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CNN BREAKING NEWS

U-2 Spy Planes Recalled After Iraqi Threat

Aired March 11, 2003 - 11:10   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

HEIDI COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: We have some breaking news to get to now. Barbara Starr is standing by at the Pentagon to tell us all about it.
Barbara, I'm understanding Iraq has threatened a surveillance U-2 plane, is that correct?

BARBARA, CNN CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, there was an incident over central Iraq earlier today, but the details are still unfolding. Sources are telling CNN that two U-2 surveillance aircraft under the umbrella of the U.N. weapons inspectors were flying over central Iraq on a mission earlier today, two U-2 aircraft. Now, the Iraqis apparently saw this and launched their own airplanes. We don't know how many Iraqi airplanes or what types. But the Iraqis apparently said that they considered the second plane to be unauthorized, that in the past, they said, there had only been one U-2 on each of the surveillance missions.

Now, when U.S. controllers, air controllers, who were controlling the U-2 operations, saw the Iraqis had launched aircraft over central Iraq, they did not leave the U-2s there. They withdrew them into the southern no-fly zone, where they could be better protected and they could go back to their home base and land.

U.S. officials telling us they were uncertain what the Iraqis were up to, and using that phrase, they were uncertain of the tactical picture, as they saw it. There were aircraft flying around.

What did they did not know is whether they were trying to intercept the U-2 aircraft. What we don't know at this point is whether or not this was really any change in UNMOVIC missions or U.S. missions. Officials tell us they are trying to check and see if, in fact, all the U-2 missions in the past have been single airplanes flying and whether or not this is the first time, there have been two U-2s on one mission, and whether or not there is something that authorizes that or doesn't authorize that. One senior official telling us, it certainly doesn't look like unfettered access to us -- Heidi.

COLLINS: Barbara, I can imagine when there's two ships that go in there, it might look a little more ominous to them. It will be interesting to know whether or not that's ever happened. We're also wondering what this might do to other flights and continuing the flight of the surveillance planes, the U2s?

STARR: Well, as we understand it, everybody's taking a deep breath right now, trying to figure out what did go on here, whether it was a miscommunication in all candor, or whether or not one side or the other was trying to provoke each other, whether it is more serious than that, we simply don't know. What we do know is that the U.S. has temporarily brought those U-2s back, and they're just going to take a deep breath and try and figure out exactly what the Iraqis are up to and whether or not the flights will resume, and whether they can resume safely.

COLLINS: Very good, Barbara Starr, keeping her eye on that story for us.

LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: Let's get the view from Baghdad. UNMOVIC held a press conference a short time ago. And for the latest on that, let's go now to our senior international correspondent Nic Robertson who's standing by now at the Iraqi capital.

Hello, Nic.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hello, Leon.

Well, the U.N. today saying another three of the Al Samoud-2 missiles destroyed, nine warheads, one launcher, some missile- propellant canisters, but also some smaller components belonging to the missiles that were destroyed today. They say that is now 55 of the Al Samoud-2 missiles that have been destroyed in total, almost one-half of Iraq's declared arsenal.

However, the U.N. did say today it requested a private interview with an Iraqi chemical researcher. That researcher wanted to attend the interview with an audio tape recorder that the U.N. said that -- declined the offer to do that. The U.N. said it is not going to take part -- not going to hold any interviews where there are other Iraqi officials or a tape recording process going on. So perhaps that not a positive step for the U.N. today.

Also, around Baghdad, we've seen some sandbags being put in place around some government ministries, a small indication of how the capitol here is preparing for war and certainly the mood in the city here, one of expectation, but also one, Leon, of some uncertainty as well.

HARRIS: Understood. Nic Robertson, reporting live for us from Baghdad. Thanks, Nic -- Heidi.

COLLINS: The veto threat from France and Russia is just one diplomatic challenge facing the U.S. in a showdown with Iraq. Trying to sway uncommitted nations like Pakistan is another.

Moscow bureau chief Jill Dougherty has the very latest now from Russia.

Hello to you, Jill.

JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN MOSCOW BUREAU CHIEF: Hello, Heidi.

Well, you know, the way the Russians are spinning all of this today, is they are saying, we are making progress in trying to avoid war by taking this very hard position along with France and some of the other members of the Security Council who oppose that resolution that the U.S. and Britain and Spain want. And as proof of that progress, they say, look, the vote has been pushed back, at least a few days, and even that resolution could be changed or amended.

Today, we got another statement from Igor Ivanov, the foreign minister, saying Russia definitely will vote against any type of resolution that leads up to the use of war, either directly or indirectly. So we know what they don't want.

Now, what do the Russians want? And that is little bit harder to answer, mainly, because we haven't heard from President Putin, who is the person who has to make the final decisions. And in talking to some analysts, they're saying domestically, he has a balancing act. He has hard liners who don't want a war. He has the Westernizers, who want to do a deal with the United States. Believe it or not, we're going into an election year here in Russia. That all has a factor to play. And then finally, they say the one thing internationally, is that President Putin does not want a showdown with the United States.

So, how is he going to find a way out? They say, people who look at this say that he definitely wants to find a way out of this standoff as it is now, and finding that will be one of the biggest decisions, they're saying, of his presidency -- Heidi.

COLLINS: All right, Jill Dougherty, live from Moscow. Thank you for your insight on that.

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