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Rodgers: 'Riding in the stomach of a dragon'

CNN's Walter Rodgers
CNN's Walter Rodgers

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Tanks and armored personnel carriers of the U.S. 3-7th Cavalry speed across the Iraqi desert. CNN's Walter Rodgers reports via videophone (March 21)
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SOUTHERN IRAQ (CNN) -- As the military campaign against the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein entered its second day, U.S. and coalition troops rolled unopposed through the desert of Southern Iraq.

CNN's Walter Rodgers was on the move with the 3rd Squadron of the 7th U.S. Cavalry Regiment, and he discussed events with CNN's Christiane Amanpour on Friday morning.

AMANPOUR: Walter, what is going on where you are now, Walter? You moved into Iraq.

RODGERS: What you're seeing now are exclusive CNN pictures of the U.S. Army's 7th Cavalry. Bradley Fighting Vehicles and behind them M1A1 Abrams Tanks rolling across the Iraqi desert. They have been rolling across this desert unopposed for nearly two hours now. There's a declining moon up there.

There was a brief hostile encounter at the border between Kuwait and Iraq. There was a slight pause then. But the overwhelming fire power of the 7th Cavalry dispatched whatever Iraqi opposition forces were there along the border. We believed that they killed several tanks and at least six or seven trucks.

Again, that was the only opposition which we've encountered at this point. But so far, we have rolled unopposed. This is a very sparsely populated section of Southern Iraq. And this is pretty much falling according to the main battle plan that the generals and senior officers had. That is to say, they expected no serious Iraqi opposition for the first 100 to 200 kilometers in Iraq. They have not encountered much of anything seriously.

They there over to the left, you can see an M1A1 Abrams Tank. Just a second, it's pulling around those engineers' vehicles. There is a Main Battle Tank rolling through the Iraqi desert. We have fairly good illumination this evening because the moon is in its latter phases. But, still, it was a full moon only a few days ago.

Each of these vehicles is headed ultimately toward Baghdad. There is a very detailed battle plan here. This is the Army's cavalry. These are the vanguard troops of what will follow long afterwards. That is to say, the 3rd Infantry Division will follow the 7th Cavalry. But this is the unit which is out scouting in front of everyone.

We don't know how many kilometers we are ahead of the 3rd Infantry Division. We're not sure they crossed the border yet, but the Cavalry, of course, is the eyes and ears. Their objective is reconnaissance and surveillance.

U.S. forces roll toward Baghdad on the second day of the military offensive against Saddam Hussein.
U.S. forces roll toward Baghdad on the second day of the military offensive against Saddam Hussein.

The 7th Cavalry, as you see it, rolling across the desert is now here looking for pockets of the Iraqi army. And, of course, they have every intention to treat them as hostile horses as the commander of the 7th Cavalry said to us earlier in the day: If we meet the Iraqis, we will kill them.

This unit is, of course, rolling forward at this time and will continue to do so. Of course, one risk's in any cavalry operation is that you get too far out in front of your main body, which is the huge American Army behind it, the 3rd Mechanized Infantry Division.

But it's more than a little exciting to see this armored force rolling through the desert in a classical cavalry maneuver -- Christiane.

AMANPOUR: Walter, indeed, it is incredible to see this unfolding in real time. I want to be clear, you said quite emphatically that the cavalry has gone through unimposed. Have there been any kind of Iraqi soldiers who have turned away or even surrender or is it that you haven't come across any Iraqi forces?

RODGERS: The only opposition the 7th Cavalry has encountered was when we crossed this giant sand berm along the Kuwait-Iraqi border. There was a hostile encounter ahead of us several kilometers and that hostile encounter involved the U.S. forces helicopters and the Bradley Fighting Vehicles, the scout vehicles up in front.

What they did was they took out the Iraqi tanks, a few of them -- just a handful at the very most -- and several trucks. And there were a number of, we believe, a number of the Iraqi soldiers were also taken out at this time. Having said that, there has been no opposition since then.

Just before we crossed the border we sat in a very long convoy, but that was perhaps three or four hours until that hostile encounter was put down. And since then, the U.S. Army's 7th Cavalry has been rolling unopposed.

Let me give you a picture of how this unit rolls. First come the Kiowa helicopters. Those helicopters are flying quickly. Between 30 and 50 above the ground, 80 to 100 miles per hour. And what they're doing is zone reconnaissance, flying out in front of the tanks and looking for any Iraqi units that may be in the way of the oncoming Bradley Fighting Vehicles and the tanks.

One thing very, very interesting, I was riding in one of those tanks and a Bradley. And you cannot believe how cramped the soldiers are in there.

Let me give you a visual picture of what it's like to be in a Bradley: The commander of the tank is standing the whole time. They've been choking on dust all the way coming up. Also standing is his loader to his left. The loader is the rear observer and he observes on the left side of the tank. The commander is keeping track of things forward. Down below and forward you have the driver of the tank in a two-thirds reclining position. If these tanks stop for more than five minutes you can bet as exhausted as these tankers are the soldiers and the drivers of the tank will fall asleep.

Then there is the gunner, and I sat in the gunner seat on a rolling M1A1 Abrams. It's like riding in the stomach of a dragon. It's growling and screaming the time. The tank pitches but it actually is very smooth. Tankers call the M1A1 the "Combat Cadillac."

Much the same on the Bradley Fighting Vehicle. Very cramped, particularly if you're sitting in the gunner's seat. I was riding with one gunner who was well over 6' 5" tall. I believe his name was Walker from Columbus, Georgia and he was 6'5 tall. They called him the "Green Mile." How he ever fitted into that gunner's seat, I'll never know. Extraordinarily cramped in there.

Remember these soldiers will be riding for hours and hours and hours on the rode to Baghdad -- Christiane.

AMANPOUR: Walter, quite the description. We're going to come back to you periodically, but thank you very much.

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