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War in Iraq: Iraqi Defectors Afraid of Retaliation from Saddam

Aired April 1, 2003 - 01:00   ET


AARON BROWN, ANCHOR: We know many of you particularly in the west are coming off the night shift whatever you happen to be doing. Maybe just joining us. Here's a recap of the day's developments from Wolf Blitzer.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In central and southern Iraq, the battle lines shift as the allies fight to position themselves for an assault on Baghdad.

South of the capital, CNN's Walter Rodgers with the U.S. Army's 7th Cavalry says Iraqi Republican Guard units are holed up at Al Hillah and another nearby city and appear to be baiting U.S. forces to enter those towns and fight.

Rodgers reports the 3rd Infantry is regularly calling in air support against nearby Republican Guard.

In Baghdad and the surrounding area, intense air strikes on key government sites, including a palace and the information ministry.

In the south, U.S. and British forces battle their way through Najaf. Nasiriyah, al Samawah, where U.S. officials say 100 members of what they described as a terrorist squad were captured and 50 Iraqi soldiers were taken prisoner.

Just north of Nasiriyah, U.S. Marines stage early morning raids looking for Ali Hassan al Majid, known as Chemical Ali, Saddam Hussein's cousin, accused of killing Kurds with chemical weapons 15 years ago. He commands Iraqi forces in the south.

CNN is told Chemical Ali has been spotted but not yet been caught.

In Basra, British forces claim control of the western part of the city, say they've captured five senior Iraqi paramilitary. But also say Iraqi militias are firing mortar rounds indiscriminately in the city.

British commanders still optimistic that Basra will be theirs.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're targeting the Ba'ath Party regime in Basra in particular and Al Zubayr as well and we're targeting the military who they are controlling. BLITZER: In the north, just east of Mosul, Iraqi troops entrenched on a ridge line near the town of Kalaf, struck by precision bombs from two U.S. F-14 Tomcats.

Wolf Blitzer, CNN, Kuwait City.


BROWN: It's an overview of the day.

A couple of stories that are going to be around for awhile and we'll probably see more and more of them as the war goes on. There was this terrible incident where seven civilians were shot when they failed to stop at a roadblock or a checkpoint.

And there's a dispute over whether or not warning shots were fired. The "Washington Post" is reporting that they were not. Centcom says it's investigating. Anyway, there's that. Apparently there's been another one of those.

Chris Plante is on duty at the Pentagon, again, for us. So Chris, update as you can on the new one and the rest.

CHRIS PLANTE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, the new one is a report that just came out a couple of minutes ago. It's a Reuters report. It says that one man was shot at a checkpoint. It appears now that he was unarmed.

Presumably, based on what we know at this point, which is very little, he did not stop when asked to stop. This is an area where on Saturday four U.S. troops from the 3rd Infantry Division were killed in a car bombing. It was obviously a very disturbing episode to the U.S. military there.

Earlier today, a tragic incident, at least seven people killed -- Pardon me -- At least seven people killed when they approached a checkpoint. They were apparently reported to stop. They did not stop. It is unclear whether warning shots were fired. It is clear that shots were fired, however, and at least seven to ten people were killed in that incident.

James Wilkinson, who is a spokesman for the central command in Doha, had this to say about it.


JAMES WILKINSON, SPOKESPERSON, CENTCOM: This is a sad and tragic incident and it is really terrible that innocent people have died. I will point out that this is a byproduct -- the new security measures we've had to put in place are a byproduct of the regime's tactics of terrorism. They have now called for terrorist attacks both in the United States and the United Kingdom. They continue to, as the report said just before, they continue to attack their own citizens who try to flee.

And so it's a sad and tragic incident and it's unfortunate it had to happen. But all such incidents like this are the fault of the regime.


PLANTE: Also, Aaron, there was this crash as you just mentioned aboard the USS Constellation of a U.S. Navy S-3 Viking aircraft. It is an in-flight refueling aircraft, this particular plane was.

It made a landing, a complete landing aboard the aircraft carrier and was expected to taxi over to the right. It instead apparently veered to the left and went off the side of the ship. Not clear if there was a problem with the brakes or another mechanical problems, but the two pilots ejected. And we see their search and rescue helicopter landing here on the deck of the ship.

One sailor aboard the ship had this to say about it.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I saw the wreckage and hovered over the wreckage and we looked for the survivors. First we did not see any survivors. And then we saw two survivors. Baxter Diaz (ph) was our hoister operator in the back. He saw the two survivors. And about the same time, one of them came up on the radio and told us that he was right behind us.


PLANTE: Now, this was apparently the very last plane to be landing on the ship that day, earlier today. This S-3 is an in-flight refueler, as I said. It generally flies to the northern Persian Gulf. It gives airplanes, F-14s and F-18s, a drink of fuel before they go into Iraq. And if they need more gas on the way back they hover along the border there and give them more fuel.

So therefore, they're always the last plane back to the ship. This was, in fact, the last plane back. Drove off the side of the plane -- drove off the side of the ship, rather.

A helicopter was airborne nearby and they had swimmers in the water almost immediately. So they averted further disaster at least -- Aaron.

BROWN: Chris, thank you very much. Chris Plante at the Pentagon.

You heard the Centcom spokesman say, about this incident where the civilians died at the checkpoint. He said, "All such deaths are the fault of the regime." I think he -- that's the position, clearly, that the coalition side will take that whenever there is a civilian casualty, it is not their fault. It's the fault of the tactics of the other side.

I guarantee you that that will not be how it's played in much of the Arab world. Rym Brahimi is in Amman tonight. And she joins us.

I suspect this incident will get considerable play in the press in Amman and across the Middle East, as do the attacks in and around Baghdad.

RYM BRAHIMI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, Aaron. That's exactly the kind of incident that is very likely to trigger a lot of emotions, more emotions even than we've seen so far. There's going to be a lot of talk about that. Expect to see very, very rising tensions in the region in the coming days over that incident.

Now, of course, the explosions, the bombing of Baghdad, as well. That's something that's triggering a lot of questions, a lot of -- a lot of questions is the word, really, among people who literally say, well, is this the quick and easy war that President Bush had promised everybody?

As you know, Aaron, over night, a lot of explosions yesterday evening. Mainly, they were targets that the coalition forces are going back and back and back to attack day after day. Mainly, the Republican Guard divisions that are trying to target north and south of the capital.

An intelligence complex that is apparently also linked to the Fedayeen Saddam. That's a Christian area where the Christian minority lives and does business mainly.

And also presidential palaces. And so, for instance, yesterday a lot of explosions, a lot of targets apparently in those areas and a lot of bombing in central Baghdad, as well. The Pentagon says in the past three days, 3,000 bombs have been dropped.

And then the Pentagon also suggested -- raised questions about President Saddam Hussein and his sons. As you know, Aaron, there have been questions about whether his sons are still in town or not. And as if to answer immediately, well, Iraqi TV, that was knocked off air, when it came back on air, produced a video of President Saddam Hussein and both his sons -- Aaron.

BROWN: We were talking to Nic earlier in the night. Always, every time these pictures of Saddam come on, there is this debate over there they're new and whether he's alive.

In your part of the world, is there any question in people's minds whether he is alive?

BRAHIMI: I think until now, there's still no question that he's alive. I don't think people believe he may have been dead at this point. Iraqi satellite channel, as you know, broadcasts throughout the region, as well. It's a satellite channel, so it can be seen pretty much everywhere.

And so people do see that. These pictures are also picked up by the main Arab media, Al Jazeera, Abu Dhabi. And so people see that; there hasn't been any question. In fact he's also very much alive in people's minds. And a lot of people will tell you, Aaron, whereas they weren't really thrilled with the whole President Saddam Hussein still in power in Iraq, well, now that the U.S. has attacked Iraq, they kind of see him as a bit of a hero now because he's resisting -- Aaron. BROWN: Rym, thank you very much. Rym Brahimi in Amman. And keeping an eye on events in Baghdad, quickly, to Daryn Kagan in Kuwait on the telephone, as we were talking, sirens were going off. And I gather you're in the shelter.


BROWN: Daryn, can you hear me?

KAGAN: Oh, yes, sorry, Aaron.


KAGAN: Actually, yes -- we actually just got the all-clear. We just had another missile siren. And with the all-clear, I'm actually talking to you as I hike back up six flights of stairs, which is what we do every time after we go down to the basement and do the all- clear.

We were doing -- I was doing math with Bill Hemmer as we made our way down to the basement. And I think it's been about 60 hours since we had our last missile siren here in Kuwait City.

It's like the whole atmosphere changed about three days ago when a missile actually hit the city and went into the Street Shop (ph) Mall, showing that the Iraqis really do have the ability to hit the city.

So when those missile sirens go, even if we're on the air, we all kind of grab our things and head down to the basement.

BROWN: But there hadn't been one in almost three days?

KAGAN: Right. There was an incident last night where -- I'm not sure if it was the Kuwaitis or the Americans -- hit it with a Patriot missile, but it was -- there was no missile coming from Iraq.

BROWN: Do you react to them differently since the -- emotionally do you react to them differently since the shopping mall hit?

KAGAN: You know, I would -- I would say no. I mean, I think that made it more serious. And that shopping mall is not that far from where our CNN headquarters are. But I can just say personally, I feel like I've taken those things pretty seriously since I got here.

And it almost kind of becomes routine. You hear the siren, that's what you do. You grab your stuff, you go down in the basement. And you just do what you've got to do.

BROWN: All right, Daryn, get back upstairs, please, and we'll see you in 15 minutes or so, we hope.

KAGAN: You got it. Three more flights to go and I'll see you.

BROWN: Thank you very much. Daryn Kagan. On to northern Iraq now where today for the first time we saw some Iraqi soldiers who decided the only way to get away from the relentless U.S. bombing that's been going on in the north was to surrender.

CNN's Ben Wedeman joins us with the latest with what's going on in the north.

Ben, it's good to see you this morning.

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, good morning, Aaron. Well, actually, it's relatively quiet. That relentless bombing, it appears, taking something of a break.

But we do know that yesterday was some very intense bombing on this ridge behind me. Yesterday, we watched as two F-14 Tomcats streaked very low over our heads and blasted the ridge behind me.

Now, all of this bombing that's been going on against Mosul, Kirkuk and many of the front line positions is beginning to take its toll on Iraqi forces.


(voice-over) For weeks, we've been watching Iraqi soldiers manning their front line positions. And now we've finally met some.

Five Shiite recruits from southern Iraq, deserters, surprisingly young men afraid to show their faces on camera, afraid to tell us their names for fear of retribution against their families.

After almost a week of hellish coalition air bombardment, they abandoned their positions just before sunrise Monday and fled to Kurdish-controlled territory.

We ran away from the bombing, says one. For six days we were bombed. For six days we couldn't sleep. We had to save our lives.

After seeing too many comrades killed and wounded, they decided enough was enough.

This soldier told me more troops would like to flee, but government execution squads have strict orders to kill all would-be deserters.

Their officers confiscated their radios so didn't know U.S. and British forces had invaded their country. But the sudden intense bombing said it all.

I asked if they had received training in chemical warfare. No, replied one. But we were recently given gas masks.

These men will be handed over to the Red Cross and will have to keep their faces hidden until this conflict ends.

(END VIDEOTAPE) Now, Kurdish commanders are also telling us that in this area, they're seeing signs that possibly the Iraqi army is preparing to pull back, Aaron. We're told, for instance, by one commander that they've seen some heavy anti-aircraft guns being taken away from the ridgeline.

We're also hearing that some of the Arab villagers who live on the other side of the front line are packing up and preparing to leave -- Aaron.

BROWN: Those -- how old were those young men?

WEDEMAN: Well, most of them were basically in their late teens and early 20s. They -- many of them looked -- they looked very young and they looked very exhausted. As I said in that report, they said they hadn't slept in six days. They were, by and large, fairly disoriented.

They didn't have a problem speaking with us, but you could really feel a palpable fear that they didn't want their faces -- the pictures of their faces taken. They really crouched down to hide for fear that anyone on the other side sees them.

So very young men, Aaron, very scared.

BROWN: They're worried about their families? Is that it?

WEDEMAN: Yes. They're worried if they're seen -- if the Iraqi authorities see them on CNN, for example, they'll go after their families. That, of course, they've deserted.

Basically they've committed a very -- by Iraqi military code, a serious crime, punishable by execution. Now, since they're not around, their families will be punished. That's the worry.

BROWN: Right, right. And any military desertion is serious business.

And can you discuss how you came to -- how you got to them? Did the Kurdish forces bring them to you?

WEDEMAN: No. We really had to hunt these guys down. We knew that actually there's been a fairly steady stream of defectors coming across, but we also know that the Kurds have been a little hesitant to allow the press to speak with them.

Basically, we went into one of the local intelligence offices and we just had to convince them to let us through. These of course -- they're not prisoners of war. These are defectors and they're not considered -- so the Geneva Convention rules regarding prisoners of war doesn't apply.

But, anyway, eventually, after discussing this at some length with the Kurdish authorities and, you know, just pressing in the way we usually have to do to get things done, they relented, let us speak with them for about half an hour to about 40 minutes. And then they were whisked away, we were told, being taken to the Red Cross.

BROWN: Ben, thank you. Ben Wedeman in northern Iraq. That's a fascinating story, those five young -- or four or five young men.

Put up Iraqi TV, if you can briefly. Iraqi TV is denying, we are being told, that members of Saddam's family are leaving the country. What is interesting about that is since Iraqi -- the Iraqi government essentially controls all forms of communication, how is it that people in the country are getting the -- getting to -- have come to believe that members of the family may be leaving the country that caused the government to go on the air and deny it.

Whether that is leafleting or coalition tactics of some sort, I do not know. But I can fell you that Iraqi state TV is on the air now denying that any members of Saddam's family -- quite a large family -- are leaving the country.

We'll take a break. Our coverage continues in a moment.


BROWN: Seems like a very good theory that the more pairs of eyes we look through, the more we know. So for another look at the broad picture we turn to Trevor McDonald, Sir Trevor, an anchor for Britain's Its, is in Kuwait tonight. It's nice to have you with us, sir.

TREVOR McDONALD: Thank you very much, Aaron.

BROWN: Thank you. Are the British getting the same sort of up and down, pessimism/optimism back to up -- you know, back and forth over the last two weeks?

McDONALD: Well, I think the same thing is true, as it is in the United States. I think it began with the perception that we might have got by this war a little more quickly and the progress would be a little more quick. But, of course, it hasn't happened that way.

I think, too, that we convinced ourselves, listening to our political leaders and those who were very instrumental in pushing the idea of this war, that this is something that would benefit the people of Iraq and therefore, this is something that the people of Iraq would welcome.

In other words, we did expect, I suppose, and it does seem a bit of fantasy now, but we did expect young maidens to throw flowers as the soldiers on tanks ran by and to proclaim liberation. I think we did in our hearts expect that to happen, and it hasn't happened.

And I think when we read about all the high-tech equipment, about the Apache Longbow and about the tank busters and what these weapons were capable of, the awesome power that they've packed, we did think that Iraq was no match for this. And I think we underestimated the degree to which people might fight back.

So, yes, pessimism to some extent. But, also, coupled with support -- strange support for the war, much, much greater than it's ever been. And...

BROWN: Why strange?

McDONALD: A belief in the end -- well, strange in that I think, you know, that the country as seen by some of the demonstrations which we've had in London and, for that matter, in many other parts of Europe, people are really divided on the issue.

But yet, when our soldiers go into battle, when they go into the field, the support suddenly mounts. So one is seeing a picture in England, for example, where Tony Blair's rating is now at an unprecedented 84 percent.

Now, that, I don't think, represents what -- the division of opinion about the war. But I think what it does show is the degree of support that our soldiers get once battle commences.

BROWN: Let me try to get a couple of things in. I think it was probably 12 or 13 years ago that you interviewed Saddam Hussein. Not many people can say that they have done that.

Are you surprised at how the Iraqi machine, the Iraqi political machine, has been able to with stand the onslaught and at least keep control of people to this point?

McDONALD: No, I'm not at all surprised. I mean, I think he exercises very, very, very strong control.

I was in Baghdad about six weeks ago. And it's quite interesting. After you've been there for about ten days or so, it suddenly becomes very oppressive to realize that people speak to you in whispers.

We interviewed a lady at her house. She had a very nice middle class house, and we went to her house. And she wouldn't commit herself to saying anything unless she consulted the minder who was with us. And people sort of whisper behind cars, behind closed doors. And even so, they look around.

And this time, I also found almost sort of overwhelming, in a kind of repressive sort of way, these huge pictures of Saddam Hussein everywhere. And there is -- there is control. And I suppose to us it's very strange to see this and to react to it and to understand what its implications cases are.

But looked at from the Iraqi point of view, you really understand how they feel. They are really trapped by this regime in a sense.

And yet, you know, I think that in a way, they are reacting in another direction, which we didn't expect, as people come to fight a war on their soil. I'm not too sure that they like all the aspects of that, although they might be promised something in the end.

BROWN: I've got about a half a minute, OK and this is a complicated question to do. But do you think ultimately the Americans and the British will become to be seen in the Middle East as colonialists or as liberators?

McDONALD: Aaron, it really does depend how this plays out. I think that Tony Blair's interest was always to try to get the United Nations involved, to internationalize what happens in Iraq after the war. I think that's very, very important.

Otherwise those charges that you mention of colonialism, imperialism even, might well be laid at the door of the Americans and the British by people in the Middle East.

BROWN: Sir Trevor, thanks. Nice to meet you this way. Thanks for your time. Sir Trevor McDonald, who's with ITV, the British television network. And he was in Kuwait war, as you know.

Isn't fought simply with bombs and tanks. Psychological warfare. It is part of the arsenal in every part of the war, certainly is in this war. That story from Mike Boettcher, who is embedded with the special forces.


MIKE BOETTCHER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): When the sun sets over Basra and the temperature cools, the war heats up. Or does it?

U.S. special operations forces consider themselves a force multiplier. And tonight they will literally be. Their strategy, add one operational Humvee with a loud speaker mounted on top to one British tank and fore armored vehicles and suddenly this tiny force sounds like an invading division.

It is called psychological operations, or psy-ops, part of the U.S. special forces repertoire.

Their speaker blares the music of disinformation and confusion, broadcast at ear-splitting decibels. The audiotape of recorded tank sounds plays for more than an hour, a show meant for the ears of Iraqi forces in Basra a short distance away.

Adding to the realism, flares are fired to illuminate Iraqi positions. And British tanks fire occasional rounds at Iraqi targets.

The man orchestrating the racket, a 50-year-old special operations veteran who calls this war his last rodeo, turns the speaker in several directions to add to the illusion of a massive frontal attack. Occasionally, Iraqi combatants fire back with mortars, machine guns and artillery.

The coalition hopes this grand deception will force the Iraqis to move where they don't need to move, make them look where they don't need to look. Around Basra, the battlefield has become a true twilight zone, where fact and fiction are indistinguishable in the inky blackness of a moonless night.

Mike Boettcher, CNN with the U.S.S. special operations forces on the outskirts of Basra. (END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: Coming up on the half hour, Daryn Kagan joins us to update the day's news, headlines. We take a break first. Our coverage continues in a moment.



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