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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

Fierce Sandstorm Near Nasiriya

Aired March 25, 2003 - 04:26   ET

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

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: We're talking about sandstorms, and I mean major sandstorms. In fact, our Alessio Vinci is caught in one. He's with the 2nd Marine's 1st Battalion.
Alessio -- are you there?

ALESSIO VINCI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I'm here, Carol. And I can tell you we are quite in the middle of one of the nastiest sandstorms so far here, which is having the immediate effect, of course, to stop all fighting around the city of Nasiriya.

However, overnight the battle between U.S. Marines and Iraqi forces continued fiercely, at times reaching high intensity with helicopter gunships, heavy machine guns and mortars all being used at the same time.

The fighting was so intense, as a matter of fact, that a unit of U.S. Marines involved in that fight mistakenly took U.S. forces staged nearby as opposing forces, and we were actually embedded with those forces, and began shooting in our direction with 50mm caliber machine guns. One of the Marines in our area was wounded to his shoulder and was immediately evacuated. All of this happening right in the middle of the night, while other Marines frantically were trying to identify themselves by using chemical lights and special signs.

Now, U.S. commanders here in this region are attributing this stiff resistance in Nasiriya to paramilitary groups. They're saying that all but a few of the regular units of the Iraqi army at this point and in this area have been defeated or in any case largely downsized.

But they are telling us that the stiff resistance comes mainly by the so-called Saddam Fedayeen, which is a paramilitary group here in Iraq numbering about 30,000, according to U.S. military intelligence officers here. And they are of great concern to U.S. forces, because they're saying that one of the tactics of these Fedayeen's movement is to mingle amongst civilians. And therefore, U.S. Marines and the troops here trying to seek and destroy those forces are at the same time trying to avoid as much as possible civilian casualties. But if these Fedayeens mingle among civilians, the U.S. Marines say they have no choice but to shoot in that direction even though they're trying to minimize as much as possible civilian casualties.

We're also reporting that -- we've also been receiving reports that the U.S. forces have taken a number of prisoners of war, including some senior Iraqi officers. And just in the last few seconds, Carol, just to make matters even worse, it is now raining. Back to you.

COSTELLO: Oh, you're kidding. So a sand storm with rain, that seems odd. Alessio...

VINCI: I've never seen...

COSTELLO: Go ahead.

VINCI: I've never seen something like that, I'm telling you.

COSTELLO: Is that why we're getting you on the phone and not by videophone because of the weather?

VINCI: That is correct. It would be virtually impossible to use the videophone with this kind of weather, because the panel of the antennas that we need to open up in order to use that technology it would definitely fly away. You would need -- you know, the Marines there next to the antennas hold them still (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

COSTELLO: I just can't imagine how...

VINCI: They have a lot of jobs to do around here.

COSTELLO: I can't imagine how it is to fight in such conditions, and of course, the objective from your standpoint is they want to get control of those two bridges over the Euphrates River. And I'm not sure if coalition forces have control of that -- of those bridges. Can you tell us?

VINCI: Carol, I do have the answer to that question, but you know, it is an ongoing military operation, and we have been asked in one of the rules for us journalists embedded with the U.S. military is that we do not discuss the details of ongoing military operations.

COSTELLO: OK.

VINCI: So I can't answer the question.

COSTELLO: Say no more. I totally understand.

VINCI: All I can tell you is -- all I can tell you is that we are beginning to see some traffic coming through.

COSTELLO: OK, another question for you as it applies to the friendly fire you were speaking of. Of course, the weather is a factor. And what kind of measures are they taking to prevent that? Or can they take any measures?

VINCI: You know, there are a lot of forces in this area, and we are scattered -- and they are scattered, and we, the reporters, we've been scattered throughout pockets, if you want, especially near areas where the -- it is believed to be the high number of Iraqi soldiers and Iraqi paramilitary groups as well.

So the measures that you can take, of course, is by having some signals or having some special lights. The problem, of course -- and I noticed that last night when we were under fire by friendly and coalition forces -- was the fact that up until that moment, we were asked not to use any kind of lights. I mean, we couldn't even use the red lights. We could not use our computers. We could not do -- I couldn't even use by phone, because obviously the display of the phone makes a little bit of a gleam of light.

So we were really told to be in total darkness, not to give any position of where the Marines and us with them are now. The moment we started receiving incoming fire by U.S. forces, then of course the U.S. Marines started using their chemical lights and all kinds of signals that obviously not only signaled to the other U.S. forces where we were, but also gave the position to the Iraqi position.

And so far, of course, that is a problem. So it is, if you want, a problem, because if you can tell other forces where you are, then of course those who you are trying to fight also will find out where you are.

COSTELLO: I certainly understand that. Alessio Vinci, we're going to let you go, because I know you're just undergoing some horrible conditions right now.

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