do is get this thing over with, finish this off. But if he's not, if you can spare Baghdad and the Iraqi people that destruction, think of the gains you've made in terms of your relations with the rest of the Arab world and world public opinion. And so -- and with minimal risk to your force.

Now, if you look at the defenses that came out of Baghdad and that we saw earlier, they didn't look very well organized. They weren't very cohesive.

And that's an indicator that something's loose there, because Baghdad was extremely well defended in 1991. And I've talked to many pilots who flew in Gulf War. And they were quite concerned whenever they went around Baghdad. We didn't see that. What we saw was scattered fire.

So, maybe there's something to this.

BROWN: Now, I feel like I've walked you into a small corner here, because I heard you say the other day -- I was surprised to hear you say it -- that getting Saddam is not nearly the same as getting Osama bin Laden.

CLARK: Sure.

BROWN: So, square what you just said to me with what you said the other night.

CLARK: Because the leader, or the head of state, is always a legitimate target, and you always want to take out the enemy's command and control. And in this case, you've got it.

But if you had overrun Iraq, you had taken Baghdad, you had destroyed the Republican Guards and taken the special security organization down, Saddam is irrelevant.

So what I was saying was, let's don't get fixated on the personage of Saddam Hussein. We're after him because he's in command.

And what's significant about this right now is that we knocked out the top command. It has -- or we may have. That's what the debate's about.

It's not that it's Saddam Hussein, you know, war criminal, cruel tyrant.

BROWN: Right.

CLARK: It's the fact that this is the top level command that's been holding the whole state together. Without all that apparatus under him, he was nothing.

He was not a cult figure like Osama bin Laden. Osama bin Laden could go from state to state and pick up support.

Saddam Hussein outside Iraq, without the special security organization, his East German trained guards, was nothing. But taking him out at the outset of a war, if we've done that, it's huge.

BROWN: And so, circling back again, the planners, the civilian and military planners want to see -- in a sense, want to see the Iraqis react. They want to know now if he is dead, if he is badly injured, if -- if, if, if.

How does that change the plan before they have to commit a massive air attack? And no matter how you slice it and dice it, no matter how smart the weapons are, one of the problems in a massive air attack is that there's going to be civilians casualties.

Not air -- I think, you know, if 99 percent of these bombs and missiles work perfectly, there's still one percent that do not, that hit something they ought not hit.

And that's one of the things that for the obvious humanitarian reasons and for a lot of good, important international political reasons, the U.S. government does not want civilian casualties in the Arab world. It's something they're trying to avoid for both of those reasons.

If you can avoid that, all to the better, and you save about $50 billion, too.

CLARK: That's exactly right. And, I mean, what you would think is going on behind the scenes in Iraq, if Saddam is really down and his sons are disabled, is the other Iraqi leaders are trying to take stock of the situation. Maybe we're in contact with them.

We've been e-mailing people all over. We just don't know what's happened.

BROWN: Is that -- we have literally been e-mailing people ...

CLARK: That's ...

BROWN: ... all over?

CLARK: ... what the news agencies are reporting.

BROWN: Well, ...

CLARK: I'm only a commentator here.

BROWN: ... do you believe everything you read?

CLARK: I believe a lot of it, because we're very good and we know a lot. And ...

BROWN: And we've been trying to get in contact with them and say, don't be stupid.

CLARK: We have. And maybe -- what if you got an e-mail back and the guy said, I don't know what's happening. I haven't gotten any orders.

We might then say to him, well, go ask. Find out who's in charge and come tell us.

BROWN: And they ...

CLARK: You may save your family this way.

BROWN: I swear, I mean, you think -- that's a pretty remarkable thing, isn't it?

CLARK: It's -- there are ...

BROWN: Does that sort of thing work? Could it work?

CLARK: It could. But this is highly speculative. We really don't know ...

BROWN: Yes.

CLARK: ... what's happening on this at all.

BROWN: Well, one thing we know, because you're looking at it -- all of us are looking at it -- the 7th Cavalry is in southern Iraq. They have paused, perhaps to stretch and rest, grab a bite to eat.

They have been working very hard, these young men and their helicopter pilots who travel with them. They had -- yesterday they moved to the front. Today they moved across the front.

As General Clark said a bit ago, they are almost certainly very, very tired. It is the fatigue that is mixed with the adrenalin of a moment.

They have been sitting in these loud and cramped vehicles -- some tanks, some Bradleys. And so they stop for a bit and stretch their legs. There's not rush, right?

CLARK: Well, they may have reached a phase line or something.

BROWN: Is that a planned stop?

CLARK: It probably is.

BROWN: OK.

CLARK: I mean, normally -- I mean, we are concerned about the welfare of the troops. But we wouldn't normally say, you guys need a pit stop right here, unless there was -- and this is the Cavalry tradition. You take care of the horse before the troops.

So, maybe you need to do a maintenance halt. Maybe they need to do refueling, or maybe you hit a phase line and you said, OK. You're now, you know, so many kilometers in front of the main body. Hold here until we get everything caught up.

BROWN: And in my brief military experience as a seaman, I wasn't aware that you officers were that concerned with our well-being, but I'll take your word for it. Walt Rodgers.

RODGERS: Hi, Aaron. One reason for this stop, and we're seeing it now, is that the Kiowa helicopters, the reconnaissance helicopters, are getting a drink of fuel -- JP8. That is jet petroleum eight.

One thing our viewers may find interesting is that the Army has uniform fuel for every single vehicle you see out here on the battlefield. That is to say, the helicopters use the same petroleum that the tanks use, that the Bradleys use, that all the support vehicles use.

That's one thing which makes this Army unit so efficient. And at this point, the helicopters, which have been out on reconnaissance, at least two of them are down being refueled.

At some point, of course, all of these vehicles will need to be refueled.

I don't think this unit, the 7th Cavalry, is all that concerned about getting too out -- too far out in front of the 3rd Infantry Division. We were told that at times we would be 12 to 24 hours out in front of them.

The object of the Cavalry unit is to slash forward as quickly as possible, grab the enemy by the nose, make an encounter and shake them until the rest of the infantry, that is the 3rd Infantry Division, which is a heavily mechanized infantry division, catches up.

And by the way, while those other two helicopters are being refueled, we have two more out on the horizon, again flying zone reconnaissance, protecting everyone in this huge array.

These tanks actually stretch for probably 10 miles across the plain in the southern Iraqi desert. Ten miles of tanks you're looking at, at least 300 meters between each of the tanks -- three football fields.

That, of course, is a defensive measure, because they are not all grouped together.

And just imagine what this battlefield is going to look like when the mighty 3rd Infantry Division, with its hundreds of tanks, comes roaring across behind us.

If they have the same kind of pictures of that as we've been able to show you of the 7th Cavalry -- and remember, the 7th Cavalry is a scouting unit -- then I would think maybe the Republican Guard up there might quake in their boots -- Aaron.

BROWN: Walt, I know I'm going to lose you for a little bit to our colleagues at CNN International. Before you get away, one quick question about the embedding procedures.

At some point, someone -- the captain, I gather -- might come to you and say, that's it. Stop. Correct? RODGERS: That's possible. But the Pentagon has been extraordinarily liberal with us in terms of the rules that they've given us. And their principal concern is that we do not do anything which really jeopardizes the unit, that is to say, the operation.

But it is amazing, utterly amazing, Aaron, what they have shown us, shared with us, allowed us to do. As a reporter, you're literally living with the people you're covering out here. We're sleeping on the ground at nights. We'll never see a sleeping bag again for days, I'm sure.

But for the last week-and-a-half, I've been embedded with Apache troop. I know these young soldiers by name. I know many where they're from.

And you build a rapport and a confidence. And they will tell you things that are just fascinating to hear.

We talk about the speed in which these soldiers are traveling across the plain. I'll tell you why they're going. They know that the only way they can get home is to get to Baghdad fast. And they want to get to Baghdad as quickly as possible so they can ultimately return to the United States.

Many of these soldiers have been over here two to four to six months. And they -- and if you think these tanks are moving fast, just remember. Every soldier aboard those tanks wants to go home, back to the United States. But they know the only road home leads to Baghdad -- Aaron.

BROWN: Well, and they are told that all the time. The road home goes through Baghdad.

Walt, I know you need to file briefly with CNN International, and we'll let you go do that.

While we do that, and perhaps we can hold these pictures during that time, I want to try something here and we'll see if this works.

Ryan Chilcote is with the 101st. He's at the top of your screen. In the middle of your screen is David Mattingly.

David is at the home of the -- States side -- at the home of the 101st. And so, essentially, the families of these young men who are out in the desert, and as Ryan reported a little earlier, preparing, strapping on their helmets and getting ready to go.

Their families can watch them do it. David, are they aware?

DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN NEWS, FORT CAMPBELL, KENTUCKY: Oh, yes, they're very aware, Aaron. They have been watching the television like you would not believe today.

Usually the post office here off base, this is one sign that we've seen, is that normally there was a line out the door -- a wait of almost an hour for people to mail packages overseas to their loved ones over there.

Today there was hardly any line at all while there was bombing going on in Baghdad. Everyone watching television, looking for their e-mails. They've all got phone trees.

They've all been keeping very close in touch with each other. Everyone trying to keep up to date with whatever little piece of information they can get out from where their soldiers are.

BROWN: All right. Let me try something and see if this works. Ryan, if you can ask your cameraman to pan over and take a look at some of those troops, and we'll at least give the folks back in Kentucky a look-see at their sons and daughters or husbands who are out there.

If you are watching us at -- it's Fort Campbell, isn't it, David?

MATTINGLY: That's right.

BROWN: Thank you.

MATTINGLY: There are 40,000 military dependents here. And by looking at those at those pictures, you're making a lot of people very happy tonight.

BROWN: Well, then, just stay on it for a second. Hopefully, that young man's family is watching, or someone who knows him is watching. Or just the fact that they see them looking ready to go. And in that case, smiling and ready to go.

What that might mean, what that must mean to a family back home. Certainly all of these families are worried, as we are. They worry in a much different way. Their stake is much higher.

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Largely Unopposed>


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