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Iraqi Information Minister Holds Briefing

Aired April 4, 2003 - 09:14   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back. We straight take you straight to Baghdad for this news conference from the Iraqi information minister.
MOHAMMED SAEED AL-SAHHAF, IRAQI INFORMATION MINISTER (through translator): And south to this area about 40 kilometers in the Usafiya (ph) area and in an area west of Usafiya (ph) called (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and the target is -- the graveyard for them is the Saddam International Airport.

What happened last evening and the hours of the day on Friday, in the west of Iraq in the Al Haditha area, we decided in all of these areas that I mentioned and that I will repeat, recall what happened in them, in all of these areas, we went ahead and immobilized the forces of the invaders, the mercenaries from America and Britain to nail them down in Al Haditha. In Al Haditha, a battle took place and we destroyed four of their armored personnel carriers and we killed all those who were on those carriers.

In the area of south of Kut, after they were defeated yesterday during the day, our forces chased them and destroyed nine remaining tanks and one APC and some of the military vehicles. In the area of Usafiya (ph) between Karbala and Baghdad, our -- the Iraqi tribesmen engaged them and fighters of the party and Fedayeen Saddam and the inflicted losses on them in life and in ammunition and vehicles, and the losses were truly very heavy.

The force was forced to flee to the south to (UNINTELLIGIBLE) area in the area of (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and it's an area south of Al Kadasia (ph). And actually now what's left of the occupation forces, the American and British, are gathering in the area of (UNINTELLIGIBLE). In the Usafiya (ph) area, a fierce battle took place between units of the Iraqi Army and the desert animals of the American and British forces and now up until afternoon, the battle is still going on, but they were nailed down in actuality, and now, after they were immobilized, they are where they don't have freedom to maneuver.

Now, the operation to weaken this force is going on. In the area of Abu Grade (ph) north of Baghdad, at 6:00 a.m. of today, some of the units of the Republican Guard engaged with the force that was air- lifted, the American and British occupational animal desert and six tanks were destroyed, three APCs.

ZAHN: For those of you with us, we have just dipped into the latest news conference by the Iraqi information minister, as has come to be expected, giving us a strikingly different view on the ground than coalition forces have. And from a CENTCOM briefing, we should tell you that we are told by the U.S. government that the Baghdad International Airport, which used to be called Saddam International, is in control by U.S. forces.

The information minister is calling the airport the graveyard for the coalition. Let's bring Ken Pollack into our discussion right now, who is a CNN analyst that knows more about this part of the world than just about anybody else. He joins us from D.C. this morning. Good morning, Ken.

KEN POLLACK, CNN ANALYST: Good morning Paula. How are you?

ZAHN: Fine, thanks. As you hear the Iraqi information minister spin his things on a daily basis, what goes through your mind? Does there seem to be a sense of desperation to you?

POLLACK: Yes, there's no question about it, Paula. You've literally took the words right out of my mouth. I think that the Iraqi regime recognizes that their various plans, their various expectations are starting to come unglued. I was just sitting there thinking that I think even the people of Iraq recognize how bad the situation is for the regime because even if you were doing nothing but listening to Sahhaf, to the information minister make these statements, it's clear that the glorious battles that Iraq is winning every single day are getting closer and closer and closer to Baghdad.

And if they were really winning these battles, shouldn't they be getting farther and farther from Baghdad? So I think there's no question that even the Iraqi people understand exactly which way this is going. But it is also always worth point out, always worth remembering that for Saddam for the people around him, they always did expect to win the war at Baghdad. They always did expect that the war would come down to a battle for Baghdad and their hope, their expectation was that they would be able to bleed coalition forces enough in fighting in Baghdad that the U.S. and the British would simply call off the attack because, of course, the Iraqis believe that the U.S. and British publics don't have the stomach to take the kind of casualties that the Iraqis think that they can inflict on U.S. and British forces.

ZAHN: Let's talk for a moment about the significance of some of the last developments over the last 24 hours. The key one, of course, the seizing of the Baghdad airport now. But Walt Rodgers, in his last report, just about 10 minutes ago, suggesting that there is substantial Iraqi movement around the perimeter of that airport. What does that suggest to you?

POLLACK: Well, I think what happened yesterday, Paula, was that you had the Republican Guard retreat (EXPLETIVE DELETED) no back into Baghdad. It seems pretty clear that at some point over the last three or four days that the Iraqis recognize that that defensive line that they had set up with four of the Republican Guard divisions stretching from Karbala to Kut, that that was a bad idea. It was about to be enveloped by U.S. forces on either end. So they order a very quick withdraw. Now that withdraw got busted up by U.S. air power. So Republican Guard divisions retreated back into the city in pretty poor situation. They probably had taken heavy losses from the U.S. air power, U.S. ground forces, and what they've probably done is overnight they have regrouped and they're now trying to take up position around the perimeter of the city, trying to defend the periphery of the city and those forces that are pulling together around the airport are probably what is going to be a new -- the beginning of a new defensive line along the perimeter of the city.

ZAHN: All right, so when you look at the Iraqi strategy, square that with what Barbara Starr just reported from the Pentagon. This whole strategy of not laying siege to Baghdad, but simply isolating Baghdad and trying to squeeze any power out of the regime, leaving it, in their words, irrelevant?

POLLACK: Well the key to what Barbara reported is that the strategy is going to be very opportunistic. That U.S. forces are going to press Baghdad on a whole variety of sides in a whole variety of different ways to try to decide exactly how tough the resistance is. If the resistance isn't very tough, I think you could see U.S. forces pushing into Baghdad fairly quickly. If they don't encounter much resistance at all, you might see them try to seize the entire city. Historically, the best way to seize a city is to do that, is to just rush right in.

That has been the way that most cities have fallen. But, of course, there's also a danger involved. If you rush right in and the Iraqis actually are waiting for you, you could take some heavy casualties. So what the U.S. forces are going to do is try to test the perimeter, test these defenses and see what the Iraqis are capable of doing.

If they feel that the Iraqis have been able to reset their defenses along the perimeter, as I'm suggesting that I think the Iraqis are trying to do, then what you might see the U.S. forces do is to start to squeeze and press the city from a variety of different directions, slicing off pieces of it and, in particular, trying to get into the big Shia headquarters of Baghdad. And remember, Baghdad is a majority of Shia population and hope that the Shia will welcome U.S. forces, will contribute to us and make it harder for Saddam to defend the city.

ZAHN: Well, Ken Pollack, thanks for making this clear this morning. It's a pretty complicated road map, isn't it?

POLLACK: Absolutely. Unfortunately, the last is going to be the hardest part.

ZAHN: Ken Pollack, again, thanks for dropping by, appreciate your time this morning.


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