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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

U.S. Paratroopers Holding Airfield in Northern Iraq

Aired March 28, 2003 - 02:35   ET

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

ANDERSON COOPER: You have been listening to a press conference given by Brian Burridge, the British Air Marshall. A lot he covered, started off the press conference if you missed it, it began about half an hour ago, criticizing quite directly, Al-Jazeera, the Arab television network for airing what is believed to be the bodies of some British soldiers, again believed to be. And he was very critical of Al-Jazeera for making the decision to air that. Also, one of the early headlines out of this press conference was that the two mines have been discovered and detonated near Umm Qasr.
They have cleared a channel, but these mines were discovered outside that channel, and the headline being, this may delay the first arrival, I believe was the Sir Galahad that was going to arrive with some 200 tons of aid from both the U.K and Kuwait. That was supposed to arrive on Thursday, but it looks like that may be delayed for 24 hours.

CAROL COSTELLO: It will be delayed until Friday. He said so many interesting things. He was talking about those tanks, apparently coming form Basra towards British troops, and how British troops opened fire, and believed that tank brigade was trying to attack the British troops, but he said that they took care of that. He also said there was another column of tanks coming from Basra, that was attempting to flee, and air strikes also took care of that column of tanks.

COOPER: And it's still seems that both tanks and Bradley vehicles, a wide variety of armored vehicles. And what he said basically about the situation in Basra, he said it's a classic ambiguous battle space. It is a difficult and confused situation there. And is one we will be following a lot in the coming hours. It's about 2:36 am here, on the East Coast. We're going to take a short break, and then we'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COSTELLO: It is 2:37 in the morning on the East Coast; 10:37 in Baghdad. Good morning to you, I'm Carol Costello.

COOPER: And good morning to you. I'm Anderson Cooper, thanks for joining us here on our continuing coverage of the war in Iraq. We are going to be following a lot in the next hour or so. Looking right now at some major troop movements. U.S. paratroopers are holding an airfield in Kurdish controlled northern Iraq. This, after one of the largest airborne drops in more than a decade. The maneuver will open the way for ground troops, armored personnel carriers, and eventually humanitarian relief on the northern front. Meanwhile, same time, coalition troops are rolling toward Baghdad from the south. Forces loyal to Saddam Hussein's regime are sniping at their supply lines, but they are not facing the huge Republican Guard column from Baghdad that they had been warned of earlier. Apparently that was simply incorrect intelligence on the ground. A senior U.S. defense official says that report was based on inaccurate intelligence.

We're going to focus right now on what is going on in northern Iraq. A lot of, of activity all over to talk about, all over Iraq to talk about at this hour, but we want to begin by focusing on the north, because that is where paratroopers from the U.S. Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade, have arrived near an airfield in northern Iraq. They secured the airfield for coalition use in Kurdish controlled area. CNN's Brent Sadler was there, and joins us now from Kalak. Brent.

BRENT SADLER: Thanks, Anderson. This was indeed a very dramatic way for these troops to enter the war in Iraq. They came in on aircraft in the middle of the night, about one am local time, about 10 hours ago, just under 10 hours, moving out of an aircraft very very quickly; 100 at a time. Ten sticks as their called. Groups of 100 paratroopers, dropping out of the aircraft, and then hitting the ground. Now we were able to see them very soon after they had hit the ground, and we were watching them dig in, really scraping an initial position once they'd started to assemble. If I could just run through what happens on these kind of things. We very rarely see this. This is very dramatic to see, an operation like this dropping into a combat zone, even though it is friendly territory. These are unique circumstances we're seeing here.

So we're seeing the paratroopers really assemble from the drop line, really spread out along a wide area. Groups of troops coming together. Each of the commander of those sticks of 100, making sure that all their paratroopers were in once piece after the drop, and then we saw them moving across open countryside. Really remarkable pictures, as just after dawn they started really coming out of the early morning light, and setting up a perimeter security around the airport. Now the airport is called Harir. It's a landing a strip, this used. It's never been used in fact, built in the early 1980's by Saddam Hussein. Going to be a very important airfield, this.

So we saw the paratroopers there, getting into their first positions. It was very interesting to see. They were absolutely covered in mud. We've had two or three days of torrential rain here, so they hit pretty soft ground when they came down, but at the same time, they also go very muddy. We saw them chipping away the mud out of their equipment, out of their weapons. I spoke to a number of them; they said the adrenaline rush as they came out of the aircraft at about 1200 feet, was very very high. They were really pumped up for the drop; they came down less than a minute, about 45 seconds, floating, if you can imagine, floating in the air, in the night sky; no visibility apart from what they through their night vision obviously. No natural light, hitting the ground, and then really finding out where they were, assembling, and then setting up this perimeter security.

So an incredible operation and the guys on the ground were certainly telling me that they felt very very comfortable about the drop. They'd hit some stones, bumps and bruises; one or two slight sprained ankles, but nothing serious. And of course, they're here in Kurdish controlled territory, which is friendly as far as their concerned. We had one amazing scene of a shepard walking through the deployment of paratroopers, a little way from this old man, as he walked past with his stick, and then went about tending to his flock of sheep. So really, incredible scenes. Now this has been happening at the same time, roughly the same time as we saw more action on the northern front. I'm now joined by my colleague, CNN's Ben Wedeman, who was here in front of the Iraqi lines this morning. Ben, what did you see?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well Brent, it was really just after sunset, about sunrise, about four hours ago, and we were hearing these planes, these planes flying right above us, and they were catching the glint of the sun, and they went over a few times, just two planes. And then we saw these blasts on the horizon on the Iraqi ridge behind us, where the Iraqi frontline positions are. And they were basically four separate blasts, separated by five to ten minutes, and really shaking the ground in this area, this is, there, the first initial attack, initial strike was yesterday. Brent of course, was here for that.

This morning four large blasts, really shaking the area and we've been watching over the last several weeks, how the Iraqis have been digging in, fortifying their positions, bringing more weapons and ammunition to this area, and of course, the local reaction, the reaction by the Kurdish forces here has been very positive. We had a crew that went down in to the village of Kalak. These people very relieved, very happy to see the United States finally engaging Iraqi forces in this area.

SADLER: Ben, what I'm seeing here obviously is softening up of positions on those hills behind us, at the same time as we're seeing the beginning of this deployment of ground forces here, really the head of what will follow, which should be armor, armored personnel carriers. It's my guess we're going to see pressure building on this northern front at the same time as the coalition forces drive toward Baghdad from the south. To put all the more pressure on Saddam Hussein simultaneously. Do you see it that way?

WEDEMAN: Definitely. I mean it's always important to remember, there's a large force on the other side of these lines. It's not just a couple hundred men in these ridge positions. There are approximately a 120,000 Iraqi forces divided between three army corps in the north. And they are not to be taken lightly. They have heavy artillery, tanks, the whole range of modern military equipment. And obviously, with the 60 or 70,000 Kurdish forces in this, along this 500-mile frontline, with the help of the United States, it's still going to be quite a fight.

SADLER: Thanks very much, Ben. So what think we're going to see here in the coming days is a gradual increase of troops, probably as many as five or six thousand, maybe in the next two or three days according to Kurdish sources. Just for reference sake, this position, those hills behind us over there; that's where the Iraqi frontlines are. In terms of where those paratroopers are, about an hour and a half. I've just come back with those pictures, exclusive pictures about an hour and a half's drive from where those paratroopers are digging in around that airstrip. And that airstrip, I can tell you Anderson, is long enough to take very heavy transport aircraft, so we can expect to see light armor, vehicles coming in there, really to give the troops on the ground now the kind of support that they're going to need as they build their forces in this area. So really, significant developments today along this northern front area. Anderson.

COOPER: And there's a lot I would like to ask you about. We're going to have to do it in the next hour because I know you have to go to service some other CNN international. But we want to talk to you about some of the other elements in the story, exclusive story for CNN in the next hour. Brent and Ben, thanks very much. We'll be back later. Carol.

COSTELLO: Incredible pictures they're bringing us. We want to talk more about this CENTCOM briefing that occurred just about 45 minutes ago. Let's go live to the Pentagon right now, to check in with Chris Plante. Chris, I'm sure you were listening, and there were many pointed questions to Brian Burridge, the U.K. Air Marshall, who was speaking before the press. Sort of the same pointed questions that reporters were asking of U.S. officials yesterday.

CHRIS PLANTE: Well, that's true. And it doesn't seem that an awful lot of progress has been made in the last 24 hours, at least from our vantage point. Here in the Pentagon, we're a long way from the action, we're getting a lot of information from our embedded people there, certainly as to the movements, but the closer we get to the battle of Baghdad, I think the less we're going to hear about specific movements of troops and specific actions being taken by the coalition's airpower and so on. But there was one major incident that was mentioned, and that was the apparent, well there was an explosion in a marketplace in Baghdad, and a number of civilians killed, and Baghdad, the government there says 15 Iraqis killed in that explosion, and dozens more injured. They claimed that it was a U.S. cruise missile that went astray, and came in to this marketplace. The U.S. says that they're not so sure. And they also say that they wouldn't put it past this regime to have the secret police detonate a bomb in the marketplace so that they could claim these casualties for propaganda purposes, and public relations purposes.

This is something that came up earlier today when General Peter Pace, Marine Corps General, who's the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was on CNN's, "Larry King's Live". He said that it could have been a range of issues, a range of weapons, it could have been an Iraqi surface-to-air missile that went up and came down. He did not count out the possibility that it may have been a stray or errant U.S. cruise missile, or a bomb. They would go through their bombing records to see whether they hit all of the targets that they set out to hit yesterday, and in an effort to determine whether this may have been an errant U.S. or coalition bomb.

Also, as we've been hearing from our people up north. The U.S. has moved about 1000 paratroopers into an area of northern Iraq, or Kurdish held territory, where they plan on setting up a base of operations at an airbase in the town of Bashir (ph), which is very close to where our people were standing there just a few minutes ago. And as Brent was saying, the runway is long enough and sturdy enough where we can expect to see heavy transports flowing in to that base very soon, and off-loading equipment for the opening of a northern front. Northern front was of course, part of the original plan, which was to create a pincher (ph) maneuver as they call it in the military, with a northern front coming from Turkey into Baghdad from the north, as the other troops moved from Kuwait up toward Baghdad from the south. The Turkish Parliament didn't allow that to happen, so the Pentagon making some adjustments now, this part of that opening of the northern front. One of the adjustments required because of that situation.

Also, the Fourth Infantry Division out of Ft. Hood, Texas, will now go into Kuwait with their very high tech gear and join the fight from the south. Carol.

COSTELLO: I want to go back to the CENTCOM briefing for just a moment, Chris. One of the questions that the reporters asked of Brian Burridge was, is the Iraqi leadership really on the run? And the answer that he gave to reporters from CENTCOM Headquarters in Doha, Qatar, he said Iraq's reactions to events is poor, and there are signs that communication is not up to speed. What is the Pentagon saying about that?

PLANTE: Well, certainly one of the top priorities in this campaign has been to cut back on if not entirely, eliminate the ability of Saddam Hussein and his inner circle to communicate with their troops in the field. They feel that if they can, and this is sort of a standard military procedure; if they can cut off the leadership from their troops in the field, that it will lead to chaos, it will lead to surrenders, to defections, troops won't want to fight if they're not sure whether their leadership is in tact; you want the troops in the field to feel isolated, you want the leadership to feel isolated. It's all part of really, one of the psychological dimensions of military operation. You see it as a very

They're not sure whether their leadership is in tact. You want the troops in the field to feel isolated; you want the leadership to feel isolated. It's all part of really, one of the psychological dimensions of military operation. You see it as a very common characteristic in any air campaign. They've also said that they have special operations forces on the ground. They, what they do generally, is try to cut off all of the main avenues of communication, and then tap into the remaining avenues of communication as a means of gathering intelligences. So it's, it's pretty much a normal, normal procedure. They want to cut back on their ability to communicate, and then tap into what they have left. Carol.

CAROL COSTELLO: I understand. We'll be talking a lot more about this throughout the morning. Chris Plante, live from the Pentagon.

ANDERSON COOPER: Well Carol, one of the other things that was discussed at that CENTCOM briefing that occurred just about 40 minutes ago or so, was this, this incident in Baghdad; some sort of explosion in a marketplace. Iraqi officials saying it was an errant, or a cruise missile from the United States. Killed some 15 people. British authorities, the British spokesman we just heard from, basically not denying that, but basically saying that there is quote, an extensive investigation going on, to see exactly what may have caused those deaths, the implication being perhaps it was either an errant cruise missile, some sort of errant bomb, some sort of mistake, or perhaps the indication being from coalition forces, the implication being some sort of attempt by the Iraqis to injure their own people, and cause some sort of public relations coup. Obviously, those pictures have been transmitted around the world. We're going to go now to Rym Brahimi in Amman, Jordan, for the latest both on bombings in Baghdad, and the fall out from this incident. Rym.

RYM BRAHIMI: Anderson, waves of explosions were heard in the Iraqi capital last night. Also, a series of explosions after day break in the morning. Now the explosions, there seemed to have been about 30 of them, according to what we're hearing, and mostly on the outskirts of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad. The skies also seemed to have cleared up after one of the worst sandstorms in recent history. Now the Iraqi Information Ministry is saying that 15 people died in the marketplace bombing, and reporters who were at the scene at this marketplace that's located in the northern outskirts of Baghdad, and area called Al Shaab. Now that's an area not very far from Al Saude (ph). It's a very very popular neighborhood; a very poor neighborhood as well in Baghdad. Those reporters, photographers mainly who were there, said they saw an undetermined number of bodies, injured, or dead. They said they appeared to be civilians, and there were also some burnt cars all around that area. Anderson.

COOPER: Rym, it's interesting. I don't know if you were able to catch the CENTCOM briefing Brian Burridge, the British Air Marshall gave; he was very careful not, when a reporter asked him using the word bombing; he very, sort of resisted even using that word, obviously the implication being that, that perhaps this is something the Iraqis did. That story is obviously getting a lot play in the United States, and that angle to the story has been mentioned quite a bit. In the Arabic television world that you are watching, the stations you are monitoring, how is this story playing? Are you hearing both sides of that, or is in not playing like that internationally at all?

BRAHIMI: Well, what I'm seeing Anderson, I did by the way hear, listen to that briefing, and I also heard the qualification of, that was also that they said they didn't know, and they were investigating those events. I think that was the British briefing said that. Now, I would imagine the Iraqi side might be doing the same thing. In past events, I remember for instance in the 1999, a missile actually landed in a neighborhood, in a residential neighborhood in the southern city of Basra, and I happened to have met the lady whose son was killed in that, and it turned out that immediately after the Iraqi authorities actually found a piece of that missile that said, happened to say made in USA. Now they might be trying to find bits and pieces, trying to show that to reporters. They do take reporters around where events like that incident of the like have happened.

They take them to hospitals to talk to the injured as well. Now, what we're hearing so far on the Arabic media in Arabia (ph) for instance, this news channel as well as Al-Jazeera, those pictures did get a lot of play. Interestingly enough however, very little commentary, just the commentator most of the time saying where this happened, and just letting the pictures role in a way, maybe letting the viewer decide for themselves, and, but definitely lots of play. Interestingly also, the Arabic media has been playing not only that, but a lot of different areas. They have a lot of access. Iraqi officials have been giving them a lot of access as well; allowing them to move around in the north to have satellite facilities in various areas in and out of Baghdad. Anderson.

COOPER: All right, Rym Brahimi, live in Amman, Jordan. We'll check in with you later in the morning. Thanks very much. Carol.

COSTELLO: And right now, we're going to take a short break. We'll be back with much more. You stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COSTELLO: 2:56 Eastern Time. Welcome back. We just had word from CENTCOM command headquarters in a press briefing that humanitarian aid will be delayed once again, being delivered into Umm Qasr. Apparently, some mines were found at a waterway there so that British ships, holding all of that humanitarian aid won't be there until at least Friday. Of course, we want to throw it live to Kuwait now, because on board that ship, some Kuwaiti supplies.

COOPER: That's right. Daryn. Daryn Kagan standing by live in Kuwait City. Daryn.

DARYN KAGAN: We'll take some of that time right now. Anderson and Carol, thank you very much. Talking now about the mood here in Kuwait. We're just 50 miles from the border with Iraq, and the Kuwaiti people understand only too well what it means to be invaded by Saddam Hussein. I'm joined right now by Saad Al-Ajmi. He is the former Kuwaiti Information Minister, and has a lot of interesting comments, both on here (ph) at Kuwait, and spent a lot time in the states, so he has perspective on both cultures. Welcome. Thank you for joining us here on CNN.

SAAD AL-AJMI: Thanks for having me.

KAGAN: I was interested, on the front page of the "Kuwait Times" today, there's an article about concern that residents are urged not to get complacent. I was out and about yesterday, doing a piece about the mood of the Kuwaiti people. I couldn't find a single person carrying a gas mask. People really not concerned about the missile sirens. They feel after the first one or two days of the war, that the danger has passed.

AL-AJMI: I guess there is a lot of anxiety. There is also a lot of sadness. The hearts and prayers and thoughts of the Kuwaitis go out to the victims of this war, including the service men and women of the allies, and the Iraqi people. Hence, you've seen all of these aids, you know, pouring in from the Kuwaitis into Iraq because they want to focus now on the humanitarian angle, in order to invest for a better future with Iraq. KAGAN: Two very interesting things as you mentioned you that you see here in Kuwait. You see the Kuwaiti people rallying, getting past their hatred perhaps of the Iraqi regime, but showing love and care and compassion for the Iraqi people.

AL-AJMI: Actually, all everyone of Kuwait has always segregated between the Iraqi people and the Iraqi regime, and therefore you'd find thousands of the Iraqis living in Kuwait, mind you Kuwait is a cosmopolitan, a symbol of globalization. You know, more than a 120 some nationalities live in Kuwait. Kuwait is, constitutes less than 50 percent of the total population. And therefore, I think that it is also part of their, sort of pragmatic strategy to remain a symbol of globalization, and to have strong ties with everybody, including the Iraqis, and to transcend beyond the bitterness of the war that was caused upon them by the Iraq regime, which has started all of these wars. It is the only cause of these wars since he assumed power a quarter of a century ago.

KAGAN: And another thing you'll see here in Kuwait, in Kuwait City. We saw just on Tuesday night; you probably will not see anywhere else in the Arab world, that is a demonstration in favor, supporting U.S. and British troops.

AL-AJMI: And that would probably you know for observers, would say why is that? I mean why is it that everywhere in the world we'd see rallies against the war, except in Iran, Kuwait, and the Iraq Proper, and Kurdistan, which is not under the control of Saddam Hussein? That tells you volumes, because it's not because these people are sadistic and love war. But because they know that there has been an ongoing war upon the Iraqi people, the Kuwaitis the Iranians, and the whole region, and it's caused by one man, which is Saddam Hussein. And therefore, we'd find these people saying, OK, we hate wars, we'd love to see Saddam go, and we don't want to have a war, but in order to put an end to these wars, the only finale is actually to eliminate this regime.

KAGAN: Putting their belief where their mouth, and also where their country is by playing host. Saad Al-Ajmi, thank you for stopping by. We really appreciate your perspective as a Kuwaiti. Good to have you with us. And Carol and Anderson, we will toss it back to you in Atlanta.

AL-AJMI: Thank you very much.

COOPER: All right. We have lots to cover. We're going to take a short break. We'll be right back.

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