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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

CENTCOM Briefing

Aired April 18, 2003 - 07:03   ET

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

BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: As promised, to CENTCOM in Qatar. They are starting their briefing right now on this Friday morning.
BRIG. GEN. VINCENT BROOKS, CENTCOM: ... making daily progress toward attaining all of them.

Coalition forces are stabilizing Iraq through military efforts to establish security and through cooperative efforts with civil organizations.

We are grateful to those who lost their lives fighting to remove the regime and to free the Iraqi people, and we remember them, and we also remember their families.

Our operations throughout Iraq are characterized by patrolling to maintain presence and security. In selected locations along borders, along key routes and in the vicinity of Baghdad, coalition forces are interdicting free movement by regime members or paramilitary elements.

Special Operations forces continue their efforts to stabilize northern Iraq and western Iraq, while also conducting direct action missions when appropriate.

Last night, coalition Special Operations forces captured another key member of the regime. Samir abd al Aziz al-Najim, one of the top 55 leaders of the regime, was handed over to coalition forces by Iraqi Kurds near Mosul in northern Iraq. He was a Baath Party official, a regional command chairman for the Baghdad district and is believed to have first-hand knowledge of the Baath Party central structure.

The coalition is pursuing other regime leaders.

Coalition maneuver forces adjusted their unit locations outside Baghdad and continued presence patrols in the other cities as well to increase security.

Fourth Infantry Division encountered paramilitary resistance as they continued their move north between Taji and Samarra, along that route. In the engagement, the coalition destroyed eight technical vehicles and captured over 30 enemy prisoners.

As security improves throughout the country, efforts to restore function to utilities and to accurately assess assistance requirements continue. Routine activities of life are seen in more places, as this recent photo shows taken in Baghdad. You can see the presence of fruit stands on the side of the road, something that hadn't been seen for some time. There are still many challenges ahead. Power remains at the core of many issues confronting the coalition, as well as the Iraqi people. Progress is being made daily, however. In Haditha, near the Haditha Dam, through the efforts of coalition Special Operations Forces and the local population, power has been restored to the surrounding community. In the northern towns of Urbil, Dahuk and Sulaymaniyah there is sufficient fuel on hand to run electric power plants for over 40 days. Returning full power to Baghdad will require more electrical managers and technicians to come back to work.

Three days ago Brigadier General Steve Hawkins and members of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, having a formed a team to focus on the efforts of power restoration began assessments of several power plants in Baghdad. The team met with power board members and technicians encouraging them to return to work and to restore power to the people of Baghdad. In this photo they are speaking with the chief engineer of the Rehabilitation Department at one of the power plants. As of today in Baghdad, six diesel-operated plants are on line and generating power and the South Baghdad Power Plant has resumed operations.

The coalition remains focused also on assisting medical care in Baghdad as well as in other areas. In some cases this focus involves redistributing captured medical supplies, as this image shows. In other cases it involves facilitating the delivery of supplies donated from other countries or from humanitarian organizations. What you see in this image are members of the 30th Medical Brigade meeting with Iraqi physicians to determine what medical supplies are needed at a children's hospital in Baghdad. Medical supplies will also be delivered to two hospitals in An Nasiriyah. The women and children's hospital on the south side of the city and also the formerly known Saddam Hospital on the north side of the city, and this is the location of Private Jessica Lynch's rescue. And this deliver will occur within the next few days.

I would add that there are site surveys that have been conducted by Jordanian and Saudi Arabian medical teams that have occurred over the last several days, and more humanitarian supplies and medical supplies are flowing in all the time. Qatari physicians that I mentioned a few days ago and there are 12 pallets of medical supplies have also arrived at the Medical City Hospital in Baghdad. And also initial efforts to restore operations at the 1,000 bed Yarmouk Hospital, the primary hospital in Baghdad, were successful. Patients there are being treated and the staff is beginning to return in increasing numbers. Hospitals throughout Iraq are also improving in their readiness to provide health care to the Iraqi people.

Coalition teams are also active in discussions with emerging leaders throughout Baghdad and other areas. This image shows discussions that occurred recently at a coalition civil military operations center in Baghdad. The meeting covered a number of topics, including getting some of the former including getting some of the former police back to work and even discussions of what uniforms these former policemen might wear to distinguish them as a new police force.

Meetings like these are ongoing daily and they identify interim public service employees for Baghdad and other cities.

We find that expressions of gratitude and relief from the Iraqi people are commonplace. Beyond the waves that we see and shouts of thanks and the thumbs-up gestures, there are also sincere expressions of thanks like this gentleman's response to coalition efforts. And the coalition will continue its efforts to rapidly return Iraq to the Iraqi people.

With that ladies and gentlemen, I'll take your questions.

QUESTION: Could you tell us what condition the four men in custody from the 55 most-wanted list are being kept, the size of the cells, for example, and whereabouts are they being kept? And secondly, there are reports today that Barzan is cooperating with his questioners. Can you tell us what sort of information he is giving you?

BROOKS: It's really too early for me to talk in any specific terms about any information we're gaining. Let me just say this, when we take someone into our custody, we have the responsibility to maintain their safety and their welfare, and that responsibility is taken by whoever their captors are at a given time. They're not necessarily all moved to the same place. In some cases they're kept in local areas, in some cases they're moved to other coalition facilities and it's important that we keep those locations not disclosed. And so, that's what's ongoing right now.

As to cooperation or not, this is the process of gathering information that will subsequently be acted on, and I'm simply not going to characterize what information we're getting. From all those we have access to we seek information. Some are more cooperative than others; some provide useful information that leads to the arrest of regime leaders. In some cases, we're led to sites that may have suspicious activity. In some cases, we're led to places where documents and papers can be found that give us yet more information.

So that's really the process. These key leaders from the top 55 are a part of that, and certainly they have a higher focus for us because of the nature of the information that they might possess.

Yes, please?

QUESTION: The site that was bombed a week ago Monday -- we thought that Saddam may be hiding -- has that site been excavated? Or can you describe what efforts have been made to discover remains if any?

BROOKS: I believe you're referring to the site in the other Munzur district. That site was attacked. We've had some initial surveys to go to that location. There's still work that's ongoing, but there's a considerable amount of destruction at that location and it will take a considerable amount of time to completely clear it and others that are like it that require deeper examination. That's a process that will take time.

There is time to do that, and it will be done deliberately, with the teams that have the right information, the right materials and the right capabilities to do a much further examination.

Some of the areas around it have been checked. There are no initial indications. We don't have any remains that have been identified at this point. But our efforts are ongoing to find all we can about that and also to get information from others who may have had knowledge as to what happened that night during the strike. And those efforts continue.

QUESTION: Yesterday, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said that Iraqis would be needed to help find weapons of mass destruction. I wonder if you can help us and help the Iraqis by telling us: What form were the weapons of mass destruction? What was the intelligence before the war? Were these biological and chemical weapons loaded on missiles already? Were they processed? Were they in a raw form? And given that the war's near the end, I wonder if you might be able to share a little more information about this.

Thank you.

BROOKS: OK. Well, really we're at the beginning of that part of the campaign, and that's the process of being able to do very deliberate work to find the weapons of mass destruction and to uncover the full scope of the weapons of mass destruction program.

We remain convinced there are weapons of mass destruction inside of Iraq. We know that there was a deliberate campaign of denial and deception that lasted for a long time, over a decade, to hide these things from public view, to hide them from inspectors that had been sanctioned by the United Nations and put into Iraq to find the weapons of mass destruction in a cooperative way. That cooperation never occurred. This is all history that led to the beginning of this conflict and the use of military force.

At this point in time, we know that there are delivery systems that are capable of delivering, and those, some have been encountered, some have been destroyed on the battlefield. We know that there are other indicators, like the atropine injectors and combo-pins (ph) that would be used to protect someone who has been exposed to chemical agents.

We have information about testing programs and development programs. And this is really where we need the assistance of the Iraqi population and regime leaders that might have some knowledge. And as time goes on and we get more access to individuals and more access to information, we get pointed in new directions. Each direction that comes, though, requires detailed examination, and that kind of a work is ongoing.

I mentioned yesterday that it's very much like putting together pieces of a puzzle. In this case, you also have to find the pieces of the puzzle and then put them into proper relationship with other pieces that are there.

QUESTION: Can you tell us, though, what pieces of the puzzle were there before the war started? BROOKS: I think there's pretty well-known history on what the views of the coalition nations were, on the types of things that have been developed by Iraq, what types of things were intended to be developed, how there might be a nexus that joined the development of programs with terrorist organizations. We've certainly seen the presence of terrorist organizations here in Iraq since the war began.

And I'd really like to leave it like that. Our capitals can go back and give you more details on what caused them to send us here in the first place.

But the more important part for the coalition is to continue the efforts that we're really only beginning, to try to find where they might be located and who has information on those things.

QUESTION: I've got two questions. First of all, can you tell us a bit more about this man that was handed over by the Kurds? Who he is? Is he on the list? I didn't quite understand if he was on the top 55. If so, where?

And secondly, we've heard from people in Baghdad that the Marines are kind of moving out and leaving the way a bit for the Army. What's the significance of that for how the campaign stands in Baghdad?

BROOKS: The man who was captured yesterday and turned over to us by Kurds is in fact one of the top 55 leaders. He has been positively identified as such and he is now in coalition control.

The relocations of forces on the battlefield are more to set the conditions that are necessary to expand the security and stability throughout more and more of the country. We have the arrival of additional forces and we now are able to consolidate some of the forces on the battlefield, like the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, and assign them to an area where they can do more detailed work in establishing conditions of security and stability.

The arrival of the 4th Infantry Division in this case and their movement to the north makes it possible to change some of that set. And so, this is also part of the plan for the transition from decisive combat operations into stability operations, from the beginning, as to who would be located where when we had the adequate force to cover the entire battlefield.

That's what's ongoing right now. It's deliberate work. It will take a number of days to do that. Each one of these is done as what we refer to as a relief in place. And so, one unit arrives to take over from one in place. And then it can move to its next destination. And it may be a subsequent relief at the location they're going to.

There's no moving off the battlefield unless there's a deliberate reason to consider it cleared and no longer needing a presence of coalition forces. That work is ongoing.

QUESTION: Has the Central Command overseen or validated any sort of election process installing municipal leaders in Baghdad, and are the associates of Ahmed Chalabi, who now say they're involved in an interim government in the capital city, part of the process that began a few days ago in Ur?

BROOKS: Well, I can certainly say that there has been no electoral process that has been overseen by the coalition at this point in time. It's still far too early for that.

There are some local organizing activities that are happening in a variety of places and these are small towns that are identifying mayors and city councils to begin to get organized internally. There has been no one designated as the mayor of Baghdad or anything of that nature at this point in time.

Certainly, there are a number of leaders that are emerging and all of them have a voice and they'll be considered. That's why the meeting a few days ago near Ur was so important, was to begin getting leaders exposed to one another and to get the issues that are at hand for the Iraqi people exposed and discussed.

The coalition and our nations facilitated that process and will facilitate additional meetings as time goes on in the future. But it's far too early to talk about electoral processes, something that will certainly come in due time.

QUESTION: Can you tell us more about the responsibilities, you think, of the capture that you just announced? And the shallow graves, there's a report of a massive shallow grave by Kirkuk and a few others. Any idea if they're related to this conflict or if they are old? Any information? Thank you.

BROOKS: We do have some indications that there are some shallow graves that may have been found in the north. Those graves have to be examined before we can tell exactly what the circumstances are, how long they may have been there.

There are concerns that it may be people from the population in that area, and who has responsibility for that can only be determined after we determine who is in fact in those grave sites.

That work will be done with Iraqis certainly, to get it done in an appropriate way, and it has not occurred at this point in time. It will occur in coming days.

As to the responsibilities you referred to on the capture, I'm not sure if I understand what you mean. But we certainly have a responsibility to those we capture, and we know that there are some who we capture that have responsibilities for the types of deeds that have occurred. And there may be a relationship in this case between the regime and those grave sites. All this will be determined as we find out what information we can from individuals involved, and more importantly, when we find out information from the population as to what might have occurred.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

BROOKS: Well, we know that he certainly has an insight on how the Baath Party central committee worked. He had the Baghdad district and was certainly an insider on that. There are some indications he might have also been posted to the north to take over in the north for some of the military operations, but we don't have confirmation on that. That will be revealed in due time.

And so we think that we have someone here. All the members of that list of 55 have useful information about the inner workings, the inside of this regime, and more importantly, some of its actions and decisions that have been taken over time. That relates to some of the atrocities committed against the population, that relates to weapons of mass destruction, that relates to links to terrorism. Al these things we believe we'll find as we find these additional key regime leaders.

QUESTION: The resistance that was encountered by the 4th Infantry Division, was it an ambush or did the division actually run into these guys and there was some kind of a fire fight? And what does this tell you about the level of resistance, the pattern as you've seen it? Is it decreasing or is it just about the same? Who were those guys? Were they Iraqis or Arab volunteers?

And the second question please is, there was a demonstration today after Friday prayers that was shouting things like no to Saddam, but no to America at the same time. Do you envisage any problems from future demonstrations? Do you think that the Iraqi people might slowly turn against your efforts? Thank you.

BROOKS: The encounter that occurred from Taji to Samarra, we believe that there were forces there that may have been remnant forces or that may have moved back in, because Marines had already passed through that area.

There were some encounters and some fights that occurred at Samarra, and it was there at Samarra also that our seven prisoners or war were turned over. So we see, I think, is the battlefield changes as time goes on, and it also indicates to us that there are still some elements out there that choose to fight and that still have some of the means to fight.

But these are localized, they are sporadic in nature. They're not organized underneath some overarching command. They may be small bands of people who still wish to fight.

I don't have any indications at this point that they may have been something other than Iraqis, paramilitaries. I know by the types of vehicles, the technical vehicles, as we described them, they were not regular forces. And more information will have to be developed in terms of precisely who we have now taken into our custody. I mentioned we have 30 prisoners of war.

The demonstrations, we think people will have the right to demonstrate in free Iraq, and we've seen some of those demonstrations already for a variety of reasons. In some cases there will be chants against Saddam. In some cases there are pro-coalition chants. And there may be some that say, "Get the coalition out of here." What we are aware of is that, first, our efforts are intended to create the conditions for a free and stable Iraq. We have other work that's also going to be ongoing during that time, like work against regime leaders, work against terrorists and the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.

But our efforts on the humanitarian side are for the Iraqi people. We want the governance of Iraq to be passed over to the Iraqi people as quickly as we can. And we've made a commitment to not stay any longer than it takes to get those key actions completed.

And so while there will be some that want to see a departure of the coalition, some would like to have that so they can try to return power to the way it was, others may want to do that just to remind us that this is Iraq for the Iraqi people, and we really don't need a reminder on that, we're quite aware of that and we respect that.

So I think as time goes on we'll see a variety of opinions expressed. We'll do what we can to remain supportive of the population and helping them on the right path to development.

QUESTION: As you know, there is a gentlemen in Baghdad who's claiming he was elected the mayor of Baghdad or designated the mayor of Baghdad by a council of local tribal elders. You seem to say that there is no such person. Can you sort of square this for us? Is Central Command not recognizing this man as a sort of a duly elected leader? And have you had any sort of official contact with him in this post that he's now claiming for himself?

BROOKS: As I mentioned, we meet with a number of people that are in a variety of positions out there, and there will be some who may proclaim themselves at certain levels. But until full processes are in place and indeed we have a democratic process for making these types of decisions in elections, particularly in a city the size of Baghdad, then, no, that is not a recognized mayor of Baghdad at this point.

Doesn't mean we won't work with him. He is clearly an emerging leader and deserves some attention and deserves our interest. And that will be ongoing as time goes on.

With the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, there will be a number of engagements with emerging leaders throughout the country to organize processes for good governance, and that will be ongoing here. It's already begun and will certainly pick up in speed as time goes on.

QUESTION: Are coalition forces looking into media reports that the former Iraqi information minister, Mohammed Said al-Sahaf, committed suicide? And if so, do you have any evidence that might lead you to believe that these reports are true?

BROOKS: We've heard the media reports, but don't have any confirmed military reporting. We're not exerting any unusual activity to try to confirm that. That's one of many reports that come in to us over time. Our efforts right now are focused on trying to clear out any remaining pockets of the regime, moving into areas where we've not been, establishing the conditions of security to have a stable and free Iraq, while also delivering as much humanitarian aid and focusing the efforts of other organizations to get the job done as quickly as possible.

I'm sure that we'll find additional information from some of the Iraqi people that have more knowledge as to whether or not this is true, but right now that is not a focus of our efforts.

QUESTION: Couple of points, if you'll indulge me. The Mansour (ph) site -- doesn't it suggest that if you don't have a continuing presence there, that you may not believe Saddam was ever there or his sons were ever there, to have that site left without constant surveillance? That's question one.

Question two: The reports of some biological materials being stolen, samples of diseases and so forth, any indication that that was organized or just random looting?

And thirdly, your Australian counterparts are saying today they had a major discovery of MiGs west of Baghdad at an airfield. Can you tell us anymore about that?

BROOKS: Well, that's a triple there, OK.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

BROOKS: All right. It's been a pleasure.

The Mansour (ph) site had a considerable amount of destruction. And getting through that site and pulling out things is not an easy task for anyone -- coalition or anyone else that might have an interest. And so, we believe that we have taken the appropriate measures for being able to observe what's there and do some initial assessments and then we can do much more deliberate work in due time.

Our decisions on striking it were based on information that we believe credible at the time and suitable for that particular attack, as it has been for all our precision engagements. And so, we believe that we had good reason to attack there, that some of the regime leaders we were looking for might have been present at that moment.

What we can't confirm immediately, though, is whether or not it was successful against those particular individuals. And it will take a number of other things to help to try to confirm that information from people, and then subsequent examination of the site to look for any remains, to look for any indications that might confirm or deny it one way or another.

There are indications that there may have been some biomaterials that have been taken. And I don't think we know at this point who may have taken it, where they may have gone with or whether it was an organized action. There are indications that some of the looting that has occurred is organized at least to the point where people had knowledge of what was located and went to those site deliberately -- whether it's banks, some things inside of the museum -- there are some indications that there's knowledge, there's inside effort that's occurring there.

And your third question? I wrote a note and lost my note here.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) significant find of MiGs today?

BROOKS: We've seen efforts throughout this campaign for the Iraqi regime to try to hide MiGs. We saw some buried, we saw some that were underneath a camouflage that we had not seen at some locations, and as we go to more and more areas, we're going to find additional things. I mentioned a few days ago that we observed some MiGs under camouflage at an airfield out in the west. There are some, most likely, that are still out there.

This is why it's important that we move into areas that we have not been with physical presence on the ground. Some things you just need to get your boots on the ground to get a full assessment of, and that effort is ongoing, in addition to other methods that we have to determine what is where.

And so, I don't have anything specific on that report from the Australians and I'm sure that we'll get more as time goes on.

I think we have time for one more.

Yes, please?

QUESTION: Can you comment on reports that a new team is going -- I think 1,000 are going to Iraq to look for chemical weapons, WMDs, a team that would consist of scientists, military personnel and intelligence agents?

And also a few minutes ago, you said you would recognize Iraqi leaders once they are elected democratically. Does that mean that even though you're letting Iraqis decide what kind of regime they can have it must be a democratic regime?

Thank you.

BROOKS: We know that there are some former weapons inspectors who have offered their services to come in and assist in the work that's ongoing to find weapons of mass destruction. It's a bit early to state who will, who will not at this point. We certainly take their offer in due consideration and we'll make some decisions on them in the coming days.

The processes for determining what the free Iraq will look like in its governance will be very deliberate processes. We want them to be democratically elected. We want them to be selected by the Iraqi population. We want the Iraqi population to have an opportunity to in fact choose them, as opposed to simply having people appointed in place. We've tried to be very deliberate about that in our own efforts to not just walk in, put someone in place, unless there are temporary measures that need to be exerted at a particular period of time.

But for the final standing of different organizations, governance throughout the country, we expect a deliberate process to be undertaken. And that's what the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance will be involved in here over time.

Deliberate actions. Baghdad's a very important and very large place, and it has to go well. This is an emerging leader. That's how we're approaching that. And there other emerging leaders as well that deserve due consideration and due time.

Thanks very much, ladies and gentlemen. Have a good day.

HEMMER: Just about 30 minutes there in Qatar. General Brooks talking about three major points. One is the capture of No. 24, as it's described, Samir abd al Aziz, described as a senior Baath Party leader who was responsible for the Baghdad district. Indications are the Kurds in the north handed this man over, so this is No. 4 out of that playing card deck of 55 that the U.S. is after, top leaders in Iraq. Also, that bomb site in Baghdad hit about a week and a half ago, the Mansour district west of the city center there. No remains identified just yet, General Brooks says, but only the initial surveys have been completed so far.

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