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Basra, Umm Qasr Remain Flashpoints for Violence

Aired March 30, 2003 - 05:36   ET


DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right, Anderson. A chance to check in with embedded reporters, not just American but British as well. I want to bring in Andrew Harding. He is with British forces in southern Iraq. Andrew, hello.

KAGAN: What can you tell us about who you're with and what's happening where you are?

HARDING: The situation here is that British forces led by the Royal Marines, have been launching an offensive on the south and southeastern flanks of the city of Basra. They've advanced over the last eight hours now, quite some distance we understand. The aim is not to enter the town of Basra itself. The aim is to surround it, or at least take the southern flank. We understand they've been meeting fairly heavy Iraqi resistance, that the Iraqis have been using snipers and also rocket propelled grenades to fire on them. But the Americans, the British have been hitting back with their Challenger Tanks, and their artillery, and have captured a number of Iraqi prisoners of war. We understand according to one report that that includes an Iraqi general, and perhaps two or three hundred junior soldiers.

KAGAN: And Andrew, we've been able to find out what the Americans are doing with the prisoners of war that they capture. What are the British doing?

HARDING: Well the British are taking their prisoners of war to a location further south in southern Iraq, and at the moment, they are trying to filter them to determine who is a conscript caught up in the war that he doesn't want to fight, who is of serious intelligence value and will be taken off and interrogated for whatever information they have. And who may be Baath party officials and so on, who will kept for a longer period.

KAGAN: And how do they go about making that decision? Deciding who is who?

HARDING: Well it's a question of setting up a tribunal, and getting people who know these people to give information. But it's a slow process, and to be honest, I understand it hasn't really got up and running yet. What they're initially trying to do is weed out those who've been detained as POW'S, who aren't even soldiers. Once that's been done, then I think they'll go through and try and search through the rest to see who is of more value and so on. KAGAN: And then finally on Basra, this of course being one of the key cities that the British have actually go ahead and change their plans on how they are going to attack, having a much bigger challenge than they originally anticipated. Any kind of time frame on when the British expect to have control of that southern city?

HARDING: No time frame at all. In fact the sense one gets here is that the British are doing this very very slowly, and are waiting really for the initiative almost to come from within the town itself. They are beginning to put more and more military pressure, like today's operation, but that they don't want to go in and bomb the town, blitz it if you like. They want to remain a liberating force in the eyes of the civilian population, and try and persuade that civilian population if it can, to rise up and basically do the job of liberating the town for themselves, rather than forcing a street to street fighting, obviously, which no army wants to get involved in.

KAGAN: Andrew Harding, reporting from southern Iraq, where he is embedded with British troops from just outside the conflict (ph), the southern side of Basra. Andrew, thank you. Anderson, you take it from here.

ANDERSON COOPER: Daryn, thanks.

We're going to remain focused on Basra right now. As Andrew Harding was just reporting, British troops bearing down on Basra. Now early this morning, they pushed into that village he mentioned, southeast of the city, captured at least two high-ranking Iraqis that we know of. Apparently when they entered the area yesterday, they met with strong opposition from Iraqi military defense. They were confronted by nearly two dozen tanks, and heavy artillery. But the weaponry was dismantled. But of course, Basra and nearby Umm Qasr remain flashpoints for violence, and as CNN's chief international correspondent, Christiane Amanpour reports now, another obstacle troops are encountering is a lack of trust from the people they've been sent to liberate.


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Umm Qasr is a dilapidated little town. At the marketplace there's not much more than tomatoes, onions, and a lot of flies and opinions. Saddam Hussein is our President, says this woman. We love him, but we're scared of him. In fact, Ali (ph), and anti-Saddam exile returning home with the U.S. Army, says these women don't dare speak out against Saddam Hussein just yet. These people don't believe that the Americans can or will get rid of Saddam Hussein.

UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: Yes. We've been hearing that every day that we've been here, and part of our job and our free Iraqi forces are helping us to convince the people that we will stay until Saddam is gone.

AMANPOUR: As part of army civil affairs, Colonel David Blackledge (ph) and his team interact with the people.


UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: Nice to meet you. How old are you?

AMANPOUR: They're trying to gain valuable information, and their trust. But it's a hard sell. This is Iraq's Shiite heartland, and memories are deep and bitter. They'll not easily forget what they consider America's great betrayal during the Gulf War 12 years ago, when they were encouraged to rise up, only to be left to the brutal mercies of Saddam Hussein. Still, there are increasing if tentative signs that the people want to believe that this time, it's for real.

The Shiite flags, forbidden by the Baghdad regime, are fluttering during this holy month of Morharum (ph). People gather around U.S. soldiers, and they tell us they are looking forward to a new Iraq. One without fear of Saddam's reign of terror.


AMANPOUR: I want my freedom says this man. I don't want food or water. I just want my freedom. But actually food and especially water are very much on everyone's minds.


AMANPOUR: The Americans and the British promised to help us they say. But when we ask them about the water, they tell us tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow. This man tell us that all America wants is Iraq's oil. A sign of the dangers still lurking here. These two men, who flagged the American humvee, and asked to surrender. We can't show their faces because they've been taken as prisoners of war. But they say, they are Saddam's Fedayeen militias, sent down from Baghdad on pain of execution. Their mission, to conduct suicide attacks against American and British troops. But giving themselves up to these Americans, they said they didn't want to die for Saddam Hussein.

Removing the image and the influence of Saddam Hussein is a main objective for the Americans and the British in this part of Iraq. And they hope by first stabilizing Umm Qasr, word will then spread northwards, and have an effect on Basra and beyond. In fact, the British sent 11 of these Challenger Tanks into Basra to crush Saddam's statue in the center. Meantime, a steady stream of civilians continues to leave. It's a portrait of war, with thick, black smoke billowing from the city they leave behind. Some are surrendering to the British forces, and some of the men want to go back after bringing out their families. And to the question the British ask everyday, when will the people rise up? The answer many give us; the day they know Saddam is dead.

Christiane Amanpour, CNN near Basra in southern Iraq.



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