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Iraqis Prepare to Tear Down Saddam Statue

Aired April 9, 2003 - 09:23   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: On the phone again, Corporal Steven Harris, who joins us from outside the Palestine Hotel, a hotel that houses many international journalists, also a part of the city where we have seen dozens of Iraqis openly cheer on the coalition troops that have come into Firdos Square.
Corporal Harris, just once again, describe to us what you're looking at right now.

CORPORAL STEVEN HARRIS: Well, once again, we're looking at -- it's relatively calm. The Marines have got this under control over here. We just saw our buddies of 1-7, they pushed through that and get the job done.

ZAHN: How many people -- we're looking at a shot now of it appears to be maybe some journalists and some Iraqi civilians standing underneath the statue of Saddam Hussein. How many people, would you say, are out there right now?

HARRIS: I'd say about at least 70. Everybody else is just around on the streets, talking to the Marines.

ZAHN: And you say the Marines have this under control. I don't know whether you've been able to hear any of the reporting coming from Martin Savidge, who is on the campus of Baghdad University, where he is describing an all-out complete engagement, and he's been giving us very vivid descriptions of what the Marines are facing there. How concerned are you about these snipers that are known to have dispersed in downtown Baghdad, who are well-armed and some say very well-placed?

HARRIS: We're pretty -- we're real concerned. We've got counter-snipers out for them, too. And for our buddies at 1-7, we know that they can take care of their own, and they'll push through it.

ZAHN: Can you just give us a sense of what it was like to roll into the central part of Baghdad and what you and your colleagues were thinking, and what you were saying to each other, particularly as you were greeted by local civilians, waving white T-shirts and waving white flags?

HARRIS: Well, at first we, when we started rolling out here, we thought this was going to be the battle that we've been waiting for. And as we kept pushing, we kept getting no resistance and no resistance, and then we hit this center here, and it was just a big relief. And like I said, we're still on alert, we're still watching for everything. But it's a big relief for us, and hopefully more for the Iraqi people, that they've been liberated.

ZAHN: Have you personally had the chance to talk with any Iraqi citizens?

HARRIS: Not one. I've got a young kid sitting here right next to me, though.

ZAHN: Does he speak English?

HARRIS: No. No, he doesn't.

ZAHN: But clearly, he's happy you are there and that you're in control of this area.

When you talk about being still on alert, the Pentagon is saying the toughest part of this war is still yet to come, not only as you shift the battle plan from a combat plan, but as you try to restore some sort of order in the city. Can you talk a little bit about that?

HARRIS: Yes, I was in Somalia, Mogadishu, when all that went down, and that's a tougher job than actually this right here, because things can happen at a moment's notice. So, yes, I understand we do have a big part of the job, probably the most important part of the job coming up, and that's totally securing the city.

ZAHN: And can you tell us, without giving away any of your training or anything we shouldn't know, what you see as the biggest challenge lying ahead as you try to gain control of the whole city?

HARRIS: I really can't talk about that. Sorry.

ZAHN: We are seeing some Iraqi civilians now climbing the base of that statue of Saddam Hussein.

Are you seeing that same thing that I am right now?

HARRIS: Yes, I am.

ZAHN: And we have seen civilians deface statues, rip down posters. I imagine that that's probably what they're up to right now.

HARRIS: Yes, ma'am. They've been throwing their shoes at it all day, and I guess that's a part that, you know, that really disgraces somebody when you throw your shoes at them.

ZAHN: Now, colonel, the other thing, there's been a little bit of talk about this morning, is where you are at the Palestine Hotel is where the Iraqi information minister normally would come out and interface reporters. No one has seen him today. Have you heard journalists talk about that much where you're standing?

HARRIS: No, I haven't.

ZAHN: There are more shoes being thrown at the statue.


ZAHN: And from the bottom part of the screen, we can see several more people trying to scale up the base of that statue.


ZAHN: There is really extraordinary to watch.

HARRIS: Well, 30 year of oppressions, I guess will do that to people.

ZAHN: Colonel Harris, I want you to stay on the line, because I just want to...

ZAHN: I'm a corporal, I'm not a colonel.

HARRIS: I'm sorry, corporal.

I've spoken with so many people this morning. Corporal, if you would stay on the line for just a moment, I just wanted to share some of the initial reaction we're hearing from the White House this morning by what they're seeing unfold on live TV. President Bush apparently, according to our Chris Burns, heartened by the latest reported out of Baghdad, as jubilant Iraqis believe the end of Saddam's regime is at hand. The White House cautioning, there are still dangerous times ahead.

And we have some quotes from a senior administration official saying, the president continues to get good reported from the field, heartened by the progress, but he, the president reminds the American people, that this is still a military mission, that lives are still at stake.

HARRIS: That's true, yes.


ZAHN: What can you tell us, corporal, about the pride that you and your teammates must be feeling right now when you say, when you thought you were coming into Baghdad, it would be battle that've you've been waiting for a long time. And that is not what you encountered.

HARRIS: A sigh of relief. But like I said, you know, we keep saying, obviously the White House, too, we have the hardest part, we still don't have Saddam Hussein, so we got to -- we got a little bit more to go.

ZAHN: Well, based on what we're looking at on this live picture, it looks like Saddam Hussein's statue is going to be toppled pretty quickly here. We can see some Iraqi civilians not only scaling the base of the statue, but wrapping ropes around the figure of Saddam himself. We have seen other Iraqi citizens pull down other statues today. Corporal, is there anything else you'd like to tell us about how different what you're seeing is from what your expectations were?

HARRIS: Just like we said, it was a big relief. We still might have a little bit more fighting to go, so we're prepared and ready to do our jobs.

ZAHN: Corporal Steven Harris, we're going to get back to you from time to time in the morning, because you are literally standing just a couple of hundred yards away from the scene that we're watching unfold on television.

Bill rejoins us now from Kuwait City.

Bill, it looks like this could be a matter of a very short time that this statue of Saddam Hussein will be toppled.

HEMMER: I'll tell you, Paula, a little insight here from Kuwait City, our colleagues here at CNN. We have discussed among ourselves for many days now, Christiane, as to how long this statue was going to stand, because we have seen this and watched this in videotape and in live images, even though in Basra, we saw the statue go down at the end of last week.

Marty Savidge is back with us, I understand, by way of videophone with the Marines.

Marty, you're near the university?

OK, we lost him again. When we get it back, we'll certainly get it to you.

By our estimation, he's about 2 1/2 miles, maybe three miles at the most, south of this location that we're looking at here.

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: As Martin is in that firefight, which I can assure you is much worse than what we can hear on television, because the sound of gunfire when it comes over the microphone is very distorted and minimized, that he's probably in some, you know, resistance over there, and 2 1/2 miles closer in, outside the Palestine, there is at least muted jubilation. There is not many Iraqis out there.

But this is the image. Two people have climbed that statue, and they're figuring out a way to throw that rope around the neck and how is that going to come down.

And I have to say, it remains me of another time, when I was sitting back at home office, and watching the fall of communism, and you watched the Berlin Wall chip by chip coming down, and then all of the statues of the communist leaders, you know, country by country. And it is an energizing specter. And so these people who have been so downtrodden.

And I tell you, from being in Baghdad, you cannot overestimate the level of fear and oppression that exists there. I remember people didn't even want to open their mouths. You couldn't take cameras and ask them, you know, any of their views, because they knew they were condemned one way or the other. If they talked to us, they probably would not tell us the truth. If they told us the truth, they would have the minders, who they knew were reporting what they said to us.

The cliche was even the traffic lights have microphones and cameras. And everybody knew that everybody was an informer, they didn't even know whether their families were safe, who was being bought up, who was in the service of the Secret Police, and that is the trauma to live under for all these years. And it may explain some of the muted celebrations we've seen so far, because they still haven't seen the body of their oppressor. They still don't know whether he's there or not, or what lurks in the shadows.

These are very encouraging signs, and those two guys are up there. We're going to wait to see when they get the noose around the neck.

HEMMER: A lot of Americans as we have watched the war unfold over the last three weeks, probably did not realize the extent of the domination of Saddam Hussein. I did not, just in terms of the statues, the street signs. There is a shopping mall that his named after his birthday, April 28th. Saddam Canal runs all the way up and down the Mesopotamia Valley, between the Tigris and the Euphrates. It is domination to the core, and again, I mentioned earlier in week we saw the statue come down in Basra, perhaps this one will follow sometime very soon.

Corporal Steven Harris, U.S. Marine Corps, is back with us. And I know you are right here the scene. Describe it to us as best you can. Take off your soldier's hat and put on a reporter's hat. What are you seeing?

HARRIS: Well, I just see a lot of jubilation right now, especially when we first rolled in, and everybody's being patient, waiting for this rope to get round Saddam, and that's showing, you know, that we're taking it to him, we're going to keep taking it to him as long as we can. As long as he's here, we're not done, and we're just going to (UNINTELLIGIBLE) if we need to.

HEMMER: Corporal, how many Iraqis are out there around your area? Do you see many?

HARRIS: Well, around the statue itself, it's about a hundred, and then there's kind of split up in the area. There's some tanks and stuff like that. There's I'd say about maybe 500 at the most right now.

HEMMER: Another question here from the military, is it just the Marines in this square? Or is the Army there, too?

HARRIS: Negative. It's just Marines.

HEMMER: Now, why would you be in this specific area? Is this considered the eastern part of Baghdad, given the demarcation point, with the Army taking care of the west and the Marines on the east? HARRIS: That's actually -- I don't know that one. We were just doing our job, coming up the road. We didn't hit any line of resistance like we thought, and we just kept pushing and kept pushing, and we ended up here.

HEMMER: Listen, you started out when on this mission? How many days ago?

HARRIS: On the mission specifically to get here, well, we've been -- we started three weeks ago. But...

HEMMER: Yes, I understand that, and as you go back on your thoughts about where you began in Kuwait, can you tick off the towns? Can you tick off the route for us that takes you to this point in central Baghdad?

HARRIS: Well, we went to Al Basra first and then through -- I forgot the name of that town. I can't really say it. It's An Dehnayla (ph) or something like that -- what was that? -- An Nasiriyah, and the Al-Kut, and then up to here.

HEMMER: Did you ever think you'd be standing in the center of Baghdad?

HARRIS: No, that's -- never did. I thought they would have done it a long time ago, back in the first time we were here. But now we'll finish the to be job, and we're going to take it. We're going to take it to him as much as we can.

HEMMER: Corporal, how old are you?

HARRIS: I'm 31 years old.

HEMMER: Do you have family?

HARRIS: Negative, just immediate family.

HEMMER: Would you like to say anything to them? They count, too.

HARRIS: Yes. Hey, back to everybody in Austin, Texas, man, we'll see you soon as we can. Just, hey, we're here, and we're going to get this thing done.

HEMMER: Thank you, Corporal, out of Austin, Texas, Steven Harris, U.S. Marine Corps. We'll talk again, if you can hang with us, in a moment. I think -- not quite sure what you're seeing back in the U.S., but what we are seeing here in Kuwait is the split screen, Christiane, between this very celebratory moment in the center part of Baghdad, and maybe 2 1/2 miles to the south with the Marines and Martin Savidge, the gunfire continues, and at times, it appear appears to be rather intense.

AMANPOUR: Indeed, it does, and we have been listening to him almost all along as we have been watching the scene further into the center, and I think you said it's about 2 1/2 miles distance, and it does point out how there are pockets of resistance that we've been talking about for the last three weeks in various cities that have gone through mostly unopposed, but with these elements of resistance that were always stronger than people have predicted in the beginning.

I think people have been surprised by the lack of organized resistance in Baghdad to a great extent, the lack of organized resistance. And people are wondering what happens to all of the so- called Republican Guards, the Special Republican Guard, all of the sort of much-vaunted security apparatus that was supposed to surround Saddam Hussein. And where is he? And what is going to be his fate? Where are the government ministers? What happened to them? I think these are all questions that certainly the people want to know in Baghdad.

And as we see, they're not that many people around Palestine Hotel in the square right now. There are about three people I think who have climbed up on to the pedestal of the statue. They are doing a very difficult job of -- trying their best there.

But on the other hand, we also saw -- look, you can see what appears to be balls of fire on the small screen where Martin is.

But at the same time, there are people also who are quite scared. You saw some live shots, live pictures coming out from another camera from inside the Palestine Hotel. There was a woman with her children, and you know, this is still a delicate moment for them. It's not over. They don't know exactly what's happening. It's still in the balance, to an extent.

HEMMER: Corporal, if you're still with us, I'd like to know how much contact you've had so far with Iraqi people.

HARRIS: Yep, there they go.

HEMMER: Yes. Corporal Harris, are you still with us? I can hear your voice on the other end. Can you tell us how much contact you've had in the past three weeks with Iraqi people?

HARRIS: We've had a lot of contact. We've been to, like, five or six -- well, actually about nine different towns. You know, we had quite a bit of contact between them.

HEMMER: And the contact you had...

HARRIS: It took us -- say again. Say again.

HEMMER: What was the exchange like?

HARRIS: It was -- sometimes it was heavy, sometimes it was light. But we just overpressed it with our firepower, and that was it. And you know, we just -- we took it to him. We're still going to take it to him.

HEMMER: Yes, corporal, I guess what I'm asking for is not from the military's perspective, but from a civilian perspective. Have you had conversations, have you had interpreters that would take the Arabic into English and vice versa, and knowing that, what were the conversations like?

HARRIS: Oh, Iraq's people, the ones that are fighting, they're welcoming us here. They sit there, they try to give us flowers all the time.

Of course we can't let them near us, because of these suicide bombers that are still around. But they try to give us flowers. They want to kiss us and all of that. I mean, they're really happy we're here.

HEMMER: Yes. And what was the greeting like when you reached the gates of Baghdad?

HARRIS: Actually, it was at night and they really didn't -- there was hardly anybody here. So, and they've been inside their houses mainly until we got to this area right now.

HEMMER: All right, corporal. We continue to watch these pictures here. If the story changes, you're our eyes and ears on the ground. So, listen, keep that telephone to your ear, will you. We'll be back in touch in a moment here.


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