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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

Iraqi Army Units Blend Into Basra

Aired March 25, 2003 - 02:30   ET

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

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: A check on what's happening at this hour. Basra has become a military target for coalition forces. Our Christiane Amanpour reported just a little while ago that Iraqi forces have pulled their tanks and their artillery back into the city. Iraqi army units and irregular forces are blending into the city, blending into the civilian population in a possible move to try to draw coalition forces into street-to-street urban warfare.
The Pentagon released the names of two American pilots whose Apache helicopter went down near Karbala. David Williams and Ronald Young were taken prisoner by the Iraqi military. The downed Apache has since been destroyed by a U.S. military air strike. Five other U.S. soldiers also remain in Iraqi custody. They were part of a maintenance convoy that was ambushed near Nasiriya. General Tommy Franks says he is sure the Red Cross will be allowed to visit the POWs very soon.

Well, U.S. Marines encountered more fire today from Iraqi forces around the city of Nasiriya in southern Iraq. Now, most of the fighting has been over the control of bridges over the Euphrates River. These pictures are from Al Arabiya.

Our Art Harris, who is embedded with the Marines, reports that tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles are at every intersection. He says he saw seven Marine vehicles that were lost. He reports there has been constant fire coming at the Marines from all directions.

Coalition aircraft are shifting their focus from strategic bombing to close air cover for troops. But our Ben Wedeman reports from northern Iraq that coalition bombs are pounding targets in and around Mosul. It is the fourth straight night Mosul has been hit.

President Bush released the White House's first estimate of the cost of war with Iraq. The president is asking for $75 billion, and that is based on an estimate that the conflict will last about 30 days. Now, officials say it may be the first of several funding requests.

And that is the headlines for now. Now back to our continuing coverage of the war in Iraq.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: OK, we've talked about what's happening in southern Iraq. Now we want to take you to the mountains of northern Iraq. Kevin Sites is in Chamchamal. And you have heard bombings, too. Tell us about that, Kevin. Bring us up to date.

KEVIN SITES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Carol. It was all quiet this morning until about an hour ago, and then we heard three major explosions rocking behind us. We couldn't actually see any flashes. It's quite overcast here. But there were three very powerful explosions, and we can only hypothesize that they were bombing attacks against Kirkuk or the El Mufana (ph) Division, which is an Iraqi division between us and Kirkuk.

Again, as you mentioned, we're in Chamchamal, which is basically about 40 kilometers from Kirkuk. And a lot of people feel that this will be one of the roads that coalition forces or Peshmerga, the Kurdish fighters, take on their road into Kirkuk, that strategically important city with so many oil wells.

I'm going to take you back a little chronologically. Last night, Ben Wedeman was reporting there were major bombing attacks in Mosul. We heard about five or six major explosions here, followed by white flashes. Again, it was rainy and overcast, and the fact that we could see these flashes from 40 kilometers away must have meant it was pretty powerful bombing in Kirkuk. Again, possibly softening up Iraqi defenses in that city to -- to preclude -- or to go ahead of a possible coalition attack.

Now, also in our position, ironically enough, we had been in a border sentry post just a day or so ago, and we had felt like we were fairly close to Iraqi lines. Well, our Peshmerga sources here, the people who've been taking care of us, felt that we were not in a safe position. They moved us a little closer to the front lines, however. Now we're just about a kilometer away. I'm going to let our photographer, Bill Skinner (ph), go ahead and push in, just to show you how close we are.

Yesterday on this position -- this is a lightly fortified position. There are some Dushka (ph) heavy machine guns up there, maybe a couple of dozen Iraqi troops. And yesterday about 10:00 AM, our Peshmerga sources say that they heard six to eight bomb explosions on this hilltop right behind us, and in fact, saw the explosions, as well. We were on the road to Suleimaniyah (ph), at the time, and we did not see them. But they say through their binoculars, they could see Iraqi soldiers bringing down their wounded from the hilltop, away from the attack to safety below. When we arrived here about 45 minutes later, they were back on the hilltop, walking around very nonchalantly, like nothing had happened. So the position is still defended.

What's going to happen here, we're not quite sure. But again, this was the first real attack on this position and could be the beginning of an attack to push back these defenses towards Kirkuk for a possible attack.

Now, a lot of people have talked about the opening up of a northern front here. At this point, it may seem a bit premature. There is an air war going on here, obviously, but there doesn't seem to be a lot of U.S. troops here. Ben Wedeman and Brent Sadler have talked about the Marine general that came into northern Iraq yesterday at their position and talked about the liaison activities and the cooperation with the Peshmerga. But again, these are smaller forces, at this point. We're not sure. We haven't seen any heavy equipment or really any U.S. soldiers here yet, either -- Carol.

COSTELLO: I heard Ben Wedeman report earlier, Kevin, that there were about 140,000 Iraqi troops somewhere over those hills that you showed us a short time ago, and they're split into three divisions. Is that your understanding?

SITES: Well, my understanding from our sources here on the ground is that there is at least one division between us and Kirkuk right here. We're east of Kirkuk, and there's a division called the El Mufana division, which is a large Iraqi division. It possibly may be mechanized. We're not sure of that. Our sources say that they are in the -- in the region just behind the mountains from us. Some of the bombing that we've heard this morning seemed to be basically southwest of our location, which would be around that -- where that division is supposed to be.

Now, there's also another military compound northwest of Kirkuk called the Al Halid (ph) military compound. On the first night of bombing, that compound, according to sources here who had called family members in Kirkuk, had been hit fairly hard. There's an air base there. There's a munitions dump there, as well as the Iraqi 1st Legion. So the city is quite well protected, as far as numbers of forces are concerned, a division up to the northwest and to the southeast, as far as we know right here. Ben and Brent would know better about additional forces in their region, as well -- Carol.

COSTELLO: Good enough. Kevin Sites, reporting from the mountains of northern Iraq, from Chamchamal. Thanks very much.

COOPER: Well, back here at home, the Bush administration is sending Congress the bill for the war in Iraq, as we told you just a little while ago. But some Democrats say the White House is low- balling, frankly. Let's go to CNN's Dana Bash in Washington -- Dana.

DANA BASH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Anderson, the whole issue of how much this war will cost has been quite a controversial one here in Washington over the past few weeks and months. The -- some Democrats have been saying that the White House has, as you said, kept them in the dark about how much this is going to cost, and it's -- it's been very difficult for members of Congress, they say, because they've been debating a budget for next year that doesn't include any money for the cost of this war. So the administration, a senior official briefing reporters tonight, did say that the president tomorrow, or later today, I should say, will go to the Pentagon and formally unveil his proposal, his request to pay for this war.

Now, let's look at some of the numbers. The total bill that the president will ask for is $74.7 billion. Now, included in that is $63 billion for the prosecution of the war. And a senior official says that is anticipating six months of operations in Iraq. In addition, $8 billion they will ask for for international operations relief. That includes also money for countries that are helping the U.S. in the war effort. And it also includes, outside of the money to pay for the war directly, $4 billion for homeland security.

Now, Democratic lawmakers who were involved in a bipartisan briefing by the president himself at the White House today said that they believe that this is really just the beginning, this is just the tip of the iceberg of what it will cost. And they also said that this is something that the president is asking for without giving very many specifics. And they said that just, at this point, they're not -- that isn't going to fly.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. ROBERT BYRD (D), WEST VIRGINIA: So we come now to the time when we will begin hearings and we will need to know the facts, but at the same time, we have the responsibility to the American people and to the taxpayers to know what we're doing and not just to turn this money over to the administration, as it were, with a blank check.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BASH: Now, the administration, for its part, says that they have not been able to ask for this money until the war actually began, till they got a better sense of what the situation would be like on the ground and what they're really dealing with here. But they do hope that the -- that Congress will pass this bill by April 11th.

And Anderson, just to kind of give you a contrast here -- a senior administration official said earlier that the cost of war in 1991, in the first Persian Gulf war, was about $80 billion, but only $9 billion of that was footed by the U.S. taxpayer because most of it at that time was paid by coalition -- other countries who were a part of the coalition. But this time, almost all of the bill will be footed by the United States and U.S. taxpayers.

COOPER: Interesting. Then I want to talk to you about this discussion President Bush apparently had with Russian president Putin. But before I do, I just want to ask you -- is there going to be a formal announcement of this -- this request by President Bush? And if so, do you know when and where?

BASH: Yes. Yes. Later today, the president will go to the Pentagon for an even there. He is sort of raising his profile a little bit this week. He's going to have events, we think, almost every day, public events. But later today, he will go to the Pentagon and formally request this money, and he will be surrounded by men and women of the military there.

COOPER: OK. Now, there's been a lot of coverage of this over the last several hours or so. Let's talk a little bit about it. President Bush on the phone with Russian president Vladimir Putin. What did he say?

BASH: Well, it was apparently sort of a tough phone call. President Bush, as you said, did call Vladimir Putin earlier -- or Monday morning, I should say, and he said he was very concerned about reports that the Russians have been -- Russian private companies, perhaps, have been selling military equipment to Iraq that could potentially hurt U.S. soldiers who are in Iraq. And that equipment, according to the White House spokesman, Ari Fleischer, is satellite- signal-jamming equipment, anti-tank guided missiles and night-vision goggles. These are all things that the U.S. says are -- should be banned for Iraq to be -- to be buying those -- those things, and particularly banned for countries to be selling them. They've been banned for about 12 years, based on the cease-fire agreement in 1991. The United States says that they have been talking to Russia about it for about a year, talking about their concerns.

And today, it reached the highest levels possible, President Bush actually calling Russian president Vladimir Putin and to express his concerns. They say that they do have strong evidence that these sales are going on, and even fresh evidence, according to Colin Powell, that the sales have been going on perhaps in the last 48 hours. So there is a high concern about that, and it is just the latest in a somewhat rocky relationship that we've seen over the past weeks and months between Russia and the United States.

COOPER: All right. Amazing. Even within the last 48 hours. I didn't know that. It's amazing. Dana Bash, thanks very much, in Washington -- Carol.

COSTELLO: All right, we're going to go to CENTCOM headquarters now in Qatar. That's where Tom Mintier is standing by live. And Tom, we wanted to ask you about this latest military strategy as it concerns Basra and how coalition forces are now targeting that city, which is different from what we've heard before.

TOM MINTIER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. There was a decision made to bypass the city of Basra by the generals conducting this war, but apparently, that's not going to be possible. Basra, of course, is a very strategic, important humanitarian point for aid to flow into southern Iraq. So there is a change in strategy by British military planners that now they're going into Basra to take out some of the resistance that they're finding in the city, not able to bypass it, as they once thought they would.

Joining us now is Group Captain Al Lockwood, the British military spokesman here.

Why the change in strategy?

AL LOCKWOOD, RAF SPOKESMAN: Not so much a change in strategy, Tom. It's dealing with a problem that we face. The nature of military operations are such that we have to be flexible. If we encounter problems, we have to deal with them. And that is what's happening with Basra.

MINTIER: There's a problem in Basra.

LOCKWOOD: Well, the problem is that we are encountering opposition from Fedayeen and security officials who are loyal to Saddam Hussein's regime. They have no future in the new Iraq, therefore, they've chosen to fight.

MINTIER: How much resistance are you getting? Are these large numbers? Are these significant numbers? Is this going to be a difficult operation? Any time you engage in urban warfare, which fighting in the city of Basra would be, it's a difficult go. LOCKWOOD: Yes, you're quite right. Urban warfare is not ideal. But they're not significant numbers. But obviously, what we're doing at the moment is we're taking a careful look at Basra. We're carefully adapting our plans and assessing what we need to do. We need to isolate these pockets of resistance, these people, and then by careful operations, taking into account we wish to assure there are no civilian casualties and there's no damage to civilian infrastructure, and of course, considering the troops that we are actually going to use in this operation -- we take all these factors into our planning and then...

MINTIER: There are tons and tons of humanitarian assistance waiting offshore to dock in Basra. How much is this going to delay the humanitarian effort in southern Iraq?

LOCKWOOD: Well, fortunately, Umm Qasr, a port to the south of Basra, is in our hands and under our control now. We're actively getting the port facilities in order, ready to receive this humanitarian assistance. And our naval forces are sweeping the passage for mines up to the port, to ensure that they're clear and that shipping will be safe.

MINTIER: How important is the humanitarian effort? I mean, you talk about the city of Basra. There are reports that they're running out of water there. How much time do you have to do this mission?

LOCKWOOD: Well, I understand that the authorities have been able to turn some of the water back on, but we are obviously concerned. Time is pressing. We do need to get on, but we will take our time and carry out our action once we've carefully planned it, carry it out effectively and ensure that damage is restricted, if not stopped altogether.

MINTIER: All right, Captain Al Lockwood, thank you very much.

As we heard yesterday from General Tommy Franks, there is concern when they go through areas that appear to be secure and then have problems when people come out with military weapons behind them and fire into the rear of units as they're passing through. Still a major concern, but now, apparently, Basra is going to be possibly the first urban flash point that we're going to see, where the military from the coalition forces have to go house to house. Back to you.

COSTELLO: Now, Tom, I think it's important to bring up that originally, the Pentagon thought there wouldn't be much of a fight put up in Basra and that Saddam Hussein's best soldiers weren't there. Now it seems as if the Iraqis are successful in sucking in the coalition troops into cities and forcing them into guerrilla combat.

MINTIER: Well, I think we can -- it's fair to say that the best troops still aren't there, but there are pockets of resistance, as they're described, and troops very loyal to Saddam Hussein have infiltrated areas like Basra and are willing to put up a fight. It's not like a major set battle that so far we haven't seen, but what may be developing around Baghdad as they move closer and closer to the capital. But there are significant forces, apparently, in Basra, mixed in with the civilian population, that's going to make this operation extremely difficult.

COSTELLO: Well, the other point to bring up is -- I known they don't want many civilian casualties, but this is going to make it much more difficult to avoid that, isn't it?

MINTIER: It would reasonably be safe to assume that if you're fighting in an urban area, which planners apparently wanted to avoid, that you do risk the possibility of civilian casualties when the military units mix in with the civilian population. if they've occupied these residential areas and are fighting from those positions, there is the possibility of collateral damage and civilian casualties when the coalition forces fire back.

COSTELLO: We'll see what happens. Tom Mintier reporting live from CENTCOM headquarters. Thanks very much.

COOPER: And Carol, important to keep in mind and for our viewers to keep in mind that -- that -- I mean, there's an irony to all of this, that the Iraqi forces, the 51st Division, and we understand, these irregular forces, the Fedayeen, are essentially, from these reports, going to be using civilians, sort of blending in among civilians, dressing as civilians, and the whole reason that the coalition forces are needing to go into Basra in the first place is to help out the civilian population, bring in humanitarian relief, because they have not had water for some two days, according to reports, and they have some food stocks. Really, water is essential. So on the one hand, it's the coalition forces sort of trying to help out Iraqi civilians, and yet...

COSTELLO: And by doing that, they may go in there and actually cause some civilian casualties.

COOPER: Also, Tom was mentioning the clearing of mines at Umm Qasr. I just saw an interesting report that the U.S. Navy's actually going to bring in trained dolphins to help with the mine-clearing. And not only do these dolphins apparently sort of find mines, they also attach sort of a hook onto the mine that a mine-sweeping ship then comes by and attaches to the hook and clears the mine out of the -- the port. This is...

COSTELLO: Now, see, I knew about the seals, but not the dolphins. So they have dolphins and seals trained to locate mines...

COOPER: Apparently, so.

COSTELLO: ... undersea.

COOPER: Apparently so. And this is going to happen in -- apparently, this week around Umm Qasr. So just sort of an interesting story.

You know, for the latest in-depth coverage of the war in Iraq, not only can you tune into our continuing coverage, you can also check out our special report available at cnn.com. It's got some pretty interesting, amazing graphics, as you can see right there. That's at cnn.com.

We'll be right back after this break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COSTELLO: All right, let's take you back to southern Iraq. We've been telling you about the fighting in Nasiriya. It's still going on, those pockets of resistance, as coalition forces do have control of those two bridges over the Euphrates -- at least, we think so. Our Miles O'Brien talked about some of the tougher fights in the south with our military analyst retired general Wesley Clark.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Let's put our map in motion. General Clark, good to have you with us.

GEN. WESLEY CLARK, FORMER NATO SUPREME COMMANDER (RET.): Thanks, Miles.

O'BRIEN: Give you a quick regional view, and then we're going to move in on the south, specifically on the Basra area today. And the reason I point out Basra is the Brits took a combat fatality there today, indicative of the fact that there's still a lot of engagement there. General Clark, what's going on on the ground here?

CLARK: What we have is, in the Basra area, we still have the British forces engaged. We have some of the Republican Guards and some of the elements of the 51st Division that supposedly surrendered, plus local Fedayeen fighters that have blended back into the city. They are holding on there. They are resisting the British advance into the city. The Brits occupy an air field and a couple of key bridges there, but we're not controlling this city.

The city apparently is in some humanitarian crisis, as well, and there's fighting. And the question is, how do we advance in this? Do we use artillery and our firepower, and do we do that at the risk of harming civilians? And that's the dilemma that the British forces are working.

O'BRIEN: All right. That's a -- that's a difficult question because it really makes the forces walk a tightrope between just how far to go, how secure a place needs to be before you move on.

Let's move to Nasiriya, where it's sort of a similar dilemma. And here what we have today is more evidence of fierce shelling involving Marines, primarily. What's going on there right now, General Clark?

CLARK: Well, Nasiriya's got two key bridges over the Euphrates River. And what we're trying to do in Nasiriya is secure it -- that is, drive out those elements of the enemy that would interfere with the passage of movement through Nasiriya. At least 400 hard-core enemy fighters are in there, more probably coming in at night. They're driving in civilian vehicles. Some of them are in civilian clothes, some of them taking buses, pick-up trucks and whatever. They're armed with rocket-propelled grenades, heavy machine guns and mortars. They're fighting from inside buildings. The Marines are fighting back.

The Marines have penetrated through the city, but it's not yet cleared.

O'BRIEN: All right. And this is the bridge which is so crucial -- at least, one of the bridges. There are two of them there that we're focusing on.

Let's move along to Karbala, which is about 60 miles from Baghdad, where the U.S. forces lost an Apache helicopter today, its crew missing right now, although we have just determined, I guess, that they are now prisoners of war. First of all, this -- this engagement here was helicopter versus the Medina Division of the Republican Guard. Is that typically the way tank battles begin, with helicopters first probing?

CLARK: Miles, this was deep attack. This was the first Army doctrinal deep attack mission. We've trained this mission for about 18 years. It was designed to go against the Soviets. We applied it against the 2nd Brigade of the Medina Division. We had good results on this mission. We took out a bunch of T-72s, artillery and infantry.

On the other hand, it was a fire fight, and we took return fire. We've learned our lessons. There's things we can do better. We got most of the Apaches back. Many of them did take fire, and many of them did have bullet holes. But this was a successful mission. It's the start of grinding down of one of the key Republican Guard divisions.

O'BRIEN: All right, from Karbala, let's fly into the downtown Baghdad area, which is only, as we say, 60 miles away. And today, at the Central Command briefing, they released some "before and after" of some of this bombing effort which we've been witness to via television. This is one of the special security facilities. This is something that -- an organization run by Qusay Hussein, the son of Saddam Hussein. And here is another facility here. This is an air force barracks. Look -- it's quite dramatic. You'll take a look at the barracks there, and then you see the value of precision weaponry because if you look down here, all these other buildings are still in place. When they say precision, they mean it, don't they.

CLARK: Well, we're really striking at the buildings, and hopefully, we know what's underneath them and we've got the right ordinance to go in underneath these buildings and take out the command centers. The issue here is, we're taking out some of these command centers. We don't know if they're occupied. And of course, eventually, we're going to be there, and we're going to want to go through that special security organization and get the evidence on whether weapons of mass destruction really are...

O'BRIEN: Interesting point. You want to preserve some of that evidence.

From Baghdad, let's take a quick trip to the north, and then we'll button up this overview. The north is a little sketchier, to say the least. We know there are troops on the ground there -- as we swing back and look down to the south. Give us a sense of how much is there and what is there right now, General Clark.

CLARK: Well, it is -- as you say, Miles, it's sketchy. We haven't heard a lot of information about the north. We know we've got about a thousand people who have been moved in there by helicopter. We would presume these are special forces, maybe some Ranger elements, maybe some people to work with the Kurds. We know we've got a Marine commander in there who's organized a headquarters to help facilitate the coordination. And then it's going to be a matter of taking an irregular fight up against the 40,000-plus Iraqi troops in three corps that are organized up in the north.

O'BRIEN: All right...

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: All right, we're actually jumping into that because we have a brief window to talk to one of our correspondents in the field. Becky Diamond joins us from her post in the Persian Gulf aboard the USS Milieus. Becky, what's the latest?

BECKY DIAMOND, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, I'm on board the HMAS Kanimbla. I was on the Milieus just a few days ago. This is an Australian amphibious ship, and it's hosting boarding teams, which are searching every vessel coming out of Iraqi waterways.

Now, late last week, a startling discovery was made by one of the Australian boarding teams. They found 86 mines on two different Iraqi vessels in the waterway leading to Umm Qasr. Now, what happened was, a U.S. boarding team went on one tugboat, and they found Iraqi military uniforms, as well as weapons. That caused some concern on the Kanimbla. They sent out an Australian team, which boarded a barge not far from the tug. They found a shipping container with a false floorboard. They went underneath into the cargo hold and discovered 68 mines, buoyant mines and ground mines.

Now, buoyant mines detonate with contact from ships. Ground mines detonate from a magnetic pulse, and they're on the ground of the water, underneath the ocean -- on the ocean floor.

On another tugboat close by, they found 18 more buoyant mines. These were hidden under 44-gallon drums.

Now, the mines on the barge were going to be released through a hatch built in the side that would just drop them out into the water. It was quite a discovery, Anderson.

COOPER: That's -- that's really interesting. So Becky, the ship you're on, they are -- they're basically -- it's a basically a boarding ship? It's a sort of a search party ship? Or is it a mine- sweeping ship? DIAMOND: Well, this is an amphibious ship that was designed specifically for the Australian navy. It's actually a U.S. ship that they bought and designed for themselves. It hosts boarding teams. Now, it hosts U.S., Australian and British teams. And these teams operate in groups of 10. They go out on small inflatable rafts, rigid-hull inflatable boats, they're called. And they go out to any vessel right now leaving Iraqi waterways. They search, and they look for wanted Iraqi officials, contraband, explosives. And this vessel right now, the Kanimbla, is intending to go up the KAA (ph) waterway and clear it of mines.

Now, of course, this is a very important waterway. It leads to Umm Qasr. And it's this trip through this channel that ships are going to bring humanitarian aid to be distributed at Umm Qasr. And there's a lot of concern right now about mines in the area. There's nothing to indicate that the mines found on (UNINTELLIGIBLE) tugboats were released, any mines were released. But their concerned on this ship, and they've had everyone sleeping below the waterline come up and sleep in the hangar deck. And we're also supposed to wear our hard hats to protect ourselves in case there's a mine detonation nearby -- Anderson.

COOPER: All right, Becky, get -- we've got to go in a second. I just want to point out we had actually just had a report previously that the U.S. is going to bring in dolphins to hunt -- search for mines under water. That's some time in this coming week. So it relates to -- probably Becky will probably be filing that story in the coming week. Thank you much. Becky Diamond reporting from one of the many ships searching out other ships, looking for mines around the region toward Umm Qasr.

COSTELLO: Yes, and we have hit 3:00 o'clock Eastern time. It is time to start our next hour. Stay with us.

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