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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

War in Iraq

Aired March 25, 2003 - 00:00   ET

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

DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: Right now there are seven confirmed American POWs in Iraqi hands. Five were captured from the Army's 507th Maintenance Company; Shoshana Johnson, Patrick Miller, Joseph Hudson, Edgar Hernandez and James Riley.
These two young pilots, Ronald D. Young, Jr. and David S. Williams were captured when their Apache helicopter went down. Iraq claims that a farmer shot down the copter, seen here earlier on Iraqi television. The Pentagon cast some doubt on that, pointing out the Apache's condition and upright position apparently intact. That's no longer the case, by the way. A U.S.-guided missile destroyed the Apache to keep its technology out of Iraqi hands.

Not far from that scene near Karbala, the Army's 5th Corps is preparing to take on a division of the Republican Guard standing between them and Baghdad.

Let's check out to the south. New fighting has flared up around Basra pushing back humanitarian aid missions. U.N. General Secretary General Kofi Annan is warning of a looming humanitarian disaster if they are unable to get emergency supplies into that city. That is Iraq's second biggest, by the way.

President Bush is asking for $2.5 billion dollars in aid. That is part of the $75 billion he is expected to ask for tomorrow to pay for the war itself, going on the assumption it will be over by mid-April.

The Arab League on Monday called on the U.S. and Britain to withdraw troops from Iraq and asked the U.N. Security Council to hold an emergency meeting on the invasion. Failing that, the Arab League will ask for a meeting of the full General Assembly.

And now back to more comprehensive coverage of the war in Iraq, we toss it back to Aaron. Aaron, coming up, when you're ready, we'll have the newspapers for you; also be will be able to talk about the story we'll be doing later to check out humanitarian aid waiting to make its way into Iraq and to the refugees. We'll now go back to you.

AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: Thank you. Actually, the refugees I'd like to get to in a minute. But if you've got the headlines with you, I'd like to see the headlines from the papers in Kuwait today.

KAGAN: All right.

BROWN: Thank you. KAGAN: You've got that. I've got two papers for you ready to go. The first one is from "The Arab Times." It is the two English papers here in Kuwait. This one, "Sand, Saddam and a Slow March." And again, I don't how well you're able to see what the picture is, but this vehicle was driving through a black cloud of smoke in Baghdad. This is showing the Apache helicopter that went down. And this is kind of a fuzzy picture of President Bush as he made his way back from Camp David after the weekend on Marine One.

Let me quickly show you the other English paper we have here in Kuwait, and the one is "The Kuwait Times." A couple of interesting things here; "Battle's On for Basra." It says, "Victory Near." That's quoting Saddam. Of course, that's the speech that he gave just about 24 hours ago.

These are British Royal Marines marching north through southern Iraq. The story is still getting a lot of coverage here about the U.S. soldier being questioned with the incident at Camp Pennsylvania with the grenade where one soldier lost his life.

And just interesting, a cultural note, a whole full section here on the Oscars. As I told you yesterday, they were covered here and a full section on what people were wearing and who won.

BROWN: Just go back to the first one, the picture with the smoke.

KAGAN: All right.

BROWN: What is that? Is that an oil trench burning? Do we know what that is that's causing all that smoke?

KAGAN: They're talking about oil fires ringing the city, talking about defense of incoming U.S. missiles and bombs. I think this is -- yes, the trenches that were dug around Baghdad.

BROWN: Right.

KAGAN: I don't know, have we seen any video like this back home that's like this picture?

BROWN: No, I have not. I can't say that it doesn't exist, but I can tell you ...

KAGAN: Right.

BROWN: ... that we have not seen it in our system here. Daryn, thanks and we'll talk to you.

KAGAN: You're welcome.

BROWN: ... shortly again. Thank you. Daryn Kagan, who's been handling the watch from Kuwait City. That's Baghdad about -- help me, guys. I think it's 8:00 in the morning now? Eight in the morning in Baghdad, 8:04 in the morning. A familiar view. Once of the questions that came up at the Pentagon press briefing today is why Baghdad TV or Iraqi TV was still being allowed on the air. Why the coalition forces hadn't taken it out and there was some hemming and hawing about that question. The argument is it allows the Iraqi government to communicate to the Iraqi people. The Saddam Hussein's speech 24 hours ago, that Daryn just referred to, as an example of that. If you're trying to rally your forces or threaten the opposition or both, Iraqi State TV, or any of the other TV channels, one of which is owned by one of Saddam's sons, is the way to do it. And so, the briefers were asked why they have not yet taken Iraqi TV off the air and the answer was basically because General Franks has decided not to yet.

We just ask the questions sometimes. Anyway, we have these pictures now and if the General changes his mind, takes Iraqi TV off the air, we will likely lose whatever window we've had into Baghdad.

We have been working so far today mostly from the south of the country toward Baghdad in our coverage it seems. Umm Qasr, we talked about the problems in Basra without water and electricity and the humanitarian problem that's causing. We'll take some time in this half hour of our coverage to work a little bit through the northern part of the country.

A second front is taking shape to the north. And that part of the story is being covered for us by CNN's Ben Wedeman.

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Good morning, Aaron.

Well, last night it was a very intense night of bombing here where we are, which is about 28 miles to the east of Mosul. We heard some very heavy explosions and felt some shock waves that really shook the foundations of the hut we're living in here. Now this comes at a time when it does appear, as you said, that the pieces of a northern front are falling into place.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

WEDEMAN (voice-over): Smoke rises over an Iraqi Army front line position hit by coalition aircraft as the northern front begins to smolder.

Planes came and started bombing says this Kurdish fighter. We didn't see them because they were so high. But we saw the Iraqi military bases that were hit and we saw Iraqi soldiers were killed.

The strikes took place outside the Kurdish town of Chamchamal, not far from the oil rich region around Kirkuk under Baghdad's control.

Also under Baghdad's sway, Mosul, a city now shrouded in smoke. Mosul continues to take a pounding, American bombs demolishing presidential palaces, military targets and intelligence facilities.

After several false starts, U.S. forces are finally beginning to arrive. Their essentially military mission coupled with humanitarian goals.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: First, to assist in the deconfliction of military activities. Second, to synchronize humanitarian assistance and military operations. And third, assist in the coordination of relief operations in northern Iraq.

WEDEMAN: Kurdish authorities worked feverishly to prepare two airstrips for American troops. Those troops began arriving in the north Sunday. When they're deployed, they'll be assisted by more than 60,000 Kurdish Pesh Murga, lightly armed but enthusiastic troops with plenty of experience fighting the Iraqi army.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WEDEMAN: And, Aaron, Kurdish officials here are saying that they're hoping that the United States will bring its significant air power to bear on front-line positions like those behind me where we've seen Iraqi forces digging in ever deeper, bringing in more heavy artillery and equipment. And the Kurds hope that those will be knocked out sooner rather than later. Aaron.

BROWN: Ben, one question and then I want to bring Kevin -- there's Kevin. I want to bring Kevin Sites in as well. Has all of this changed, this increase in activity, in just the last 24 hours?

WEDEMAN: Well, really it's been gradual, but certainly the last 24 hours we've seen an intensification of the bombing. We've seen this senior American official, Major General Pete Osman (ph) of the United States Marine Corps come out in public and basically say that we are here and we are going to begin the process of putting together the pieces of a northern front.

Otherwise, for instance, the preparations on the Iraqi positions behind me, those have been going on for the last week or so, really, gradually but intensifying in the last few days. And you'll notice, however, the weather seems to be hampering some of this activity. It's very cold, very windy, very cloudy and at night, very foggy which might make military activity a little more complicated in this area. But, yes, as you say, certainly we have seen in the last 24 to 48 hours a definite intensification of activity in this area.

BROWN: "Complication" seems to be the word of the day. Kevin Sites joins us also. Kevin, I'm not precisely sure where you are or what you've been up to, so why don't you give us the one paragraph overview and we'll go from there.

KEVIN SITES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: OK, Aaron. I'll try to fill you in. I'm in Chamchamal. It's about 40 kilometers from Kirkuk. And within the last five minutes, we just heard three major explosions. It's very overcast here so we can't really see that much, but three major explosions that we can certainly feel the concussions even as far as the distance that we have from Kirkuk.

Now what we think is that that was some heavy bombing last night, about possibly six to eight explosions in that particular region that's west of us. But those explosions that we heard this morning seemed to be coming from the southwest of us. Now we can't pinpoint it, obviously, but our communique sources are Kurdish fighter sources here on the ground tell us there's a full Iraqi division called the Al-Muthana Division, which is southeast of Kirkuk. And it may be that location that those bombers are trying to hit at this point.

Obviously, U.S. forces and Pesh Murga forces are going to have to take care of that division if they're going to advance on Kirkuk. And so, that may be what they're doing right now. As I said last night, there were about six to eight explosions. It wasn't necessarily heavy bombing in Kirkuk, from what we could tell. But periodically, we did see very bright white flashes in the sky. They must have been powerful bombs to see that from where we're at, especially since there were overcast skies.

However, yesterday morning about 10:00 a.m., the Iraqi front line where we're at right now -- we're only about 1,000 meters from these Iraqis. When we get out our binoculars, Aaron, we can actually see them walking along the ridge top. They were hit, according to our PUK sources, with eight bombs here on this ridge line. This is a lightly defended front line. They have the hillside. It's basically a stopping point stopping any kind of advance on the road to Kirkuk.

But apparently, I don't know what kind of damage those bombs did. We were in Sulaimaniya at the time and we heard from our sources that the Iraqis were injured, that they were moving their men down the hillside, taking protective cover. But when we got here just about 45 minutes later, we were looking on the ridge line and they were up there again on the hilltop walking around nonchalantly, almost like nothing had happened at all. Aaron?

BROWN: There's a view from two areas up in the north. This division, Kevin, that you talk about, this Iraqi division that's over the hill, what's sort of -- when you talk to your Kurdish sources, what sort of reputation does it have? Is it the kind of division that they expect to stand and fight or will it either surrender or flee?

SITES: Well, I'll have to assume at this point, Aaron, I mean this is a division that is based very closely to a strategic center, you know, a place of major importance to the Iraqis in Kirkuk where most of these oil wells in the north are located. So I don't have any information from our sources on what kind of fighters these guys are, but we can only assume it's division strength so there's probably going to be some fighting from them. Their location, of course, is important to the Iraqis so we assume there's going to be some resistance at some point. And it seems like there is some bombing going in that location.

BROWN: Ben, let's try something here and see if it works. Is there anything that you want to know from Kevin that might help you in your understanding of what's going on in your area, and then we'll give Kevin a chance to ask you the question? Ben, anything that you want to ask Kevin?

WEDEMAN: Well, what we've heard from Kurdish sources is that there's a large military formation moving up from the town of Tikrit, which is down -- basically, it's the hometown of Saddam Hussein -- moving up to Kirkuk. And that's one of the reasons we've been told by Kurdish sources that there's been this intense bombing of the area around Kirkuk.

For instance, yesterday at about 11:00 a.m. local time, we were in Arbil and we heard a massive, massive explosion that really shook our hotel for about three or four seconds. And I'm wondering if he's hearing the same thing, if that's the reason for all that bombing in the area, the movement of this large formation from Tikrit.

BROWN: Kevin, were you able to hear that?

SITES: Well, we actually have heard explosions and they have been somewhat consistent all day yesterday. The frequency of the bombing doesn't seem like it has been great. They have been occasional, perhaps one every hour. However, the kind of rolling thunder that we feel here, 40 kilometers away, gives some kind of evidence that there's some power behind these bombs. I can't assume what size they are, but there certainly has been, you know, a kind of rolling concussion that we can feel here. I haven't had any word necessarily on forces moving up from Tikrit, but that could be a possibility.

Our sources say that there are two forts, two bases, that protection Kirkuk. One is the Al-Halliyad (ph) military compound, which is to the northwest of Kirkuk. The other is the Iraqi division that I talked about, the Al-Muthana Division. So there definitely are some forces prepared to defend Kirkuk, you know, if there is a coalition advance.

BROWN: And now, Kevin, anything that you might ask Ben that would be helpful in your understanding more broadly of the situation?

SITES: Well, our area has been very deserted. Chamchamal has basically become a ghost town. There are only Pesh Murga fighters. They're on high alert according to their commander. They all carry their weapons. But we have not seen any evidence of Special Forces here in this particular area yet, although there have been reports from other media that they have been based in Sulaimaniya and may be working their way towards us.

I'm curious what Ben has seen in his region in terms of Special Forces and the type of cooperation that they're giving the Pesh Murga there.

WEDEMAN: Well, we have heard anecdotal stories, not seen anybody ourselves, of some Special Forces groups of two or three passing through this area. The Pesh Murga, who are usually quite willing to talk about just about everything under the sun, when it comes to these Special Forces, they're not very forthcoming which would indicate that there might be something to it.

Now of course, yesterday we did meet the head of the new allied command in the north, Major General Peter Osman (ph) of the Marine Corps. And he certainly indicated actually the day before yesterday the first U.S. troops began to arrive, Special Forces and otherwise, and that we certainly will be seeing more in this area. Now on the question of -- actually, I'd just like to point something out. The Iraqi formations in the north, now we've been told by Kurdish military sources that there are in total about 120,000 Iraqi troops in the north and that's broken down into three Army Corps of about 40,000 apiece. Now this source told us that under normal conditions, each of these Corps has one division of Republican Guard. But apparently, they have been, by and large, moved further to the south to around Baghdad and to around Tikrit. Just for your information, OK.

BROWN: There we go. Both of you, thank you for working this out with us in an interesting way, the view from Northern Iraq. I think to underscore the point that both of you are making, it seems to me, is things are changing there and this front is opening up, and so we suspect gentlemen that in the next 24 hours or 48 hours, we'll not only be dealing with Basra and Umm Qasr and all those other cities to the south that we've become familiar with, but we will be adding these northern cities to the list as we work through the progress of the coalition. Thank you both very much, Ben Wedeman and Kevin Sites, who are working in northern Iraq.

Ben, I think -- well, I'm not sure which one it was that mentioned now that all of this approach that the coalition is taking is made necessary because the American forces and the coalition forces cannot come through on the ground through Turkey. That was the original hope that 60,000 or so coalition forces would come through Turkey. That's not happening.

What is of some concern up in the border is a refugee problem that has not yet reached massive proportions, but it's a concern. And as more fire power gets into the area, the greater becomes the concern. For some people who are fleeing the war, safety isn't necessarily found by crossing the border. The only place these people seem to feel secure is quite literally by going underground. The story reported by CNN's Jane Arraf.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JANE ARRAF, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): These stones are what's left of the village of Sha Ladri (ph). Four times attacked by Iraqi forces before it was dynamited in 1987, it's still a refuge for these Kurds. They practice one of the oldest and least understood religions in the Middle East. They're known as Yezides. These families have left their comfortable homes in the city of Dahuk and a nearby village to take shelter here, even though this is closer to the front line.

This is where people have taken refugee for centuries underground. Now we're going down into a cave, one of about 30 to 40 caves beneath this village. And people have escaped here for centuries when they've under persecution and when they've been under threat, as this community has.

Kareem Joki (ph) brought his family here because they're afraid of chemical attack. During the 1991 Gulf War, they fled with half a million other Kurds towards Turkey. Their four-month-old child and their grandmother froze to death on the way, they said. This time, they're staying put. Their main protection, just pieces of plastic to seal the entrance of the cave.

Kareem (ph) and Machmer (ph) have been here with their 12 children and other relatives for almost a week. Their first-born child is named Kurdistan. Their 12-year-old, born after the 1991 Gulf War, Dick Cheney.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I named him Dick Cheney after the Defense Secretary of the United States because he was such a brave man, Kareen (ph) says.

Sixty-four-year old Abdul Kareem (ph) says it's the Americans they have to thank for the relative freedom they've had since the Kurds took control of northern Iraq after the Gulf War.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Before 1991, we were suffering a lot of discrimination and bad conditions. But after 1991, we were able to say we are Yezides.

ARRAF: Yezides have suffered centuries of discrimination, persecution and even massacres because they're thought to worship the devil. Their ancient religion is still obscure, but they say they worship only God.

Historically, in times of trouble they have retreated to the inaccessible mountains and to caves. This is one of those times.

Jane Arraf, CNN, beneath the village of Sha Ladri (ph) in northern Iraq.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: A child named Dick Cheney. Talk about how small the world has become in the incredibly remote part of the world. That's something.

We'll check in on the Pentagon. One of the developing story lines is this talk that a Republican Guard unit or units may have been authorized to use chemical weapons. We'll check with Chris Plante. We need to take a break first. Our coverage of the war in Iraq continues in just a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BROWN: Baghdad early in the morning, coming up on 8:30 in the morning in Baghdad. As peaceful as it looks, the next few days don't seem to be laying out that way. A number of people that we've talked to tonight, most notably Michael Gordon who is the Chief Military Writer for "The New York Times" reporting out of Camp Doha. General Clark, I think, has had the same feeling that we are moving toward a major and decisive moment.

Indeed, the British Prime Minister who will be speaking -- I'm not sure it's a news conference or what precisely he'll be doing at 7:00 in the morning Eastern time -- and we'll carry that live here on CNN. Paula will have that, when Tony Blair addresses his country with their press briefing. I suspect that's what we would call a news conference. Live coverage there tomorrow morning 7:00 a.m. Eastern time.

Anyway, he said today, Mr. Blair said, that he felt a decisive moment was coming, and I'm sure he'll be asked to amplify on that. About the same time he was saying that, we started to get reports of intelligence that an Iraqi Republican Guard -- you'll recall the Republican Guard have pretty much moved toward the city of Baghdad protecting the outer ring of the Baghdad area, and then there's the Special Republican Guard to keep track of too -- has been given authority to use chemical weapons, this intelligence reporting goes, should a red line of some sort be crossed.

This is going to be a major story in the day ahead. Chris Plante is at the Pentagon now and Chris has been doing some reporting on this. What can you tell us that is helpful here now?

CHRIS PLANTE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Aaron. That's right. The U.S. intelligence is indicating that they've received a number of reports that suggest that orders have been handed down from the Iraqi high command to Republican Guard units surrounding Baghdad, that if the allied forces cross an imaginary red line around the city that they're to employ chemical weapons.

Now this has been one of the areas of major concern for the allies since they entered into this process. Presumably, the Iraqis have chosen not to use the chemical weapons, assuming that they have them, earlier than this because it would not serve their purposes, a last-ditch sort of effort expected for the battle of the city of Baghdad.

And the concern is that these orders may be followed by certain of the more loyal Republican Guard units. So it's something that's being taken very seriously. Certainly, even as Special Operations forces fan out across the country and attempt to seize suspected chemical weapon sites. Aaron?

BROWN: What sort of chemicals are we talking about?

PLANTE: Well, the Iraqi regime is suspected of having produced and stored a whole range of weapons from mustard gas to sarin gas, a nerve agent known as VX. There's a whole family of chemical weapons. And presumably, we're not talking at this point about biological weapons, which would open up, you know, an entirely new can of worms also.

But, you know, a whole family of chemical weapons -- traditional, some old dating back to, as mustard gas, World War I era-type chemical munitions, to more modern nerve agents like VX.

BROWN: I'm sorry, and Chris, quickly, the American coalition side comes into a moment like this protected how?

PLANTE: Well, there are a number of tiers of protection that they attempt to employ here. One is intelligence gathering, first of all, and that's what we're talking about now. If the threat exists in a specific area and in a specific time frame, it certainly becomes helpful. You can determine to some extent what sort of munitions they would be able to use, whether we're talking about surface-to-surface missiles or artillery shells, whether aircraft might be used to disperse these agents over areas where there are U.S. troop concentrations, and you attempt to preemptively address those issues, as was done, in fact, early on in this campaign in the south.

There were reports that artillery pieces moved close to the Kuwaiti border were capable of firing chemical artillery shells. So air power preemptively took out those positions in an effort to eliminate that threat.

Similar things are certainly are taking place now with air power attacking the Republican Guard positions around the city of Baghdad. And if it reaches the point where there are incoming rounds that are suspected of being chemical munitions, certainly as we've been seeing, everybody almost automatically in this conflict goes to what they call MOP4; that's their protective gear with gas masks and gloves and boots and so on that protect them from chemical agents. And they have decontamination procedures that they follow in the field also. Aaron?

BROWN: Chris, thank you. Chris Plante taking at look at a story we expect will turn into a major story tomorrow.

General, one quick thought from you on this. Well, maybe two. How concerned are you when you hear this sort of reporting, which is to say does it sound like it has the goods behind it?

And the other is there is, in fact, on the ground a lot of -- because I saw one of these units -- a lot of American, Czech, German -- I'm not sure people are aware there are German units who work in those decontamination units -- who are on the ground and prepared to move out should this happen. Would you say American forces are appropriately prepared to deal with this?

GENERAL WESLEY CLARK (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: It depends on what the substance is.

BROWN: OK.

CLARK: But in general, we are prepared. We've tried to prepare, but I don't think we're ever totally confident you can handle this. It depends on what we call "target posture" is at the time. If people are awake and alert in MOP4, that's fine. If you're in the middle of battle and communication has broken down, you could suffer a lot of casualties in something like this.

I do take these reports as credible, only because they're coming out of the Pentagon and we've got the means of knowing and I'm sure that our commanders in the field are taking this very seriously.

BROWN: Well, we'll see how the day breaks on that. Again, that's the reporting that's going on.

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