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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

British Defense Secretary's Press Briefing

Aired March 27, 2003 - 06:43   ET

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

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: We've got to go away because Defense Secretary Geoffrey Hoon, the British Defense Secretary, is holding a live press briefing.
Let's listen.

GEOFFREY HOON, BRITISH DEFENSE SECRETARY: We have yet to be able to undertake a formal identification, but I do regret to say that we do believe that the pictures are of two of our servicemen who, up to now, have been listed as being missing. Next of kin have now been informed. On behalf of the government, I offer my condolences to the families and friends of these two servicemen who died in the service of their country.

With each new conflict, media reporting benefits from the latest technological developments. Over the past week, I've been struck, not only by the speed of communication from theater to our television screens, but by the concentration on front-line activity and specific incidents. That is why at events like these I believe it is useful to set out the wider context.

There is quite properly great interest at what is happening on the front line, but that -- this can mean that many of the specialist tasks in which our servicemen and servicewomen are engaged are ignored in favor of the apparently most dramatic events. Admiral Boyce will speak in a moment about the work of these members of the armed forces who do not take part directly in combat operations but who provide vital support.

But the focus on individual incidents also detracts from an understanding of the bigger picture. That is why in recent parliamentary statements I have been speaking about the obvious progress which the coalition has made in the context of the military campaign objectives which we published as a government at the start of the conflict.

Coalition forces are making good progress in overcoming the resistance of the Iraqi security forces with great courage and great resilience. The contrast between the tactics of the coalition and those directed by the Iraqi regime could not be greater. Coalition, whose armed forces are made up of men and women who made a free choice to serve their country, the Iraqi regime, whose security forces are motivated either by fear or by hatred. Whereas the coalition makes strenuous efforts to employ the minimum use of force, the Iraqi regime places no such limits on its security forces.

Contrast, the coalition's careful targeting and the use of precision guided missiles designed to minimize the risk of civilian casualties with the indiscriminate military action, which is the hallmark of the Iraqi regime. There have been reports, for example, of some of the regime's irregular forces deliberately targeting civilians in their own towns and cities. Likewise, whilst the coalition acts in accordance with the Geneva Convention, the Iraqi regime parades coalition prisoners of war on Iraqi state television in direct violation of Iraq's obligations under the convention.

A most important task within the campaign objectives is to deny Iraq use of its weapons of mass destruction. Coalition efforts have centered on disabling command and control facilities through which the Iraqi regime would order the use of such weapons.

And contrast, we do have evidence that the Iraqi regime is prepared to use weapons of mass destruction. We already know from Iraqi prisoners of war that protective equipment was issued to southern Iraqi divisions. British forces have made significant discoveries in recent days which show categorically that Iraqi troops are prepared for the use of such horrific weapons.

Admiral Boyce will expand on these finds in a few moments, but I want to make it clear that any Iraqi commander who sanctions the use of weapons of mass destruction is a war crime will be held personally responsible for his action.

Ultimately, it will be the removal of Saddam Hussein's regime that will guarantee disarmament. And so this is a key objective of the military campaign. To achieve this, we have been seeking to isolate the regime at all levels, in every part of Iraq, primarily by the use of precision attacks.

I do want to deal with allegations about the explosions of the Baghdad marketplace. We've all seen reports of 15 fatalities. Coalition has made clear that we did not target the marketplace, and subsequently, the United States said that there was no conclusive evidence that the coalition was responsible. Although investigations continue into this tragic incident, it could clearly have been caused by fallout from the regime's anti-aircraft fire or indeed from the failure of one of Iraq's own missiles.

A stark contrast, Saddam Hussein has regularly claimed we have killed civilians or destroyed civilian infrastructure in the past only for those claims to be shown to be entirely false. For example, a few weeks ago, Saddam Hussein claimed six civilians were killed and 15 were injured on an alleged coalition raid on Basra. There were, in fact, no civilian casualties resulting from our actions in the no-fly zones at that time.

Coalition recognizes its responsibilities to the Iraqi people. During and immediately after conflict, our responsibilities will include the provision of humanitarian assistance, organizing basic services and establishing a secure and safe environment inside Iraq.

Compare that to the regime which has allowed a grave humanitarian crisis to develop over many years. Saddam Hussein's rule has been disastrous for the people of Iraq with 60 percent of the population dependent on the United Nations Oil For Food Program and more than half of the population in rural areas without access to safe drinking water. We've always known that we would face humanitarian difficulties when conducting operations in Iraq, and we've certainly planned and prepared for this.

Saddam Hussein's disregard to the Iraqi people's economic wellbeing are shown in his intention to undertake a scorched earth policy, setting light to the oil wells which embody the economic future of Iraq and its people. This has been prevented through the prompt action of coalition forces.

This campaign is only in its eighth day. We all wish to see a speedy end to conflict. Campaign is going to plan. We are, with our coalition partners, involved in a deliberate and cautious endeavor. We will not stop until Saddam Hussein and his appalling regime has fallen from power and weapons of mass destruction dismantled. But we have time to see this through. Saddam Hussein's time is running out -- Mike.

ADM. SIR MICHAEL BOYCE, BRITISH CHIEF OF DEFENSE STAFF: Thanks. Thank you (ph), Secretary of State.

Ladies and gentlemen, before I give you some details of some of the elements of our ongoing campaign, I'd first of all like to echo the words of the Secretary of State and send my personal condolences on behalf of the armed forces to the families of personnel who have lost their lives in recent engagements.

Now as you've heard earlier on this morning, if you've been watching it, some of the details of the unfolding campaign from Air Marshal Brown Barrett (ph) who's our national contingent (UNINTELLIGIBLE) commander out in Gato (ph). And I don't intend to cover all the ground that he did then, but I would say at the moment that the emergency plan and the coalition campaign is being conducted well within expected parameters.

The poor weather that they have been experiencing out there in Iraq over the last couple of days and reduced visibility now has been clearing. But the slow down that it caused has allowed our combat power close to Baghdad and Basra, that's to say the armor, the infantry and the vital sustained logistics, it has allowed them some fear (ph) of consolidation and recuperation.

The air campaign is continuing a pace with the Royal Air Force flying around 100 sorties a day. And they have successfully attacked and destroyed targets ranging from regime headquarters to Iraqi forces in the field and they've knocked out numerous tanks. And in addition, our helicopters have also been supporting our forces throughout the United Kingdom area of operations.

I thought what I'd like to do now is just to give you a little more detail on one or two of the operations been involved in to give you an example of how extremely well our people are performing right across the board.

Let me start with one example. A couple of days ago, in the early hours of the morning, Iraqi forces, including tanks and personnel, moved southeast from Basra towards 3 Commando Brigade on the Al Faw Peninsula. Now 3 Commando Brigade is not fitted with tanks of its own, but the brigade coordinated and deployed a combination of Milan antitank missiles and handheld antitank weapons to engage the enemy forces and they managed to stop a number of the tanks.

But it soon became apparent that the threat was more the significant than it first thought. And so they requested assistance from coalition aircraft, which provided close air support to our forces on the ground. And with the firepower from this support, combined with our armed helicopters and artillery, the enemy tanks were halted. And in fact, the 3 Commando Brigade has now confirmed that a total of 19 enemy T55 tanks were destroyed.

Another small example of some action going on, because it's about this -- also the same time as this was happening. To the north of 3 Commando Brigade in Al Asabier (ph), there have been a number of attacks going on against our forces. And 7th Armored Brigade identified a compound in the south of the town. And this contained a number of buildings, including a Baath Party headquarters, which they were able to destroy in concert with air forces. They have now sealed the town and are keeping up the pressure on it.

And most recently, I can tell you that earlier on this morning a squadron of 14 Challenger 2 tanks of the Royal Scott's Patuxent Guards were heading south toward the Al Faw Peninsula to go and reinforce 3 Commando Brigade and they came across 14 Iraqi T55 tanks. The Scott's Patuxent Guards squadron engaged the Iraqi tanks whilst on the move and destroyed all 14. And none of our Challenger 2 were damaged. And then our Patuxent Guards, they pressed on and overran two associated Iraqi infantry positions.

More generally, we're consolidating our position around Basra and also in the Ramallah oil fields and there we now have got civilian contractors at work under our protection to restore the oil fields to normal working. And three of the nine oil fires have now been extinguished, somewhat quicker than certainly I expected. That's very good news.

On another aspect of how we're doing our business, we're working hard to gain the confidence of the local people. Of course we've got lots of experience in this sort of field of winning the trust of local populations and giving them back confidence to return to some sort of sense of -- sense of normality. Now our efforts here at the moment are focused on Umm Qasr and Ramallah town.

Meanwhile, as we work the area, we're finding out about some other things as well. The use of chemical and biological weapons against our forces has always been one of our chief concerns. We certainly know that Saddam Hussein possesses such a capability and that his army is not shy of using them. We certainly remember the terrible results that they used in the past. And making sure the regime does not get the opportunity to deploy these weapons has been a high priority in our planning and target selection over the last few days. What has not been clear to us is just how ready to use the WMD the regime has been. However, as the Secretary of State has indicated, our forces have made some significant discoveries in the past few days. A short bit of film that I'd like to show you now shows soldiers of the Royal Irish regiment currently in the Ramallah oil field searching a recently deserted Iraqi command position.

The soldiers who fled this post left in a hurry and they left not only their equipment but also paperwork and other equipment, which is now being examined by our intelligence staffs. There were numerous chemical weapons protection suits and respirators left behind and this kit was effective, well cared for and in good working order. And we have to ask ourselves why Iraqi commanders felt that infantry in this part of Iraq should be issued with weapons of mass destruction equipment and protection.

For very field (ph) security, I can't tell you exactly where this find was made other than that it was within the oil fields. But I can tell you that we estimate that there were upwards of some hundred suits across the site, along with other related equipment. And as I say, we'll be analyzing all this very carefully over the coming days.

But it's not just the use of weapons of mass destruction which marks out this regime. On the battlefield, our forces have already been engaged in trying to clean up and make safe parts of the country we control, not just for our forces, but more importantly for the innocent Iraqis who actually live there. A particular hazard we're coming across are antipersonnel mines which we are finding scattered across the whole battle place. We have teams of our explosive ordnance disposal experts setting about the long task of clearing these things. And we're also finding larger antitank mines laid in patterns alongside the civilian road. And I have an example here.

COSTELLO: All right.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: All right.

COSTELLO: We're going to jump out of this right now. You've been listening to Admiral Michael Boyce and the British Defense Secretary speaking. We've got to move on now, though, and we'll continue to monitor that for more information.

COOPER: Absolutely. Want to show you, though, this picture. It just came to us just very recently. This is a picture of probably the luckiest man alive right now. His name is Eric Walderman (ph). He's a Royal Marine Commando. He was shot in the head four times from enemy gun sites during a fire fight in Umm Qasr. As I said, he's a Royal Marine Commando shot four times. His helmet -- his Kevlar helmet saved his life.

COSTELLO: You can see the bullet holes in his helmet going through the first layer.

COOPER: And it's just extraordinary. Eric Walderman, a very lucky man at this moment. That's it for myself, Anderson Cooper, and Carol Costello from the CNN Center in Atlanta. "AMERICAN MORNING" is next, as well as Leon Harris. We'll be right back.

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