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At Least 15 U.S. Soldiers Killed in Iraq

Aired November 2, 2003 - 09:01   ET


RENAY SAN MIGUEL, CNN ANCHOR: In Iraq, at least 15 U.S. soldiers were killed and 20 were injured today when a Chinook helicopter was shot down near Fallujah. The soldiers were on a short flight to Baghdad International Airport to leave on R&R trips. Witnesses say a missile brought down the helicopter.
And in Baghdad, one U.S. soldier was killed when a homemade bomb hit his Humvee in a military convoy.

Back in Fallujah, a second attack on a U.S. convoy Sunday in Iraq. This convoy included a civilian vehicle. It is still unclear if any troops were involved. Iraqi men gathered around the burning vehicle chanting.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: At least 15 Americans killed in all this morning. We want to get the latest on these developing stories, so let's head live to Baghdad and Ben Wedeman. Good morning, Ben.

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Carol. Well, attacks on coalition forces are running at an all-time high. And today, coalition losses jumped dramatically.


WEDEMAN (voice-over): The bloodiest day for the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq since March. At least 13 U.S. soldiers killed and more than 20 wounded when their Chinook helicopter was hit near the town of Fallujah, west of Baghdad. The soldiers were being flown to Baghdad Airport for rest and recreation leave.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): The flight came over from the direction of Habaniya (ph), and the strike happened about an hour ago. The area surrounded now, helicopters are flying all over the place, and there are American soldiers all around. More than 10 helicopters have already landed in the location.

WEDEMAN: This is the third time an American helicopter has been shot down since the end of the war. Last weekend, a U.S. Army Blackhawk helicopter was hit by ground fire outside Tikrit.

In September, the coalition distributed leaflets offering a $500 reward to anyone who turned in a shoulder-launched surface-to-air missile.

Also in Fallujah Sunday, an American convoy was apparently targeted by a roadside bomb. Fallujah residents flocked to the scene to celebrate the attack, chanting anti-coalition slogans, while another convoy was attacked in Baghdad, leaving one American soldier dead.

The Iraqi capital has been bracing for more attacks following rumors that the beginning of November would witness a day of resistance. The coalition is struggling to determine who might be behind the recent sharp upsurge in violence. Prime suspects include Saddam loyalists, foreign fighters and disgruntled Iraqis. Whatever the case may be, coalition leaders are appealing for more local support.

LT. GEN. RICARDO SANCHEZ, COMMANDER, COALITION FORCES: I think we are going to achieve security when we make a joint commitment, the Iraqi people make a firm commitment to eliminate this anti-peace and stability force that is out there.

WEDEMAN: Out there, and waging an increasing effective and costly guerrilla campaign that shows no signs of abating.


WEDEMAN: And, Carol, we just heard a few minutes ago from a senior coalition spokesman that at this point the death toll from that crash is 15 dead and at least 21 wounded.

Now, this business of aircraft being shot down from the ground is really a nightmare that has been plaguing the coalition here. There have been several incidents, the most recent one on the 29th of October when apparently a surface-to-air missile was fired at an aircraft taking off from Baghdad International Airport. Didn't hit its target, but it just shows how vulnerable the coalition forces are. Not only on the ground, but also in the air -- Carol.

COSTELLO: Especially in that area around Fallujah. Ben Wedeman reporting live for us from Baghdad.

SAN MIGUEL: The Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld could not confirm this morning that the Chinook helicopter was brought down by a missile. But Rumsfeld noted that shoulder-fired missiles are widely available. CNN's Chris Plante is live at the Pentagon -- Chris.

CHRIS PLANTE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Renay. That's right. The information is still coming into the Pentagon. Secretary Rumsfeld has really been the only official response from the Pentagon or from the administration more generally this morning. This helicopter is the Army's primary transport helicopter.

We understand now, as Ben was just reporting, that there are 15 dead and 21 wounded according to Colonel William Darley (ph), a spokesman, Army spokesman in Baghdad. That would put the helicopter at maximum capacity. The CH-47 Chinook is capable or designed to carry 33 combat troops and three crew members, a total of 36 people. And it appears that the helicopter was at maximum capacity, 31 people today when it was knocked out of the sky.

Again, details still emerging. Initial reports indicate that two surface-to-air missiles were fired at two Chinook helicopters. One was brought down. The situation could clearly have been worse had both helicopters been brought down if these initial reports are correct. And CNN caught up with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld a short time ago, and here's a little bit of what he had to say.


DONALD RUMSFELD, DEFENSE SECRETARY: There was speculation that one of the helicopters might have been, although whether the one that was shot down was, I don't know, but we all know that these so-called man-portable surface-to-air missiles are widely available in the world. And do have the ability to shoot down aircraft and helicopters. And from time to time, that happens in various locations.


PLANTE: Now, the Chinook helicopter, unlike many fighter aircraft and other aircraft in the U.S. military inventory, does not have the ability to knock away or deter surface-to-air missiles if they are heat-seeking missiles. The Chinook does have turbine engines and does put out a heat signature, so if it was a heat-seeking shoulder-launched surface-to-air missile, then there is really very little that the Chinook helicopter can do to defend itself against that sort of an attack.

General Ricardo Sanchez, who is the three-star general in charge of all ground forces in Iraq who we just heard a little bit from a couple of minutes ago, yesterday warned, perhaps somewhat ominously, that he said, "as this conflict goes on, there will be more obstacles, more setbacks and more tragedies in the future." His warning was certainly born out today -- Renay.

SAN MIGUEL: Chris Plante, live at the Pentagon. Thanks so much, Chris.

For more on all of this now, we are joined by retired Major General Don Shepperd.

COSTELLO: Of course, he is our military analyst, our long-time military analyst, and he's live on the phone from Tucson, Arizona. Good morning, general.


COSTELLO: How are we to characterize this? Is this now an all- out, organized guerrilla war?

SHEPPERD: I don't think you can characterize it as an all-out organized guerrilla war, although it is definitely guerrilla warfare. It does not have to be organized to do the type of things that we are seeing on TV today. You can do this with the thousands of missiles that are available all over the country, by word of mouth. The fear, of course, is that it becomes more and more organized. But at the same time, if they do that, if the bad guys do become more organized, it makes them more easy to fine and more easy to topple.

COSTELLO: But certainly they have become more organized, haven't they, general?

SHEPPERD: I think they have become more organized from the early days, but I don't see any reports that indicate that there is any kind of national coordination. But again, it doesn't have to be national to do this type of thing. With the arms available in the various areas, particularly in this Sunni or Baathist triangle, you can do this type of thing forever and never have any kind of organized, the way we think of a military chain of command, Carol.

SAN MIGUEL: General, we talked a lot about air superiority during the war itself back in March and April. Pardon me. And the U.S., the coalition clearly had that. But now we are hearing concerns about these shoulder-fired missiles, and the fact that Baghdad -- we've seen them around Baghdad International Airport. You know, talk a little bit about what can be done to kind of put up a defense, any kind of shield for these flights, and also about the altitudes that these helicopters are flying, not just the Chinooks but the Blackhawks and the Apaches that are out there as well.

SHEPPERD: Right. Air superiority is a relative term. You are given air superiority from fighters and that type of thing, and the radar-guided SAMs, but the type of AAA (ph) or small arms fire and the type of man-pads, or man-portable air defense systems like the heat- seeking missiles, you never gain air superiority from them as long as they are around.

Now, as far as providing security, you do clear areas around airports, you do airborne and local patrols, you fire back when people at the ground fire at you. But there basically is never any way to assure when these things are around that you won't get shot out from behind a tree or behind a building. The key, of course, is for us to train the Iraqis and then us to get out of there and let them take over their own security and make sure they're strong enough.

COSTELLO: Is there a safer way, General, to ferry troops to airports or across the country than flying in these Chinook helicopters?

SHEPPERD: Well, one safer way, Carol, is to do it at night. The night is a big defense because even though people can hear you coming, they can't see you coming and they can't track accurately like they can during the day with these shoulder-fired missiles.

So operating more at night, which we do, basically is a defense. Now, as far as the altitude, that Renay asked about, you are torn in between. You're safer if you fly at higher altitude, but you can be seen better with a missile that's got three-mile range, such as some of these man-pads do. If you fly at low altitude, you eliminate -- you have shorter exposure time, but you have less time to react to missiles that are fired at you. So it's always a trade-off.

SAN MIGUEL: We are going to be visiting with you later on this morning as well. But for now, Don Shepperd, retired general, our CNN analyst, thanks so much for your time. We do appreciate it.


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