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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

British Army Press Conference

Aired March 25, 2003 - 12:18   ET

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

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: The British Army spokesman, Colonel Chris Vernon is speaking and answering reporters' questions. This could be important, new information, so I want our viewers to get this right now.
COL. CHRIS VERNON, BRITISH ARMY SPOKESMAN: ... secure enough now to bring in humanitarian aid, and that was the purpose of taking that. And that's why we went for an urban area, which of course is not something we would ideally commit to, because fighting in built-up areas poses a significant amount of difficulty.

We've now got to get humanitarian aid into Basra, and it's quite clear that elements of the Iraqi regular army, probably from 51st Division who were deployed west of Basra, have pulled back into the town. So there are regular forces there.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

VERNON: No, no, I'm now into Basra. Regular forces in Basra. To what scale and size we're not quite clear.

We determined, as you know, in Umm Qasr that we're up against irregular troops as well, Fedayeen. They've been described as Baath Party fundamentalists, hugely loyal to the regime. They're operating in civilian clothes, lightly armed, rifles, RPG-7 (ph). Relatively good light infantry tactics they can operate to. Their normal peacetime role is generally as part of the Baath apparatus to keep down the people, but they have got this military capability. And we estimate there are about 1,000 of them in Basra.

The way we're operating, we are seizing tactical opportunities as they occur on our terms, on the outskirts of Basra. This morning, in the early (UNINTELLIGIBLE) this morning, we launched a battle group operation into Al Zubaya (ph), onto a Baath Party headquarters, where we seized a senior Baath Party politician, killed about 20 irregulars, and then extracted very quickly.

We can do that with a fair degree of impunity. If you actually look at our rollbacks (ph), you've got a heavy armored brigade out there, and that allows a huge degree of force protection in order to achieve that sort of rather surgical, incisive task.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

VERNON: In Alzabar (ph).

Further around, we're covering the town from about north through west, down to south, with seven armed brigade west of it and three armored brigade now having relieved the U.S. Marine Corps 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and they're now on the north edge of the peninsula.

Across the outskirts of the town, we are noting where there are opportunities to probe in, delve in, destroy enemy armor and infantry as they appear before us, take out pieces with artillery on the edges. But I stress, we are not barring into the center of the city, because we cannot risk the collateral damage of the civilians, even though we are being fired on from the center by their artillery.

And that is how we're operating. But I think best described as a seizing tactical opportunities as they occur.

A part of the strategy, clearly, is to delink the regular army, probably the softer of the targets, the irregular forces and the Baath Party regime and drive a wedge between that and the people.

In so doing, we're trying to gain the confidence of the people, so they can assert themselves, as we believe probably and reflecting back to the end of the Gulf War is their desire.

But we don't underestimate the task. The way we're doing it, militarily, I've just described, is by, really, eradicating down the three elements (UNINTELLIGIBLE) to try and achieve the degree of confidence in ourselves and what is happening in the whole of Iraq with them to lift up, indeed, in the end and get the humanitarian aid in.

VERNON: The only other action out of Basra this morning, there was a counterattack of about battalion size coming out of Basra, southeast toward the Al-Faw Peninsula, towards 3 Commando Brigade. They brought in close air support and destroyed about 20 armored vehicles, including tanks.

And I think -- and I'm not going to get into how we're going to do the rest of it -- I've given you a flavor for what we're doing. Clearly, questions like, "How are you going to do it?" I'm not going to tell you.

I've told you what we're doing now. It gives you a flavor of, I think, our ability to strike when we need to. But it's going to be very much on our terms. We're not going to be pressured into this by any degree of external pressure.

When we think the military situation is right and we can clearly see the opportunities, we will act. When that is, you will have to wait and see.

I think that describes Basra well enough. The rest of the British AO (ph) 16 Air Assault Brigade are still on the Ramallah (ph) Goss (ph), as you know, secured intact. That's the future of Iraqi oil wealth for the people of Iraq. And 3 Commando Brigade on the Al- Faw with the U.S. Marine Corps 15 MEU having been relieved in place out of Umm Qasr.

That's broadly where we stand in the British division of AO (ph) at the moment.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

VERNON: Difficult. We haven't got much in there, and I'm not telling you what we have got in there.

Our assessment is -- one further development, if I can tell you this, actually. This is quite interesting. We did -- 7 (ph) Brigade today saw, and we have reported this to the embeds we've got at divisional headquarters, the irregulars were using -- were coming out of the village, of a town (UNINTELLIGIBLE) on the outskirts with civilians in front, forcing them ahead of them, firing at us -- we can't fire back -- and then just running back into the town.

That perhaps gives you a flavor for the level of type of system that is probably operating in there with the irregulars, and I think this is pretty broadly known, oppressing the people. But probably our view is the people are pretty, pretty scared, and for us to gain the confidence of them with Baghdad and the regime still in place, given the legacy of 1991, post-Gulf War, I think is no mean task.

BLITZER: The British military spokesman, Colonel Chris Vernon, briefing reporters here in Kuwait City, describing some of the dangers, some of the problems that still linger for U.S. and British military forces in the southern parts of Iraq from the so-called irregular Iraqi militias, the Iraqis in the south, mostly Shiites, still not willing to take too many chances. He's suggesting that they are still very much influenced by what many have called the betrayal of the Iraqi Shia in the south following the first Persian Gulf war a dozen years ago when they were encouraged by the U.S. and others to rise up against Saddam Hussein. They did, indeed, do that, but received virtually no assistance, military assistance from the then coalition.

As a result, they were virtually decimated by the Iraqi regime and paid a huge price. They're unwilling, apparently, so far to trust the U.S. and the British and go up and do the same thing this time.

He's expressing hope as other U.S. and British military officials are, that these Shia will eventually do precisely that, but that's one of the legacies from the first gulf war, not necessarily a positive legacy from the British and U.S. standpoint.

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