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Multiple Large Explosions in Central Baghdad

Aired November 4, 2003 - 12:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Letís pick up and go right back to Baghdad.
CNN's Matthew Chance is standing by in Baghdad.

Matthew -- within the past few minutes you've heard, what, four explosions in the area where you are?

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I counted three quite live explosions. They seemed very close to the hotel, the Palestine Hotel where we're all staying here in the center of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad.

It's not clear, Wolf, at this stage what's been targeted, what's been hit, whether there are any injuries or any significant damage that have been caused by what sounded to me like mortars detonating or rockets detonating as they hit the ground there in an area very close to this hotel. But certainly, we have seen these kinds of attacks on a daily basis.

The insurgents, whoever they are, appearing increasingly confident -- striking last night, for instance, at the Green Zone, the secure area in the center of Baghdad which was formerly the palace complex of Saddam Hussein, which the Coalition Provisional Authority has made its headquarters. From that attack last night, no injuries, no significant damage.

But they underscore -- that attack and this one this evening -- just how confident, just how routine these kinds of attacks have now become in the Iraqi capital -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Any significance -- it's Ramadan now in the Muslim world, Matthew, it's now dark in Baghdad, elsewhere throughout the Muslim world -- that these explosions occurred after sundown?

CHANCE: I don't know whether we can attach any significance to that. I mean, certainly the meal to break the fast at the end of the day at Ramadan, the ifta (ph) meal, has been broken. Now people have already eaten. And according to hospital workers that we've spoken to, there usually is a surge of activity, a surge of violence after that time.

At the same time, I think we have to say that, you know, it's difficult to predict when these acts of violence against the coalition forces or against the Iraqi civilian population are going to take place. We pretty much see them taking place randomly across any time of the day. There is no specific time when they're more common. BLITZER: All right, Matthew Chance is on the scene for us in Baghdad. Matthew, stay careful over there. We're going to get back to you as soon as we get some more information.

Only within the past few minutes, at least three explosions, perhaps four, have been heard in the central part of Baghdad. The Associated Press reporting a plume of smoke is clearly visible from one area near a concentration of U.S. military forces. We're going to continue to follow this story. Matthew Chance on the scene for us, as well as the rest of our reporters and producers and photographers in Baghdad. We'll get there as soon as we get some more information.

But joining me now, two retired members of the United States military who have seen their share of very dangerous duty. Command Sergeant Major Eric Haney is at the CNN Center in Atlanta and General David Grange is in Chicago.

I want to thank both of you for joining us.

General Grange, when you hear these initial reports -- three, perhaps four explosions, perhaps a mortar attack against some concentrated area of U.S. military personnel in the Iraqi capital -- what immediately goes through your mind?

BRIG. GEN. DAVID GRANGE, U.S. ARMY (RET.): Well, what immediately goes through your mind is there is some type of either a diversionary tactic or there is an attack of some sort. I think right now, with the helicopter going down the other day, some of the other assaults, that the enemy smells blood. They're taking advantage of the information that's going around the United States and within Iraq about terrorists being able to hit at will. And they're taking advantage of that and doing a little bit of a surge right now.

BLITZER: When you say a diversionary tactic, General Grange, do you mean they go ahead and they launch some mortars, but then they have a secondary mission which may be the primary mission to divert attention? Is that what you're suggesting?

GRANGE: Oh, right. I mean, in other words, that's one of the tactics that quite frequently is used, that a smaller target or maybe to them an insignificant target is used to divert attention to a more serious assault somewhere else.

BLITZER: Eric Haney, what goes through your mind when you hear these initial reports? And I want to reaffirm to our viewers, preliminary reports, perhaps three explosions, four, heard in the central part of Baghdad. We have no information about casualties or targets. The AP reporting a plume of smoke, though, is clearly visible from an area where some U.S. troops are concentrated. Eric Haney, what goes through your mind?

CMD. SGT. MAJ. ERIC HANEY, U.S. ARMY (RET.): Well, the very first thing is, let's wait and see what took place, because usually first reports from the field are almost always wrong. And we need to see what the impact of these bombings were, just what took place, what the casualties were, and then evaluate what the coordination of it is. But ultimately, what you think of this is that there are two audiences here: the Iraqi people and the impact and unease it creates and perpetrates among the people there, and also the impact on the American forces and the coalition within Iraq.

BLITZER: Is there any way, General Grange -- we'll get back to this whole area of security now in Baghdad. Forget about the north, the south, in the Sunni triangle area, where the opposition to the U.S. and coalition forces seems to be the most intense. What should the U.S. military be doing now that presumably they're not doing? Is there anything else they can do to beef up security?

GRANGE: Well, I know a lot of the people on the ground, and most of them are very professional, some of the best that the military has employed right now in Iraq. They're going to adjust tactics and techniques, depending on how the enemy adjusts tactics and techniques. This happens on both opposing sides on a constant basis, every day.

But I think you're going to see a surge -- and I hope this is the case -- of offensive operations on the coalition side, because they can't give a break to the enemy. And at the same time, with the other hand, show compassion with the nation-building and making the quality of life better in Iraq, or this particular place in Iraq that you're referring to. You've got to be able to do both. You've got have relentless pursuit and at the same time you've got to show compassion and making life better for the Iraqi people.

BLITZER: All right, let's take some callers. A lot of viewers are anxious about what's happening, understandably so, in Iraq now. Margaret is in Chicago. She has a question. Margaret, go ahead.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes. Why weren't more troops sent in for Ramadan when it was announced ahead of time that we were expecting more attacks? And are they guarding these ammo depots where they're getting weapons to use against us? Have we tried to buy them back? Why aren't more troops there to protect our soldiers?

BLITZER: Those are two excellent questions. Let's let Eric Haney try to handle them. Go ahead.

HANEY: Well, we have a finite number of soldiers that we can deploy anywhere in the world. As it stands now, the Army has 33 combat brigades, 20 of those are deployed overseas in Iraq, in Afghanistan and in the Balkans. So, we're pulling from a very finite pool, and you just can't pluck soldiers out of the thin air, train them overnight and put them into positions. We knew these things were taking place, and it's just part of guerilla warfare.

As far as the ammunition depots, Saddam Hussein flooded the country with weapons and armaments as the war started to unfold. And when the Iraqi army just dissolved and went home, there are large amounts of that material that was hidden throughout the country and in these populated areas. So, it's not so much the ammo dumps where pilferage is taking place. It's that material that went and was put in warehouses, under homes, in basements and dug into farms. That's the hard one and that's what we're looking for. BLITZER: All right, gentlemen, stand by.

CNN's Jane Arraf is on the phone. She's in Baghdad on the scene where these explosions have been heard.

Jane -- tell us what you know.

JANE ARRAF, CNN BAGHDAD BUREAU CHIEF: Wolf, at least one of those, either mortars or rockets, has hit within the compound that houses the main Coalition Authority. It's a main gate to what used to be the presidential palace, Saddam's main palace, now serving as the headquarters for the coalition. The security guard outside tells us that at least one of those missiles or mortars landed within the gates.

And here on the street, where people are gathered to eat, to break their Ramadan fast, many of them are saying that they heard a sound, felt a huge explosion which rocked the buildings across the street, saw smoke rising from the inside. No word yet on whether there are any casualties or even damage. It is a huge compound with a lot of gardens. It's entirely unclear where that would have fell.

Now, presumably they have contingency plans that would force people inside into shelters to prepare for this sort of event.

But again, at least one mortar or rocket has hit inside the coalition's compound. No word of casualties, no word of injuries or damage -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jane, give us a sense of how big this compound is. Is this where the U.S. forces are basically headquartered, the coalition headquarters? Give us a little sense of what have this compound is, where it is and how big it is.

ARRAF: It's really the size of a small city essentially, Wolf. And it's at the end of one of the main bridges across the Tigress River.

Now, when it was Saddam's palace, it was large enough to prompt frequent complaints that Saddam was entirely covering the city with palaces. With the coalition inside, they've extended that security barrier even further. So, essentially, it's a series of barricaded gates, very secure entrances, a lot of gardens (AUDIO GAP) main entrance to the main part of the palace. Now, that main part of the palace is where the coalition does a lot of its work and where a lot of the officials stay -- perhaps most of the officials, since the Rashid Hotel (ph) was rocketed.

Now, the Rashid (ph), you'll remember, was hit by rockets. It was the main coalition hotel. Ever since that was hit and it became apparent that buildings like that were completely vulnerable, a lot of those people were relocated to the palace, either inside or in trailers surrounding it.

But it is a huge compound with many buildings outlying buildings. There is an Army base on it. There is a large military presence there. And that mortar or rocket could have hit essentially anywhere -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And obviously, it is very difficult to prevent these kinds of rockets and mortars from flying in, in effect, or a missile, if you will, into this area.

Jane, what's the normal procedure for the U.S. military, the coalition or Ambassador Bremer, the chief civilian administrator, for them to release information about casualties, if there are in fact casualties? Who releases that information to the media?

ARRAF: That would be from coalition press people, and that normally is very slow in coming.

Now, in an event like this where it is impossible to ignore -- this was a huge explosion. It rocked people staying at the Palestine Hotel, where a lot of journalists stay. It rocked the buildings surrounding the palace. That information might come a little more quickly. We should be expecting something in the next hour or two, I would say.

But even then, firm details, specific details, will be very slow in coming. And a lot of what we learn about these sorts of things are pieced together by people on the ground, not coalition officials, not press people, but witnesses, people who actually saw the rockets or saw the missiles -- Iraqi police, Iraqi security. And they're out here in increasing numbers, and they're one of the best sources of information as to what generally happens, and indeed on this night, what happened tonight -- that one of the missiles did hit inside -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jane Arraf, please be careful in Baghdad where you are. We'll be checking back with you very, very shortly.

I want to show our viewers some videotape now. One of our correspondents from CNN International was interviewing a member of the Iraqi National Congress when these explosions began to be heard. I want you to watch this videotape.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is one of the major issues which has to be always invested in.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Intifad Kumber (ph), a spokesman for the Iraqi National Congress, Colonel Patrick Lang, the former head of...


BLITZER: You could hear the explosions actually being heard, although that representative of the Iraqi National Congress did not flinch, but clearly visible in the background.

Let's bring back our two analysts, General Grange and Eric Haney.

All right, General Grange, we've got some more information from Jane Arraf now. She's on the scene for us. This is an area described as the main coalition compound in central Baghdad. The word is at least one rocket or missile or mortar -- unclear what -- managed to land inside. No word on casualties or damage. But clearly, the target was a coalition target where a lot of U.S. military personnel are based. Is there any way to deal with this kind of secure perimeter if someone has a mortar or a rocket that easily can hit an area from outside the secure perimeter?

GRANGE: It's very difficult, Wolf. The insurgents in this case -- guerrillas, terrorists -- the four primary weapons systems they use, which is advantageous to fighting in urban areas or to set up and break down quickly after they engage. One is the RPG, the rocket- propelled grenade. One is demolitions, whether it be a car bomb or an improvised explosive device along the side of the road. No. 3 is a mortar, because it can be set up and fire high-angle fire over one building into an area beyond it. And the other is surface-to-air missiles if they can get their hands on it. They have tremendous effect, easy to employ.

What you've seen in a coalition compound is you usually have stand-off further than the palace original perimeter was when it was established, as was mentioned a minute ago. So, you have some kind of stand-off. But you can never have the stand-off from indirect fire like a mortar that you would want to. You would encompass almost the entire city with your compound sprinkled within.

And so, the enemy forces are going to use that against you, knowing it's hard to respond, killing civilians, collateral damage. They know that we have rules of engagement that make it very difficult to counter it. So, it's very advantageous for them to use this type of tactic.

BLITZER: I asked the question, General Grange, because with missiles, we all knew from the first Gulf War and this second war, there are Patriot air defense missiles that have been relatively pretty effective, at least in this second war. But against the mortar or a rocket, I don't think there are any kinds of anti-defense missiles that would shoot these down in mid-air. Are there?

GRANGE: Well, what the military does have is they have radar systems that can pick up a mortar round, no matter how small it is, and pick it up rather rapidly once it clears line of sight -- for instance, behind a building or a ridge line or whatever the case may be. And then, they have their own mortars, their own artillery to provide what's known as counter fire, which happens very rapidly today, to suppress that. But again, it depends on where the enemy location is so you don't get civilian casualties and collateral damage. So, you may have to send a patrol out instead of using counter fire.

BLITZER: In other words, Eric Haney, what General Grange is suggesting is it's not difficult for the U.S. military to find -- to pinpoint the source of the mortar or the rocket attack. They could then go and level that whole area. But it's easier said than done if it comes from a civilian populated area. What do you do in a situation like this, Eric Haney, if you were on the ground commanding a group of U.S. forces and had to deal with the aftermath of a mortar or a rocket attack like this one?

HANEY: You don't get caught up in the act itself. You stay mature. You do the things that you know are right. We can determine where a mortar round is launched from or where a missile is launched from. But you have to understand, too, the people perpetrating this, as soon as they fire, they leave. There is not going to be anyone there three or four or five minutes later. So, it's just absolutely counterproductive if we think we're going to throw high explosives back on there, as General Grange has already said.

But have you to patrol outside, out to the limits of these weapons. And it's tough because we, again, a finite number of soldiers that we can use.

Remember, the opposition, the enemy here, are very clever. They're not just going to roll over. They're becoming a bit more sophisticated and a bit more confident in their acts. But ultimately, the big message here is the message that this attack sends to the Iraqi people, which is the coalition forces, the Americans, are not invulnerable, even where they live, even in their headquarters. And that's what it really sends out. And that's much greater than the physical damage that is inflicted by these sorts of attacks.

BLITZER: In other words, what you're suggesting, Eric Haney, is that the message that average Iraqis will see, as you know what? This war isn't over, and that Saddam Hussein or his Baath Party loyalists, the Fedayeen, they could still make a comeback, and so you might want to hedge your bets in terms of cooperating too much with the U.S. and coalition forces. Is that the political impact of what we're seeing?

HANEY: Well, of course it is. You know, I can almost liken this to the Ku Klux Klan back in the early part of the 20th century. You know, they ruled by fear, and that fear spreads throughout the population. The population eventually comes to believe not only can I not be protected, but the people that are here to provide the protection are having a difficult time. And that's the nature of guerrilla warfare. It is working to gain either control of the people or to influence the people. And that's what makes it so doggone tough and that's the reason we have to be smart and mature and not be jerked around by every little incident, but we follow what we know that works ultimately in these situations.

BLITZER: We have a caller from Washington State who has a question. Go ahead.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, my question is: Why is it -- irregardless of what our position is overseas, why is it that every law enforcement officer in this country has body armor of one kind or another, but quite a lot of our troops do not? And I think that that would be a great advantage to everybody involved.

BLITZER: There has been suggestions, General Grange, that perhaps a third of the U.S. military forces in Iraq right now -- there are 130,000 by last count -- maybe as many as a third don't have the kind of body armor that we saw Matthew Chance wearing in that live report from Baghdad. GRANGE: And that's a good point. Lou Dobbs and I talked about this before and several other CNN programs have covered it as well. And there is really no excuse not to have body armor for all of the troops. There is a lot of discussion in the Department of Defense that they are surging the production capability to provide that body armor, the type that actually stops a bullet -- 7.62 is an example -- and doesn't just stop shrapnel.

But the point is, you don't start at the beginning of this particular conflict. We knew this years and years and years ago. I had the same flack (ph) vest they had kind of in Vietnam when I went into Bosnia. There is no reason through technology why these things could not have been made earlier. It was proven again in Somalia how many lives that they saved. There is no excuse. They should all have the new body armor that stops bullets.

BLITZER: All right. And we'll continue to press the Pentagon for some answers on why some U.S. forces don't have that kind of body armor. Gentlemen, stand by. We want to take a quick break.

We have much more to talk about, the breaking news that we're covering here on CNN, news only within the past few minutes. Explosions heard at a compound, a coalition compound, in central Baghdad. No word yet on casualties or injuries. But we do know that the main coalition compound in Baghdad, according to our own Jane Arraf -- she is on the scene -- at least one rocket or missile or mortar has been fired and did hit that compound where U.S. troops are based.

We'll continue to go to Baghdad to get some more information on this most recent incident.


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