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Martin Savidge: 'Pitched battle that went on and on'

CNN's Martin Savidge reports using a night scope, which reflects in his eyes.
CNN's Martin Savidge reports using a night scope, which reflects in his eyes.

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CNN's Martin Savidge, traveling with the 7th Marines, reports on an overnight battle with probable Fedayeen fighters while waiting for a crucial fuel shipment. (March 26)
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SOUTHERN IRAQ (CNN) -- CNN correspondent Martin Savidge is embedded with the U.S. 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, in southern Iraq. Their latest mission was securing the supply lines in order to protect fuel tankers making their way from Kuwait.

Savidge spoke to CNN anchor Bill Hemmer about the critical mission and the conditions facing the Marines.

SAVIDGE: We are west of the Euphrates (River) but still in southern Iraq, pushing north. You are looking at us through a night scope ... it's the only we can show you any kind of image at all.

We are in total blackout conditions, it is pitch dark out here and we are rumbling and stumbling about as we try to broadcast for you. The embargo we were under was lifted just as sunset was coming on and darkness was setting in.

We have been up for about 24 hours on this latest mission. It became a mission, critical in the eyes of the 1st Marine Division, for fuel. As you know, the supply lines for this military operation stretch all the way back to northern Kuwait -- and fuel is what makes all these vehicles and the machinery run. Yesterday they actually had to pause operations and delay moving forward because fuel was running so low.

They needed to get in a quarter of a million gallons of diesel fuel to allow the Marine division to push forward.

There has been guerrilla fighting along the supply lines and that was a great threat to those huge fuel tankers that have to roll in from northern Kuwait. So the 1st Battalion was given the job, especially in this area, of making sure that it would be secure along those supply lines.

We had been warned last night, after that terrible dust storm that everybody faced here in southern Iraq. When visibility finally opened up, it was still pitch dark, and we are in armored vehicles, in Humvees and moving along a line that was expected to get fire, and sure enough -- it did.

An RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) whizzed right passed in front of CNN's vehicle that we use to transport. Gun fire opened up all along the line on the armored vehicles that the Marines use. They returned fire with 50-caliber machine guns, they also returned fire with their M-16's -- Marines pointing out of the top firing, but not indiscriminantly, that is something the Marines point out -- only when they were fired upon and only when they could see the flashes, did they fire back.

There were RPG's, Kalachnikov fire, there was concern about mortars, we didn't see any. It was a pitched battle that went on and on all night long. Trying to keep that supply line open and clear and they did, but not without a cost.

The armored car we were in ran into a Humvee, it was so dark, then got hit by another armored car that nearly slammed us over on our side and then to top that off we (the car) ran right into a house -- fortunately no one was inside. It gives you an idea of, if you want to call it that, the chaos that was out there in the battlefield.

When light finally came up, three of the armored vehicles were up-ended in huge crater holes and trenches out there, but the most important thing -- the fuel trucks rolled in, they were not hit, they were not harassed in any way and they managed to deliver their vital supplies, which means the Marines now can push forward. A tough night for many of the Marines, their first night under fire.

HEMMER: I don't know what kind of news .... the other Marines are getting, but are they aware of the POWs? Are they aware of some of the other casualties we have been reporting on the last couple of days?

SAVIDGE: They are aware of about three quarters of that. They certainly are aware of the POW issue, they are certainly aware of those who have been killed in action, and any time a soldier or a Marine or an airman falls, it touches deeply in this particular branch of the service, as it does all the branches of the service here.

They get that news from the chain of command, sometimes it filters down from the top here. They are only getting bits and pieces, little slices every day. In fact, just before we came on air, a young Marine came up to us and said "What is the word from the outside world?"

The biggest thing they ask is "What are the people at home saying? What are they feeling? How do they talk about us and the operation we are involved in?"

They are ... starving for information and we try to pass it as best we can, but when we under blackouts the only access we have to the outside world is shortwave radio, to which we tune in regularly and we try to pass word on to the Marines here... We are all kind of living in this black hole, of what is happening just beyond the realm of what we see, and at times what we see is enough but it does not give you the big picture.

HEMMER: When you are in a blackout, are you constantly moving or not?

SAVIDGE: It is a bit of both. Sometimes we are blacked out because we are moving, and as you understand anytime that we transmit we are like a beacon out there obviously. Transmitting is a signal which someone could easily begin to focus and dial in on. If you are talking about Iraqi troops, they could possibly use that. So that is one concern why blackouts are imposed.

The other is the well-used phrase "operational security," although we are careful and we do not tell you everything we know, and it is enforced on us by the Marines. We are hoping it will become less and less, we realize we have probably been under the strictest of these limitations. But in some cases we have also had some of the toughest jobs and the most risky and since our butts are on the line as well, it is hard to argue against it. We are trying to bring it to you as best we can.

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