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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

British Defense Secretary Talks About War Effort

Aired April 3, 2003 - 06:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: We want to get to London right now, Geoff Hoon there, House of Commons, talking Iraq.
(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

GEOFF HOON, BRITISH DEFENSE SECRETARY: ... Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard divisions on the approaches to the city. At the same time, British forces are consolidating their position in the area in and around Basra.

I do want to repeat the warning I made in my first statement to this House some two weeks ago: Do not underestimate the task that still faces our forces or the length of time that it may take to complete. We are still very much in the second phase of steady progress that my right, honorable friend, the prime minister, has set out.

On behalf of the government, I want to extend our condolences to the families and friends of those servicemen who have lost their lives in recent days.

I would also like to mention those who have been injured, some seriously, since the start of military operations either in combat or through the usual course of their duties. Thirty-nine U.K. battle casualties are currently being treated in theater, and 35 have been evacuated. I know that the House will join me in sending our very best wishes for their speedy recovery.

In this conflict we have been accused by commentators of underestimating the resistance of the Iraqi regime. We always knew that the regime would fight, but what has shocked us as democratic states observing the rule of law is the extent of the Iraqi regime's capacity for brutality and the killing of their own people.

Every aspect of what we do is rightly understandably held up for public scrutiny. In contrast, Saddam Hussein's murderous thugs go about their brutal work out of sight of the media.

There are those who have been surprised by the caution with which the Iraqi people have greeted coalition forces. This should not be surprising. This is a regime that has deployed every horror in maintaining its stranglehold on power: torture, rape, execution. In recent days, our forces on the ground around Basra have been appalled by the actions of the regime's thugs as they struggle to maintain their grip on the city.

On the 25th of March, there were disturbances in Basra, which irregular regime forces suppressed with mortar fire against their own people. On the 28th of March, when in between 1,000 and 2,000 people were preparing to leave Basra, regime militia opened fire with heavy machine gun and mortar fire. Since then, irregulars have been routinely firing on civilians in the southeast of Basra. This is the kind of brutal suppression which has been going inside Iraq for very many years.

Despite its protestations to the contrary, the Iraqi regime shows no greater respect for the country's cultural wealth than it does for its people. The coalition is taking every precaution to avoid damage to the holy sites in An Najaf and Karbala. By contrast, we know that Saddam Hussein has plans to damage these sites and to blame the coalition. Indeed, his forces have used the site at Najaf as a defensive position, firing on U.S. forces who commendably did not return the fire.

The steady advance of the coalition continues. Our strategic grip on Iraq is tightening. In the south, British forces continue to operate in the Al Faw peninsula, the southern oil fields and the Basra area. The 7th Armored Brigade is preventing Iraqi forces in Basra from hindering the main advance, while it's establishing corridors for the safe movement of civilians and humanitarian aid.

We have been striking key regime targets in the area. These operations have included successful attacks from the air on the Baath Party headquarters in Basra, and by 7th Armored Brigade on the intelligence and militia headquarters in Basra and the local state security organization headquarters in Az Zubayr in the south of Basra.

The 3 Commando Brigade engaged substantial Iraqi forces in the area of Abu al-Kazib (ph) in the southeast outskirts of Basra, capturing significant numbers of enemy forces, including senior Iraqi officers. This daring raid resulted in the death of one Royal Marine. There were, in addition, a number of casualties.

On the night of the 31st of March, 16 Air Assault Brigade with artillery and air support engaged Iraqi forces, destroying an estimated 17 tanks and 5 artillery pieces, as well as other Iraqi vehicles and infantry positions.

We are now focused on building the confidence of the local people. We will continue to patrol aggressively, striking hard at the regime and its militias.

Key suburbs of Basra have now been taken. We will go further into the city at a time of our own choosing.

Further north, elements of the United States Army's V Corps have now passed through Karbala and are moving towards Baghdad. U.S. forces have been engaging with the Medina and Baghdad Republican Guard divisions, and have secured crossings over the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. The lead elements of the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division are now on the outskirts of Baghdad.

Over 9,000 Iraqi prisoners of war have been taken by coalition forces.

Royal Air Force aircraft have contributed to the close air support of these forces. They have also attacked Iraqi forces in the field and have continued to degrade the regime's command and control facilities and the combat capability of the security forces which support it.

Coalition forces have taken the utmost care of the targeting of the air campaign. Every effort has been made to minimize the risk of any civilian casualties or damage to the civilian infrastructure.

The House will be aware of the explosions in market districts of Baghdad on the 26th and 28th of March, and reports of significant numbers of fatalities and injuries. Neither of the marketplaces were targeted by the coalition, and we continue to investigate how these tragic events might have occurred. We've long been familiar with the false claims of civilian casualties made by Saddam's regime, and it would be foolish to accept these claims at face value without proper investigation.

What we do know is that the air defense commander in Baghdad has been replaced, partly because of concerns that Iraqi surface-to-air missiles have been malfunctioning, failing to hit their targets and falling back on Baghdad.

Offensive operations are, however, only part of the picture. The expertise and flexibility of our forces are essential to the battle to win the confidence of the Iraqi people. The Iraqi people have been terrified. Over half the population of Iraq have only known life under Saddam Hussein and his apparatus of fear. The older generation have an appreciation of his cruelty that is borne out often by bitter personal experience.

That is why it is so important that in a number of areas where U.K. forces are operating there is a growing sense of return to normal life. Some people are going back to work. The United Nations has now declared Umm Qasr a permissive environment, allowing U.N. agencies to begin their work there.

Essential services, such as water and electricity, are being restored and even improved; in part, due to the skill of the Royal Engineers with the help of the International Committee of the Red Cross. The Umm Qasr water treatment plant, which can treat up to three million liters a day, is now operational. In addition, the water pipeline constructed by U.K. forces from Kuwait to Umm Qasr is complete, delivering up to two million liters of drinking water daily, enough for 160,000 people a day and providing vital temporary relief.

Schools and markets are being reopened. The 7th Armored Brigade has removed Baath Party thugs from the Az Zubayr Medical Center, where treatment was previously only available to those close to the regime, to enable access for ordinary Iraqis.

Humanitarian aid is being distributed. The security situation in a growing number of areas is such that troops are patrolling on foot rather than in armored cars, and have in some cases been able to exchange their combat helmets for berets. United Kingdom's armed forces are putting the full range of their expertise and experience to use with striking effect.

The Royal Marines have disabled the last remnants of the Iraqi navy. The port of Umm Qasr is under coalition control and open to shipping.

Royal Navy mine countermeasures vessels continue operations to expand the navigable width of the Khawr Abd Allah channel. They have discovered 105 mines so far, 11 laid in the water and a total of 94 intercepted on Iraqi tugs and patrol boats. These operations are crucial to the humanitarian operation bringing vital supplies to the Iraqi people.

On the 28th of March, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessel, Sir Galahad, unloaded its humanitarian cargo of around 300 tons of water, medical supplies, food and equipment for providing shelter. Water and perishable goods have already been distributed in the Umm Qasr area. Other supplies are being stored until such time as they are required.

Two Australian ships, each loaded with some 50,000 tons of grain, are expected in Umm Qasr shortly.

The United Nations oil-for-food program was reestablished by Security Council Resolution 1472 on the 28th of March, an important milestone for the people of Iraq, but it will take time to take effect. One U.K. division, therefore, has authority to spend up to 30 million pounds for special humanitarian purposes within the first month, and a further 10 million pounds available for quick impact projects, such as restoring electricity and water supplies.

Mr. Deputy Speaker, after two weeks of military operations against the Iraqi regime, the coalition continues to make progress. Every day we are further weakening Saddam Hussein's control over Iraq, moving another day closer to the end of his appalling regime and the liberation of the Iraqi people.

We're engaged in an important and determined effort to convince the Iraqi people of our commitment to them, to their political security and to their economic welfare, above all our commitment to see through what we have begun to remove the regime that has terrified the Iraqi people and impoverished the nation for two decades.

It will take time, but we have made an excellent start. But there is still more to achieve, and our serviceman and servicewomen will continue to brave difficulties and dangers in the process. I know the House will join me in wishing them well.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Don Jenkins (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I certainly join with the secretary of state as I'm sure does the whole House in wishing our armed forces...

HEMMER: Geoff Hoon, British defense minister in the House of Commons giving confirmation yet again about the various reports we're getting here at CNN, saying that the key suburbs of Baghdad have been taken. The 3rd Infantry Division of the U.S. Army now on the outskirts of that city. In addition, 9,000 prisoners of war have now been apprehended by the U.S. and British forces.

While he was talking, the information minister in Baghdad, Mohammed Saeed Sahaf, was saying that reports of U.S. forces on the outskirts of the city were -- quote/unquote -- "silly at this point," and that they are -- quote -- "nowhere near the Iraqi capital."

We heard from CENTCOM earlier today, now indicating yet again that the U.S. forces are operating at Basinia (ph), Baghdad.

There was a Reuters report earlier today saying that U.S. forces are now six miles on the outskirts of Baghdad, advanced armored units of the 3rd ID, again moving on that position today. The 3rd Infantry Division, 11 Attack Helicopter Brigade led the charge against the Medina Division of the Republican Guard as well.

Coalition forces established control over many of the key Euphrates and Tigris River crossings, and that are some of the many developments that we're getting at this hour.

CENTCOM is going to brief in about 18 minutes down in Qatar. We'll have that live when that begins.

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