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CNN BREAKING NEWS

Basra Changes to 'Military Target'

Aired March 25, 2003 - 01:39   ET

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

AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: Christiane Amanpour has been working on a story. I think I might have said she was in Basra. She is not in Basra, but she has been working on a story about Basra. One of the things I know is you do not want to get in between Christiane and the story she is working on. And I believe we have her on the phone now.
Christiane -- are you there?

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Aaron.

The news today from the British commander here is that Basra has now changed to being a military target. This is a significant strategic change from the last week or so when we were being briefed that Basra and other urban areas are not military targets; that they just want to be able to go in, be welcomed in by the population and take in humanitarian aid.

Now, the reason for this shift around Basra is because, according to a military spokesman here, the elements of the Iraqi 51st Division, the army that was defending south of Basra, has now pulled back into the town. In other words, having been told all those several days that the certain commanders were surrendering and the army was melting away, in fact what the British have now concluded is that they are pulling back with tanks, artillery and infantry into the town, and thus trying to engage the British and coalition troops on their own terms in Basra.

So the objective reportedly still stays the same. They want Basra in order to put humanitarian aid in, but now they're going to presumably step up military activities in this urban area.

To that point, 10 hours of military engagement yesterday between British forces, the 7th Armored Brigade, and Iraqi forces on the outskirts of Basra, artillery engagement. We're told that there were no British casualties, and we don't know about Iraqi casualties.

But this has now changed the strategy around this southern urban area.

And also, there was an Iraqi counterattack last night further south down on the Faw peninsula, the Al Faw peninsula, which is the Iraqi oil terminal, which was one of the early objectives in this campaign. It is still being held by the British Royal Marines, the 3rd Commando Brigade. But a fairly significant Iraqi counterattack was launched into the Al Faw peninsula overnight, along with tanks and artillery.

We are told by a military spokesman that the British there called in close air support, and we are told that that air support took out some 20 Iraqi vehicles; amongst them T-55 tanks.

So that is the latest from our region. And we will watch to see how the developments pan out in Basra, because this is now going to be -- quote -- "a difficult and high-risk military operation," particularly since the British, and you've heard from other U.S. forces, they do not want to engage in urban fighting, mostly because they don't want to take their own casualties and they don't want to inflict civilian casualties on the other side.

But in this area that now changing because of what the Iraqis have done, and that seems to be to draw, potentially, British forces into that area -- Aaron.

BROWN: I believe you said at the very beginning that we're talking about the -- this is on the Iraqi side, the 51st. And if I remember this right going back almost -- General Clark is with me, Christiane -- going back to the very beginning, this was the group that we made -- well, we didn't make a big fuss out of it. And in fact and in truth and I think it's fair to say this, we cautioned about the importance of what was perceived as a surrender and how many people it was. But it turns out that it was something, as Christiane is reporting, indicates something quite different.

Calculated strategy -- General?

GEN. WESLEY CLARK, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Partially calculated would be my guess.

AMANPOUR: I would say that...

BROWN: Christiane -- go ahead.

AMANPOUR: I would say that this now is being considered, certainly by the British who are in charge of now this southeastern sector of Iraq, this is now being termed as calculated Iraqi strategy, because you know, at first, they did believe they were seeing surrenders. And then you heard that they believed Iraqi forces were -- quote -- "melting away."

But obviously what's happening, they say now, is that these forces are melting away into the urban areas, and this particular one we're talking about is into Basra in this location.

And not only are there Iraqi army units that have moved into that, but also what the British are terming irregular forces. In other words, what we've heard a lot about over the last 24 or so hours, the Saddam Fedayeens, the Baath Party militias, the kind of organs of the regime which have in the past been used to control internal dissent and potential uprising, these are now being also put in the urban population there.

And so this is now what appears to be a coordinated Iraqi strategy to try to shift the terms of the engagement to their terms and to use the coalition strategy to their advantage. And so far, the U.S. and British have basically told us that they don't want to get into urban fighting for two reasons: one, because it's difficult, and two, because they don't want to inflict casualties on the other side. The Iraqis know this, and they're trying to force a change in U.S. and U.K. strategy.

BROWN: Christiane, briefly, because the clock is ticking on us and we have to make a hit here, and the general will get to you, too, in a second, just the humanitarian conditions inside Basra, what do you know about those?

AMANPOUR: Well, we're being told obviously Basra from the beginning, we were told, was a primary objective for humanitarian aid insomuch as to put aid in, as well as to win the hearts and minds of the population. What we're being told is that they believe they have fairly adequate food supplies for several weeks, but it's the water that is the biggest concern. And over the last several days, water and electricity to a great extent has been cut off, and what Basra needs is not just pumping water but pumping the water purification systems as well.

So it's a fairly complicated process to get clean, usable drinking water into that place, and that's what they want to be able to do.

BROWN: Christiane, thank you very much. I know you'll continue to work on this.

General -- make a quick observation, but quick, please.

CLARK: According to tomorrow's newspapers, the general who surrendered the 51st Division has now gone inside Basra and is commanding it in combat against the British.

BROWN: Anderson Cooper and Carol Costello will continue the coverage on this story, which is obviously of enormous significance.

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