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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

Victoria Clarke Holds a War Briefing

Aired March 26, 2003 - 14:00   ET

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

VICTORIA CLARKE, ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Good afternoon, everybody. Thanks for your patience in moving the schedule around.
This is the sixth day of the coalition campaign to end the Iraqi regime, destroy their weapons of mass destruction and free the Iraqi people from decades of torture and oppression. We are making good progress on the land, in the sea and in the air with the invaluable help of many coalition allies. As President Bush said this morning in Tampa, the world is witnessing the skill and the humanity of the American military.

I'd like to express our condolences to the families of American and coalition troops who have lost their lives in the war. These are very, difficult times. We know that. And we also want you to know how much the American people appreciate your sacrifices.

Our military has gone more than 200 miles in Iraq, and are now closing in on Baghdad. Within just the last day fighting in a sandstorm coalition forces have engaged the enemy. General McChrystal will provide further details on the military progress in a minute.

As we have said from the beginning, one of our military objectives is to secure the oil fields for the benefit of the Iraqi people. Already our forces are putting out fires lit by the Iraqi military at the Rumeila oil field in southern Iraq.

With each passing day and every day an increasingly desperate Iraqi regime violates many international laws and all norms of human decency. As you know, enemy soldiers have pretended to surrender, to give up and then brought in fire on our forces. They have pretended to be Iraqi civilians, welcoming coalition forces and then ambushed them. And as many of you have reported, in southern Iraq yesterday the Iraqi military even used a hospital as a fortress, firing on Marines.

During time of war, a hospital is always considered to be a safe place for the sick and the wounded. The building was clearly marked as a hospital by a flag with a red crescent designed to protect it from attack.

When the Marines took over the building, they found a den of destruction. They captured 170 Iraqi troops, they found about 200 weapons, stockpiles of munitions and 3,000 chemical suits with masks, and even a tank. The Iraqi troops also had supplies and medicine designed to protect against nerve gas. Since coalition forces, obviously, do not have or use nerve gas, the conclusion is inescapable: The enemy may be planning to use such agents against us or the Iraqi people.

In the infamous attack on Halabja which took place 15 years ago this month, Saddam Hussein killed thousands of his own people with chemical weapons. We have repeatedly warned Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi military not to use weapons of mass destruction. If any Iraqi uses them, he will be considered a war criminal and will pay a severe price.

Because of Saddam Hussein's brutal policies, the people of Iraq suffer from shortages of food and water.

CLARKE: Coalition forces are bringing relief as fast as possible. Some humanitarian aid is already being delivered, and much more is due to arrive shortly when the Sir Galahad moves into port city of Umm Qasr. Trucks carrying humanitarian aid have already entered southern Iraq. Water and urgent need in Basra was disrupted, and the Red Cross and others have been able to restore it to some 40 percent of the city.

The United States has already given international relief agencies more than $100 million to help Iraq and we are preparing $300 million in direct food aid to Iraq going forward.

Just six days into the war, we can look back and see some remarkable progress on the land, the sea and in the air. As the secretary and as the president have made clear, challenges still lie ahead, but the outcome is very clear: the end of the Iraqi regime.

General McChrystal?

MAJ. GEN. STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL, JOINT CHIEFS OPS. VICE DIR.: Thank you, Ms. Clarke.

I'd also like to add my condolences to all those families who've lost loved ones. Our thoughts and prayers are with you.

Operation Iraqi Freedom continues. More than 250,000 U.S. troops are deployed in support of combat operations, as well as more than 40,000 coalition forces. Our ground forces are pushing north towards Baghdad and Al Kut. We are more than 220 miles into Iraqi territory, and have done it over six days in spite of difficult weather.

Yesterday many of you reported an engagement near Najaf. The 7th Calvary was engaged by irregular forces firing rocket-propelled grenades and anti-tank weapons. In the middle of bad conditions, our forces responded by destroying more than 30 enemy vehicles and killing enemy personnel in the hundreds. No U.S. forces were killed in the exchange.

The air campaign is continuing as well. We flew nearly 700 sorties yesterday, most against Iraqi regime targets in the vicinity of Baghdad, as well as countering missile threats throughout southern and western Iraq. Since March 20th, our forces have fired more than 600 Tomahawks and dropped more than 4,300 precision-guided weapons.

There are recent press reports that coalition forces bombed a marketplace in Baghdad. Coalition forces did not target a marketplace, nor were any bombs or missiles dropped or fired in the district outlined in blue on this image. And that's called the Shaab District. The yellow circle in the center for reference contains the presidential palace, to give you a feel of where we are.

We'll continue to look and see if we missed anything, but another explanation could be the AAA fire or surface-to-air missile that missed its target fell back into the marketplace area. But just like we mentioned yesterday, the bus on Monday that we hit accidentally, once we have a better clarity, we'll get it to you.

We do regret the loss of any life -- any innocent life in any conflict.

Let me give you a summary of the missiles Iraq has fired at coalition forces. Ten short-range ballistic missiles have been fired thus far, all directed at Kuwait. Seven have been intercepted by Patriot missiles. Two fell in unpopulated areas in the desert and one landed in the Persian Gulf.

Iraqi forces continue to use civilian clothing and vehicles to avoid getting into direct conflict with U.S. forces.

Finally I have five videos for you today. The first video is of an F-16 that was directed by AWACS to do time-sensitive targeting against vehicles in support of ground forces west of H-2 airfield. The pilot released a GBU on the vehicle, and the vehicle was destroyed.

The second video is of an F-16 dropping precision-guided munitions on a tank west of Karbala.

The third is of an A-10 deployed against a guard shack south of the H-2 airfield. He dropped a precision bomb that landed approximately 10 meters short of the target. The mission was successful, as the target had significant damage and the guard shack was no longer standing.

The fourth video is on an A-10 tasked by an AWACS to assist another flight in attacking a compound south of H-2 airfield. The pilot dropped a GBU on a target resulting in explosion and a fire.

The fifth video is of an F-17 that dropped two GBUs on the presidential secretariat in Baghdad, impacting the building.

QUESTION: General, you said that -- I believe you said that nothing was targeted in the Shaab District today. Do you have any evidence whether anything might have landed in the Shaab District?

And CENTCOM now says that nine surface-to-surface missile sites were attacked in downtown Baghdad today, and some of those sites were near residential homes.

Number one, do you know for a fact that nothing landed in the Shaab District, and were any of those missile sites in the Shaab District that were attacked? MCCHRYSTAL: Sir, we know for a fact that something landed in the Shaab District, but we don't know for a fact whether it was U.S. or Iraqi and we can't make any assumption on either at this point. We do know that we did not target anything in the vicinity of the Shaab District.

QUESTION: How big is the Shaab district? Do you have approximately?

CLARKE: Don't know. But your question brings up something, a point that we've made before, and we'll make again.

CLARKE: And just a sign of the brutality of this regime and a sign of how little they care about civilians, that they put military assets close to civilians -- in and around and near civilians, deliberately putting their lives at risk.

QUESTION: Can you give us some idea of how far away was the neighborhood that (UNINTELLIGIBLE) did target those missiles?

MCCHRYSTAL: No, ma'am, we can't discuss the location of other targets.

QUESTION: So you can't say whether it was near there or not near there?

QUESTION: It just says the missiles were 300 feet from homes that you were targeting -- surface-to-surface missile launchers were 300 feet from homes. Now, is this same strike as the market?

MCCHRYSTAL: Sir, they were other targets and within Baghdad.

CLARKE: We did not have a strike on the market.

QUESTION: But not near there?

CLARKE: Correct.

QUESTION: Tori, there's a report from an embed with the BBC that a number of Iraqi tanks and armored vehicles have broken out of Basra and are headed south. Do you have any information on that, any indication where they might be headed?

CLARKE: I do not. I've seen the reports of it -- or correction, I've seen chyrons (ph) to that effect. And I asked a couple of people.

MCCHRYSTAL: I have seen those reports as well. We wouldn't confirm their movements, but we watch wherever they go, sir.

QUESTION: OK, how threatening could that be? What is a prime target down in that area? I know there are coalition forces down there.

MCCHRYSTAL: Sir, I -- we're moving to the north, so we certainly don't want to discuss that in detail. What we would say is where they want to come and we have to fight, that's what we'll do. QUESTION: Tori, could I ask you and the general both to elaborate a little on some of the stuff you talked about in your opening statement about the packets the Iraqis are using, being in the hospital, using Red Cross vehicles, et cetera?

How many of these things, General, are unprecedented? Or do they happen in every war? And what consequences are there for the Iraqis? And what consequences are there for our forces? Do our forces have to change their tactics? Have they? And should the Iraqis be considered war criminals for doing this? And what's all of this mean?

CLARKE: Let me start and you can finish. You can in truth talk about a pattern of behavior -- a pattern of behavior by this regime, they clearly could not care less about peoples' lives.

I mean, this month is the 15th anniversary of the attack on Halabja in which he killed thousands and thousands and thousands of his own people using chemicals against them. We know they have used torture and oppression as a policy -- as a matter of policy, in huge bureaucracy put behind it.

And just recently we have seen some absolutely unbelievable examples of how little they care about civilians and how little they value life. Taking these people -- that we're trying to figure out what we should call them. I know some people have referred to the special military that Saddam Hussein uses as paramilitary, which I don't like using. It just -- it sounds too positive in some way.

But these people have done extraordinary things, which go outside all laws and norms, which just show -- go to the brutality of the regime. And they are considered war crimes. And people that we can find and hold, they will be treated as such. It's just extraordinary.

Now, in terms -- I'll just make one point about our general strategy. It is not changing the strategy. It is not changing the overall game plan. One of the aspects of the overall game plan of strategy was to be able to adapt and adjust as appropriate, depending on what the enemy does.

QUESTION: But is it changing tactics?

MCCHRYSTAL: Well, that's an interesting question, sir. I think one of the things that our soldiers are remembering is we are there to liberate the people of Iraq. And because we've got what we consider a very, very -- a noble purpose in this case, the tactics and techniques and procedures won't change, although that's what I really think that these elements are trying to do. They're trying to get an overreaction from coalition forces so that we'll fire on people who are trying to surrender.

We won't change our rules of engagement. And I don't think we'll change the nature of our soldiers to charge them. They'll be careful.

QUESTION: Don't these things always happen in wars, though?

CLARKE: There are people with far more experience than mine, but I don't think we've seen them to the level and the extent that we have seen the Iraqi regime use. It's pretty extraordinary.

QUESTION: General, can you talk about what's being done to secure the supply lines and also to root out the Fedayeen? We are being told that elements of the 3rd ID and the Marines are being either pulled back or diverted for those jobs.

MCCHRYSTAL: Sir, I'm not aware of any specific units being pulled back. Normally doctorally (ph) when a force moves and it gets an extended supply line like this, it uses a combination of techniques. One is force protection by individual movements, either convoys or small elements. They force-protect themselves. They're in constant communication so that they can call air power or artillery to support them as well. And then at key points, forces will often be put -- placed to help support that line of communications as well.

QUESTION: Who is doing that? What units? Do you know?

MCCHRYSTAL: Sir, it would be a number of units.

CLARKE: But I think if you look at the overall progress and you look at the movement moving north toward Baghdad overnight, they continue to make considerable progress.

QUESTION: I was just wondering if you are beefing up security on the supply lines.

MCCHRYSTAL: No, sir, I would say we are continuing to secure supply lines.

One of the points I'd want to make is the extent of this moving, the speed, the logistics have not been interrupted. There have been some situations that occur, but it has in no way endangered or cut any of the lines of communication.

QUESTION: Tori, what can you tell us about Iraqi forces wearing U.S. uniforms?

CLARKE: Well, I remember several weeks ago out here talking about we knew they were acquiring uniforms that looked like U.S. and U.K. uniforms. And the reporting was that they planned to use them, give them to the thugs, as I call them, to go out, carry out reprisals against the Iraqi people and try to blame it on coalition forces

So just recently we have seen reports again that they may be wearing or using what look like U.S. uniforms to confuse people, to confuse our forces, to confuse the Iraqi people.

QUESTION: Have you seen specific reports about them wearing U.S. uniforms, accepting the surrender of Iraqi troops and then executing them?

CLARKE: I have seen at least one report. I want to caution that and caveat to say that I have seen one report like that.

QUESTION: What else can you tell us about effort by Iraqi forces to suppress the populations in these cities? CLARKE: I've seen some right from the reporting of your colleagues who are embedded. But there seem to be some evidence of them, for instance, putting civilians between the coalition forces and the Iraqi military.

CLARKE: I have seen some reporting from your colleagues that suggests they turned fire on their own people.

So we've seen it. It's awful, it's horrible. I don't know why people are surprised or why you wouldn't think they might do that.

QUESTION: General, will you have to go into the cities in the south to root these people out? And is that what you intended to do all along?

MCCHRYSTAL: Sir, at some point, obviously, all of the elements have to be dealt with. As we continue to move forth, the first and primary objective clearly is to overturn the regime. And I believe that when the regime, in fact, is taken down, the motivation and the support for many of these elements will stop and therefore they will become less motivated and less effective.

There aren't a huge number of them. If, in fact, elements have got to go in to do that, they can do that over time.

QUESTION: But there's no plan to do that now; the focus will be on Baghdad, is that right?

MCCHRYSTAL: Sir, I wouldn't discuss General Franks', you know, specific plans right now, but clearly at some point they'll be addressed.

QUESTION: Does the administration have a policy of not releasing the numbers of American casualties? And if it does, why?

CLARKE: Absolutely not. We release the numbers and the information that we have. In many instances it's hard to get the ground truth.

But I think two things. I think, if you look at this embedding program, which is providing some incredibly full and complete and robust coverage, I think that's a good sign of how firmly committed we are to letting the American people and others know what is going on in these military operations: the good, the bad and the in between.

When we have information about casualties, including civilian casualties, and we have some ground truth to it, we bring it forward. You've seen evidence of that in the last few days.

QUESTION: The CENTCOM briefer said this morning that it is policy not to release the numbers of American dead and wounded. How many American soldiers have been killed and how many have been wounded up...

CLARKE: We've had 24 killed, and I believe we've had 19 wounded.

Is that right, Brian (ph)?

STAFF: (OFF-MIKE)

QUESTION: Is that KIA or that include the accidents, the vehicle accidents (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

CLARKE: We have numbers on killed and we have some numbers on wounded, and we will provide what we can. It will never be as fast as some people like, it will never be as some people will like. But that information that we feel is pretty solid, that information which is based -- and there's going to be a briefing in here after this briefing to talk about the process -- is based to a huge extent on the dignity and respect with which we want to treat these issues. Next of kin notification is incredibly important to us, and we'll take the time to do it right, and we'll put out the numbers when we think it is appropriate.

QUESTION: And the other category is missing...

CLARKE: We'll give you -- we'll follow up after this, and we will post something that gives you what we know at this time.

QUESTION: I'm a little confused about who exactly it is that these Iraqi forces are. General McChrystal, you characterized them as irregular forces, but you also said they're using anti-tank weapons. I'm not, obviously, a weapons expert, but that's not an AK-47. Yesterday we heard that some of them had commandeered tanks. Again, thugs, you know, wouldn't seem to know how to operate a tank.

Could you clarify a little bit about in terms of how much military competence these forces seem to have, and does that indicate they've got military training? Could they be Republican Guard elements? Or what?

CLARKE: And I'll apologize for any imprecision in words that I may have used. I just -- and I'm struggling with this, because for some reason paramilitary just sounds too nice. They are clearly part of the military apparatus, they're clearly directed to do these things, but they are the worst of the worst, in my opinion.

MCCHRYSTAL: I'd like to answer that, sir. Clearly we'll get it wrong because we don't know the exact composition, but we believe it to be Baathists who were in the area, Baath Party members who are not strictly military but are, sort of, the thugs that Ms. Clarke mentioned. Also some Special Republican Guard elements sent down to stiffen that. Maybe some other elements are in there as well to organize and make that process work.

That's why we believe that when we can deal with the regime at large part of the motivation and control of that will diminish.

QUESTION: General McChrystal, I need to ask you another perception question, and that is that the growing perception among some that the actions of these shock troops or whatever you want to call them has put the U.S. military off of its plan. And is that a function of the fact that people don't really know what the plan is or have you had to make major adjustments because of unanticipated events that have unfolded?

MCCHRYSTAL: Sir, I can be unequivocal on that. It has not thrown the force off its plan. In fact, it's probably part of the effect of seeing it so close, in such raw terms, sometimes embedded media, sometimes other reasons, but it makes fairly limited engagements, fairly limited incidents take on a greater perceived value than they are.

As I discussed on the lines of communication when these have occurred, the logistics have flowed, continue to flow smoothly. Additional forces continue to push forward. The plan has moved almost exactly with expectations: fast where we expected it to be fast, gathering strength where we expected to do that. So the answer is, it's right on the mark, sir.

QUESTION: But if I could follow up, was it anticipated that these Fedayeen Saddam and Special Republican Guard units would have played the role they're playing now to the extent that are that is preventing cities from being liberated, preventing troops from surrendering and hindering operations in the rear to the extent they are now?

CLARKE: We said many, many times there were a lot of unknowns. One of the unknowns was, "What is the role they will play? How widespread would it be?" those sorts of things. But we also knew we have the plan and we have the people who are prepared to deal with it.

And if you step back and look at the overall picture, we're on the sixth day of this campaign, and on the sixth day of this campaign, going against a regime that knows its days are numbered, we have air dominance, we have special forces in the north, the south and the west, the main ground forces are moving at a phenomenal pace toward the north, closing in on Baghdad, we've demined the waterways so the humanitarian assistance can and is coming in, we're securing the oil fields in the south for the benefit of the Iraqi people.

Most people -- you spoke of some -- most people would look at that and say that's pretty phenomenal for six days.

QUESTION: On the suits that were found in the hospital, can you tell were they new, had they been used, were there an equivalent number of hoods, were they protective ready?

CLARKE: The chemical suits?

QUESTION: Yes.

CLARKE: I don't know. As more information comes forward we will try to put it out. But significant numbers of them.

QUESTION: Were there equivalent number of hoods?

CLARKE: I don't know.

MCCHRYSTAL: I don't know...

CLARKE: It was described as suits with masks, which they may have been describing as hoods, but we'll try to find out for you.

QUESTION: Could I go back for a second on the convoy of vehicles? General, you've mentioned that the Iraqis use civilian vehicles. I was wondering if there is a chance that convoy that was talked about might be actually civilian vehicles that Iraqi forces are using to move south.

QUESTION: And also, could you give us a bill on the latest on Najaf? Have they captured some key bridges?

MCCHRYSTAL: Well, on the civilian vehicles, I haven't looked closely enough at the reported movement yet to tell you. I just had heard a report that there were vehicles moving, so I'd have to get back with you on that.

I'm not familiar that there was a problem around an-Najaf with bridges at this point. We are past an-Najaf at this point.

QUESTION: And could you elaborate a little bit on that? So you've secured the bridges in Najaf? And when you say past, how far past and what's the situation now?

MCCHRYSTAL: Well, as we talk, we're more than 200 miles, it would be inappropriate for me to give you the front-line trace of our organization. But that organization has moved very effectively up that route.

QUESTION: When you talk about the civilian vehicles, are you referring to the convoy moving south from Basra, or the one that's reported moving south from Baghdad and said to be a large convoy of Republican Guard, possibly disguised as civilians?

QUESTION: Toward Karbala.

MCCHRYSTAL: The second one is the only report that I'd seen, ma'am, and I don't know any details on it.

QUESTION: Referring to this one, so you're not confirming that there's Republican Guard moving south from Baghdad...

MCCHRYSTAL: No, ma'am.

QUESTION: ... either in civilian vehicles or otherwise?

MCCHRYSTAL: I'd only be confirming that I had seen one report, and I have no idea what's correct.

QUESTION: What is the earliest date that the 4th Infantry Division can be in place and ready to fight? And how has the military's inability to have an armored thrust from the north negatively affected the campaign?

MCCHRYSTAL: Let's say we wanted an armored thrust from the north, and the 4th Infantry Division's a powerful division. It works from the south as well. In fact, it'll be helpful wherever it comes in. I won't put a precise date on it because they're moving, but they'll be ready in fairly short order because the vehicles are already on ships and the personnel are prepared to move.

QUESTION: So two weeks, does that sound about right?

MCCHRYSTAL: Sir, I wouldn't put a date on it.

CLARKE: I wouldn't either.

QUESTION: General, these Fedayeen soldiers, or paramilitary or thugs or whatever you want to call them, are wearing civilian outfits, they're using civilian vehicles. Does that make them enemy combatants? Does that change their status in the eyes of U.S. military justice? Or has that been decided at this point?

CLARKE: They are lawful targets.

QUESTION: Lawful targets, but, I mean, if they are caught are they POWs, given the same treatment as military soldiers, or are they treated -- are they to be treated differently in the same way we saw in Afghanistan?

CLARKE: It was described to me this morning as they are lawful and legitimate military targets.

QUESTION: What happened with the targeting of Iraqi television last night? Please tell us a little bit about...

CLARKE: I've had mixed reports that it was down for a while. It may have come up in some ways but not in as robust fashion as it was. Clearly, it has been degraded to a certain extent.

What happens going forward is up to General Franks.

QUESTION: Why is it a legitimate target...

CLARKE: Command and control. Command and control.

QUESTION: Wait a minute, I have a question. Have we dropped MOAB, General, or are we going to drop MOAB?

(LAUGHTER)

MCCHRYSTAL: Sir, we have not dropped MOAB, and that would be up to General Franks, any munition used.

QUESTION: You keep saying that the Iraqis put military targets in their homes in Baghdad...

CLARKE: Absolutely.

QUESTION: Are you going to continue to attack these targets, and if your precision-guided weapons go awry, are you saying then it's the fault of the Iraqis that civilians are killed? CLARKE: A couple of things. We have made clear again and again, and we will repeat it, that our objective of this campaign is to end the Iraqi regime with as few casualties as possible.

We go to extraordinary efforts to achieve that, including an incredible targeting process. And I'm half-inclined to say that we should do our targeting brief in here again. We go to extraordinary efforts to reduce the likelihood of those casualties.

Any casualty that occurs, any death that occurs is the direct result of Saddam Hussein's policies.

Thank you.

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