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Car Bombs Explodes, Killing Four from Army's 1st Brigade

Aired March 29, 2003 - 22:00   ET


AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: We begin the night as we have each night with a broad outlines of what again is a busy days. In some ways, though, at least that first look, little has changed in the last 24 hours, but in another way, things got measurably uglier. And there's a good chance, clearly, for more ugliness to come.

BROWN (voice-over): The casualties came in early Saturday morning, after a car bomb exploded, killing four from the Army's 1st Brigade. The bomb detonated near the central Iraqi town of Najaf after an Iraqi suicide bomber driving a taxi pulled up to a coalition checkpoint waving for help. The bomb went off.

The tactic was praise by the Iraqi vice president, who said in a news conference it will not be the last.

TAHA YASSIN RAMADAN, IRAQI VICE PRESIDENT: (through translator) This is only the beginning. And you will hear more good news in the coming days. These bastards will be welcomed at the level and in the way they deserve.

BROWN: President Bush again in his weekly radio address warned about war crimes and warned about the consequences.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Given the nature of this regime, we expect such war crimes, but we will excuse them. War criminals will be hunted relentlessly and judged severely.

BROWN: Day 10 of the war also saw coalition forces attempting to tighten a hold on Basra. U.S. warplanes used laser guided missiles to destroy a building where 200 Iraqi paramilitary fighters were believed to have dug in.

The Iraqi Republican Guard units were also targets on Saturday, as American led forces dropped 1,000 bombs on their location near Nasiriya.

WESLEY CLARK, GEN., (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Our air power is putting enormous pressure around Baghdad on the three key divisions of the Republican Guards. And so, this is not time that's wasted. This is time that's being very effectively utilized to grip the Republican Guards and degrade them.

BROWN: Also in Nasiriya, a grim discovery. Marines uncovered a number of bodies, fellow Marines, who died in the fighting for the city. CNN's Alessio Vinci reported from the scene.

ALESSIO VINCI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: U.S. Marines here in Nasiriya are spending a considerable amount of time in trying to recover some of the bodies of their fallen comrades who were killed in action here last Sunday during a bloody firefight between Marines and Iraqi forces.

BROWN: Nasiriya has been the scene of some of the fiercest fighting of the war. Art Harris is an embedded correspondent there.

ART HARRIS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Infantry units this morning did encounter resistance. Some of the resistance they encountered included Iraqis with AK-47s and human shields.

BROWN: At the Pentagon briefing, the Joint Chiefs Vice Director, Major General Stanley McChrystal said the coalition clearly controls the skies.

MAJ. GEN. STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL, VICE DIRECTOR JOINT CHIEFS: We claim air supremacy for most of the country, except for a small part around Baghdad, but we fly effectively in Baghdad every day and night.

BROWN: But the U.S. will have to wait to use a portion of the Tomahawk cruise missiles in the theater after Saudi Arabia complained that some of those weapons from U.S. ships had mistakenly landed on Saudi soil.

MAJ. GEN. VICTOR RENUART, GENERAL COMMAND: Basically, we have a situation where the Saudis have said can you see if you can figure out what has caused this. And we do not want to in any way hazard the people of Saudi Arabia or any of the other countries where these may transit.

BROWN: Humanitarian aid continued to flow into Iraq. U.S. Special Forces providing protection so 2,000 daily rations and 3,000 bottles of water could be handed out. It is just the start.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well hopefully, we gave the local leader an element to provide his people a little hope. We told him that this will not be the last time we do this, but he's got to cooperate and his people have to cooperate or it becomes a very hazardous situation for everyone.

BROWN: As day turned to night, explosions rocked Baghdad again, targeting again the center and the outskirts of the city with repeated bombings.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We've also seen some massive blasts.

BROWN: And in the north, CNN's Ben Wedeman reported hearing a series of intense explosions, apparently coming from the important northern city of Mosul.

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Five huge explosions within the space of less than an hour, as these planes dropped these massive bombs on the Iraqi positions behind us.


BROWN: That's a broad look at, excuse me, a broad look at the day. Over the next few hours, we have an interesting group of guests joining us. General Wes Clark is here as he has been. And we're pleased to have him here as well. And we'll be talking with him shortly. The - when we left you last night or early this morning, about 2:00 in the morning, Marines were still engaged in some fairly heavy fighting in Nasiriya. We could only hear what was going on. We were talking with our correspondent, Art Harris, who is embedded with the Marines there. When the smoke cleared in the city, the Marines could take care of some unfinished business. And it is some of that unfinished business that CNN's Alessio Vinci is reporting on now.


ALESSIO VINCI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: U.S. Marines here in Nasiriya are spending a considerable amount of time in trying to recover some of the bodies of their fallen comrades who were killed in action here last Sunday during a bloody firefight between Marines and Iraqi forces.

(voice-over): On Friday, U. S. Marines went back into Nasiriya and recovered what they say were the remains of five, maybe six Marines. Five of their bodies were recovered inside the burned out truck armored vehicle that they were traveling in that was hit by Iraqi rocket propelled grenades. And as - where they were recovering those bodies, Iraqi civilians approached those Marines and pointed them towards two shallow graves. The Marines digged those graves and they found the remains of what they say could have been the remains of at least other two Marines.

And then on Saturday morning, taking some considerable risks because they had to go back into town again, U.S. Marines went back in there and they found two more shallow graves, also two graves that were appointed by Iraqi civilians that two of the U.S. Marines.

(on camera): And they recovered there what they believe are the remains of at least one, maybe two Marines. And U.S. commanders here are now telling us that they believe that almost all of the nine Marines killed in action, their bodies may have been recovered.

The U.S. Marines also conducted some house to house searches near the site where the ambush took place, where the - that armored vehicle was hit because they believe that during the firefight, some of the Marines had seeked cover inside one of the house. And indeed, when they went into the houses today looking for some more bodies, all that they could were some personal belongings. There, the military flap jackets, some MAC suits, some chemical suits, some gas masks, and even some mail that the Marines had written or had received for their families back home.

From here, the bodies of the Marines are handed over to the mortuary affairs, who will - they'll conduct a DNA test for positive identification and then prepare their bodies for their final journey back home to the United States.

I'm Alessio Vinci, CNN with the U.S. Marines in Nasiriya, Iraq.


BROWN: Nasiriya is providing what appears to be some answers to one of the mysteries of the first weeks of the war. What happened to the 507th, that Army maintenance company that was ambushed on Sunday, after making a wrong turn? Five taken prisoner to the White House now or rather to the Pentagon now. Chris Plante has the duty and he can talk about some of what was discovered today in regards to the 507th - Chris?

CHRIS PLANTE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right. Aaron, you may recall that this hospital that was taken over by U.S. forces, they took about 170 prisoners. They found a large number of chemical weapons suits in their weapons. They found a tank in the courtyard. And now we've learned that a number of bloodied U.S. military uniforms were also found inside this hospital, presumably belonging to some of the members of the 507th Ordinance Maintenance Company that was ambushed there near Nasiriya on the 23rd of this month.

We know that five of those people were taken POW. We've seen them on television. We know that two of them are dead. We know also that eight of those soldiers are missing. Two of those are women. The discovery of the bloodied uniforms is of course not an encouraging sign. There's still no conclusions being drawn at this point, but the uniforms were there. They had been stowed away in bags. The American flags and name strips had been torn off of them. Why? No one knows, but this much we do know. The uniforms are there. They're not with the soldiers and they are bloody - Aaron.

BROWN: I was just looking at some - Chris, some of the reporting that you and others at the Pentagon are doing on this. The troops also discovered what appeared to be a torture device in the hospital made of a metal cot and a car battery. Obviously, this was no hospital or at least not only a hospital.

PLANTE: Well, that's right. And some reports are that the Iraqi soldiers that were there were forcing conscripts, as forcing draftees to come out and fight in much the way that say political officers in the Soviet Union did in World War II, coming down and rallying the local community, the local population and some of the conscripts down in southern Iraq by force if necessary to come out and fight the Americans.

BROWN: And the problem is that while they believe that some of these soldiers were at one point or another at the hospital, they don't now know where they are?

PLANTE: That's correct. That's right.

BROWN: Okay. Now on the car bombing today, and the Pentagon reaction to that and whether this changes the rules of engagement, the formal term or not? PLANTE: Well, some adjustments are being made, certainly. The U.S. does not let on as to the specifics of the rules of engagement because if the specifics are known, then they can be used against U.S. forces while they're in the field. But certainly some adjustments are being made as to the way business is done. This was a checkpoint situation. It appeared to be innocent enough. The man who it turns out, according to Baghdad at least, was an Iraqi military officer, arrived in a taxi cab, waved some soldiers over apparently in need of help of some kind. When the four soldiers went over to offer assistance, they got close enough to the car, the men detonated an explosive device, killing himself and all four of them.

Clearly, it's the kind of thing that's going to require some adjustments in the way that business is conducted. If only, sending a single soldier over in situations like that, while everyone else stands back in an effort to minimize casualties in the future. But as we saw earlier today, the Iraqi Vice President Ramadan today vowed that there would be more of the same in reference to the suicide bombing - Aaron?

BROWN: Chris, thank you. More on that through the night. Chris Plante at the Pentagon.

One more piece to put out here before we bring General Clark in. The discovery at the hospital wasn't the only hint of what Saddam might have in his arsenal, but these are hints, clues. They were found in places in southern Iraq as well.

Here's CNN's Diana Muriel.


DIANA MURIEL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): They left in a hurry, scattered papers, equipment and ammunition lies in every room of this abandoned Iraqi military camp. Covering an area of around 10 acres just south of Basra, this was a training school and a barracks. Within it, what appears to be evidence of Iraqi preparation for a possible chemical or biological threat. British military personnel on the site say gas masks, canisters, overshoes were all to be used in the event of nuclear, biological or chemical attack. Some of the boxes are labeled in English.

According to British military sources, the M generally denotes American manufacture. This may be equipment left over from the Iran- Iraq War in the late 1980s. Together with this equipment, something else. Perhaps more worrying. Bomb disposal expert Corporal Nick Eastwood says these long range artillery shells looks suspicious.

NICK EASTWOOD, CORPORAL: They should have marking bands. A lot of them either haven't got marking bands on them or they had them removed. That leads us to believe they could possibly be chemical and needs further checking out by our own bomb disposal teams.

MURIEL: These shells will be further investigated and taken away as evidence if proved to be chemical weapons. If not, they'll be disposed of on site. That is likely to prove a huge task. There are literally thousands of shells, rocket propelled grenades, mortars, and AK-47 magazines strewn around. Some are contained in boxes marked "Jordanian Army." Russian made equipment is much in evidence, too.

(on camera): In this conflict, all soldiers keep their respirators close to hand at all times. So far, there has been no need to put them to use, but no one here can afford to take any chances.

Diana Muriel, CNN, southern Iraq.


BROWN: Just a quick overview of some of the pieces in the puzzle today. We turn to General Clark briefly.

Welcome again. The suicide bombing - I heard you say this afternoon that basically the Iraqis are saying what they're going to do. They're laying it out. And then they are actually doing it.

CLARK: They are. And the question is how well they can do it. And they say that they can contest and hold Basra. Well, let's see if they can. They say they can cut the snake into pieces. Well, that means blocking our resupply effort. They haven't yet. But they are still in Nasiriya apparently. They're still in Basra. They're still in Najar. And we're going to have to work against these cities. And we're going to have to keep our supply lines rolling, while we bring the Marines up. We work the air power against the Republican Guards. We set the force. And depending on the results against the Republican Guards and the results in progress in Basra and so forth, we may need additional forces.

BROWN: And if I am a soldier in the area, just a private first class, and I hear about this incident with the car bombing, every time I see a civilian now, I am suspicious.

CLARK: We're going to be more suspicious. We're going to have to get standoff. We're going to have to...

BROWN: Tell me what that means.

CLARK: ...keep the Iraqis from closing up on a group of American soldiers. They'll be two parts to a checkpoint. They'll be an outer and an inner. It's going to be - it's going - it's more manpower intensive. It's slower. It's going to be tougher for the Iraqi people. It's obviously more dangerous for us. And it will establish a sort of chokehold on the Iraqi economy and normal civilian activities around this area, if there are any left, which is going to make an even more dependent on U.S. humanitarian assistance.

BROWN: Another theme to pick up as our long night goes on with the general. Further south now, as the Royal Marines in Qasr were searching for equipment, they may have found the easiest job searching for the enemy means getting in close, knocking down doors. And that's what they did today. They literally went building to building, door to door, kicking doors open.

And here's how it looked from correspondent David Bowden.


DAVID BOWDEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): House clearance Royal Marines style, troops from 14 commando task to seek out the last pockets of Iraqi resistance in Umm Qasr, going hard to arrest suspected regime sympathizers and search for weapons. It's not pretty and there's no please and thank you. But for the Marines, every door potentially hides a gunman. And when your life is on the line, manners go out of the window.

The Iraqis arrested look bemused and plead innocence. But with many militia here pretending to surrender, only to open fire on their captors later, first impressions can be deceptive and lethal. This patrol did find hidden weapons. They're not the first, and they're unlikely to be the last.

(on camera): The Marines believe they have a firm hold on Umm Qasr right now, but they can't afford to slacken their grip and allow those who are hostile to the coalition forces to regroup and began again their cycle of violence.

(voice-over): The Marines with their snipers have now spread their area of operations north, to include the town of Umm Qayl (ph). At an Umm Qasr before it, they're here to clear out the opponents to regime change. A man in this vehicle took at pot shot at the commandos. It was a painful and bloody mistake.

ROB MACGOWAN, MAJ., ROYAL MARINES: We sent in one of our companies of about 100 men in here this morning. And we took about 12 or 13 prisoners. Three or four enemy were injured. And they've now been flown out and we're treating them, including a man who was almost dead with a gunshot wound to the chest. We've now evacuated them out. And the enemy now have either fled or they've been captured.

BOWDEN: The Royal Marines are satisfied they are in control of this small corner of Iraq. Their task now is to keep it that way.

David Bowden in southern Iraq.


BROWN: You get an idea of what the work going on there is like. It's Sunday morning in Baghdad. The sun has come up or is coming up. It's been another night of bombing there. And the American war planes are making their way back to aircraft carriers. On one of them, the U.S.S. Constellation is CNN's Frank Buckley.

And Frank joins us now.

Frank, a safe night as best you can tell for the pilots?

FRANK BUCKLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, we haven't heard of any aircraft not making it back. That's been the case ever since these aircraft have been flying over Iraq. Every time the aircraft have been returning safely to the deck here of the Constellation and to the other two aircraft carriers here in the Persian Gulf. Two additional aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean.

It is daylight, as you said, Aaron. The sun is rising over the Persian Gulf. But when you talk to many of these pilots, they say they prefer to fly at night. They like to say that they own the night. One of the reasons? They have a tool that helps them, night vision goggles. We asked one of the pilots here from the Constellation to show us his night vision goggles. Let's take a look.


BUCKLEY: Now these are the actual night vision goggles. They look like a pair of binoculars. They're on the helmet of Lieutenant Pat Horrigan of the Kestral (ph) Squadron. The lieutenant is an F-18 driver.

What we're going to do is take you out here into the darkness, looking out into the Persian Gulf, you can see it's completely black. But now we're going to look through the night vision goggles to let you see what the pilots see when they're flying over the Persian Gulf.

Come out through these goggles, it really almost turns the night into day.

PAT HORRIGAN, LIEUTENANT: Yes, it - what the goggles do is take ambient light and enhance it. So if you walked into a cave or something like that and looked around, you would see nothing but darkness. Get a little bit of a scintillating effect, almost like fuzz on a TV screen. But if there's any kind of ambient light, you don't even need a moon, all you need is star light. Then you can see pretty well.

BUCKLEY: The helicopter with the naked eye is just a blinking light. But when you put the goggles on, you can really see it clearly. Is that what you see while you're flying?

HORRIGAN: Yes, and one of the big advantages of the goggles is we shut the blinking light off, especially if we're over Iraq. We turn our lights down just enough so that we can still make out the other aircraft. And you know, some nights with the full moon, you really don't need any lights at all. You can just look out through the goggles and see them.

So that's where the big advantage is in letting a stand formation and keep sight of each other in no light situations.


BUCKLEY: And as we come back live here to the Persian Gulf, you're looking at a live picture, a remarkable sight really within eye sight of the aircraft carrier we're on, the U.S.S. Constellation, yet another one of the aircraft carriers here in the Persian Gulf as we said before, Aaron. Three carriers here in the Gulf, two in the Mediterranean. They are helping the coalition forces to maintain what has been described as 95 percent air superiority over Iraq. They say they're still a surface to air threat in and around Baghdad, but they believe they have a 95 percent air superiority over Iraq - Aaron? BROWN: Frank, you've been on this shift now for a while. You've watched these pilots take off, come back, take off, come back. How - have they grown more confident over time? Are they more certain over time?

BUCKLEY: Well, it's funny, they were already fairly confident going in. The difference I detected, if any, is that that first night, there was a certain amount of tension. They were solemn. They were quiet about going in on their first strike into Baghdad itself. But these are pilots who have been flying into Iraq since mid December as part of Operation Southern Watch. It was only after A day or actually a couple days even before A day that they started flying above the 33rd parallel. So that's really the difference, I guess, that not so much that they're certain because as you know, these strike fighters are fairly confident people to begin with. They still maintain that confidence. Maybe they're just a little more relaxed about how they're going about their lives before and after the strikes and once they get back to the carrier - Aaron?

BROWN: Frank, thank you. Frank Buckley aboard the Constellation. He's got interesting duty.

Nic Robertson has his - is near the Jordanian-Iraqi border. And Nic, because it is familiarity with the Iraqi capitol of Baghdad. He was there for a long time before the Iraqi government expelled him is a helpful eye for us, even at a distance as to what is being targeted and what is not. And also, helps interpret sometimes the language of the Iraqi leadership when they come out in public. And we'll talk to him about both of those things tonight.

Nic, good to see you. The attacks, we think today the air attacks on these residential compounds, really, of the leadership?

ROBERTSON: If not the leadership, Aaron, certainly officials within the ruling Ba'ath Party, those apartment buildings several stories high, several hundred of these apartments in this particular area, right behind the information ministry in the center of Baghdad, an area that's normally - these apartments normally under quite tight guard. Indeed, in the weeks running up to the war, the guard around them seemed to strengthen quite noticeably. Also, an area of housing where there are some underground bunkers, perhaps to escape the bombing.

It's not clearly, however, from these pictures exactly what has been hit in this particular area. The third night in the row that bombs - missiles have fallen close to the information ministry. But the smoke certainly rising up from within that particular residential area.

Now judging from where the slope came up, looking at these television pictures, and knowing the size of that residential area, does appear to be as if the smoke is coming up from within that quite large compound area - Aaron.

BROWN: But - and again, just to understand - boom, just to underscore a point, this is an area where average Iraqis, much like in the old Soviet Union, this is an area where they're not allowed, correct?

ROBERTSON: That is very much correct. This is an area where Ba'ath Party officials lived in the days when - late last year, when the Ba'ath Party was wanting to show their strength to the journalists who were in town. This was when President Saddam Hussein was re- elected president again with that - if you remember that 100 percent vote in the referendum. People were coming out on the balconies. There were Kalashnikovs and pistols. These are the privileged members, privileged and trusted members of the government.

It may not be in the highest circles, but certainly, very trusted, quite senior in the establishment, Aaron.

BROWN: Nic, one more question, what, if anything, does it mean that after this suicide bombing today, the Iraqi vice president came out to talk about it, to crow about it, if you will, and to promise more?

ROBERTSON: Well, there were some things I found interesting. Number one, Taha Yassin Ramadan, the vice president, is often the most outspoken and hardliner member of Iraq's leadership. When he speaks, it is often - the language is often much stronger than other officials. And it was interesting, a few weeks before the war began, he talked to a German magazine. And that was the first time we heard talk that Iraq may consider using suicide bombers.

I think at that time, people really didn't take him terribly seriously. This was out of step, if you will, with Iraq's normal military doctrine. Again, what is interesting about Taha Yassin Ramadan, just two days ago, he made a speech. At that speech, he talked of these Fedayeen fighters, these hard-line fighters we've heard about in the south of Iraq that have been bolstering the regular army forces down there. He said to those Fedayeen fighters, remember the promise you made in front of me.

Now we see, two days later, one of these - one of the military officers, one of these Fedayeen apparently commit suicide in blowing up and killing a number of U.S. servicemen. And we also know from some Fedayeen fighters who have now put themselves in the hands of coalition forces who've surrendered in the south of Iraq, they also have a similar story. They say that they were made to promise that they would take on suicide missions to kill coalition forces. It is adding up to a picture here of Taha Yassin Ramadan, the vice president, seems to be, if not in charge, spearheading this campaign and certainly promising more suicide bombings, Aaron.

BROWN: Nic, thank you. Nic Robertson reporting for us tonight. As always, we appreciate it. Thank you very much.


BROWN: General Wesley Clark again. You've been here enough now, so we can ask you this. You're the reporter. You're the editor. What's the lead of the day, as you see it? What is the most significant thing that happened because a suicide bombing cannot be the most significant thing that happened in the theater today, can it? CLARK: Well, it probably is.

BROWN: Really?

CLARK: Actually. I mean, what's really significant is the coalitions continuing to move. But the way the news is, that's not making the news. You know, we may have struck - we did a successful Apache raid with the 101st. Now when the 5th Corps Apaches attacked the first time, we had 30 some odd birds up. We had one shot down. We had a couple guys captured. The news was they came back with 30 aircraft, riddled with holes, you know. And I said, well, that's okay. They got 10 tanks...


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