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Defense Department Dealing with Tragedy

Aired April 1, 2003 - 02:04   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: All right, Daryn. Thanks. The U.S. Defense Department is dealing with a tragedy, as well as a public relations nightmare. The deaths of seven civilians at a military checkpoint in southern Iraq. Our Chris Plante is at the Pentagon. Chris, what's the latest?
CHRIS PLANTE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Anderson. Two incidents, as we were just hearing about, the most recent one, one person shot at by Marines near the town of Shatra, apparently, not stopping at a checkpoint when Marines requested that he do so. Second man injured in that incident there. But more seriously, seven civilians shot to death by U.S. Army troops near that town of Najaf. That happened earlier today also, a similar situation, where they were coming up to a checkpoint, ordered to stop. A lot of fog of war surrounding this one. We don't know exactly what the circumstances were, but a number of civilians, mostly women and children, possibly one man, shot in that incident.

Spokesman James Wilkinson at the Central Command had this to say about it.


JAMES WILKINSON, CENTCOM SPOKESMAN: 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 by-product -- the new security measures we've had to put in place are a by-product 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 that it had to happen, but all such incidents like this are the fault of the regime.


PLANTE: Obviously, U.S. troops very much on edge at these checkpoints after that suicide bombing Saturday that killed four members of the Army, and with the promises from the Iraqi regime that more of this is to come, no big surprise, really, in their being somewhat sensitive and reacting very quickly -- Anderson.

COOPER: Yes, and not unexpected, I suppose, but a tragedy nevertheless for everyone involved, really. Chris, there was also a search-and-rescue operation that was successful. Tell us about that.

PLANTE: An S-3 Viking, a refueling tanker plane flying from the USS Constellation, which is an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf, made a safe landing aboard the ship, and then, when it was supposed to taxi to the right, it instead for some reason veered to the left, went off the side of the ship. Not clear whether it was a problem with the brakes or some other mechanical problem.

But the two pilots were able to, in the last second, eject from the airplane. They hit the water before the airplane did, and the usual search-and-rescue helicopter was hovering nearby, as it always the case during flight operations on aircraft carriers. They put swimmers into the water very quickly and were able to retrieve the two pilots, who, I'm told, are in good condition. You can see them here on this videotape that was fed from the ship a short time ago. And one of the sailors aboard the search-and-rescue helicopter explained what he saw.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Saw the wreckage and hovered over the wreckage, and we looked for the survivors. At first, we did not see any survivors, and then we saw two survivors. (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Diaz (ph) was our hoist 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: So that is the first airplane -- first fixed-wing airplane lost during this conflict, and it was a mishap of some kind. The specifics are not clear. But more importantly, those tragic incidents at the checkpoints not something that anybody wants to see, certainly, a nightmare that the soldiers and Marines involved will have to carry for the rest of their lives -- Anderson.

COOPER: Yes. There was an account of it also in "The Washington Post." I guess one of the embedded "Washington Post" reporters happened to be on the scene, and it was just -- just a tragic encounter to read the play-by-play on. It was just -- it was very sad. Chris Plante at the Pentagon, thanks very much.

Here are the latest battlefield casualty numbers from U.S. and British officials. Sixty-eight coalition troops have died in Operation Iraqi Freedom, thirty-five Americans killed in combat, eight by friendly fire or in accidents. Five British troops were killed by hostile fire, eighteen outside of combat. The cause of one death is still in question.

Iraqi officials are not divulging figures on military casualties. They say 420 civilians have been killed and about 4,000 injured. U.S. Central Command says more than 4,000 Iraqis have been captured. Seven Americans being held prisoner of war by Iraq at this moment have not yet been visited by the International Committee of the Red Cross, according to the latest report. And at least 16 Americans are missing in action -- Daryn.

KAGAN: Anderson, let's go ahead and check on northern Iraq. A number of Iraqi fighters, we hear, are calling it quits in the northern town of Kalak. They are surrendering following another day of intense coalition bombing. Our Ben Wedeman has been in that area for some time. We were talking to him yesterday about that bombing. He joins us now from Kalak with an update.

Ben, hello.

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, hello, Daryn. Well, today, actually, it's fairly quiet. In fact, we haven't seen any planes flying anywhere near this area. But for three days, really, it was some very intense bombing in this area, along the Iraqi front lines. In one of those areas to the south of us, apparently very intense six days of bombing. And we met five young recruits who basically -- from the Iraqi army -- who'd fled from the Iraqi lines. They said that for six days, they were under constant fire. It was -- as one said, it was the fire from the sky. During those six days, they got no sleep. They hardly ate, no rest. They were exhausted. And they said enough is enough. They'd seen too many comrades killed and wounded. They were afraid of, you know, these execution squads. And so they just fled here. They really described a situation which was really -- really hellish.

Now, also in that area to the south of here, we've heard from locals who say they've seen American forces in that area. This is an area that has really come under intense bombing, and it appears that it's just too much for some of these Iraqi troops. Many of them have very little support at all, and they're just simply giving up -- Daryn.

KAGAN: Let me ask you a little bit how this process works. When they give up, first of all, who -- whom do they give up to? Is it to coalition forces, U.S. and British, or to the Peshmerga?

WEDEMAN: Basically, it's to the Peshmerga. There really is no kind of fixed coalition presence on the ground. What they did is, yesterday at about 5:00 AM, just before it got light, after another night of bombing, they basically, without any real fore-planning -- or planning, they just left their positions. They told me they ran through valleys between the hills up here and surrendered themselves to the Kurds.

Now, the Kurds don't consider them prisoners of war because these people basically have fled their positions. So what happened is, we found them in one of the local political party offices, sitting in an unguarded room, really just resting for the first time in a long time. And we're told that they will be handed over to the Red Cross, and the Red Cross will keep them in a facility until the war is over, whenever that is -- Daryn.

KAGAN: Whenever that is. Ben Wedeman in Kalak, northern Iraq, thank you for that report. Anderson, back to you.

COOPER: All right, Daryn, thanks. The U.S.-led coalition continues its bombing campaign to soften up Baghdad, as some call it. Let's get the latest from CNN's Rym Brahimi in Amman, Jordan -- Rym.

RYM BRAHIMI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, well, a lot of targets apparently in the past 24 hours. A lot of targets, mainly -- the coalition forces have been pounding at the same targets for the past few days. And those are mainly the Republican Guard's facilities in the northern and southern outskirts of Baghdad, and then more toward the center of the Iraqi capital, an area known as Karada. It's where the minority Christians live, but it's also an area where there's an intelligence complex that's linked to the Fedayeen Saddam, this corps of volunteers prepared to die to defend Saddam Hussein. And then, of course, there are the presidential palaces. Many of them have been hit twice by now, and a lot of pounding there, at least five huge explosions in the center of the Iraqi capital last night.

Now, the Pentagon says that in the past three days, it's actually launched some 3,000 precision-guided bombs -- munitions, rather -- over Baghdad. Another area that's been targeted, Anderson, of course, the Iraqi TV and the Ministry of Information, attempts to really wipe out any possibility that the Iraqi government can have that kind of control still over its people. Well, it was knocked off -- Iraqi TV was knocked off only for a couple of hours. It came back up, and when it came back up, it came up with pictures showing President Saddam Hussein and both his sons, Uday and Qusay Saddam Hussein, at a moment when the Pentagon was asking the question, Where are they? I would wonder where they are, if I were the Iraqi people -- Anderson.

COOPER: Rym, I think a lot of Americans who see those images wonder, you know, why -- why is it that Iraqi TV is able to get back on the air so quickly, and why is it that it's still broadcasting. How difficult is it to knock it out? I know you're not a telecommunications expert or anything, but do you have a sense of -- I mean, just in terms of where it is in Baghdad and -- I mean, why is it so difficult? Do you have any idea?

BRAHIMI: It seems to me, Anderson, that the issue is, first of all, there are areas that might be hit that could cause a lot of collateral damage. There are a few residential areas that are not far from the TV building. I'm not sure whether that's a specific concern, but that could well be. The other issue is whether the Pentagon is -- whether the U.S.-led forces are really trying that hard or whether they're just trying to gently knock it off air. One of the reasons for this, we were told in the beginning of the campaign, was that they actually found it was useful to watch Iraqi TV. They were actually getting something out of it, as well, the U.S.-led forces.

Now, the other issue is, of course, now they're trying to take it out. They see it very much as a command-and-control facility at the hands of the Iraqi government. But it's proving not be easy. The other thing, Anderson, is that the Iraqi government has had a year to prepare for this campaign, and it has been saying it's been preparing. It is aware that the aim of the campaign is to take out the regime, and that would be one of the first targets, obviously, following that -- Anderson.

COOPER: All right, good -- good point, Rym. Thanks very much. Our Rym Brahimi live in Amman, Jordan.

Going to go back now to Daryn Kagan. And Daryn, there were some air raid sirens in Kuwait City about an hour or so ago, weren't there? What happened with that?

KAGAN: That there were. We were on the air with Aaron Brown when they started going off, the first sirens we've heard in about 60 hours here in Kuwait City. We did what we always do, grabbed our things and went down to the basement, Anderson. By the time we got down there, the all-clear was sounded. We're getting word from the Kuwaiti air force that, indeed, Iraq did try to fire another missile at Kuwait, but the Kuwaiti air force says they were able to shoot that down using a Patriot missile over Iraqi air space. So it never actually even crossed over into Kuwait. So we move on here in Kuwait City. It's just another day.

COOPER: A good thing you do. And just another day, I suppose it is. All right, Daryn, thanks very much.


COOPER: We're going to -- OK, Daryn, we're going to stick with you in Kuwait.

KAGAN: Right. Yes, because I have a thing here to bring us up to date on coalition troop movement. Let's go ahead and do that, beginning with U.S.-led ground forces approaching Baghdad from the south. They are now within 50 miles of the Iraqi capital. Aircraft continue pounding Republican Guard divisions south of the city. Our correspondent James Martone (ph) reports intense off-and-on air attacks near the northern city of Mosul. And then our Ryan Chilcote says that the U.S. Army 101st Airborne has secured an airfield near Najaf. Fighting continues around that city, as well as others in the southern part of Iraq.

U.S. Marines are continuing to control the city of Nasiriyah. They are looking to make the streets safe and put the people there at ease. That's where we find our Alessio Vinci. He is embedded with the Marines, and he has more from there.


ALESSIO VINCI, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A week ago, this area of Nasiriyah was a firing zone, the so-called "ambush alley" where several Marines lost their lives in a fierce battle. Today it is under the control of U.S. troops, who have begun foot patrols.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Basically, what we're trying to do is, you know, also win the hearts and the minds of the people. We're not here to totally, you know -- I mean, what the Marines are known for, you know, with force, brute force, and take everything out. We also want to show the other side that we're here to also help restore and help set a base for Iraq and for especially Al Nasiriyah.

VINCI: The first patrol began early in the morning, with Marines walking in tight formation, weapons trained on anything that moved. A civilian who approached the patrol handed over a letter he wanted to sent to Washington to President George W. Bush.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It says, "I'd like to have an appointment to meet you, sir, and this is a very important matter, that can I have -- going to make all the people here happy."

VINCI: Others had less ambitious requests. They asked for water, food. The Marines say water and electricity will soon be restored, and food from nearby warehouses will be distributed.

(on camera): This section of the city at this time of the day is largely deserted, and the few people who do come out in the streets appear to be largely sympathetic to U.S. Marines here.

(voice-over): Many civilians say they need the presence of U.S. troops. Some are in particular need of medical attention. Three- months-old Zahara (ph) was treated for mild diarrhea and an eye infection. A man identified as an Iraq combatant told Marines he was wounded two days ago when his group of 15 came under helicopter gunship attack. He says he is the only survivor.

STAFF. SGT. ANTHONY GOODWIN, U.S. MARINE CORPS: Obviously, we're trying to look at the overall picture, trying to be as humane as possible. That's our goal. We want these people to know that we're here to help them. But it makes it difficult when the Iraqi military does (UNINTELLIGIBLE) they do and (UNINTELLIGIBLE)

VINCI: People confirm that pockets of paramilitary combatants remain in town and threaten civilians.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But not see him because he is dressed like to me. I can't see him. He's dressed like to me, and he come -- tonight he was -- he can't kill me and my family.

VINCI: So in this one little corner of Iraq, people seem to feel safe enough to speak freely, but not too freely. Alessio Vinci, CNN, with the U.S. Marines in Nasiriyah, Iraq.


KAGAN: We're going to check in in Washington, D.C., in just a bit, find out what President Bush is up to today, where he will be. That's just ahead. Right now, a quick break from here in Kuwait City.


COOPER: We're going to check in now with one of our embedded correspondents. Karl Penhaul is in -- somewhere in central Iraq, we'll say. Karl, what is the latest where you are?

KARL PENHAUL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, a few moments ago, an alert for a missile attack just ended, the alert for possible chemicals that may have been borne in that missile warhead. The alert lasted for about 40 minutes. The situation occurred because initially, a Patriot missile, commanders here are telling me, intercepted an Iraqi missile as it flew overhead the American base, the American staging post where I am at now. Commanders also tell me a few moments later, another missile was fired, another Iraqi missile. Patriots did not intercept that, and that missile impacted, hit the ground somewhat south of where we are now. Checks, of course, were carried out for chemicals. The temperatures at that stage were not particularly high. There was a good southerly wind blowing, ideal conditions, indeed, for a chemical attack. But commanders say no traces of chemicals were found after the explosions -- Anderson.

COOPER: Karl, characterize for us, if you can, the kind of conflicts -- the kind of activities that your unit have been engaged with over the last couple of days.

PENHAUL: Essentially, the units here have been preparing. It's been more preparation rather than any active duty combat. They have been, obviously, flying in their Apache attack helicopters reconnaissance missions, usually around the perimeter of the base, to make sure things are very secure. There have been, obviously, a couple of scares in the last few days. There was the suicide car bombing attack not far from here in which four soldiers died. Also very close to the perimeter here in the following days, three Iraqis were detained because they were driving very close to the perimeter in an SUV-style pick-up.

But since then, things have been a little calmer until this morning, when the missile attack alert came about. But in a sense, the mission here right now is reconnaissance. It's preparation. It's getting ready for combat in the future.

COOPER: All right, Karl Penhaul with Army V Corps, 11th Attack Helicopter Regiment. Thanks for being with us.

We'll take a short break. Our coverage continues when we come back.


COOPER: President Bush says victory in Iraq is getting closer by the day. Let's check in now on what the president has been up to and will be up to in the day ahead. CNN's Chris Burns joins us now from Washington. Chris, how does it look from there?

CHRIS BURNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Hello, Anderson. Well, the president has no public plans today, but he will be sending his key diplomat, the secretary of state, Colin Powell, to Turkey and Europe later today. What he did earlier on -- earlier in the day on Monday, he went to -- to Philadelphia, to visit the Coast Guard, and there he had two messages, very important messages, one about the plan, the military plan here in the war, trying to sort of go against what has been talked about in the media and among commentators, that the war was not going according to plan, the president defending that, saying repeatedly in the same breath, pretty much, saying three times that in 11 days, the U.S.-led forces have gone very far in securing much of the country.

But he also had another message to the Iraqi people, very important. The question is whether the people are being repressed or whether they are rising up against U.S. troops -- varying opinions about that, and the president giving a message that was relayed by radio, translated by radio and broadcast to the Iraqi people. And here's part of it.


GEORGE WALKER BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It is understandable that fear and distrust run deep. Yet here in the city where America itself gained freedom, I give this pledge to the citizens of Iraq. We are coming with a mighty force to end the reign of your oppressors. We are coming to bring you food and medicine and a better life. And we are coming, and we will not stop. We will not relent until your country is free!


BURNS: Another trip by Secretary of State Colin Powell there today, very, very key, trying to repair relations both with the Turks and with the Europeans after the U.S. went to war over their objections. Now, the first stop will be Ankara, very important, because the Turks have threatened to send troops down into northern Iraq to try to prevent any attempt by the Kurds to seize oil fields and perhaps begin to build a separate state there. The U.S. is reassuring the Turks that the U.S. is now on the ground there, stabilizing the situation. Here's Secretary of State Colin Powell.


COLIN POWELL, SECRETARY OF STATE: We want to reassure Turkish leaders that we believe that the work we are doing there now should make it unnecessary for them to consider any incursions in the region, but at the same time, to hear their point of view and make sure that we have a common understanding.


BURNS: Later this week, Secretary Powell will be talking to NATO and the Europe Union, talking about the post-Saddam era, how Europe could help in rebuilding Iraq -- Anderson.

COOPER: Chris, Iraqi TV domestically, knocked off the air for a brief time, according to Rym Brahimi, who we talked to earlier. And CENTCOM officials have continually said it is a military target, Iraqi television. Are administration officials -- I mean, do you hear anything behind the scenes? Are they -- do they continue to be -- or what is the level of their concern about these -- these press conferences that we keep seeing coming out of Baghdad, which are widely covered in Arab media throughout the Arab world?

BURNS: No direct comment on that, but obviously, this is part of the propaganda war, and since Saddam Hussein or the top leadership was not knocked out at the beginning of the war, it does appear that the effort is not only to try to silence the upper leadership, but also to counter it with messages like we've heard from President Bush today -- Anderson.

COOPER: All right, Chris Burns in Washington, thanks.

We're going to take a short break. We'll be right back. Our coverage continues.


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