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At Least Four Large Explosions Shook Baghdad Today

Aired March 30, 2003 - 11:30   ET


STEPHEN FRAZIER, CNN ANCHOR: Here are the developments at this hour. At least four large explosions shook Baghdad today. The target a residential area near the information ministry building. Many government officials live in the area.
Large explosions were also heard in northern Iraq. They were felt near Mosul on the Iraqi side, the front between the Iraqi military and Kurds.

In Nasiriya, U.S. troops conducted house-to-house searches for more missing marines, but found only personal belongings.

A Pentagon official says bloody U.S. battle fatigues have been found in a hospital in Nasiriya. The official says the uniforms appeared to have the nametags and U.S. flag patches ripped off to disguise the owners' identities. They are believed to have belonged to some of the members of the army's 507th Maintenance Company, which was ambushed last week in Nasiriya.

Coalition forces are making headway in their battle against oil well fires. They have now secured the Basra oil refinery, which is one of three sites where fires have been ablaze in southern Iraq.

An international Red Cross team has arrived in Iraq now. This team headed to Basra on a relief mission. Civilians there have gone almost a week without enough clean drinking water.

And in other news, five people were killed early today when the van they were riding in went out of control and overturned on I-15 north of Barstow, California. The California highway patrol says 14 people were in the van when the accident happened. It says only three of the passengers were wearing seatbelts. That's a look at the headlines at this hour. Now back to coverage of war in Iraq with Aaron Brown.

AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: Steven, thank you very much.

And every single night, or almost every single night since war began, we've called on a range of journalists who are working the story for their help, from their perspective in the various parts of the region they are covering. And among them is Michael Gordon who is the chief military affairs writer for the "New York Times," Michael joins us from Kuwait today, again. Michael, it is good to have you on. Give me in a sentence or three your lead for the day where we are.

MICHAEL GORDON, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Well, I think where we are is in a difficult phase of the war, which is clearly taking longer than they anticipated. And yesterday was much notable, unfortunately, for the suicide bombing attack in An-Nasiriya. They killed four army soldiers. And I think what's happening now is a phase of he war which is what they call sort of in theoretical terms asymmetric warfare, which is you have an adversary who is overmatched in terms of force on force, in terms of fighting in the open desert, tank on tank, the U.S. outranges them. So what they are doing is they are turning to these kinds of techniques, partisan warfare, warfare in the cities, terrorist tactics like suicide bombings attacks, the kind of tactics they use against Israelis in the hope of raising the U.S. casualty count, and slowing down the pace of the U.S. advance.

I think the Iraqi strategy is just to make this phase of the war so unpleasant, so difficult and so casualty ridden that the U.S. abandons its quest to go to Baghdad. I don't think that is going to work. But it's - they don't have many cards to play, and they are playing one of them.

BROWN: Is it acceptable among the military people you are talking to that the plan itself was, in some respects, too ambitious to topple this government, to do it without inflicting civilian casualties or as few as possible to get humanitarian aid in almost simultaneously, and to leave the bridges and the airports and everything else standing?

GORDON: Well, I don't know that it was too ambitious in the that sense. I mean, the goal from the start was not to destroy or waste (ph) to Iraq but to defeat the Iraqi military, topple the regime and then inherit the country. And you don't do yourself any good if you bomb them back to some sort of pre-industrial age. Then you have the task of not only physically rebuilding the country but of winning the goodwill of the people. And there is some indications that in Basra, for example, you know, that's complicated by the verocity of the fighting there, because it does present a hardship for the people. So, I don't know if it's necessarily too ambitious to try to exempt some of the country from destruction, even as you're fighting it.

But I do think, even thought they will never admit it, that it was based on, at least among the political authorities in Washington, that it was based on a more optimistic set of assumptions, that they really did expect the airpower campaign to accomplish more. They even gave it a fancy name, which it probably doesn't deserve, Shock and Awe, that they did expect the Iraqis to greet them with open arms, and that they certainly didn't anticipate these paramilitary groups, at least they didn't anticipate capturing them in the south. Now, you're doing what military, which I think was probably what's optimistic about the war and more conservative in its planning than the civilian officials is trying to make the necessary adjustments to get through this phase of it.

BROWN: Was there resistance on the military side to the civilian side's assumptions?

GORDON: I don't know. I mean, I think - I don't know. I think that will be part of the great story of war to be unearthed perhaps afterwards. But, you know, when thing started early on, I think it is just a matter of public record, that initially the military favored a very large force, a couple hundred thousand. They always have for this kind of scenario. And the civilians favored a much smaller force, but one that was supported by substantial airpower, and pretty much on the ground they used the argument, the military was too risk adverse, that it was not advanced enough in its thinking. It didn't the combat effectiveness of the latest generation of systems.

So this thing was batted around for some time. The size of the force and, again, just going by what they say in briefings, it seems what happened was they came up with a large force, they didn't send it all at once. This is a force that is being dispatched in stages really or phases. So, you know, okay, there is in excess of 150,000 troops now. And they're -- that were intended to carry out the combat phase of the war. And then there are several divisions that are coming, were coming originally to take their place for the stabilization phase of the war. You can't use the word peacekeeping, apparently, it has been banned in the Pentagon. But they call it the stabilization phase, so they take the place of the original force.

And now it is beginning to look like the stabilization force is going to be the reinforcement. And that's another word you apparently can't use in the Pentagon, because it implies there was something deficient about the original plan. So, I noted in the briefing yesterday, which I watched on television from here, that the big theme of the briefing was that they were not reinforcing - they were not changing their plan. They were sticking to their original ...

BROWN: Right.

GORDON: ... Schedule and timetable. I think that's a little bit of spin control. I think that they may be sticking their timetable in the sense that of deploying forces, but since everything slowed down, in the sense of getting to Baghdad, the stabilization force could end up being a reinforcing force, but you wouldn't call it that.

BROWN: Michael, let me bring General Clark in. Just pick up where you want.

GEN. WESLEY CLARK (RET.), U.S. ARMY: Michael, do you think that - do you think the airpower is going to work against the Republican Guard that it dug in out there? What is your sense on how well the air campaign is doing against the ground forces?

GORDON: Well, I mean, they don't share their BDA, or battles damage assessment. You know, this is always such a difficult thing to evaluate. But my guess would be based on the past war that the airpower over time, if you give it enough time to work, can be effective against the forces in the field. So, you know, if you've got guys sitting out in the open desert and you drop enough bombs on them for a longer enough period of time, you are definitely going to kill some of them. And, more importantly, destroy their equipment. So I think the airpower will be - have some substantial effect against the Republican Guard, just as it did last time, it didn't (ph) concentrate on the forces enough.

But I think it has to be given time to work. In my view, it's not something that happens in one of two or three days, it's something that happens over a period of weeks. I don't know that that is their view. And the - where I think the airpower is less effective is where I think the Iraqis have devised an asymmetric strategy to try to create an equalizer is in the cities. And the dilemma is that these partisans, the first is Fedayeen, which is what we were told they were here initially, which is kind of a cadre of irregular forces under the control of Saddam's son. And then, the concern apparently was that Fedayeen has kind of martyr-like connotation in Arabic, right, among Arab nations.

BROWN: Their despots.

GORDON: ... change if from Fedayeen ... Well, no, there was a step in between, They changed it to paramilitaries. They came in the next day and the Fedayeen has become the paramilitaries. They said, OK. It turns out yesterday they were Fedayeens, today they are paramilitaries. And they were described as that for awhile. But, apparently, paramilitaries saw (ph) legitimate to Donald Rumsfeld. So, it came in the day after that, and they went from being paramilitaries to death squads. But, in any event, call these people what they may, in terms in their tactics, obviously, car bombs are deplorable argument for me.

But what you have is they are kind of vesting themselves in the cities, hiding out in these southern towns. And then they're emerging at night to carry out their dirty work or checkpoints and, or attack supply columns. So, basically, protecting themselves against the effects of the bombing in a way the Republican Guard cannot.

BROWN: Michael, thank you, another good look at the view from the command in Kuwait. Michael Gordon, the chief military affairs writer for the "Times."

Our coverage continues in a moment.

BROWN: Well, every night since the war began, we call on journalists around the country, as well as in the region just to give us a sense of in their cities, or in their radio programs, or in their newspapers whatever, they happen to be doing, how people are responding, what kinds of things you are saying, to the extent that the mood might be shifting. Brook Gladstone, National Public Radio joins us in New York. Martha Zoller, Zoller or Zaller, I hope I got that right, is here in Atlanta. She hosts a talk show here on WDUN radio. And in Dallas, Ruben Navarette of the "Dallas Morning News." And we are glad to see all of you.

Brook, I guess, at the top we will start there. Brook, do you have a sense that while the media seems to be saying the plan didn't work, and things have bogged down, and there's not enough troops there, and this, that and the other thing, that people are pretty steady on all of this?

BROOK GLADSTONE, NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO: No, actually, I wouldn't say so. I think that, generally, what's happened is that the public opinion has shifted with the news of the war. I think CNN and a bunch of other news organizations did a poll last Saturday and found that 90 percent of pro-war Americans liked the coverage. Then it began to slide on Saturday as the news began to turn more grim. I think that the media like the war is the moving target. And people's opinions of the coverage is going to track pretty much directly with their support or lack of support for the war.

BROWN: Do you think the coverage has changed or people's regard for the coverage has changed?

BROOK: I actually think the coverage has changed. I think, initially, there was an even greater reliance on embeds and on ex- generals. I think we are hearing a lot more in the coverage on the Iraqi street. We are hearing more criticism and more analysis of the strategy. We have been hearing it a lot on "CNN TONIGHT." And I think it is becoming more well rounded. It is becoming more complete It is less of the, you know, what's often incited as a soda-straw view of the war. That is the only thing that the embeds can provide. They are in one tiny place. So I think that the coverage is changing. I think it will continue to change.

BROWN: Martha in Atlanta. I have been living in Atlanta for two weeks now, though I don't know I have actually been out there. Do you have a sense that people have changed in the way that they view the situation?

MARTHA ZOLLER, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: Well, I'll tell you, my callers are still solidly behind the war, even if it takes up to six months. I did a poll on my website and looked at that. What we're hearing from folks - and you got to understand that we are affected much more directly. There were 3,000 people from our community that have been deployed through National Guard. There is something like 10 or 12,000 so far that have been deployed from Georgia. So, Georgia is very strongly represented. So there isn't a person who does not have a family member of a friend that is over there. And that affects the opinion. And in our area, they are very strong for the war. Now, we do have a very small anti-war movement, but much more of an anti-Bush movement. And it's gotten very mean and nasty.

BROWN: Martha, do you think that the people that you are hearing from who support the war are wishing that the war were being prosecuted more aggressively?

ZOLLER: I think that many people have said that America holds themselves to higher standards when it comes to things like taking a town, or going in. And there's a lot of talk about collateral damage, and certainly that is a very important issue. But what a lot of people think is that you should go in, you should fight as hard as you can and then worry about it later, because you will save more lives in the long run if you prosecute it more quickly.

BROWN: Ruben in Dallas, the president is a Texas, and I assume that that gives him a bit extra support down there. Have you noticed people's views changing about either itself or the way the war is being covered?

RUBEN NAVARRETTE, "DALLAS MORNING NEWS": Well, Aaron, you are absolutely right. Dallas is a whole other ballgame. If you talk about the president having say a 60 percent approval rating in the rest of the country at any given time, in Dallas and in Texas, add 10 points at any given time. And here in Texas, there is immense trust for the president for his judgment. They feel the president went the extra mile with the United Nations. They're supportive of this president. They're supportive of the war. But you hit on something. It is true I think at this point that there is more apprehension, day by day, as people being to wonder, well, where is the exit strategy? What is the accomplishable goal? Just because we support the president doesn't mean we enjoy these images of POWs and torn clothes and blood-ridden clothes. So, clearly, Texans, like the rest of America, are apprehensive. But they certainly don't have an anti-Bush settlement here, quite the contrary. They are still very pro- president and pro-war.

BROWN: And how they are - I can't resist this - how do they feel the war is being covered, then, by your paper or by 24-hour cable, which is certainly covering it all the time?

NAVARRETTE: Very well. I think everybody can talk about how there is just so much coverage, and you can't watch it all the time or read it all the time, you will go crazy. But I've not heard much negative stuff. Across the country, and around the state and in the city, people seem very, very pleased with the level of coverage they are getting, the immediacy of the new, the objectivity, which is amazing when you think about it, given the fact that the reporters are embedded with the troops. So, I really haven't heard that many complaints. I think across the board this is a great testament to the power of the media right now, they are doing a pretty good job.

BROWN: Let me go back up the line here, Martha, quickly, do you think based on listening to your callers if six months from now we are having this conversation, that you will find the same level of support for the president and for the war that you find today?

ZOLLER: Well, it depends on where we are in six months, how far down the road. But, yes, what we've seen in the polls we 've done is six months to a year is kind of the breakpoint where people are going to start questioning it. And I think the president and the people that are involved in this will continue to talk about it and continue to lay it out. But I've got to echo what Ruben said about the reporting, it has been a lot of information. You can understand my callers are listening to talk radio and watching cable news. So they are doing it all as far as all of that is concerned. And so they are really up to date on what is happening all the time because they have so much at stake, because of family members and people like that that are there. And there are a lot of families who are represented there. So, to answer your question, six months, I think you would start having to have a lot of convincing going on. But I think it will be over in six months and we will be on to the phase that is going to put Iraq back together again.

BROWN: And, Brook, the last minute goes to you, you deal a lot with media issues and all of that, do you ever think that people are getting almost too much, that they can't process all that they're getting, they can't absorb all that they're getting, and it all becomes sort of muddled? GLADSTONE: Well, we know that there was study that we released just yesterday about war fatigue I think they called it, and our program on the media did a national call in today, and there were a number of calls about people who said I just can't watch it anymore. I have to turn it off. It is invading my home. It is invading my life. I do think that people won't turn way from the coverage. I don't see how they can. But I have to disagree with my fellow radio talk show host, I think that the public opinion on both the media coverage and the war changes almost day by day. In the poll you did last week, it slid substantially from Saturday to Sunday. I think how we'll feel next week is something we couldn't possibly track right now, not to - you know, six months is almost inconceivable to imagine.

BROWN: Ruben, Martha, Brook, nice to talk to all of you. Thanks for giving up some of your Saturday night. Thanks a lot.

ZOLLER: Thank you, good to see you.

BROWN:: Aaron. And our coverage continues. We need to take a short break first. We'll be right back.


BROWN: If you've been watching for awhile, you know and perhaps share our affection for the army's 3-7th Cavalry and CNN's Walt Rodgers. We have watched them, I think it was a week ago tonight, in fact, we watched them roll across the desert to take any fire, hunker down in the sand. We've come to know the machines. And more than anything else, we really have come to know the men of that group. It's been a heck of a journey and, if you are new to the 3-7th, here's a taste of the odyssey. Here are some of the more personal impressions of correspondent Walt Rodgers so far.


WALT RODGERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The situation here appears to be increasingly tense. A few moments ago, out on the horizon, not very far ahead of the U.S. Army's 3rd Squadron 7th Cavalry we heard more than a few explosions.

(on camera): The U.S. Army's 3rd Squadron 7th Cavalry has compiled a rather extraordinary record in the past several days. It was the first unit to cross the Euphrates River and then punch northward to within 60 miles of Baghdad. It was the army which assigned me to the 3rd Squadron 7th Cavalry, and that was extremely fortuitous. It was like sitting in poker game and drawing four aces because this is a crack unit. It's the tip of the spear.

(voice-over): We've had an absolutely terrific story, pushing forward north toward Baghdad. Seventy two hours of that was under constant fire, coming at us from both sides of the road.


RODGERS: We just heard an intel - what the hell.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't know what it is.


RODGERS: Recall Winston Churchill's old quote, "There is nothing so exhilarating as being shot at and missed. What you try to do is stay calm and continue your broadcasting. But the worst thing you can do, either as a soldier or as a war correspondent is panic.


RODGERS: We are hearing incoming. We are not sure what it is. We see some stuff in the sky. We may have to break this off. I think we are going to break off this live shot for the time being. We are not sure what we see up there. Good-bye, we've got to dive for vehicles we think. See ya. Bye.



RODGERS: We have been under heavy fire for the past couple of miles. Mostly small arms fire, but the sandstorm has enabled the Iraqis to come very close to the road. And if I sound a little nervous, it's because we are in a soft-skinned vehicle and everybody else is in armor.


RODGERS (on camera): We would like to now show you what we call old Betsey, a reused, secondhand, U.S. Army humvee that we've been traveling with. Any bullet will pass through it, even a .22-calibre bullet. We can see our body armor draped on the door. This is what we've literally been living in. This is the kitchen when we're down. And we are very fortunate because we have got a teapot. That's my cubby hole. It's extraordinary cramped because Paul Jordan sandbagged the floor in case we hit a mine. That's all the space I have to eat and sleep in.


RODGERS (voice-over): You don't sleep. You really don't sleep out there. Of course, you are on an adrenaline high, but racing across the desert you know that you're traveling toward the jaws of what could be a major military battle.



RODGERS (voice-over): You have to realize they have been riding along, bouncing around in these tanks for probably for six or more hours now. And if you ride inside that tank, it is like riding in the bowls of a dragon. They roar, they screech.

(END VIDEO CLIP) RODGERS (on camera): The hardest part of the trip is personal discomfort. We cannot tell you the levels of personal discomfort we've experienced. The extraordinary sandstorms, the bitter cold nights. The most uncomfortable thing is having to sleep sitting up in a humvee with sandbags under your feet. Your knees at your chin. That's excruciatingly uncomfortable. Not something that you would wish on anybody but a contortionist. Let me give you an example of what the dust is like, look at this tarp. We have been through days of dust like that.



RODGERS (voice-over): The U.S. Army's 7th Cavalry has just taken three Iraqi prisoners of war, actually, they are very close, that is to say more than 40 yards away. But the dust and sand are blowing so badly, you are getting these vague images. It is like being in a blizzard, except unfortunately the sand doesn't melt as the snow does.



RODGERS (voice-over): What we eat is what the army calls MREs, meals ready to eat. And I must say they are pretty darn good. And, of course, everybody fights for the best ones. The treats are things like the M&Ms and some of the breakfast toasties. The army is eating much, much better than the grandfathers of these soldiers did, and the great grandfathers of these soldiers in the second world war.



RODGERS: Let me hold the camera and show you my crew. On camera let is Charlie Miller. He has been our superb and intrepid cameraman. On my right is Jeff Barweis (ph), a brilliant satellite engineer. That's the crew who really brings you these pictures.



RODGERS (voice-over): The pictures you are seeing are absolutely phenomenal. These are live pictures of the 7th Cavalry racing across the desert. You have never seen battlefield pictures like these before. What you are watching here is truly historic television and journalism.




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