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Bob Franken: Smooth sailing in eastern Iraq

CNN's Bob Franken

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AMARAH, Iraq (CNN) -- Although the world's focus is on Baghdad, coalition forces remain busy throughout southern and central Iraq -- battling pockets of Iraqi fighters, searching for Iraqi weapons and Saddam Hussein's Baath Party leaders and addressing the needs of Iraqi civilians.

CNN correspondent Bob Franken talked with anchor Bill Hemmer from Amarah, a predominantly Shiite city of 340,000 in eastern Iraq, where U.S. Marines secured an Iraqi missile site and worked with Iraqis opposed to Saddam Hussein.

FRANKEN: I'm standing just feet away from some missile launchers that the local townspeople have taken U.S. Marine commanders to. The missile launchers are for Brazilian Astro missiles -- in effect, miniature Scuds. They are surface-to-air missiles with about the same range as Scuds.

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The Marines told us that they're going to be going to other places. As a matter of fact, we're about to move out now.

The information on the missiles came in a series of meetings that Gen. Richard Natonski, who is in charge of the U.S. Marines here, had with a group from Amarah. The townspeople included some of the sheiks and some of the leaders of the tribes that had been putting up resistance to Saddam Hussein's regime.

Amarah is a very large town of about 340,000 people. It is predominately Shiite Muslim, and there's strong resistance to Saddam [who is Sunni Muslim].

The Iraqi army's 10th Armored Division was operating from here. It was supposed to be a formidable force, but the U.S. Marines have encountered little resistance as they have come in and through the town.

We have seen Iraqi tanks all over the place, many of them buried, waiting for battle. But they are empty. At the meeting this morning, the local sheik said that the Iraqi soldiers had fled...

The Iraqis who are friendly to the United States were asked whether they knew of any chemical weapons sites. They say they did not, but they are leading the U.S. forces to other, bigger missile sites.

In Gen. Natonski's conversations with the Shiites here, the townspeople said they need food, water and electricity. They have been asking the U.S. forces at checkpoints not to search the Iraqi women, but that is a very difficult problem that coalition security forces will have to work out.

At one point there was a very interesting exchange between the U.S. general and the Iraqi resistance about the location of Baath Party leaders. The Iraqi resistance people said, 'You tell us where they are, and we'll take care of them.' Natonski replied, 'No, you tell us where they are.'

So there's obviously quite a spirit of revenge among the Iraqis themselves.

We do know that there was some fighting in Amarah last night before we were permitted to go in. We heard some explosions and saw evidence of some fires.

But today, it's been highly smooth sailing -- absolutely no sign, as I said, of the Iraqi 10th Armored Division.

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