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War in Iraq: U.S. Military Officials Defend War Strategy

Aired March 30, 2003 - 15:00   ET


CANDY CROWLEY, CNN ANCHOR: Good afternoon. From Washington, I'm Candy Crowley. U.S. military commanders say the war in Iraq is moving forward on all fronts, denying claims that U.S. forces have in some way paused in their march toward Baghdad. As U.S. officials defend their war strategy, coalition aircraft bombed Iraqi positions atop a mountain ridge in northern Iraq outside Kalak. Air strikes were also reported near Karbala, south of Baghdad, and fighting continued outside Nasiriyah in the southeast.
Now we will head for Kuwait with a view from there -- Wolf Blitzer.


The situation is in Baghdad right now remains very much like it's been every night since the start of this war -- a nearly unrelenting U.S. pounding of various targets in the Iraqi capital. We're told several of those targets are Republican Guard units on the outskirts of Baghdad. Several explosions heard only within the past few hours. We're also seeing evidence that the Iraqis may, may be lighting fires in some oil trenches around the outskirts of the city hoping to make it more difficult for U.S. warplanes to find their targets. We're monitoring the situation in Baghdad. We'll have continuous updates, of course, as they become available.

In the meantime, I spoke a little while ago with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers, who insisted that everyone in the senior leadership is on board as far as the U.S. war plan is concerned.


GEN. RICHARD MYERS, CHAIRMAN, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF: We've all been a part of this. Our thumb prints, our handprints are all over this plan. This is not war on the cheap. We are not about to put our sons and daughters and those of our coalition partners into harm's way without ensuring they have everything they need to do the job.


BLITZER: And he says that the plan is moving along right on schedule.

Meanwhile, the 3rd Squadron of the U.S. Army's 7th Calvary continues to inch its way closer toward Baghdad. CNN's Walter Rodgers has more now from his position as an embedded reporter with the 3-7th. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

WALTER RODGERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (on camera): The U.S. Army's 3rd Squadron, 7th Calvary has been rolling forward all morning. And by our calculations, the 7th Cav is now within 50 miles of the southern suburbs of Baghdad, 50 miles is the (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

Now, there remains substantial Iraqi military units between the 7th Calvary and the southern suburbs of Baghdad. We know the Medina Division is there. The Hammeradi Division is up there somewhere. In back of me, having said that, it appears that the 7th Calvary's tactic is as it was about a week ago; to punch forward, try to lure the Iraqi -- the detachments of the Iraqi units out of their entrenchments around Baghdad. So far, however, the Iraqi regiments, the Iraqi divisions, are not taking the bait.

Having said that, however, this tactic worked very well about five or six days ago when the 7th Calvary rolled forward northeast of Najaf. At that point, the elements of the Medina Division came rolling out of Baghdad, and they came to intercept the 7th Calvary. Before they ever got there, however, what we saw was a huge elements of the U.S. Air Force bombing the heck out of them. And we understand that, in recent days, as a result of Air Force bombing, the Medina Division has been degraded or attritted, as the Army says, the attrition is now down 45 percent, perhaps even 65 percent. So, again, the 7th Calvary closing north, ever closing cautiously towards Baghdad; the aim being to draw the Iraqis out into the open. This time, however, they're not taking the bait.


BLITZER: That's Walter Rodgers, one of our embedded reporters. He's attached to the 7th Calvary. They're trying to make their way toward Baghdad. We're looking to check in with Walter.

In the meanwhile, coalition warplanes, as we all know by now, are very busy tonight over the skies of Baghdad. Many are taking aim at surface-to-air missile batteries. More proof that the air war is intensifies. CNN's Gary Tuchman is covering the U.S. Air Force at a base not far from the Iraqi border, may I say a very, very busy air base.

Most of those planes going on those strategic targets are the close air support fort ground forces -- Gary.

GARY TUCHMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, they're doing both. You know we've been at this base for more than a week now. And except for a day and a half where there was bad weather, the planes have continued to fly nonstop, 24 hours a day, day and night. They scream overhead while we stand here near the runway. They scream overhead while we try to sleep in our tents. The next 24-hour period between this morning and tomorrow morning, 275 sorties out of this base alone.

Now, there are different kinds of sorties. It's important to keep in mind. There are support sorties, which is about half of the flights that go over Iraq. Support sorties include leaflet drops. They include refueling. They include transports. Then there are strike sorties, which use bombs or missiles, but there are different types of strike sorties. For example, at this base where we are near the border of Iraq, you have F-16s, which almost always drop bombs and missiles on preplanned targets. Then you have the planes like this, the A-10 attack planes that have bombs and missiles. It doesn't always use them. Primarily, they're used to give close air support to the ground troops. It's up to the pilot's discretion whether or not to use his bombs -- his or her, we should say because there are some females pilots too -- his or her bombs or missiles.

Now, a short time ago, we talked with an A-10 pilot, who had a mission tonight, and we asked him about his most recent mission.


TUCHMAN: They tell me your last mission was Friday. Tell me where you went and what happened on that mission.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We actually -- the second sortie of that night was a sortie that we expended Mavericks. They're missiles -- forward-flying ordinates that guide themselves to targets. We were attached to a target that had several military vehicles in garrison, (UNINTELLIGIBLE). It ended up being south of Karbala. We had found those targets, possibly identified those as enemy, and struck those, myself and my wingman.


TUCHMAN: Air Force officials have been telling us for the past few evenings, a very important target for their sorties, Republican Guard forces. They say there will be increased, heavy emphasis on those forces with their air power again this evening.

Wolf, back to you.

BLITZER: Gary Tuchman, he's at an air base not far from the Iraqi border. Gary's been very busy. Thanks, Gary, very much.

Meanwhile, coalition air strikes are also aiming at targets in northern Iraq. They're trying to drive out Iraqi forces from dug-in positions around the town of Kalak. CNN's Jane Arraf is in northern Iraq and she's joining us now live.

Jane, tell us what you're seeing and hearing right now.

JANE ARRAF, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, right now, what we're hearing is what we've been hearing for the past couple of hours, the almost constant sound of planes overhead. Now, we've seen behind us explosions from the direction of Mosul and heard them from the direction of Kirkuk, the two main targets in northern Iraq.

And those frontlines near Kirkuk have been shifted. Peshmerga (ph) forces, the Kurdish guerrilla fighters, have moved forward, about ten miles they say, into territory vacated by retreating Iraqi forces. Now, the Peshmerga (ph) were celebrating that by planting their flags in some of the areas that they have taken over. Again, this is not a -- this is not a northern offensive by the Kurdish forces. They have an agreement not to act on their own, to move into that sensitive city of Kirkuk and the city of Mosul. But they are moving forward on a couple of fronts closer to the city of Kirkuk.

Now, a northern offensive, of course, will have to wait for U.S. troops, and right now, those just aren't on the ground in big enough numbers. They have been coming in into Harir (ph), the airfield that they've taken over and could turn into a base. But troop strength now appears to be just above a couple of thousand or so -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And it looks like that activity is going to intensify. Is there any indication of that, Jane?

ARRAF: It certainly appears to be intensifying from what we've heard here over the past couple of days. Now, just behind us is a ridge with Iraqi bunkers that have been the target of frequent attacks. And certainly, the bombings that have been indicated and have been seen in Mosul indicate it will continue. They are making a real effort to soften up those positions no matter what happens with this northern offensive.

Now, of course, this was not the plan that the U.S. had intended. They had intended to send something like 60,000 ground troops in through Turkey, but that plan was abandoned when Turkey said they couldn't use their bases. So what's happening now is a buildup of forces in the Harir (ph) airstrip not too far from here. But certainly, it will take a long time to develop the forces, plus the heavy weapons and artillery that they would need to actually fight in conjunction with the Peshmerga (ph) or go ahead of them -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jane Arraf in northern Iraq. Jane, thanks very much.

Meanwhile, British forces are surrounding the southern Iraqi city of Basra. For days now, there have been skirmishes in the city. Tank and artillery battles continue between coalition forces and Iraqi militia units refusing to give up their ground in the port city. Caught in the middle of all of this, of course, Iraqi citizens who are running out of food and water. Humanitarian aid, though, is arriving in Iraq. CNN's Christiane Amanpour says, disturbing as it is, creating double duty for coalition forces, it could also help with the psychological war as well.


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It's the very essence of life, and it's slowly beginning to flow to the people of Umm Qasr. The British and U.S. military have jointly extended a water pipeline from Kuwait. And they've hired local drivers and tankers to take it into town.

MAJ. PHIL BOURNE, BRITISH ROYAL MARINES: The war for the hearts and minds, but this is a basic life support function that we've all taken for granted. And I think, as common humanity, being able to get people fresh water is probably the most important thing we can do for them initially.

MAJ. JIM THORPE, U.S. ARMY: We need the locals to be happy with the fact that we're here. That's our goal.

AMANPOUR: Indeed, that is a primary goal of this military campaign, but this effort got off to a slow start. As desperate towns folk clamored to fill jerry cans, bowls, and barrels, confusion about whether they had to pay or not. The U.S. said no. The British said yes. And the military is in unfamiliar terrain without the U.N. or NGO experts in humanitarian aid.

In this part of town, British Army assault engineers are fixing up a tap system. Sped up Iraqis watch. They're wondering just when they'll get their drinking water after hearing promises for days.

The pipeline point is at the British marines' base, and war fighting continues there too.

(on camera): This base is also used to stage offensive attacks. This is 42 Commando Brigade of the British Royal Marines, and they're going now to fight off Iraqi infantry and tanks, which have burst out southeast of Basra.

(voice-over): These commandos say they are the point of the bayonet. Into this battle, they take just what they can carry, including anti-tank weapons.

SGT. IAN BEERS, 42 COMMANDO ROYAL MARINES: We're going to be anticipating going quite up to the enemy and taking them on at close range. We're all expecting like a walk over, you know, then really not as hands in the air, you know, putting their weapons down. But it's been a bit more resistance than we first expected, but you know; it's still early stages -- so.

AMANPOUR: In an operation that lasted much of Sunday, the commandos captured five senior Iraqi Army officers, including a general, and killed a Republican Guard colonel, according to military spokesmen.

Civilians trying to leave from the west side of Basra towards British lines found themselves caught up in a firefight. According to a military photographer, British troops at this checkpoint came under attack from the Iraqi side and returned fire.

Psychological warfare continues too. British tanks take out Basra's TV tower, cutting Baghdad's line to the people. Army bulldozers are smashing Saddam Hussein's larger than life portraits in an apparent attempt to loosen his political grip. Over here in Umm Qasr, they're not sure those tactics will work.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Saddam maybe go, maybe (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Saddam, strong man.

AMANPOUR: Still, the British keep hoping to weaken his hold. When the people started defacing these images, British soldiers offered them paint and brushes.

Christiane Amanpour, CNN, Umm Qasr in Southern Iraq.


BLITZER: And we're just getting this in from the Associated Press. Associated Press now reporting that a U.S. military Huey helicopter has crashed in southern Iraq, killing three U.S. troops on board, injuring one. No word on the cause of this crash, but a Huey attack helicopter now has gone down. Three people apparently killed. One U.S. military personnel injured. We're going to get some more information and follow up precisely what's going on and get back to you.

In the meantime, let's go to Candy in Washington -- Candy.

CROWLEY: Thank you, Wolf.

A look now at some of the casualty figures in the war on Iraq. U.S. and British officials say 59 coalition service members have been killed, 36 from the U.S. That does not include the three you have just told us about now, and 23 from Britain. Seventeen Americans are listed as missing in action. Seven more are considered prisoners of war. The Iraqi government has not released any casualty numbers for its military, but Baghdad says 357 civilians have been killed and more than 3,600 wounded.

U.S. military leaders here in Washington and in the Persian Gulf today, once again defended the U.S. war plan from outside criticism. Our Patty Davis is standing by at the Pentagon with more on these and other developments -- Patty.

PATTY DAVIS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, first, Candy, let me tell you that U.S. Central Command can indeed confirm for us that a Marine-- a Huey helicopter did crash in southern Iraq, but there is no word from Central Command at this point on casualties.

Now, Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense, meanwhile saying that the war with Iraq remains on plan, that eventually, days, weeks, months, that Saddam Hussein's regime will be removed.


DONALD RUMSFELD, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: We've got a good plan, and it's working very, very well. There are a lot of second-guessers, but believe me, it's going to end and it will end in victory. It is important that that happen, that the people of Iraq be liberated.


DAVIS: Rumsfeld making the rounds of the Sunday talk shows today along here in Washington D.C. with joint chiefs chairman, Richard Myers.

Now, Myers says that coalition troops are working to knock out Iraqi television. He said it is not only the center of command and control for the Iraqis, but also a source of propaganda to the Iraqi people. Now, Myers also says that U.S. troops attacked a site in northeastern Iraq where it is believed that al Qaeda and Ansar al- Islam have been working on poison. Myers said that the site is probably where the Ricin found in London was found, or at least the operative or the formula used in that poison. They're looking at laptop computers that they found as well as other documents. And also, Myers says that coalition troops have been hitting Iraqi artillery and other units that could be used to launch chemical weapons -- Candy.

CROWLEY: Patty, we've watched, over the past couple of days, a lot of these irregular Iraqi soldiers using trucks and anything they can to sort of go after U.S. troops, but this really started over weapons of mass destruction. Has there been any confirmation that any of that has been found during this?

DAVIS: Well, today Rumsfeld said that, in fact, they have not found any weapons of mass destruction, but it's certainly something they're worried about. He said it's probably because they're just not close enough to the sites where they believe it's located. They're not close enough to Baghdad at this point. They do believe it is likely, though, that Baghdad will use or try to use -- launch those weapons of mass destruction against them. So they are trying very hard to knock out anything that they can where those weapons could be launched at American and coalition forces -- Candy.

CROWLEY: Patty Davis at the Pentagon, thanks very much.

Coming up, smoke and flames fill the sky over Baghdad. We'll have the latest on the situation in the Iraqi capital. And later, we'll check in on the anti-war and troop support rallies going on today across the country today and around the world.


BLITZER: We want to update you on a breaking story that we're following right now. The U.S. military has confirmed that a Marine UH-1 Huey helicopter has crashed in southern Iraq. The Associated Press is now adding to that, adding that three people on board that helicopter have been killed, presumably Marines. One has been injured. The Huey, according to the Associated Press, was on a support mission. A military spokesman telling AP a crash at a forward supply and refueling point in southern Iraq. No word on the cause of the crash. We're monitoring this development, trying to get some more information. But we can confirm that a Huey UH-1 helicopter, a Marine helicopter, has indeed crashed in southern Iraq. Three people on board feared dead. We'll get more information on that and bring it to you as we get it.

In the meantime, more bombing strikes against targets in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq. Nic Robertson is joining us now from along the border between Iraq and Jordan for an update on what exactly has happened over the past hour or two.

Nic, from your vantage point, it looks like the bombing is unrelenting.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Certainly, that's what sources in Baghdad are telling us. A little earlier, I spoke with somebody in the capital who told me that to the south side of the city they could hear heavy detonations. He wasn't clear whether it was artillery or incoming missiles and bombs, but that was to the south side of the city.

Also, Iraqi officials saying that areas in the east of the city have been impacted as well as an area close to the center of Baghdad called Kurata (ph). This is a shopping district as well as a residential neighborhood quite close to the central Baghdad.

And we've also seen this evening fires coming from an area very close to the center of Baghdad. These fires appear to be oil-fueled fires and what is not clear here, whether these are the so-called oil filled trenches that Iraqi officials have been lighting to try and fill the air with smoke, to help deny visibility to coalition aircraft flying over the capital or whether or not this is a fuel supply depot that may have been hit by coalition forces, but certainly heavy pools of black smoke rising up from a billowing fire a little earlier in Baghdad.

We've also -- a source told me earlier -- backing up, what we're hearing from Iraqi officials that they say Arab fighters are coming to the capital, coming to Baghdad, to help support the fight against coalition forces. Now, Iraqi officials say some several thousands of these fighters are coming to the capital. Certainly, the source I spoke with mentioned a bus full of them. And interestingly, that bus came along a road from the west of Iraq towards Baghdad. That bus full of these fighters from outside of Iraq were stopped at a U.S. Special Forces checkpoint and then allowed to proceed and carry on into Baghdad. And certainly, Iraqi officials are making a lot of that, getting this international support at this time.

We've also heard today from the information minister, Mohammed al Sahhaf. He has talked about the coalition forces' operations in the south of Iraq and accused them of destroying humanitarian aid there.

MUHAMMED SAEED AL-SAHHAF, IRAQI INFORMATION MINISTER (through translator): We are talking about the humanitarian aid. They destroyed huge quantities of food and other materials that belong to the civilians of Iraq. They put all of that on fire, and here we have them now saying we are here to provide humanitarian aid. I think this will show the world a glimpse of what's going on by these invaders when they came to Iraq and how they're becoming, day after day, very hysterical.


ROBERTSON: Now, al-Sahhaf as well as the defense official in Baghdad today, said that there would be more of the suicide missions that were witnessed yesterday -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Nic Robertson following the latest developments in Baghdad where it's been a busy night for all concerned. More explosions, more U.S. bombing strikes, not only in Baghdad but on the outskirts as well. Several of those targets, we're told, Republican Guard units outside of Baghdad. Nic, thanks very much. We'll be getting back to you. And to our viewers, we're following a breaking story in southern Iraq. A U.S. Marine Huey helicopter has gone down, crashed. According to Associated Press, three people on board were killed, one injured. We're getting more information. We'll have an update as soon as we come back.

Also, we've been hearing, of course, a lot about those air strikes and ground battles in Iraq, but what's the Navy's role in Operation Iraqi Freedom? We'll get some perspective from a Navy expert from right on the other side of the break. That's only 90 seconds away. Stay with us.

ANNOUNCER: CNN's coverage of the war in Iraq. Four U.S. soldiers are attacked in Kuwait, this time by a truck. The latest on the war in Iraq from U.S. Central Command, worldwide protests, these stories and more today at 4:00 p.m. Eastern. For continuing coverage on the war in Iraq, stay with CNN, the most trusted name in news.


CROWLEY: Bringing you back now to the latest from the warfront. The U.S. military, the Pentagon, now says a Marine helicopter, a Huey, has gone down in southern Iraq. The Associated Press says three people are dead. Let's take this now down to Miles O'Brien in Atlanta -- Miles.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks very much, Candy. I'm joined by Alec Fraser, a retired Navy captain, who's going to talk to us a little bit about that and some other matters.

On the Huey, though, that is perhaps the most widely used helicopter ever in the U.S. military. I think 9,000 of them were made. Obviously, it was a staple of Vietnam. I didn't know there were many left in service. What are they typically doing?

CAPT. ALEC FRASER (RET), U.S. NAVY: Well, they're still being used in the amphibious support groups, on ships at sea. It's being used on the expeditionary forces ashore, so they're so many out of Vietnam. They're still around and being highly used.

O'BRIEN: Kind of a utility helicopter. It's a hearty craft. Crew of four, it's interesting three were killed and one is injured. So apparently whatever they were transporting, if it was a human cargo, was not on board at that time. That was just the bare bones crew of the Huey helicopter. We're obviously watching that closely for you.

Now, let's talk a little bit about naval aviation and the Navy's role in all of this, since we have Alec with us. We know now that there are five carriers, perhaps a sixth, in region, as they say. And as we zoom down, let's explain to folks what a carrier battle group is all about. First of all, the carrier.

FRASER: The Navy is -- you know is organized into carrier battle groups. A carrier is, of course, the center of that. It carries 80 to 85 aircraft. And in this particular situation here, that's the primary backup that's going on to provide the support to the ground forces and targets in Baghdad.

O'BRIEN: Aegis cruiser, what do they do?

FRASER: An Aegis cruiser shoots the Tomahawk missiles. And the Aegis radar are things that can detect low-flying missiles coming out of southern part of Iraq.

O'BRIEN: All right. Arleigh Burke Class Destroyer, that you're familiar with.

FRASER: Arleigh Burke can do the same thing. It has fewer missiles than a cruiser, but the same mission.

O'BRIEN: And the USS Thatch has Oliver Hazard Perry Frigate. What does that mean?

FRASER: Primarily used for protecting other surface ships and has a radar that can support the group too.

O'BRIEN: And finally, there's a submarine in -- at least one submarine in the group. What do they do in a situation like this when you're not up against another navy?

FRASER: They can do two things. They can fire Tomahawk missiles and they can get in close to shore and listen in on electronic eavesdropping.

O'BRIEN: Now, so far on this campaign, 11 days now, there have been 1,400 Naval sorties off the tops of aircraft carriers and some six or 700 cruise missile launches. It makes for a very, very busy place out there at sea, doesn't it?

FRASER: It's a very busy place. As we heard some of the pilots say, they spend their time planning, flying, eating, sleeping, planning, flying, and they go into that cycle over and over and over again. We have five carriers on station because each carrier has one flight crew on deck. It doesn't have two. So you can only operate so many hours before they get tired. You have to let them rest a little bit. Another carrier steps in for their 12-hour shift.

O'BRIEN: Interesting. You would think they rigged them up to operate 24 by 7.

FRASER: It's a lot of people and it's very specialized and very dangerous. You've got to have the right people doing it. And it can only patrol with one team.

O'BRIEN: Plus, the rest of the team could never sleep if that was going on, right?

FRASER: Right, right, right.

O'BRIEN: All right. Alec Fraser, thanks very much, appreciate your insights into Naval aviation. We'll check in with you a little bit later -- Candy.

CROWLEY: Thanks, Miles.


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