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Kurdish Opposition Wants Role in Unseating Saddam

Aired March 26, 2003 - 03:41   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: We're going to check in with Brent Sadler. We have been hearing earlier from Kevin Sites in northern Iraq some bombing runs there that he was witnessing and that we were bringing to you live. We're going to check in elsewhere in northern Iraq with Brent Sadler.
Brent, what's the latest where you are?

BRENT SADLER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Anderson, pretty quiet in this area right now. We were hearing those air strikes that Kevin Sites was reporting consistently several hours ago. We'd hear the aircraft overhead here in this location at Kalak, which is pretty close to the Iraqi front lines behind me, and then we'd get Kevin on the line with those detonations.

I think what we're seeing here is really a softening up of some of the key positions on the road to Kirkuk from the Kurdish side of the line. Kirkuk, of course, the key prize for the allied coalition to capture at some stage in the invasion of Iraq. Kirkuk, of course, sitting on some of the largest oil reserves in Iraq as a whole.

I think we're seeing a softening of not only the very front line positions, but also a softening up of the depth of defense that we know is behind those ridgelines behind me. We're talking about artillery positions, we're talking about rocket launchers and we're also talking about tanks. And I think what we're seeing here is sporadic attacks against those positions coinciding with confirmed by Iraqi opposition leaders who met here in the past 24 hours to really get the Iraqi opposition involved in the fighting.

I think they're concerned on this side of the line in Kurdish territory that those weapons that the Iraqi army's three cores on the other side of the line are still in range of Kurdish cities like Arbil and other areas. And of course we know since the war began, shortly before the war began, that tens of thousands of Iraqi families headed for the hills concerned not least about the possibility of chemical weapons attacks but also about the use of conventional weapons against these areas, these urban areas and rural villages close to front lines. So I think we're seeing coalition strikes really beginning to come into vision in the daylight hours, softening up those positions.

Now as far as the Iraqi opposition is concerned, they have made it quite clear, and I spent most part of yesterday up in Salahuddin, which is the Kurdish stronghold of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, talking to key opposition figures like Apa Chalivive (ph) from the Iraqi National Congress, also Massoud Barzani who heads the Kurdistan Democratic Party and Jalal Talabani from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, as well as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Four opposition groups that they say could play a key role, they say, in helping coalition forces really rally support for men -- more popular uprisings, if you like, in Iraqi cities.

At the moment, the coalition, as we know, is telling people to stay out of it, to stay in their homes and let the coalition get on with the job of destroying Iraq's army and artillery and tank pieces spread across the battlefield. The Iraqi opposition is saying look, we're ready to fight. We can assist. Let's try and help mobilize our opposition unit, which had been fighting Saddam Hussein in one way or another, particularly here in the north, for the past 30 years. So they're really raising their voices now to draw attention of the U.S. war planners that they do want to fight what they call the good fight to ultimately defeat Saddam Hussein -- Anderson.

COOPER: Brent, I remember several weeks ago there had been some talk among U.S. officials, sort of criticism of this Iraqi opposition. Basically saying you know they had nice slick silk suits and Rolex watches but really didn't have much in the way of contacts on the ground or the -- you know an ability to really lead. And yet now we are also hearing that there are special forces, some 200 or so, in northern Iraq and that they are working with some counterparts in the Kurdish opposition to make contacts in Kirkuk and elsewhere. Is it true? I mean is it fair to say that the U.S. -- that the coalition is not using the Iraqi opposition or is it simply the Iraqi opposition's belief that they are not being used?

SADLER: I think, Anderson, what you're seeing here, let me clarify all these things because they're very important questions. The Iraqi opposition is looking to have a major meeting in the next few days in Europe, probably in London, to really get themselves on the map. You know they say look, we are Iraqis. The opposition are Iraqis. We want to be involved, more identify ourselves as more closely with the actual conflict on the ground. And you're absolutely right, there's been a great deal of criticism in the U.S. against some elements of the opposition groups.

For example, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, that's supported by Iran. The U.S. that obviously has the problem. (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Iraqi National Congress has also come in with criticism. But what you're seeing on the ground here are those two groups and the Kurds from Telabani, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan's side and the KDP, the Kurds really on the ground here. They have about 70,000 troops. That's not to say they're about to start, you know, pushing their forces towards Kirkuk and Mosul under these airstrikes which have just begun.

But what they are saying is look, we do have support. The various groups do have support in the Shiite areas and particularly in the Kurdish areas, those Kirkuk and Mosul cities, let's use us more. Let's use our resources more. Let the opposition really have some sort of a profile in trying to ferment popular uprising, not just in the south, like we're seeing in Basra, but also in the north.

I do know from briefings that I've had over the past 24 hours with a key Kurdish intelligence official that they're very, very involved with things like target identification. I am told that these airstrikes we're seeing in the Chamchamal area are partly due to Kurdish intelligence helping U.S. forward air controllers who have come in with special forces, part of the special force deployment. They're helping identify those targets.

We also understand from Kurdish intelligence sources that they're helping to encourage defections in those three Iraqi army cores of 120,000 soldiers who man the northern front. I don't think, certainly not in the short term, because there is not the U.S. strength on the ground here in terms of men and equipment. We're not going to see this northern front open up in any dramatic sense in the near future. But we're certainly seeing a lot of activity in terms of airstrikes we've seen today. Kevin sites reporting in some detail on that over the past few hours, but also much going on behind the scenes.

And I think that if you listen to what the Kurds are saying, they say this northern front remains a crucial part of the overall war strategy to defeat Saddam Hussein. Because as the forces from the south move up towards Baghdad, if you have pressure against Saddam Hussein's forces here at the same time, it really is like a nutcracker that will eventually, you know, create...

COOPER: Right.

SADLER: ... the destruction of Saddam Hussein's regime -- Anderson.

COOPER: All right. Brent Sadler in Kalak, thanks very much. And reporting that pressure is largely at this point an air pressure, no boots on the ground, as they say, from coalition forces so far in the north.



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