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Iraqi officials deny soldiers have surrendered

CNN's Nic Robertson
CNN's Nic Robertson

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(CNN) -- As U.S. and coalition forces swept across the Iraqi desert Friday, about 250 Iraqi soldiers surrendered to U.S. Marines and about 30 or so to British forces at Umm Qasr, British military spokesman Chris Vernon told CNN.

CNN's Nic Robertson spoke with CNN anchors Anderson Cooper and Carol Costello on Friday morning with reaction from Baghdad to this news.

COOPER: Let's check in right now. There has been activity this morning in Baghdad. CNN's Nic Robertson is standing by. Nic -- what's the latest?

ROBERTSON: Swift reaction from Iraqi officials this morning to those images people have seen of Iraqi soldiers surrendering and pictures of armored columns of coalition forces inside Iraq. Information Minister Mohammad Al-Sahaf saying that none of these soldiers that are seen there surrendering were Iraqi soldiers; indeed, he implied that it was some kind of play. "Who were these people," he said, and "where were they?" There will be some sort of investigation into that, and we would know more about it in the future, he said.

He also talked about the armored columns, and said, "Well, where is this desert? Which desert are they in?" -- an indication they're trying to portray the fact that these columns are perhaps not in Iraq, that they might be somewhere else.

Of course, this news broadcast is being carried on Iraqi television, being replayed actually right now on Iraq's main television channel. Iraq's viewers are able to see their information -- the interior minister, along with the information minister, in a flight jacket wielding an automatic weapon.

The pictures behind the two ministers are pictures of injured Iraqi civilians. This part of this press conference [is] designed to put the focus on those civilians that Iraqi officials say have been injured. And according to Iraqi officials, they say some 36 civilians have been injured in and around the Baghdad area.

Very interesting as well to listen to the information minister. Not only was he calling President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair a gang of villains -- gamblers who are gambling on their losses, their dreams of success growing even bigger, he said, with each of their losses -- but perhaps the most significant thing here, classifying the coalition forces as war criminals and as mercenaries. He did not say this, but an indication here when he talked about [how] they would decide what to do about them legally, an indication the government perhaps giving some consideration to whether or not -- because, according to Iraq, they are not operating under international law -- whether or not they could be treated under the Geneva Convention. And it's a very interesting development here. Also, much rhetoric about unity, about fighting on. The interior minister saying he carried a weapon, his 12-year-old son carries a weapon, that they would carry on and fight, fight for President Saddam Hussein.

So really we're seeing the propaganda war here escalating again. We saw it yesterday. We saw it the day before, Iraqi officials coming out to deny the pictures and stories that the international audience around the world [is] seeing. Of course, no one in Baghdad [is] able to see those pictures yet of troops surrendering and of the armored columns moving through the deserts of Iraq.

COOPER: Well, Nic, I noticed the information minister saying, you know, where are these columns of troops? I'm sure there are -- it's understandable why they might like to know where these columns of troops are. Obviously that is not information they will be getting from American television at this point.

But you're saying that press conference, which was quite lengthy and quite surreal, I think, from many Americans' perspective, that is being repeated, you said, on Baghdad television at this hour?

ROBERTSON: It's being repeated on Iraqi television. It's very clear, as we have seen over the last weeks and months, but now more than ever, that Iraqi officials want to portray the country as strong, that the leadership is strong, even talking -- Minister Al-Sahaf talking about the attacks on the home of President Saddam Hussein, saying that all of the family members were fine and were safe.

But really trying to present a very strong leadership, and I think the minister perhaps really, when he said, "Where are these tanks?," is trying to imply that they're not in Iraq, or maybe a couple of miles across the border.

The interior minister actually hinting there, really perhaps a little chink in the armor, if you will, when he said, "They don't control Umm Qasr," this key port city that is right now being fought over by coalition forces with Iraqi troops. He said, well, maybe in a few days they will take Umm Qasr, but they'll never take Baghdad.

That's perhaps a critical indication that, even at this senior level, a recognition that perhaps their forces really are not going to stand up and weather this storm as much as they have said in the past weeks that they will be able to resist, an indication here that perhaps they do expect to lose these positions, lose these cities, lose these towns. Perhaps that's the first chink in the armor here -- Anderson.

COSTELLO: Nic, this is Carol Costello. I just wanted to ask you a question about that battle in Umm Qasr. It's pretty much over. In fact, we have word that the American flag has gone up there. I wanted to ask you about the comments from the Iraqi information minister when he said Saddam and his family were safe. He offered no proof, did he?

ROBERTSON: No, he offered absolutely no proof at all. And, Carol, on the issue of Umm Qasr, the British defense secretary, Geoff Hoon, speaking just a few moments ago in the House of Parliament indicated that the battle for Umm Qasr was still going on, and that that was an action still in progress. He compared the site of Umm Qasr to the port city in Britain of Southampton, quite a large city. But he gave no indication at all that the battle was going against the coalition forces -- Carol.

COSTELLO: Oh, well, Nic, thank you for clarifying that. I did not understand that, but thank you for clarifying that for us, because the most important thing we do here at CNN is get the information right.

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