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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

Strike on Iraq: 7th Cavalry Moves Deep Into Iraq

Aired March 21, 2003 - 02:30   ET

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

(NEWSBREAK)
ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Well, as you -- as we were just showing you before, the 7th Cavalry is moving deep into Iraq, traveling fast through the desert.

We go to the 7th Cavalry live and our own Walt Rodgers. Walt, what's the latest?

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

The 7th Cavalry -- 3rd Squadron, 7th Cavalry of the U.S. Army has just about refinished its refueling stop. This maneuver is a called a ROM -- refuel on the move. It has taken a while, but there are many thirsty tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles out there and support vehicles, which have to be refueled. The Army's main battle tank, the M1A1 Abrams, can run about eight hours on a full tank of fuel and the Bradleys can go even longer. The helicopters have shorter refueling cycles. The Kiowas need to refuel about every three hours. And remember, all three of these vehicles move forward -- helicopters out in front first, followed by the Bradleys, followed by the main battle tanks.

But the refueling has just about concluded. This is, of course, a rather dangerous maneuver because the tanks are somewhat exposed and stationary, whereas mobility is the key to a cavalry success.

We do have a little additional detail on some of the hostile encounters that the 7th Cavalry found itself confronted with. As it was waiting to cross the border last night from Kuwait to Iraq, about to begin the push into southern Iraq, we were sitting in a long column and there was suddenly a big explosion off to the left. It has since been determined that that explosion was not incoming artillery. Rather, it was, according to one tank captain here, a tactical ballistic missile that the Iraqis fired at the tanks.

The -- we were given to believe that some of the tank commanders saw it -- the missile coming in low and flat in a very tight trajectory and didn't miss the tanks by too very much. Some estimates are that it fell as much as 10 kilometers, or six miles away, although I was just speaking with a Bradley fighting vehicle commander. He said it fell only two -- two kilometers away, which is about a mile and a half.

So the first encounter with the tactical missile by the 7th Cavalry was a little closer than any one would have liked. And further, as the unit pushed into Iraq, about two hours into Iraq, the thermal imaging on some of the helicopters noted that over the horizon there was a suspicious vehicle. Again, another hostile encounter. They believe that it was anti-aircraft vehicle of some sort, perhaps a heavy machine gun mounted on a pick-up truck. The tanks were scrambled, as were the Bradleys. They made contact with the vehicle, stood off and literally destroyed it in a matter of minutes and then rejoined the column and the push continued until this point out in the Kuwaiti desert where, as I say, most of the vehicles -- the Bradleys and the sport vehicles as well as the tanks in the 7th Cavalry have just been -- about been refueled and then the push will continue across the southern desert here -- Anderson.

COOPER: Walt, how does the push work? I -- I -- I understand from reading about this stuff that -- that -- that you are -- ahead are scout helicopters. Tell us just a little bit -- and as much as you can without giving anything away about -- how does the 7th Cavalry operate? What is standard operating procedure?

RODGERS: Well, the 7th Cavalry is what is considered the eyes and the ears of the 3rd Infantry Division of which it's a part. But the 3rd Infantry Division is a much larger unit, a heavy mechanized division following us considerably far back.

The mission of the Cavalry is to go in front of the infantry division and go out and probe, do conduct reconnaissance, conduct surveillance, try to locate possible Iraqi positions and take out those positions so that the larger force can come through unimpeded. It -- it's a very feisty, combative unit. Its mission is to bind the hostile forces before the hostile forces can find the U.S. Army, which is pushing toward Baghdad.

They are -- I wouldn't say spoiling for a fight, but what they do battle for is they battle for information. They battle for the intelligence which is necessary for a battle plan to unfold -- Anderson.

COOPER: And -- and the other necessary component, I imagine, is speed. I'm interested to know in the -- the -- the few exchanges that you've had thus far -- does your speed slow down or do you keep barreling ahead right through, even when you encounter resistance?

RODGERS: Unless there's a hostile force suspected to be in the area, they're moving very quickly. The main battle tank, the M1A1 Abrams, I've clocked at 84 miles an hour -- not on this day, in -- previous in bed with the 3rd Infantry Division -- excuse me -- 84 kilometers an hour. That's about 54 miles an hour. They are very, very fast. And, by the way, one of the interesting things about that tank is, the faster it goes the steadier its gun becomes and tends to become more accurate at higher speeds, according to the gunners with whom I've spoken aboard those tanks.

Now, the average speed that we've seen coming across the desert is between 30 or 40 miles an hour, and that varies on the contour of the desert as well, because some of this desert is pretty hard packed, almost like gravel, in which case the armored vehicles can move fairly quickly. At other times, the sand is deep and like pummus (ph) and the tanks don't bog down, but they don't tick up nearly as much speed as they would if it were a harder surface.

Again, we're traveling through an area which is literally desert. There are almost no encampments.

The only other human beings we've seen are three or four Bedouin encampments. Bedouins are Arab nomads who live out here and herd goats for a living. And they were just awed and dumbstruck as this huge armored force came rolling past them, kicking up big clouds of dust, but otherwise paying them no heed -- Anderson.

COOPER: So what sort of vehicles do you have with you? You've got the Abrams tank, you've got the Bradley fighting vehicle. Are you in one of those vehicles or are you in another kind of vehicle? And what is it like for the troops in those vehicles? What sort of -- I mean, how tight are the conditions? How tough have the last couple of hours been for them?

RODGERS: Well, CNN has its own vehicle which we are using this entire time. It's a second-hand Humvee, reconditioned by the brilliant engineers at CNN. They've got a satellite dish on the top and can make pictures fly through the air, a mystery I've never particularly understood.

On the tanks and the Bradley fighting vehicles you can always see that the four soldiers aboard the tank are crammed. Let me give you the configuration of the tank. The tank commander stands in the turret on the right. And he does not sit. He's riding the whole time unless he gets into a chemical/biological climate, in which case he has to close the hatch. The other person standing in the turret is called the loader. And the loader is actually like the watch. He keeps an eye off to the left and to the rear of the tank, unless, of course, the tank is engaged in a pitched battle, in which case he's down below loading the 120 millimeter shells into the turret.

Forward in the main battle tank is the driver. And that's a pretty good job because you get to lie down in two-thirds reclining position most of the time. Probably the most cramped quarters aboard the main battle tank would be for the gunner. And the gunner really has to be almost rigid because there's no flex room, no room to stretch your legs, anything like that.

Very similar conditions aboard the Bradley fighting vehicles. The reason being there they have a four or even a five-man crew when they travel in a cavalry unit like this. And it's even more crowded in there because each of the armored vehicles is carrying a seven-day supply of water and food and ammunition. So they are literally packed to the gills. And they have stacks and stacks of machine gun boxes around them, not to mention TOW anti-tank missiles packed into those things. So they are in extremely tight circumstances as well -- Anderson.

COOPER: We're watching, as you said, a refueling at this point. Is there ever a point where you get too far or the 7th Cavalry gets too far ahead of the units behind and have to slow down in order for the rear units to come up?

RODGERS: Yes and no. If you consider the rear unit, the 3rd Infantry Division, we are moving at times as much as 12 or 24 hours ahead of them. But this is such a powerful, self-contained unit, the 7th Cavalry, that that really isn't an issue, at least not in Iraqi battlefield. If, on the other hand, you are asking, do the tanks and do the Bradley fighting vehicles outrun their own supplies? The answer is yes, which is why we've been sitting in the desert for a while and have had to wait for the tank trucks. And these are huge tank trucks driving across the desert: a 5000 gallon and 2500 gallon tanks, bringing up the fuel.

One thing you might find interesting about the fuel is that the helicopters, the tanks, the Bradleys, the Humvees, all take the same fuel, that is JP8, jet petroleum 8. And so there you don't have to carry different kinds of fuel for different combat vehicles. Even the helicopters fly on the same fuel that the -- the same octane fuel -- the very same fuel that the tanks use -- Anderson.

COOPER: Yeah. Walt, I'm sure there are a couple of people right now in the 3rd Infantry who would like to have some words with me for calling them -- being troops in the rear. Obviously they are not rear echelon forces at this point. Looks like you're on the move again. Any -- I'm not going to ask you where you're headed, but is -- the people you're with, the troops you're with, are they clear on the mission immediately ahead of them?

RODGERS: Yes. And the interesting thing about this "embed" philosophy is of course that we've all been briefed on what our -- what the objectives of the 7th Cavalry are. I didn't mean to suggest that the 3rd Infantry Division was a rear echelon division. It's just that the cavalry is so far out front of everyone else because their mission is to scout far ahead of that larger unit, the division which follows. Because actually it's the 3rd Infantry Division which will be the one-two punch that really does the worst or the best or the most of the fighting when the serious contact begins with the Iraqi divisions around Baghdad -- Anderson.

COOPER: The 7th Cavalry, so they're completely self-contained. I mean, they have enough fuel to go for as long as necessary and helicopters as well?

RODGERS: Well, the tanks and the Bradley vehicles are entirely self-contained. They've got seven days worth of ammunition. They've got seven days worth of water and fuel on board. I was counting one tank had 120 bottles of water. There are liter-and-a-half bottles of water to take them through the next week, as it were. In terms of self-contained, they're always limited, of course, by the amount of fuel they burn. That's just a simple fact of commuting -- Anderson.

COOPER: Walt, you are certainly one of the most experienced reporters CNN has. You've been in a lot of conflicts. Have you ever seem anything like this? Have you ever had access like this?

RODGERS: We've never had -- well, you know, the Israelis weren't too bad. When they were tied down in south Lebanon, the Israelis gave the CNN bureau there -- my crew there, Mike Schwartz (ph) or Enuda Hemel (ph), my friends in the Jerusalem bureau, they would take us (ph) a plane to south Lebanon, the Israelis gave us pretty good access.

The problem, though -- the difference here, of course, is the technology, the technology has moved so far in advance, and the Army in this case, the Pentagon generally has given the embeds access to our own vehicles, which give us the capacity to literally broadcast live on the road. If we were, for example, to stand in any position for any period of time, we would be able to throw up a satellite dish and it would be just like local TV in the sense that here is you are standing in front of a tank and here you are on the road to Baghdad. And you would have very high resolution pictures.

That isn't possible with -- when we're on the move with 7th Cavalry. But when we get to any sort of standing position, if the cavalry ever stands, then indeed you would have an opportunity for broadcasting like you've never seen before. And indeed that's what we had even with the video phone last night. I was just amazed at what we were seeing, an army in real time rolling across the desert at 40 or 50 miles an hour en route to its objective -- or the first of several objectives.

By the way, this is all mapped out. That is, every one of these stops is on a grid, the refueling stop is on a grid. This is all predetermined well in advance. And you look at a map and the map has a template of a grid. And the refueling stations or the refueling stops are on the grid. And everything so far is proceeding exactly as a textbook exercise in classic cavalry maneuver -- Anderson.

COOPER: Walt, you've also been spending a lot of time with these troops, gotten to know them personally. How much of a sense of the larger picture do they have in their own minds? Often on a battlefield, information is extraordinarily limited for the troops involved. Often they don't know much more than what is straight ahead of them. Is that the case now or do they have a sense of where they fit into the overall picture?

RODGERS: I think it is, as you initially described it. These soldiers have one objective, and that's to get home. And they know that the only way they can get home is to achieve their mission. And their prescribed mission, according to the president of the United States and the Pentagon, is to force a regime change in Baghdad.

So starting in Kuwait the road home lies -- starting in Kuwait the road lies north to Baghdad. And when these soldiers achieve their mission, which is to get to Baghdad and force a regime change to end the rule of Saddam Hussein, then they get to go home. And I can assure you that if you had to ask any of them how they felt about being pitched into battle or pitched into war, they were all feeling excited last night. And the reason they were feeling excited was not so much because of any bloodlust, they just simply want to go home -- Anderson.

COSTELLO: Walter, this is Carol Costello. I want to jump in here to ask you more about the troops and how long it's been since they've seen their families. These men and women have been over there a long time.

RODGERS: That's true. I spoke with one of the medics traveling with us, a sergeant, an E5 in the medical corps from Puerto Rico. He told me he hasn't seen his wife and children in a year-and-a-half. Now that's the extreme case. Although some of the Air Force tactical units, which are traveling with us, some of those personnel came directly to the Iraqi theater from Afghanistan. So they've been away months and months.

Most of the soldiers in the 3rd Squadron 7th Cavalry have been here probably two-and-a-half to three months. Others, however, have been here since last September or October.

COSTELLO: And I know they've been traveling with heavy weaponry, of course, but we've also heard reports they're traveling with things like candy, in case they run into Iraqi children, wherever they're headed, if they, you know, overcome the city, there will be a lot of civilians there, and a lot of children there.

RODGERS: Well, if they have candy, it comes in the MRE's, that is the meals ready to eat, which are the old rations that the Army often travels with, and everybody's got their favorites. I can assure you that nobody is going to get -- none of the Iraqi children are going to get the M&Ms, but some of the lesser candy, the soldiers will be more than ready to give away. You always fight to see which packages of MRE's have the best candy in them. By the way, you were mentioning family, Carol. Many of these soldiers ride with pictures of their families, snapshots, posted up in these fighting vehicles or in their Humvees, or whatever vehicle they're in.

Home is never far from the minds of these soldiers. I recall almost in every conversation I've had with them, everyone of these soldiers talks about home. It's amazing how homebound Americans are as a people. One soldiers we noticed was writing a letter home, and many of these soldiers do, indeed, write letters home every single day to their wives and to their children.

COOPER: Walter, this is Anderson, I'm sorry to jump in, you can continue in a moment, just so you know, our viewers on the side, not only are they looking at your pictures on one side of the screen, on the right side of the screen; on the left side, they are looking at some British pool video from the BBC, I believe, British forces, and what we're about to see are some Iraqi troops apparently surrendering to these British forces. So, Walter, keep that in mind as you're talking, that's on the left side of the screen, just wanted to inform our viewers, but go ahead, Walt.

RODGERS: By contrast, I should tell you that the 3rd Squadron, 7th Cavalry has not encountered any soldiers wanting to surrender, principally because we're working in an area which is so parched that it virtually has no human life, with the exception of two or three bedouin encampments, which we have encountered earlier in the day. Bedouins, of course, live in the desert. They are nomadic Arab peoples, and they literally have a single culture, raising sheep and goats.

Having said that, however, we haven't seen any soldiers ready to surrender -- Carol, Anderson.

COSTELLO: We're taking a look at these dramatic pictures. We see these two Iraqi people with a white flag, and they're going to be prisoners of war. We don't know if they are part of the Iraqi military, but you can see what a frightening thing this is, as they approach British troops with a white flag. British troops have their guns drawn. Now they are making them lie on the floor, and of course, all of the troops, including American troops, trained to deal with people surrendering to the military.

COOPER: And these are some of the first pictures, Walt, that we're getting of Iraqi forces, clearly we're looking at a picture now of one or two or three men who look clearly to be Iraqi military of some sort. We don't know if they are regular army or some other units. It's in southern Iraq, so these pictures were taken in southern Iraq, so it's probably safe to assume that they are regular Iraqi army forces.

Walt, it looks like you've stopped again. Any sense of what that is for?

RODGERS: Yes, we're getting in line to get some petrol. I should say that the U.S. Army's procedure for prisoners of war is somewhat different. At this unit, the 7th Cavalry, travels with military police, and if it were to encounter a large group of Iraqi soldiers wanting to surrender, this would not impede the forward movement of the 7th Cavalry. The prisoners would merely be turned over to the MPs, military police, who are traveling with this unit. And as this army proceeds through southern Iraq, it is apt to encounter the most -- the greatest quantity of Iraqis willing to surrender. Remember, the southern Iraqis tend to be Shia Muslims. Saddam Hussein is a Sunni, and Saddam Hussein and his regime have treated the Shia Muslims in the southern Iraq extraordinarily poorly, shabbily, giving them nothing but the short end of the stick year after year.

So that is why that -- that is why that the British probably are encountering those Muslims wanting to surrender, the Iraqi army. We should also point out that the U.S. Army has briefed its people -- yes?

COSTELLO: Walter, I was just curious as to where they'll take the POWs, because if they get a lot of them, won't that complicate things for them?

RODGERS: No, because the Army takes that into account. And by the way, the Army, the U.S. Army has briefed all of its troops, to the lowliest soldiers, that the Iraqi people are not their enemies; the Iraqi people are a people who have been oppressed and murdered by a tyrannical leader -- I'm quoting one of the officers who briefed his soldiers last night. The American Army here knows that these Iraqis have had a very, very difficult time, and the briefing adds to the attitude conveyed on most of the American soldiers, is simply that the Iraqi people are going to probably welcome them with some exceptions, of course, but most of the American soldiers believe the Iraqis are going to welcome them into Iraq -- Carol, Anderson. COSTELLO: They're going to be held in captivity, though. I just wonder how they'll be treated through all of this.

RODGERS: Well, we won't know that, of course, until it happens, but again, the philosophy in the American Army, and we've had this impressed on us from the 7th Cavalry commander, Lieutenant Colonel Terry Farrell (ph), on down to his junior officers, is always the same -- the Iraqi people are not our enemies. We are -- the only fight we have is with the regime of Saddam Hussein, and the American people are saying -- the American Army is saying, we're coming to liberate the Iraqi people. This is an invasion aimed at liberating people who have been badly abused and oppressed by a rather venial leadership -- Carol, Anderson.

COOPER: We should also point out that at this point, so much of the U.S. concern is also what happens post-Saddam Hussein, and rebuilding, reconstructing Iraq along the more democratic lines, and as part of that, obviously, the Iraqi military is going to have to play some sort of a role in a future Iraq, so as much as it can be maintained without great loss of life, without destroying the infrastructure, I suppose that is all toward, part of the battle plan.

We've also been getting some reports, Walt, that U.S. forces will be instructing any Iraqi forces who are surrendering to stay in their positions, to stay -- and again, this is going to depend on the tactical situation, but in some cases, we are hearing reports that the instructions will go out, stay in your barracks, there is no place we're going to take you at this point, it's going to be too much of a hassle, it's going to slow us down. We want you to stay in your barracks. Those barracks will be protected by U.S. forces to stop against any sort of population hostility against those forces. So it's unclear at this point exactly how it's all going to be handled. We're going to be just really waiting and seeing in the coming days and weeks how that's handled, you know. We all remember those pictures so very well from the first Gulf War, those large numbers of troops -- and those are some of the pictures we're seeing now -- just a handful of troops, surrendering to British forces.

Walt Rodgers, I know you've got to go, you've got a lot of road ahead of you. We'll check back in you with shortly. Stay safe.

COSTELLO: Yes, we have to give him to our friends over at CNN International, because he's providing such amazing pictures for us.

COOPER: Yes, it's extraordinary. I mean, for anyone who's worked with the U.S. military in a combat situation, I mean, their level of access, when normally is afforded is so much more limited -- I worked with the special forces a little bit in Afghanistan, also in Haiti, and it's just -- it is extraordinary to see those pictures.

COSTELLO: And the weird thing about the pictures, it's not much is really happening in them. I mean, you see tanks in the desert and sometimes they're moving and sometimes they're not, but it's just so strange to see, and it is reality. You can't take your eyes off of those images. COOPER: Yes, it is mesmerizing in a way. I mean, it's -- you know, they are just pictures of vehicles driving through desert, but then you realize what is behind them, who is in those vehicles, what is their mission, where are they going, and the impact of it, I think, at least to me, as a viewer, comes through.

COSTELLO: OH, absolutely. And Walt Rodgers has been doing such a wonderful job.

COOPER: He has been.

COSTELLO: I mean, he has been out there for hours. And his photographer has been holding that camera literally for hours. And it's heavy. He's been holding it on his shoulders, bringing those images to you in the United States.

COOPER: Let's talk a little bit about 7th Cavalry, which Walt is the unit -- he's traveling with that unit. Their equipment, the M1A1 Abrams, and I think we have some ...

COSTELLO: Baseball cards.

COOPER: ... some graphics of...

(CROSSTALK)

COSTELLO: That's what we call them here, baseball cards.

(CROSSTALK)

COOPER: But I don't know if we have the one of the M1A1 Abrams available, but that is the main battle tank we're going to be putting that up on the screen.

COSTELLO: And it's a very modern battle tank. In fact, it can shield crews from nuclear, biological and chemical attacks. You may have heard Walt Rodgers says that very cramped quarters in there, and they travel about 35, 40 miles per hour. Also traveling with them are the Bradleys.

COOPER: That's right. We're looking right now at the graphic of the Abrams. Got a 120 mm cannon, three machine guns. Suffice to say, can do an awful lot of damage, as well as protecting the crew, as Carol said, from a nuclear, biological or chem attack.

Let's take a look at the Bradley, the Bradley Fighting Vehicle.

COSTELLO: And it looks a lot different, because you can see the guns mounted on the turrett, I guess, up there -- are quite different than the Abrams.

COOPER: That's right. They just got a 25-millimeter cannon machine guns as well as a TOW missile launcher. Same kind of cruising speed, abotu 35 miles an hour. The range about 300 miles. And we've been seeing with Walt, you know, all that refueling, constant refueling necessary. Also there are helicopters traveling with the 7th Cavalry -- I believe...

COSTELLO: Flying reconnaissance.

COOPER: Yes, flying reconnaissance ahead of sort of literally scouting ahead. There's a scout helicopter -- I think it's called the Kiowa -- K-I-O-W-A -- it's a cout helicopter -- travels ahead of U.S. forces as well as, of course, those Apaches which are just absolute killing machines from the sky.

COSTELLO: And they do that for obvious reasons.

We've got to wrap up this hour right now and you're going to bring us to date with headlines.

COOPER: Yes, let's take a look at what's happening "At This Hour" right now.

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