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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

War in Iraq: Sandstorm

Aired March 26, 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: Live in Kuwait City. You can see we're dealing with a sandstorm here. It's just after 8:00 in the morning on Wednesday. Here are the latest headlines at this hour.
There have been new explosions in Baghdad overnight, knocking Iraqi state television off the air, crippling Saddam Hussein's ability to communicate with the nation. And the Pentagon says that U.S. forces have killed about 150 to 200 Iraqi troops about 95 miles south of Baghdad.

The clash between the 37th Cavalry and what may have been Iraq's Republican Guard was said to be possibly the biggest grounds engagement yet, and the sandstorm south of Baghdad prevented the 7th Cavalry from calling in air support.

Further south, the U.S. Marines reported a disturbing discovery. Iraqi soldiers, they said, were using a hospital to launch their attacks and they were found to be hoarding doses of atropine used to counter the effects of nerve gas as well as 3,000 chemical suits with masks.

Kuwaiti firefighters report they have extinguished their first of the oil fires in southern Iraq and the company that Vice President Dick Cheney was running up until 2000 campaign will be extinguishing others. The Halliburton Company has won one of the first U.S. contracts for post-war Iraq. President Bush is asking for almost a half of billion dollars to repair Iraqi oil facilities.

On the homefront, the Department of Homeland Security has added unarmed Black Hawk helicopters to the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) of New York airspace. Though unarmed, they are capable of calling an Air Force spider jet to take on unauthorized flight in and around the city.

President Bush on Tuesday signed an executive order making it easier for the government to keep records from public eyes. The order maintains an existing policy of automatically declassifying documents from 25 years ago, but it expands some scenarios for making government records secret.

And with that, we'll toss it back to CNN's coverage of the war on Iraq and Aaron Brown -- Aaron.

AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: Daryn, thank you very much. You always try and figure out what the -- what's going -- what the news is going to be driven by on any given day and certainly, the war over there and the conditions over there and whether they get to Baghdad is part of it, but I suspect that this will also drive the news.

"The New York Times" tomorrow or in tomorrow's edition will report in a story by Eric Schmitt and David Sanger some American mechanics captured on Sunday after they took a wrong turn near the town of Nasiriyah apparently were executed by their captors, probably in front of towns people. According to American officials, the officials cautioned, according to "The Times" that this information is based on a single source, probably a communications intercept and that American officials are seeking additional collaborating evidence. "The Times" quotes one senior military official as saying when the full story comes out people will be outraged.

Again, tomorrow's "New York Times" will report it believes that some of the young Americans in the 507th Group who died on Sunday were executed and while this -- what I'm about to say proves absolutely nothing, I can tell you it is absolutely true that some of them were shot in the head. There is no question about that.

When that makes its way through the military side and the civilian side and the population side, all these sides, it's going to change the mood of all of this or some of this for a while, isn't it?

GEN. WESLEY CLARK (RET.), FMR. NATO SUPREME CMDR.: It is. I mean, this is going to deepen the intensity of which this conflict is waged not only by the people at home, but by the soldiers.

BROWN: Well right, I mean, the notion that -- I don't remember what the issue was a couple of days ago, but we talked a couple of days ago about you don't do things, you don't change plans because you're angry. You change things because it's to your advantage to do so.

CLARK: That's right.

BROWN: Now that's decision making, but on the ground, do something else again, it makes soldiers to know it -- it's going to make soldiers really...

CLARK: It's hard to control the troops.

BROWN: Right.

CLARK: If this word gets out, it's hard to control troops. When they are angry like this, things happen. But, it's also going to have an impact here at home because people will be angered by this -- deeply angered by this.

BROWN: Anyway, as you may remember, the 507th , these were -- they certainly are soldiers. OK. They are absolutely soldiers, but their role in the Army was to fix trucks and things that broke down. They were out in tough conditions. They apparently made a wrong turn. They got ambushed in some way. These are the pictures that we have been talking about on Sunday night. They were broadcast. A number of satellite systems around, broadcasting systems around the world, it's extraordinarily gruesome and I don't need to describe in any more detail than I just did. But again, "The Times" reporting that a senior military official believes they were executed, probably a public execution.

And I would say it's hard to argue with a military official who said when the full story comes out, people will be outraged. So, I suspect that will be part of what drives -- just say it, General, don't -- you don't have to write it down.

CLARK: Going to release -- it's going to add to the pressure...

(CROSSTALK)

CLARK: ... pictures.

BROWN: You're absolutely right. These pictures, which are, you know, 100 feet from me, we'll see. I mean, my impulse will be to fight that, but we'll see what happens.

Many of you may be just joining us, settling in for the night, 12:00, little past that here in the east. We want to give you a sense of what went on today before we focus in more narrowly on certain events, so here is a broad view of the day that has gone on.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN (voice-over): When there was a blinding sandstorm in the central part of the country or a downpour in the south near Basra, weather was the dominant factor in the war against Iraq today.

VOICE OF WALTER RODGERS, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's like being in a blizzard, except unfortunately, the sand doesn't melt as the snow does.

BROWN: Overall, here's what the landscape looks like tonight. Coalition ground units continue to make a broad sweep towards Baghdad. Elements of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division are 50 miles to the south and west of the Iraqi capital and late today were engaged in a major battle with Iraqi units south of the city of Karbala. The British, meantime, are encircling Iraq's second largest city Basra.

TONY BLAIR, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: In (UNINTELLIGIBLE) days since military action began, a huge amount has already been achieved.

BROWN: Inside Basra, there were the smallest of hints that an uprising may have begun against Saddam Hussein. These pictures of a single gunman firing into the air and destroying a picture of Saddam are certainly not definitive proof. They are a hint, that's all. But British officials say at least it is a positive sign.

Meantime, Iraqi television broadcast these pictures of a coalition drone aircraft shot down and then paraded through the streets of Basra. No firm proof of chemical weapons was found today, but as far as the coalition was concerned, there were hints. Marines seized a hospital in the battered city of Nasiriyah and said they seized thousands of chemical weapon suits, as well as conventional weapons.

And finally, the southern most Iraqi city Umm Qasr was declared under coalition control finally and the Navy actually brought in dolphins to help detect underwater mines.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: So that's a broad view of the day. We can now focus in on some of the specific moments of the day. The weather was a huge problem. Those of you who have been with us over the course of the last week have spent a lot of time with the cavalry and our correspondent Walt Rodgers as he and they made their way from the Kuwaiti border up towards Baghdad. It's gotten a bit messy for them. It appears based on the reports that we heard today, as they were making their way towards the fighting that went on near Karbala, Walt was able to file this report.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

WALTER RODGERS, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: What we're showing you is the convoy in which we're riding, heading north again, in the general direction of north in a very strong sandstorm. It's like being in a blizzard, except unfortunately, the sand doesn't melt as the snow does. Now this gives some temporary military advantage to both sides, although the greater military advantage falls to the Iraqis.

We have been under heavy fire for the pats couple of miles, mostly a small arms fire, but the sandstorm has enabled the Iraqis to come very close to the road, and if I sound a little nervous, it's because we're in a soft-skin vehicle and everybody else is in armor. The 7th Cavalry literally had to run something of a night ambush on both sides of the road last night crossing one of the canal bridges that preceded the Euphrates River and that fight was, as I say, more than significant.

There were machine gun tracer bullets going out on either side of the road. Every Bradley, every tank was firing. Imagine looking out into total darkness in an agricultural area. You can't see, oh more than 40 or 50 meters without night vision goggles, and you know there are people out there. We had no idea how many people were out there, but it turned out to be several hundred -- three, 400 Iraqi dismount.

The U.S. Army 7th Cavalry has just taken three Iraqi prisoners of war -- actually, they're very close. That is to say no more than 40 yards away, but the dust and sand are blowing so badly you're getting these vague images. They were captured by the U.S. Army up the road, not very far ahead of us. They were driving a truckload of weapons and that's when the Army apprehended them. They've had their arms tied. They're lying in the sand now. No evidence of any hostility on their part now, but the only mystery is that which we all suffer, which is to say an abusive Mother Nature by a sandstorm.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: General, the weather was the story. It had, in some ways, its own advantages because -- and disadvantages, right...

(CROSSTALK)

BROWN: ... on both sides I guess.

CLARK: Yes, but I think Walter's right. I mean, I think the unbalanced, it helped the Iraqis more. It let them close up in this fight. It gave them some protection from our visibility overhead, made it more difficult for it to bring air power against the ford elements of the division, and it inhibited our ability to rest, maintain, recover, bring up the rest of the force.

BROWN: Is it -- is this -- they were able to bomb Baghdad, we know the Iraqi TV facility, the other thing. So it doesn't totally eliminate the power of air power. It's the...

CLARK: Against...

BROWN: It's the low air support that sort of problem becomes.

CLARK: It's what we call emerging targets or mobile targets...

BROWN: You can't see them...

CLARK: Right. You can't see them.

BROWN: The day's news does not get any better. The Associated Press is now reporting in a story datelined out of Boise that a second serviceman who was injured in the -- for lack of a better word, foraging attack in the 101st Airborne Division in Kuwait has died. That's according to The Associated Press.

As you'll recall, almost certainly a young American soldier named Asan Akbar, Sergeant, is in custody and in fact, he was moved to a brig in -- they call it a brig in the Army. They call it in the Navy -- they don't...

(CROSSTALK)

BROWN: He's been moved to a jail in any case...

CLARK: Right.

BROWN: ... in Germany where he's being held tonight and now will face, it would appear, a second murder charge in that terrible and tragic incident on -- over the weekend.

Chris Plante is at the Pentagon for us. There are a lot of things now, Chris, on your plate as we look at a messy picture of Baghdad, smoke and dust in the air. Baghdad TV, Iraqi TV off the air. Start where you wish.

CHRIS PLANTE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, in terms of Iraqi television, the coalition decided today that it was time to take Baghdad TV off the air. It's something that they say was in the queue for some time now. They had planned on doing it all along. They said that its time came today and they used cruise missiles and other precision-guided munitions from airplanes to knock them off the air.

Now, this is something that the military takes seriously as an arm of propaganda for the regime and as long as they were getting valuable information off of Iraqi TV, they were happy to leave it up and running. At this point, this stage of the game, when additional action, ground action is coming, perhaps soon, they decided that it was time to take that resource away from the regime, so they did so today -- Aaron.

BROWN: And the secretary was a little testy today, it seemed, when questioned about how the war plan was going and the criticism that appeared in lots of places. He was -- I mean, the secretary, honestly, can be testy fairly often. He seemed especially so today.

PLANTE: Well he does get that way from time to time and there is a little bit of aggravation, I suppose on the part of some Defense officials that the press and perhaps some others are suggesting that their op plan, that they're behind their schedule. They insist that they're not off the plan, that they're not behind schedule. They insist that everything is going just as they had intended to go.

BROWN: Well they also very much minimized, didn't they, this rear -- this behind the lines problem in south Iraq -- I think the term that the secretary used and the chairman was these onesies and twosies no big deal, but as Michael Gordon was reporting and I think everybody is getting a sense, General Clark certainly, it is a much bigger deal than just onesies and twosies.

PLANTE: Well, it is -- you know it's not major unit combat. The U.S. and British forces are not coming up against divisions, organized divisions of Iraqi forces in the south, which they had expected that they would not. They expected that the organized resistance in the south would be small scale rather than large scale. They said that that has been the case. They insist that they did expect there would be some guerrilla warfare, small unit fighting, which is what they've seen.

They have been able to inflict casualties, the Iraqis have, against coalition forces. And of course, that's a matter of concern, but they insist that they expected this all along. That when they gave this out, when they planned it out, that they anticipated that all of this would happen and of course, the organized resistance still lies ahead around the city of Baghdad with the Republican Guard divisions up there, the best equipped, best trained, most loyal divisions. And in fact, the -- you know, it's unclear whether they're going to go ahead on against these divisions.

BROWN: Well...

PLANTE: There may be surprises in store there.

BROWN: We'll find out Chris. Thank you, Chris Plante at the Pentagon tonight. General, far be it for me to be a critic on such manners, but it is hard -- it's a little hard to see what's going on in the south as onesies and twosies when the British are having to throw big shells into the city of Basra, which is absolutely 100 percent, you didn't have to read the war plan to know, not what they wanted to do.

CLARK: Right. I think the Iraqis learned from Desert Storm just like we did.

BROWN: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) you know we talked about how -- just finish that. Of course they did, they were in it.

(CROSSTALK)

CLARK: Don't fight in the open desert against the United States Army. You're going to get killed. So...

BROWN: Literally.

CLARK: Absolutely. So, we spent a lot of time developing, honing our ability to kill them faster in the open desert. We've been struggling with coming to grips with fighting and (UNINTELLIGIBLE). The Marines have done a lot of work on this. The Army has too, done a lot of training on it, but it's a challenge for our technology. It's hard to get the technological edge and so they've gone into the cities. And I think these are sizable formations -- we don't know what size. Division size wouldn't surprise me -- five, 7,000 people in both these places.

BROWN: You know, we talked the other day about the Iraqis have a limited number of strategies available to them because in the end they can't overwhelm the U.S. and British forces. That's not -- but it's not reasonable for people to think that the only smart people on the planet live in the Pentagon and then everyone in the Iraqi military is some sort of idiot who hasn't been thinking how are we going to manage this problem.

CLARK: Well we always say in war the enemy has a boat on what works and you know they've got their course of action. They've done their analysis and we have to now -- war is action, reaction, counter action. So, their reaction is there in the cities, it's up to us to counteract.

BROWN: And just while we're on this sort of -- this chain of thought, I expected base -- not just read the papers, but in the phone work that was done and talking to people, that the Shock and Awe was going to be a bigger, badder thing than it turned out to be. Was Shock and Awe either shocking or awesome/

CLARK: Well, it was powerful. It was effective against fixed targets, but the Iraqis have had 12 years to look at how we do fixed targeting. They talked to the Serbs after we targeted the billis (ph) of downtown Belgrade. They know what we're going to come after. They've probably evacuated most of the buildings, maybe we took out some bunkers underneath. It was awesome, but it's limited. It's self-limited because when you're using precision weapons, you strike precisely what you aim at.

BROWN: Yes.

CLARK: And so, if you're not in one of those buildings, you're safe.

BROWN: Good thing to remember. The enemy gets a vote. We'll take a break. Our coverage continues in a moment here on CNN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BROWN: Very quickly, we have Walt Rodgers on the phone. Walt's with the cavalry unit and things are a little bit dicey where he is -- Walt.

RODGERS (on the phone): Hello Aaron. A senior officer with the 3rd Squadron 7th Cavalry has confirmed to CNN that two M1A1 Abrams were knocked out the previous day, that is yesterday, by hostile fire. Those two tanks were in B Troop, which is to say "Bone Crusher" troop. None of the soldiers inside the tanks was injured, but according to what I'm getting from other officers, the Iraqis are now using TOW wire-guided missiles or something to the equivalent thereof.

The Iranians may can export a similar missile and they are mounting them atop flatbed trucks, pickup trucks, riding around the countryside in these pickup trucks and two U.S. Army M1A1 Abrams main battle tanks were taken out of commission yesterday. The Army has now captured several of those Iraqi missiles to determine what sort of preventive measures can be taken to deflect them as they come flying in. But I think they were a little taken aback by that. Again, no soldiers inside the tanks were injured. The soldiers in the tanks were pulled out very, very quickly, but the tanks, two of them, have been put of commission.

Bad news on another from the Army or perhaps bad news, another sandstorm is forecast within the next hour and a half. And of course, it's supposed to be on the magnitude of the sandstorm that this unit received yesterday, which reduced visibility to about 75 meters -- Aaron.

BROWN: Walter, I know you want to -- you certainly don't want to discuss where you are precisely and that's fine. Was your unit involved, the unit you're covering, involved in that -- what was described as significant ground action earlier today?

RODGERS: That significant ground action is up in Najaf. We could hear it in the distance -- I was in my sleeping bag. Overnight I heard at least four hours of very heavy artillery pounding what we've determined is that that was the 3rd Infantry Division. They apparently came under a frontal assault reportedly by infantry units, the kind of cannon fodder that the Iraqi regime throws forward. They were not engaged with Republican Guard, although there is one report the Republican Guard may be moving in our direction with some armor at this time, but of course, the Apache troops -- tanks are out forward ready to engage, if indeed that becomes the case.

But again, the newest development is the Iraqis do have an equivalent of a TOW, that is a wire-guided anti-tank missile, which did put out two -- put out of commission two U.S. tanks yesterday. Again, no casualties, but the tanks themselves were knocked out of action -- Aaron.

BROWN: Don't go away. Well it's great news to be able to report that there are no casualties in that. General, are you surprised at this sort of news -- General?

CLARK: I'm sorry, I'm getting e-mails in from about Michael Moore (ph).

BROWN: OK. That's OK. It happens to me all the time.

CLARK: Am I surprised about...

BROWN: Are you surprised we lost a tank?

CLARK: Yes I am, but I shouldn't have been because obviously there are weapons that will knock out a tank -- you have to hit it the right way -- and we don't know how many weren't knocked out that were hit and...

(CROSSTALK)

CLARK: ... and we don't know how many times -- so, I mean, it's a battle and you have to expect to take some losses. Sounds like the crews got out, so they weren't catastrophic kills. Sounds like maybe the tanks were recovered, probably dragged them back. It's war. It's just like the Apaches. When you're in a ground unit, you're going to have some ups and downs, and I wish we could have an invulnerable ground combat...

BROWN: Of course.

CLARK: We don't.

BROWN: Not yet.

CLARK: The M1A1 is about as good as it comes.

BROWN: Just -- Walt, I don't want to lose you quite yet. There is, as you can see, the horizon in Baghdad now, a plume of smoke. We don't know that that is -- well, we have looked at this shot before. We didn't see it before. So whatever caused it has caused it relatively recently at least. We'll keep an eye on that and get some information.

Walt, it's impossible to resist asking this question because we spent so much time with you and with that unit. First, as you raced across the desert and then as you were stuck in the mud and Mrs. Lyle (ph) talked with Captain Lyle (ph) and all of it seemed quite exciting. I gather it doesn't to the young men of the cavalry unit there feel quite so exciting now. It's serious business, isn't it?

RODGERS: That's true. But yes, I wouldn't say they're in any way demoralized. It's just now that they -- they're more totally focused than ever before because they know that the Iraqis hostile forces are out -- not very far in front of them and the latest report is that some units of the Republican Guard may be headed in the direction of our position, a position we've been assigned to. It is one where we just have to stand and fight whatever comes in the direction of 7th Cavalry. But, again, the cavalry is out there ready to go and it's just a matter of absolute total focus. There's no demoralization in any...

BROWN: No...

RODGERS: ... word.

BROWN: I'm sorry. I didn't mean, if it came across that way. I certainly wasn't suggesting in any way that they'd be demoralized focus -- exactly what I would suspect they were. They know they are getting closer to that moment when they will engage.

RODGERS: Well that's true, but remember yesterday, Aaron, and perhaps it was on a different shift, but they were rather seriously engaged for the past 48 hours. As they approached the Euphrates River, there was an enormous firefight two evenings ago, one in which afterwards one of the majors in the 7th Cavalry said to me I hope I never have to go through that again. That was a very serious firefight. The Iraqis were throwing rocket-propelled grenades at an armored column. They were sneaking up under the cover of darkness firing heavy machine guns. It was a very serious firefight and if you look at the night sky, as we approach the Euphrates River crossings, that night sky was just filled with tracer bullets, outgoing more, outgoing from the Bradleys and from the main battle tanks. But there was incoming as well and the soldiers who had the night vision goggles told us they say upwards of 300 or more Iraqi dismounts, that's infantrymen, being thrown in the direction of the convoy. Of course, the convoy's superior firepower discouraged any frontal assault...

BROWN: Walt...

RODGERS: ... but there were some very close calls. Yes Aaron.

BROWN: I'm sorry. The General wonders did the Americans just run through that or did they stop and destroy those units that were throwing that stuff their way?

RODGERS: In both cases and there was a second incident like that, but in the first case, it was a night battle and the American unit, the 7th Cavalry stopped along this long road and just began to take advantage of its night vision capability and tried to destroy whatever was out there. That included two very large trucks with heavy machine guns mounted on them, a BMP, which is an old Soviet vintage armored personnel carrier and as I say, upwards of 300 dismounts, infantry soldiers out there trying to disrupt our column. That was a nighttime ambush.

Now the following day, yesterday once the unit cross the Euphrates River bridges, what happened at that point was the column had to run a gauntlet of at least an hour of light machine gun fire, AK-47 fire and mortars falling all around the unit. I was having coffee with one officer this morning and he had just gone into the back of his truck, he pulled out his chemical weapon suit to inspect it because there was a bullet hole in the truck and there was an AK-47 slug right through his chemical weapon suit and it was still lodged in some of the fibers -- Aaron.

BROWN: Walt, thank you very much. Walter Rodgers out there in the desert tonight where things are nasty and reports the loss of two American Abrams tanks. But the crews of those tanks were taken out and they are fine, which is the best news in that. Our coverage continues after a short break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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