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British Military Update

Aired March 29, 2003 - 04:06   ET


DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: Our British military briefing is beginning right now in Kuwait City.
Here is Colonel Chris Vernon with the British military -- let's listen in.


COLONEL CHRIS VERNON, BRITISH MILITARY SPOKESMAN: When we planned this operation, the British divisional commander identified five critical elements in our probable area of operations upon which we needed to have an effect. They were: Iraq's regular army, irregular forces working against the coalition, oil field infrastructure, Umm Qasr and Basra. Those were the five critical elements we identified in our planning phase.

We could not predict the condition nor intent of these critical elements at some future point in time when we would be employed to create that required effect. We therefore had to focus on how we would employ our resources and forces to achieve the desired effect against a broad range of circumstances, hostile through to benign.

The purpose of this was to create a flexibility of mind and approach that would stand as in good stead in any event or eventuality. As things have transpired, this approach has been validated and the effects on and the intents of the five critical elements have varied considerably.

Iraq's armed forces were offered the opportunity to capitulate early without a fight. They declined, and that has required a hard, kinetic, destructive effect to be brought upon them. Their intent showed little desire or capability to fight.

Irregular forces have shown a determination to resist, but slowly are being eroded. Our experience of counter-insurgency operations gained over several decades will guarantee success.

Oil infrastructure was not destroyed, ineptly defended and seized intact with consummate ease.

Umm Qasr needed to be secured in working order to facilitate the future importation of humanitarian aid. This was achieved with kinetic force, but still preserving a working operational port.

Our effect on Basra must be to convince the people to have the confidence to rise against the oppressive political control of the Baath Party and the irregulars who do its bidding, thus targeting and eradication of the Baath Party is now the critical effect we need to achieve and the British military's main effort.

I repeat that: The targeting and eradication of the Baath Party within the Basra province is now a primary focus and our military's main effort.

Our seizing of a senior Baathist official has rocked their confidence and provided an excellent insight into that mire. On both, their headquarters in al-Zubayr and Basra no longer exist.

Our ability to enter al-Zubayr and Basra at will to achieve this desired effect with hard-hitting armor and armored infantry combined forces will continue as we determine.

Control of the people lessens day by day, necessitating desperate measures to retain it. De-linking the people from the state- controlled radio and TV from Baghdad further lessens the Baathist grip. Slowly but inexorably, the wedge between the people and the oppressors runs deeper with the inevitable end-state of removal of oppression and control of the people of Basra and its surrounding province.

I'm very happy to take questions on where the British stand within the Basra province.


QUESTION: Colonel, (UNINTELLIGIBLE). (UNINTELLIGIBLE) surprised by the level of resistance you seem to be encountering from the Iraqi people?

VERNON: Well, as I said in my statement there, I said that we fully expected irregular forces, and my embedded journalists at the divisional headquarters have been given sight of some of the British planning dated early February where that was firmly in our likely scenario. So not surprised that they existed.

They have fought with a degree of resistance. We didn't know how hard they would fight or whether they would capitulate, but I think we should give credit where it is due, if one has to in this case, yes, they have fought pretty well. They are few in number, and slowly but surely we're applying pressure on them where they are reducing (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

QUESTION: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) the Iraqi public (UNINTELLIGIBLE) in certain areas anyway, there appears to be sort of rolling over (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

VERNON: Sorry. The people.


VERNON: I don't think that's the case. I mean, I've come from up there. There are the Baath Party, there are its irregulars, and there's quite a big gap between the people of Basra. The Shia people of Basra were brutally put down after the Gulf War when they rose up. There is a huge amount of fear, and indeed a degree of lack of confidence that we are yet at the stage where there is an inevitability to this, that inevitability being that Saddam Hussein will go. And that is why we are eradicating and targeting the Baath regime.

The other side to our strategy is we've got to win increasingly the confidence of these people, hence humanitarian aid, hence talking to them in a low-level manner in the rear areas. British soldiers are now patrolling in ways they have done in Borneo, in Balaia (ph), in Cyprus.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: You are looking at a live picture from Al-Arabia, where they are saying on this TV that that is part of a missile that has been discovered.

We continue now with our press conference by Chris Vernon -- Colonel Chris Vernon, the British military spokesman.


QUESTION: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) how many people have been interred (UNINTELLIGIBLE), and what is the difference between internment (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

VERNON: We view him as a combatant. We view any Baath Party official who is controlling irregular military forces as a combatant.

QUESTION: So does that mean that (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

VERNON: I'm not saying that. We view him as a combatant.

QUESTION: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) what I want to know is how they are treated? What...

VERNON: I'm not telling you what we're doing with him. Clearly, he's a very useful source of intelligence to us, and he's now talking very freely.



VERNON: Yes, certainly. Yes.


VERNON: I'm not here to talk in absolute detail. I'm the British divisional spokesman. That's the level you're getting. I'm representing the major general commander of the British division, not the 1st Battalion of Black Watch who are in our division.

Yesterday -- we have got troops on the west of Basra, a couple of battle groups. Yesterday, they were (UNINTELLIGIBLE), it was the Black Watch, initially observed were on the bridges basically on the waterway there. People, initial reports 1,000, getting up to 2,000, coming out of Basra towards us. They were engaged by small-arms fire from the outskirts of Basra. It's pretty rubbly. It looks like -- it's not Kuwait at all. The outskirts are very decrepit and dilapidated.

From what we could see, and this is people sitting in Warriors, in tanks at some distance but with pretty good optics, they were firing into their own people. The people panicked and ran back into the town. We can't validate it any more than being an observer.

We tried to engage the positions they were coming from, but it was pretty difficult, because clearly they were operating from windows, from doors in urban areas.

Yes, and there was another battle group in the south -- I think it was the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards -- observed a similar occasion further south. They've got one of the other bridges. I haven't got the exact location of which battle group is on which bridge.



VERNON: No, we've got to be careful at any stage to avoid collateral damage, both to the buildings of Basra and to the people. To do otherwise would (UNINTELLIGIBLE) go against our aim of secondary (UNINTELLIGIBLE) in the building of the confidence up there. Therefore, the type of -- this morning, the Black Watch mounted an operation into the center of Basra with tanks and infantry in armored personnel vehicles, Warriors.

They drove in and destroyed two statues. I haven't got the detail, and I'm not sure they're the ones of Saddam Hussein. In, out and back again.

The purpose of that is psychological, to show the people on the one hand he does not wield influence, and when we wish, we will strike at any representative token of that eroding influence. It also, I should imagine, has sent quite a shock to the Baathist and irregular organizations in Basra that the British with a degree of impunity can just go in at will and achieve that desired effect.

QUESTION: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) military target now?

VERNON: It's how you define military target. I mean, warfare is asymmetrical and people have got to understand that. We are using certain military tactics to achieve our overall psychological and physical end-state of the eradication of the Baathist regime.


QUESTION: If you can move into Basra at will, then why aren't you moving substantial numbers of men into the city to take it over?

VERNON: Well, the commander of the 2nd Brigade has got 27 years of military experience, military (UNINTELLIGIBLE) from Bosnia, and I think his judgment is the one that has to be left to make the decision...

(INTERRUPTED FOR BREAKING NEWS) COOPER: We are breaking into this press conference that is happening in Kuwait City for this, which just passed on the Associated Press wire. According to the Associated Press, "A suicide bomber kills five Americans in an attack in Najaf." This Associated Press is quoting a U.S. military officer.

This is all that we have at this time. Again, a suicide bomber, according to the Associated Press, quoting a U.S. military officer, it says, "A suicide bomber kills five Americans in an attack in Najaf."

We'll have more on this shortly.

Let's go back to the press conference in Kuwait City.

VERNON: ... that's the operational level of what's happening there. The Americans are with us, no course, no rush. We've just conducted an operation that left at 5:30 this morning that went into Basra and achieved what I just told you.


QUESTION: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) the people of Basra won't to be confident enough in you until Baghdad is (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

VERNON: That's a possible scenario. As I say, we plan left, we plan right, and ideally clearly we would wish, I'm sure, to achieve Basra before Baghdad if possible, because that increases the psychological pressure on Baghdad. I can't say that will be the case. That would be our desired end-state.


QUESTION: You assert quite confidently that the control of the Baath Party over the people lessens day by day. How do you know that? And can you offer us any concrete evidence if that's the case?

VERNON: Well, certainly at Safwan, the British at the rear, our soldiers are talking to the locals. That is clear. In al-Zubayr, we now have a foothold in al-Zubayr. We were in and out of al-Zubayr initially, in-out hit, in-out hold. We have a foothold in there, and we're actually getting aid distribution points into there.

Al-Zubayr is day by day increasingly more benign. There are British soldiers in there. They are talking to the locals in al- Zubayr, which is probably a better litmus test than Safwan much further to the border. And every indication is that the confidence grows slowly, but the fear, the fear that this may still not be the absolute -- that they may still come back again, as happened in '91, still weighs very, very heavy on their minds.

But what I'm talking about when I'm talking, this is British soldiers feeding up the duty of chain talking to residents in al- Zubayr and Safwan. Clearly, Basra is far less. We can comment, the British army, far less confidently about the mood in Basra.

QUESTION: In this report that (UNINTELLIGIBLE) British soldiers (UNINTELLIGIBLE) had been abducted outside Basra on Friday night, do you have anything on that? And secondly, with Basra, you're saying that there is no rush, but (UNINTELLIGIBLE) there yesterday this humanitarian process (UNINTELLIGIBLE). Surely there is a rush to sort that situation out.

VERNON: OK, two questions. Firstly, I have no reports -- and I was in the British divisional headquarters this morning up until 7:00 local -- wrong, up until 9:00 local -- of any missing British soldiers around Basra.

To your second question, what is the humanitarian situation in Basra? They've never been living in any great degree of decent living conditions or standards. In fact, we all knew that. Anyone who has been into Iraq knows full well that the south has been a pretty poor relation to the north.

The water is on, working at about 40 percent capacity, not ideal. They had food stocks when they started this up to a month and probably more. The medical situation is rudimentary but operating.

Therefore, the humanitarian crisis that is being described in some areas is not, we would say, yet evident there. That said, we would still wish to improve their living conditions as soon as we possibly can.

Does that answer it for you? (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

Of course, I go on further, though. Of course, the other angle to any humanitarian crisis is a question of people mentally, psychologically. We haven't seized Basra. The bridges to the north are open. People can go freely in and out. The bridges that we hold are open. They can go freely in and out if they, as we saw yesterday, the Baath Party and the irregulars let them.

QUESTION: General Franks last weekend was saying that (UNINTELLIGIBLE). Does that mean that (UNINTELLIGIBLE) underestimated the levels of resistance? And I think you yourself were saying last weekend that you didn't believe that there was a substantial military force within Basra.

VERNON: Well, I'll take you back to my opening statement when I told you the British planning (UNINTELLIGIBLE) on the five critical elements, one of Basra, scenarios from hostile to benign. Clearly, our best case scenario would have been the absolute benign one, whereby we are now in Basra. It has not happened. They've pulled back their irregular forces into there (UNINTELLIGIBLE) a lot of them. I was around the west of Basra yesterday. There are remnants of -- not remnants actually, tanks that had just been abandoned sitting in the field, which is encouraging.

We've also destroyed a considerable number of Iraqi irregular forces, who were in and around Basra. Black Watch, when they went in this morning, when they approached, they took out five T55s.

And in an action about two days ago where the Iraqi irregular army came south out of Basra onto the al-Faw peninsula, we had intelligence to guess to that. We put a squadron of 14 Challenger tanks over a bridge down to the south, they hit them on a meeting engaging, and within 20 minutes the 14 Iraqi tanks were destroyed, and the accompanying two companies of infantry were destroyed equally.

QUESTION: Have you got any figures for eight or nine prisoners of war taken in around Basra (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

VERNON: No, we're don't count casualties. Your concept of war is totally misplaced if you think a British soldier counts every time he kills somebody.

COOPER: We are going to break out of this press conference right now.


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