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CNN BREAKING NEWS

Baghdad Offensive Under Way

Aired April 7, 2003 - 04:16   ET

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

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: We're going to go now to Amman, Jordan, our own Rym Brahimi who is monitoring events in Baghdad.
Rym, a lot happening very quickly this morning.

RYM BRAHIMI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Anderson, sandstorm is -- there's a sandstorm in Baghdad, which is why visibility is reduced, in addition to those fuel fires, which some people I spoke to in Baghdad say have now been set off pretty much in the center of the Iraqi capital. And now there was a lot of artillery fire. It went on apparently all night until 10 in the morning. And again all day, lots of artillery fire toward the center of Baghdad.

Now that palace that was where the incursion took place, the presidential compound, apparently there was quit some fighting there. was a battle. One of the people I spoke to described the city today as being in state of war from the sounds that they were hearing and what they had seen moving around Baghdad earlier on this morning. The Iraqis -- apparently initially some Iraqi troops did retaliate in that area near the Tigris River where the presidential compound is. But on the whole, it's been very confusing. Everybody hears shots here and there, but nobody really knows exactly what's going on.

Now the Minister of Information of Iraq, Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, spoke to reporters. He said that Iraq was still -- the Iraqi government was still in control of Baghdad and denied that U.S. troops had been able to get into the capital.

Let's listen to how he put it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MOHAMMED SAEED AL-SAHAF, IRAQI INFORMATION MINISTER (through translator): The Americans are not there, are not in Baghdad. There are no troops there. Never. They're not at all. They tried through Adora to pass through armored personnel and they were surrounded there and they were dealt with, most of them. They were slaughtered.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BRAHIMI: Now it's not clear exactly where else the U.S. troops are apart from the site that we know, the presidential compound. They were heading toward the Rasheed, according to sources in Baghdad, as well as toward the Ministry of Information and as -- and a parade site -- parade grounds in the center of Baghdad as well, all these highly symbolic sites. Because those sites have also been bombed during this campaign a great deal, so it's doubtful that any high ranking official would still be there at this time and all that on the west side of the river. On the east side of the river, well it seems to be that there's still some activity of civilian population -- Anderson.

COOPER: Rym, what do you know about what's going on in the Palestine Hotel, that, of course, the hotel where many foreign journalists are based. Do you have any reports what's going on there?

BRAHIMI: Well, Anderson, we are hearing reports that journalists are not allowed to leave the Palestine Hotel, that there is some maybe special Iraqi forces, maybe the volunteer forces, the Saddam Fedayeen that are there preventing anybody to leave the compound. That said, Anderson, some journalists did try to get out and weren't able. It seems to be quite a tense situation. There are a lot of international journalists, a lot of local journalists as well, and there are a lot of government officials from the Iraqi Ministry of Information that have been staying in the hotel with the journalists throughout this campaign until now. And so it seems to be a very tense situation for everybody I would say -- Anderson.

COOPER: Yes, we're looking at these images taken a little bit earlier in the morning outside the Palestine Hotel of what appeared to be some men in uniform, some men not, waving both pistols and automatic weaponry to -- seemingly for the camera's benefit. Also people sort of driving by with posters of Saddam Hussein.

We're looking now at this picture that was taken earlier of a gentleman getting up on a vehicle and waving around a pistol and his weapon for largely, it seems, for the cameras from the international press corps who is there. How significant when we heard -- we heard from Ron Martz, embedded reporter, he's with "The Atlanta Journal- Constitution," that he was stationed right now in an armored personnel carrier in Zara (ph) Park.

Can you give us a sense of sort of the overall location of where all this is happening? It's very confusing. We've heard reports of this presidential palace, one or two of them, occupied by U.S. forces and also the Zara Park. Then, of course, we've heard the Information Ministry and the Foreign Ministry still in Iraq hands. How close is all of this to each other?

BRAHIMI: Well as far as the Information Ministry, the Rasheed Hotel, the Foreign Ministry, they're really all about five minutes away by car. Baghdad has a lot of large avenues, wide roads to drive through. It appears, from what I -- what the people I spoke to in Baghdad said, that the U.S. troops went to the president compound. That is also not far from the Al-Rasheed on the same side of the river. There's a sort of special highway that would take you straight from the airport to that area. And it seems that that's the route they took. So they didn't actually cross any of the neighborhoods that are also around that area, any of the residential neighborhoods, because, from what I understand, a lot of the people over there didn't hear or see anything at that point.

Now all these areas are one close to the other, but somebody I spoke to in Baghdad also said that these areas have been bombed regularly from the beginning of the campaign, especially in recent days, and that there's a lot of rubble already there. There was already a lot of rubble before the U.S. tanks made their incursion into that part of Baghdad -- Anderson.

COOPER: Rym, I understand we are just getting in a live picture right now of this palace that apparently has been taken by U.S. forces. I don't know if you can see the image. If you can get a sense of it, this apparently a live picture from Baghdad right now where it's 12:22 p.m. It's grainy, but you can certainly see some sort of a tank there, what appear to be U.S. forces on the ground. Do you recognize this palace -- Rym?

BRAHIMI: Anderson, I can't see the palace from where I am, but I believe it's the palace that we've been talking about, the Republican Palace. At any rate, there would be two of them -- two possibilities, either that one or the Palace known as El Sajude (ph), and both palaces located on the same side of the river.

Now those palaces are huge sprawling complexes with hundreds and hundreds of buildings inside them. The Republican Palace, which I believe is the one that we're talking about here, is also the one that used to -- or that hosts the offices of the presidency. That said, that palace has been bombed so many times we could even see it. Many times during this bombing campaign, we have seen fires burning all night inside some of the buildings of that presidential compound. So it's not clear exactly who they will find still in there.

There are a lot of questions of course that are raised now with this incursion where are the famous Republican Guard, where are the special Republican Guards? Because until recently, of course, the Republican Guard, as you know, Anderson, were not allowed to get into Baghdad. Although they were deemed loyal to President Saddam Hussein, they were not trusted with Baghdad itself. And if all these stayed on the outskirts of the Iraqi capital, the special Republican Guards would be the ones in Baghdad right now. But again, a lot of questions about where are they now, where are the people that were supposed to retaliate? Some of them, I understand again from sources in Baghdad, have been retaliating, but there's a question of how many people we're talking about here that will be ready to put up a fight -- Anderson.

COOPER: Yes, it's interesting you mentioned this palace being -- had been severely damaged in multiple airstrikes over the course of some time. I suppose then the value of this being not so much a strategic one, per se, or one intelligence one, per se, more simply a symbolic one.

BRAHIMI: You're absolutely right, Anderson. All these areas, even for instance the parade ground that colleague Ron from "The Atlanta Constitution" was talking about. That parade ground a big sign of victory for President Saddam Hussein who had it built at the time of what he said was Iraq's victory over Iran after the eight-year war there. Well all those highly symbolic sites, because again after this massive bombing campaign that's taken place, it's very doubtful that you would find any high level officials or leaders of the ruling Baath party actually sitting in their offices waiting for U.S. troops to come in. They would have probably organized some other whereabouts to work or to try and keep control of their situation at any rate -- Anderson.

COOPER: Yes, and just for viewers who are just joining us, what you are looking at is a live picture in Baghdad of one of two main presidential palaces in downtown Baghdad now in the hands of believe, or at least early reports say, in the hands of U.S. forces. In the picture in the foreground, you see what appears to be at least one U.S. tank in position on the road, the approach to this palace. And as Rym Brahimi has been reporting, these are enormous structures comprising of dozens, if not more, buildings, an enormous sprawling compound.

Apparently this operation to take this palace or two palaces began around 6:00 a.m., some six-and-a-half hours ago. We heard heavy firing for a time echoing through the city of Baghdad. But as Rym is reporting, now there's a sandstorm, visibility is low and exactly what is happening on the ground right now very difficult to tell.

Rym, do you get the sense that, and I guess there's really no way to know this, but, well actually, let me change questions. Were you surprised to see Iraq's Information Minister out again, not on the street, but outside holding forth, making very strong statements?

BRAHIMI: I have to say it is slightly surprising to see that despite the fact that there are in effect U.S. troops in the center of the capital, that an Iraqi official would go out and deny it. On the other hand, given the nature of the system that is operated in Iraq right now and the leadership, a lot of it has been -- has survived actually in great part with thanks to that kind of information process, if you will, thanks to that kind of control over information, if you will.

So on the other hand, it's not surprising that they would still come up even now knowing that there are so many difficulties in communicating as well from one part of the country -- of the city to the other and that there is a chance that at any rate there are a lot of people who will not really know what exactly is happening. They're not -- they're just trying to do clearly all they can to -- it's more of maybe damage assessment now, a sort of damage control now than anything else. And they have a duty to perform.

I imagine it's part of -- it's still part of the -- part of the leadership. I would imagine it very difficult for a Minister of Information, in his position, to also come up and say well we give up. This is totally inconceivable, especially after all the rhetoric that we've heard, after the months of building up to this that they've been organizing battles, they've been really working on trying to buy allegiances or corrupt the allegiance of a lot of people, including many -- recruiting more people in the Baath Party. So I think they're sort of clinging on to what they have and one of the main tools that is left right now it seems, at any rate, is the Ministry of Information and information itself -- Anderson.

COOPER: That's an interesting point, Rym. Also interesting, as we -- as you were talking, we don't have control over this camera, obviously, but the camera had zoomed in on what appeared to be about a half dozen or dozen so U.S. forces just kind of standing around some of their armored vehicles, around some of their tanks outside one of these presidential palace and not appearing to be all that in a defensive position. It seemed, from the distance, somewhat relaxed, perhaps not fair to say or characterize it to that degree, but not in a foxhole, not in a trench, kind of walking around, milling about. So whatever opposition they have faced, whatever opposition they may face, it doesn't seem at this moment they're anticipating some sort of a counter attack, at least not on the position that we are seeing right there on this camera.

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