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Strike on Iraq: Invasion Force More than Third of Way to Baghdad

Aired March 21, 2003 - 19:00   ET


AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: And good evening again, everyone.
It's been an eventful day. I know many of you are just getting home from work, particularly here in the East, but also across the country as well.

It has been a day of extraordinary events, and from the U.S. point of view, as articulated by the secretary of defense, of extraordinary accomplishment.

Over the next couple of hours, we'll be joined by Wolf Blitzer, who is in Kuwait. Many aspects, many strains of this story, to work our way through. But we begin by getting you caught up on the highlights, the headlines, if you will, of this day, with CNN's Heidi Collins -- Heidi.



ANNOUNCER: Shock and awe.

GEORGE W. BUSH, U.S. PRESIDENT: We're making progress. We will stay on task until we've achieved our objective.

DONALD RUMSFELD, U.S. SECY. OF DEFENSE: We're watching something that is somewhat historical.

COLIN POWELL, U.S. SECY. OF STATE: It is now inevitable that there will be a change.

ANNOUNCER: Live from Baghdad, Kuwait, Washington, New York and other cities around the globe. The strategy, the results, the reaction in the streets and the sacrifice of war.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This really makes the war more personal this way.



BROWN: It's 3:00 A.M. on what can only be described as a harrowing, frightening night for the 5 million residents of Baghdad. It may look quiet in these pictures right now, but within the past half-hour, witnesses reporting new detonations on the outskirts of the city. Tonight in Baghdad, there is no such thing as peace.

Earlier, the city skyline was transformed by war, modern warfare. The opening phase of a massive bombing campaign on targets all across the country of Iraq. The ones we see best are, of course, the ones in Baghdad, where our cameras are.

The bombs continue to fall. U.S. ground forces continue to push farther into the country. So far, they have faced little resistance, but little is not the same as none. There have been American casualties.

As we said, if you're just getting home, you haven't seen these scenes before, we'll show you what went down from the sky, quite literally, what came down, rained down from the sky as it came down in just a few minutes.

Good evening again, everyone. It's good to be with you again for another long night of our special coverage of STRIKE ON IRAQ, LIVE FROM THE FRONTLINES. I'm Aaron Brown at the CNN Center in Atlanta.

We'll be joined over the next couple of hours, from Kuwait, by our friend and colleague, CNN's Wolf Blitzer. And Wolf, we'll start with you tonight. It's good to see you.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Thank you very much, Aaron.

The Pentagon is calling this A Day, the opening day of an aerial bombing campaign designed to shock and awe the Iraqi leadership.

It was just amazing. Before we go any further, we want to see -- we want our viewers to see what exactly happened almost exactly six hours ago, shortly after dark in this part of the world.





BLITZER: Hundreds of tomahawk cruise missiles and satellite- guided bombs, 2,000 pound bombs, hitting various targets in Baghdad.

Journalist May Ying Welsh heard the air raid sirens, climbed inside a truck for cover, and had a terrifying front row seat as the bombs fell. She's OK, fortunately. She's joining us now by phone.

May, thanks very much.

First of all, right now, what's happening in Baghdad, as far as you can tell? MAY YING WELSH, JOURNALIST: Well, it's very quite here right now, Wolf. There's absolutely nothing going on. I mean, perhaps about 20 minutes ago there was some bombing and some antiaircraft fire to the south -- I'm in the city center right now -- to the south and also to the east.

But since that time, there's really been nothing, nothing that I can see or hear. It might be going on further away, but we can't see it or hear it here.

BLITZER: Were the main targets today those government ministries, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, some of the presidential palaces -- are they near where you are right now?

WELSH: Yes. The Foreign Ministry is very close to where I am and I can see the smoke coming out of it.

BLITZER: Describe a little bit to our viewers around the world what it felt like to be in Baghdad as this A Day bombing campaign began.

WELSH: It was shocking and awesome. It was horrifying. I was actually on the roof of the building from which you took this footage when it happened, and it was so close that our entire building just shook.

And, I mean, to see something like that so close to you, and these explosions continuing, you really get the feeling that at any second it can happen to you, and you wonder also -- the impact is so huge, you wonder also if it can effect you just by being so close to it.

I was running away from it. I ran down the stairs.

At first -- at first I was very shocked by it, and then I was mesmerized, and I couldn't sort of take my eyes off of it, and then people started yelling at me, get down, get down. And that's when we all started running down the stairs.

But even once we were out on the street, away from the building, which we feared would be hit, it was still terrifying, because we could see the missiles going over our heads. We could see these explosions happening around. It just looked like they were going to blow up all of Baghdad. That's how it looked and that's how it felt.

So it was kind of -- it sort of felt like there was no place to hide.

BLITZER: May, it was at approximately 9:00 P.M. local time, Friday night, in Baghdad, at the end of the Muslim holy day, when this bombing campaign happened. What were people doing, average Iraqis? There are some 5 million who live in Baghdad. What were they doing at the time?

WELSH: Most Iraqis were staying in their homes. They are not even venturing out to the shelters. Some people have shelters within their homes and they're going downstairs to those. Some people have even dug shelters in their backyard, primitive shelters.

But people are a little bit afraid to go to some of the free- standing shelters. People are staying in their homes. That's what they're doing.

BLITZER: May Ying Welsh, thanks. Good -- thanks for joining us and fortunately you're OK. We appreciate it very much.

Aaron, back to you.

BROWN: Thanks. We might mention here that the familiar voice of Nic Robertson, who had been in Baghdad for us, won't be heard for a while. Nic and the entire CNN group was expelled -- excuse me. They're making their way out of the country today. No easy task, that, by the way. But we won't be hearing from Nic.

Jamie McIntyre, at the Pentagon. We have some news now to report from there -- Jamie.

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Aaron, we heard earlier that the commander of the Iraq 51st Division and his deputy had surrendered to U.S. forces as they approached Basra. This is the Iraqi division that is aligned down in the south essentially to provide defense of the southern border.

Now we're hearing that essentially the entire division has surrendered. This would be the most significant surrender so far, because up until now we'd only heard that there had been several hundred Iraqi troops surrendering in small groups here and there. This would be the first time an entire Iraqi division -- and while this division is not the best equipped, not the best trained, and has some low morale -- Saddam Hussein does not put his best forces along the perimeter of the country -- nevertheless, it is a regular army division that surrendered.

Now, an Iraqi division -- in the U.S. army a division might be anything from 18,000 to 20,000 troops. An Iraqi division is considerably smaller. It's hard to say exactly how many would have been in this division, but maybe 8,000 or 10,000 at the most. Probably some number less than that.

But nevertheless, it shows that the U.S. campaign to try to convince Iraqi troops to surrender is at least working to some degree in the south, where the troops are essentially not as well equipped and well trained and don't have as good morale -- Aaron.

BROWN: And as it turns out, not especially motivated.

What is the procedure now? Now all of the sudden the U.S. military has 8,000 enemy soldiers to deal with, to care for and feed and on some level control.

MCINTYRE: Well, first of all, I'm not sure that 8,000 is the right number. I think some number of people just sort of defect, they just sort of run away. So they don't necessarily turn themselves in. But what they're doing is, they take their weapons. They let the officers keep their sidearms if they want. They basically sort of tell them to stay in their barracks. They put U.S. troops around them. They don't treat them necessarily as prisoners of war in the big concentration camps. They basically isolate them. And as long as they don't seem to be threatening and if they still seem to have some respect for the authority of their officers, they sort of leave them there.

I'm not sure what's going on in this specific instance. It depends really a lot on the mood of the soldiers, what the commanders said, and just a sense of whether they present much of a threat.

The U.S. would like to try to avoid having to clothe, feed, provide medical attention for hundreds of thousands of prisoners, at least in the initial stages. As soon as they get control of the country, then they do plan to bring humanitarian aid in and take better care of people.

BROWN: I -- I'm sorry Jamie. Thank you. I know you'll be trying to figure out more about exactly the numbers in play, where they are, and what happens to them.

Thank you, Jamie McIntyre, at the Pentagon.

Ret. Gen. Wesley Clark is with us again this evening and will be throughout the evening.

Just one question on what just happened, and I'd like to go back to what happened six hours or so ago. This sort of thing is not unanticipated by the central command, this sort of surrendering of a large group.

GEN. WESLEY CLARK, U.S. ARMY (RET.): No, they're looking for it, and the more the better.

We're carrying 20 to 30 Iraqi divisions on the order of battle. So this is the first that we know of it, that a division commander has surrendered. So we've got lots more to go.

But we do have certain responsibilities under the Geneva Convention. We can't allow them to be, for example, massacred by the local Shiites, who might not like these troops. And we can't leave them in the barracks to starve. And we certainly don't want to setup a situation where the weapons that they turned in then get redistributed to other elements.

So we've got some responsibilities we cannot escape in this.

BROWN: So it's a welcome development, but it's not a development without some challenges, as it were.

CLARK: Big challenges.

BROWN: ...on its own. Now, back to earlier in the evening, 9:00 in the evening, in Baghdad, when it started to rain down. Was there anything as you saw it surprising about the time of the attack, the length of the attack, the way it played out?

CLARK: Not really. The attack came during a period of zero- elimination. It was delivered by a combination of cruise missiles and stealth aircraft. There was some Iraqi resistance to it. It hit military targets despite -- you can't quite tell in the pictures what it's hitting, but as you look at the aerial view, and we've been through that today, these were military targets in the palace. It wasn't a lot of collateral damage done. It's right on the money. It's exactly the way it should go.

BROWN: We're about three hours away from daybreak in Iraq, and obviously everyone is going to get a better sense of what happened once the sun comes up.

Wolf, why don't you weigh in in this conversation as well.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Aaron.

General, the chairman of the joint chiefs said he expects to see several hundred more of these air strikes within hours. We're only seeing a small piece of the action in Baghdad, and even in Baghdad a limited about of activity. But in Mosul and Kirkuk, elsewhere around the country, I assume similar kind of air strikes are unfolding right now.

CLARK: I would think they are, Wolf, because what we've got -- what the United States has to do here to be effective is to take out the Iraqi's command and control, their radar stations, their early reporting control nodes, the surface to air missile networks, their airfields, their repair facilities, all as rapidly as possible, so you deliver the maximum shock to the air defense and command and control system and eliminate any impediment to the U.S. use of the skies, and that's what the aim will be.

BROWN: One of the interesting -- one of the things I read that I found interesting is just talking about airfields for example, they'd like to take them out of commission without destroying them completely because they only will then have to be rebuilt again, and that's time consuming and difficult and all the rest. And that's part of the challenge of a commander who is designing a war plan, in terms of choice of weapons and the rest?

CLARK: That's right. The air staff does this. He's got an air component commander. He's got a complete battle staff that's planning this. They're located currently in Saudi Arabia. They were prepared to locate elsewhere, in Qatar.

And this is a science that's been practiced and worked over a lot now. For example, one of the things you want to do is you want to go after the aircraft shelters that are on the base rather than the runways, if you think you can. Of course, their countermove is to take things out of the shelters and disperse them. But here's where the Iraqis have an environmental problem. Unlike the Serbs, they don't have a lot of grass and tree cover and environmental protection. If they leave it out of the shelter, it's out there. So get the airplanes if you can, get the shelters, take things out of that, and then do minimum damage to the runways.

BROWN: Wolf, am I right that in the first Gulf War, the Iraqis pretty much tarped all of their aircraft somewhere over near the Iranian border?

BLITZER: Well, they flew about 100 of them over the border for safekeeping, and they're still in Iran right now. The Iranians have no intention of returning those aircraft, some of which the best that the Iraqi air force had. They thought that it was safer to move them to Iran than to keep them in Iraq where they were being destroyed one by one by one during the first Gulf War.

General, as you well know, going into this first night of the air campaign, A Day as it's being called, there was a lot of speculation that it would begin not only with this kind of massive bombing strike, but that the United States had some sort of secret microwave bomb that would take out all of the communications capabilities, electricity, the power grids of not only Baghdad but elsewhere.

We saw none of that. In fact, you're seeing the lights shining brightly in most of Baghdad right now. Were you surprised by that development?

CLARK: I wasn't sure, Wolf, that we actually had this weapon, but if we have this weapon, it wasn't clear that this would be the right time to use it, if we were still trying to communicate to the Iraqis, if we were still working psychological operations against them, and if we still wanted to protect the civilian infrastructure.

This might have been an inappropriate use of the weapon. If we've got it, maybe we want to save it until the decisive moment of the battle for Baghdad.

BROWN: Gen. Clark, you'll be around all evening long. We'll make you work pretty hard tonight.


BROWN: Thank you, Gen. Wesley Clark, the former Supreme NATO Commander, with us as we go.

These air attacks came from the sea, literally, from ships at sea, from submarines storing cruise missiles and from airbases in Kuwait.

We won't locate the airbase. We will tell you that Bob Franken is at one of them, imbedded with the group there, and Bob joins us now from Kuwait -- Bob.

BOB FRANKEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: A very large operation here, one of the primary airbases in the region that is close to the Iraq border, and it was put to extensive use tonight.

For several hours, there was the sound of streaming jets, just one after another, heading off to Iraq, heading throughout the country, spreading out to wreck havoc, to drop the bombs.

There were the fighter planes, there were the anti-tank planes, there was a variety of other planes that make up the contingent here. They were going throughout the night. It was quite a sight.

Right now, it's relatively quite. You can hear the noise, but for the moment, there are not planes taking off, although there are consistently ones and there will continue to be one.

As we heard just a moment ago, there are expected to be several hundred other air strikes before the first day of this is over.

Now, we don't have an exact number from this base, but it was quite large.

Now, at the same time, the tension continues at this base because of its proximity to the Iraq border. There have been any number of alerts here, people fearing that there was going to be a chemical attack and sounded the alarm. We talked about that, Aaron.

And even after these attacks were well underway, another alarm went off but it quickly went away, and thus far there have been none since that time.

Still the planes comes and go, and they're going to be going well into the night and well into the next several days -- Aaron.

BROWN: Thank you. Just -- there's about, what, two, three hours more of darkness there, to the extent that darkness matters in the decision making process -- we're a couple of hours still before dawn, right?

FRANKEN: That's right.

Now, the moon has been relatively full here, so it is not the optimum condition for the coalition forces. They like the cover of darkness because of all the stealth and all the technology that they have.

But nevertheless, they did put out full force tonight, even with the moon.

BROWN: Bob, thank you, Bob Franken, who is at an airbase in Kuwait, imbedded with the units there. We'll be hearing from a lot of our imbedded correspondents as the evening goes along.

Wolf, as Bob was talking, I noticed one of the supers on the screen, that that first attack lasted seven minutes. I can't imagine, if you're a resident of Baghdad, that that is not the longest seven minutes of your life.

BLITZER: It had to be terrifying for all those 5 million people, and many of the eye witnesses, the journalists who have been on the air talking about it, say it was just that thunderous sound. The earth felt like it was shaking, and I'm sure it was.

There were powerful, powerful bombs that were going off, trying to destroy those bunkers underneath those buildings, trying to go deep, deep down. Certainly they were hoping to capture Republican Guard leadership as well as the leadership of the Iraqi government.

Of course, many of them war planes that moved on Baghdad, other targets, inside Iraq, came from not only airbases on the ground but from aircraft carriers, three of which are in the Persian Gulf, two of which are in the eastern Mediterranean.

The USS Constellation is in the Persian Gulf. That's where we find CNN's Frank Buckley. He's joining us now, live -- Frank.

FRANK BUCKLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the flight operations are continuing here aboard the USS Constellation, but we can tell you that the first strike packages that went into Iraq have returned safely.

The evening began for those pilots, those Naval aviators going in on the first strikes, with the briefings. We sat in on the first one that was led by Mark Fox, Capt. Mark Fox, the CAG who is the commander of the air wing on this carrier.

We had tremendous access to hear what he had to say to the men that he would be leading into the vicinity of Baghdad.


CAPT. MARK FOX, U.S. AIR FORCE: WE successfully accomplished our mission. We did everything that we setout to do. Everybody is back safe and sound from the first wave. I've got another wave that's out, that's going, and another wave that's coming back right now. So we're in this -- we're about (UNINTELLIGIBLE).


BUCKLEY: And after the first strike, we talked to the CAG there, as you just saw. We also talked to other aviators who gave us a sense, a description, of what they -- what they were able to see and experience as they rolled into Baghdad.


LT. PAT CRONIN, U.S. NAVY: We came in and immediately could see what I am impacting in downtown Baghdad, and just continuous, constant explosions going off all over the place. We saw the AAA coming up, the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) missile bursts and then basically as the air package flew in, you could see missiles coming off our aircraft, other members of the package coming in, and just tremendous amount of activity on the ground, coming up through the air and, of course, coming down from us.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BUCKLEY: There's a lot of satisfaction expressed by the flight crews with their performance. They felt that their weapons fired properly. They were especially gratified of course that all of them, at least in the initial packages, returned safely.

As we say, flight operations are still underway.

Still, they know that the weapons that they do release are going down. They're causing a great deal of destruction, possibly death. These are human beings, and I asked one of the pilots about his personal feelings about it.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: On a personal level, I'd say you just tell yourself, for one thing, if it wasn't me that was doing it, it would be somebody else. I'm going to get in and do the job as best I can so nobody else has to go in and do it, either do it later, again, to clean up my mess, or, you know, fix something that I messed up, so.


BUCKLEY: One additional note, Wolf -- Rear Adm. Barry Costello, the Constellation battle group commander, tells us that all of the ships and submarines, all the U.S. navy warships, anyway, that were capable of firing tomahawks did indeed launch tomahawks. That's 30- plus ships in the Persian Gulf in the Red Sea -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Frank Buckley, aboard the USS Constellation.

We had head that almost 400 tomahawk cruise missiles were fired during those critical hours.

Today an Illinois family is dealing with one of the worst aspects of war, indeed the worst aspect, the loss of a loved one.

Pilot Capt. Ryan Beaupre died when his helicopter accidentally crashed about nine miles south of Umm Qasr killing eight British troops and four U.S. marines. The Sea Knight helicopter was part of the first marine expeditionary force from Camp Pendleton.

Beaupre's sister says the family was notified of his death this morning. She says he called her before his unit was sent out from Camp Pendleton.

Beaupre's family says he was a wonderful pilot who was doing his job -- Aaron.

BROWN: I just -- just stay on that, if you can go back to that face for a second, that young man, carrying out his difficult work.

As Frank Buckley was talking a couple of moments ago, we noticed some young sailors walking behind him, doing what people do when there's a camera in front of them, waving. I suspect around America today there were plenty of people who wanted to wave back.

These are -- this is tough work these men and women are engaged in. Tough and dangerous work.

Coming up in this half-hour, still, we have much to cover. And in many respects, many things we don't know because the story unfolds as we go. The war timeline, questions of how long the fighting might last, when the U.S. troops might go home. It seems awfully early in the game to be talking about coming home. There's a long road yet to go.

Around the world, protests still; more violent today. The outcry against the war spilling into countries around the world, particularly in Arab countries, but many here in the United States states also. And coming up in the next hour, Saddam Hussein, is he still alive? That is an incredibly complicated question for military analysts and intelligence analysts to deal with, an important one. We'll be dealing with that as well.

First we go to Heidi Collins to take a brief look at what is happening at this hour.



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