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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

Strike on Iraq: Sirens Blaring Again in Northern Iraq

Aired March 20, 2003 - 20:03   ET

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

AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: Well, Wolf will be with us, so will Christiane. We are getting reports of sirens blaring in northern Iraq. Northern Iraq is among the most complicated strings of this story, because it -- depending on how far north you go, I guess, it is an area not necessarily, well -- northern Iraq, Mosul there, is not controlled by Saddam Hussein. It is Kurdish-controlled area. Jamie McIntyre is at the Pentagon. Jaime, can you give us anything on what this might be?
JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SENIOR PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, we don't know at this point, Aaron, but it would be logical to assume that, as part of this campaign, that the U.S. might continue to, quote, "prepare the battlefield" by attacking air defenses in the north. You know, of course, the north falls within that northern no- fly zone that the U.S. regularly patrols anyway. They have a pretty good idea of what the defenses are up there. But at this point, we have no confirmation of precisely what may be going on in the north. And given how skittish everybody is in Iraq, it is also possible that it could be a false alarm.

BROWN: OK, just to make sure, I don't want to mislead anybody here. We showed a map, let me put the map up again. And the information I have is that the sirens are in the area of the city, or the area of Mosul. And we've actually been doing some reporting up there. Jamie, please correct me if I am making a mistake there. It is my belief that when you get that far north you are in Kurdish- controlled Iraq and not Saddam-controlled Iraq. Am I confusing the viewers?

MCINTYRE: Well, like you, Aaron, I'm not an absolute expert on the geography of northern Iraq, but my understanding is that Mosul was, in fact, an area where Saddam Hussein did have control. In fact, one of his Republican Guard units was based up there, but it was the unit that was pulled down to Crete. So they sort of left a little bit of a power vacuum there. There is an area, areas very close to there, that are not controlled, but I believe the city of Mosul is, at least was.

BROWN: OK, thank you.

Now, Jane Arraf who has been doing some considerable reporting from that area. And she may be just outside these pictures coming from al-Jazeera, and they show a city that still has its lights and still has, in this case, a correspondent as well. So we'll try and figure out what the sirens mean, if they mean -- across the region whether it is Kuwait or Baghdad, these air raid sirens, and warning sirens and all-clear sirens have been going on and off, and on and off all day. Sometimes they mean something. A lot of times they don't. People, as Jamie said, are very skittish out there, as you would be under the circumstances. You never know what's coming next. And if the next thing that comes is the so-called shock and awe. In any case, we're getting reports of these sirens, and we'll try to figure out what they mean as we go along.

We're joined this hour, again, as we now do approach dawn out in the Persian Gulf by our colleagues Wolf Blitzer and Christiane. No one is going to mistake the two of us, even if the introduction did briefly.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I don't think so. Aaron, you know, those sirens they've been pretty frightening. Christiane and I have been enduring those sirens here in Kuwait City all day. I don't know about you, Christiane, but you get a sort of sense that after you've heard them a few times and nothing happens, you just go about your business. But that could be a mistaken kind of notion?

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, yeah, and, of course, we've been advised not to. And like all the troops in northern Kuwait, the minute these sirens go, they all have to dawn their chemical and biological suits, and their masks. So do the journalists up there. And we're having to do the same here. It is nerve wrecking because the worst thing that could happen is weapons of mass destruction. And we have no idea if that will ever happen. It has not happened yet, even the spokespeople up in northern Kuwait with the troops who are telling us that they have counted at least in one area where the British troops are with some American troops, ten missiles at least. All of those that we're being told are conventional warheads, and all of those who have missed the troop concentrations up there, and there have been no casualties. But, of course, in these opening hours, and in any war, it gets very scary. And people have said many times that Kuwait is a fairly vulnerable place because of the potential for retaliation for lots of reasons, not just the concentration of U.S. troops and British troops, but because of what Kuwait means in the ongoing Iraqi/Kuwait relationship.

BLITZER: And I want to elsewhere in Kuwait to speak to Dr. Sanjay Gupta. He is our medical correspondent. He is embedded with U.S. marines up in the northern part of Kuwait. Sanjay, if you could hear me, there were some pretty scary frightening moments that you endured throughout this day.

SANJAY GUPTA, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, that's exactly right, Wolf. It's 4:00 in the morning now, and about 10:30 in the morning yesterday, one of the most frightening moments, certainly, an object flying overhead. I couldn't tell what it was at the time, about 300 feet over our heads traveling very fast and very loud. It turned out it was a missile, a grayish green missile with three yellow stripes. Wolf, I'd never seen anything like this. What I did see was everyone just hit the deck around us and that thing just flew overhead followed by a boom, apparently, an impact boom in the south of us, just a few minutes later. After that we heard bunker, bunker, bunker, gas, gas, gas. That meant everyone get into the place which is right behind me, which is a bunker, put on your gas mask. I heard you and Christiane just talking about that. We have done that 13 times now over the last 20 hours or so. Sometimes we've been in those bunkers for up to an hour or so. A lot of the times it really ended up being absolutely nothing at all that we could tell, didn't hear anything, certainly didn't see anything. But every time you might be coming just a little bit complacent with that, something did happen. This last time we started to hear several booms in the area. And some of those I was told by the marines were the sonic booms of Patriot missiles being launch. So these booms taking place all around us and hearing sirens at the same time. Some of these sirens actually coming from the chemical censors around the periphery of the base. Certainly that also gets everybody's attention, gets them back into the bunker pretty quickly as well - Wolf.

BLITZER: Sanjay, tell our viewers what it is like. What does it feel like? You said you spent an hour in one of those gas masks. It's a long time to breathing through a gas mask. Explain what it's like and what it feels like.

GUPTA: Yeah, you know, it's interesting. Well, first of all, there's a lot of anxiety because you hear the alarms going up, so your heart is already racing a bit, and you are breathing quickly. Often times, then, you have to jog or sprint 100 meters or so to get to the bunker as quickly as possible. Then, after having done all that, you're putting this gas mask on. Essentially, what this gas mask does, it forms a complete seal around your face and then you're essentially breathing through a respirator. The breathing is actually quite easy.

But after having run and being somewhat anxious, it's hard to get those deep breaths in. So you see some of the marines as well as some of the CNN crew that is here with me becoming a little bit anxious, actually, putting those masks on after having gone through that particular experience. As you calm down, it becomes easier and easier to breathe. Also here in the desert it's quite warm. It's not warm right now. It's cool. It's 4:00 in the morning, but sort of the peak of the day it's quite warm, and having that mask on which is black mask, having it hard to breathe, it's not the most comfortable - Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Dr. Sanjay Gupta, be careful up there, we'll be talking to you. Christiane.

AMANPOUR: We're going to go now to Walt Rodgers who is also with one of those units up there. He is with the 7th Calvary Division. Walter, what is going on now. You have moved into Iraq.

WALTER RODGERS, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's correct, Christiane. And what you're watching now is live pictures of Bradley Fighting Vehicles, and other armored vehicles of the U.S. 7th Calvary roll ...

AMANPOUR: Walter Rodgers.

RODGERS: Yes, Christiane, can you hear me?

AMANPOUR: Yes, I am sorry to interrupt you Walter. RODGERS: What you're seeing now is exclusive CNN pictures of the U.S. army's 7th Calvary. Bradley Fighting Vehicles and behind them M1-A1 Abrams tanks rolling across the Iraqi desert. They have been rolling across this desert unopposed for nearly two hours now. These pictures are very, very dramatic. There is a declining moon up there, but in the distance off to the left you can see rows and rows of main battle tanks, all of them ultimately headed for Iraq. This is the U.S. army's 7th Calvary. They have been rolling, as I say, across this desert in Iraq for about two hours.

There was a brief hostile encounter at the border between Kuwait and Iraq. There was a slight pause then, but the overwhelming firepower of the 7th Calvary disbatched 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. There over to the left you can see an M1, A-1 Abrams tank. In just a second, you can - it's pulling around those engineers' vehicles. There's 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 only a full moon only a few days ago. Again, you can see another M1-A1 Abrams pulling up. Each of these vehicles is headed ultimately toward Baghdad.

There is a very detailed battle plan here. This is the army's calvary. These are the vanguard troops of what will follow long afterwards. That is to say, the 3rd Infantry Division is going to be following the 7th Calvary, 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 Calvary, of course, is the eyes and ears. And their objective is reconnaissance and surveillance.

The 7th Calvary 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 forces as the commander of the 7th Calvary Lieutenant Colonel Terry Farrell 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 of the risks 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 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. And I just want to be clear, you said quite emphatically that the cavalry has gone through unopposed. Have you contacted, have there been any kind of Iraqi soldiers who have at least turned away or even surrendered, 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 that time. Having said that, there has been no opposition since then. When we -- 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 Calvary has been rolling unopposed. It is the advanced unit which will lead the main American army, the 3rd Infantry Division, a heavy mechanized infantry division forward.

Let me give you a picture of how this unit rolls. First comes the Kiowa Helicopters. Those helicopters are flying quickly. Between 30 and 50 above the ground and 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 the other day. 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 have been choking on dust all the way coming up. Also standing is his loader to his left. The loader is the rare 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's seat on a rolling M1-A1 Abrams. It's like riding in the stomach of a dragon. It's growling and screaming the whole time. The tank pitches (ph) but it actually is very smooth. Tankers call the M1 A1 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 road to Baghdad, Christiane.

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

BLITZER: You know, Christiane, it is amazing when you hear Walter Rodgers with these troops up in the north, now in southern Iraq. And Dr. Sanjay Gupta telling his experience. Bob Franken earlier. During the first Gulf War, we had no journalists embedded with U.S. military forces. This is adding a whole new element to our coverage of this war, that we really haven't had I don't believe since Vietnam, where journalists were really part of this invasion force. And we are getting these kinds of live reports, seeing these kinds of reports that Walter Rodgers just gave. The video is not that great. But you get a flavor certainly of what's going on. Aaron.

BROWN: Well, an hour from now, an hour and a half from now as the sun comes up, you will see the vastness of the Iraqi desert. And you will see this column of cavalry moving through the desert. It will be an extraordinary, extraordinary site. I asked an Apache helicopter commander in Kuwait a number of weeks ago, sitting in the helicopter is not very comfortable. And he said it is not built for comfort. It is built to kill. The tanks are not built for comfort. They have a long way to go. It's about a 350-mile run from the Kuwait border to Baghdad. And one of the challenges of this operation and the way this operation was set up, is that that is a long way, 350 miles, to keep troops supplied. Jamie, just the logistical task of moving supplies along the route from the northern part of Kuwait to Baghdad is an enormous challenge for General Franks and his team.

MCINTYRE: In the military, of course, they have a saying, logistics, logistics, logistics. Kind of like in real estate where it's location, location, location, because logistics can kill you. It also can win the war for you. And for these tanks and vehicles, the key is to not to get too far out ahead of their fuel supply. The last thing you want is for the tanks to be sitting there without enough fuel to maneuver around in case they get into a dangerous situation. But the military has this all worked out. This is the key part of the planning. They have it all worked out to a "t" to make sure that they never leave the troops without food, fuel and ammunition.

BROWN: As Walt said, these calvary guys don't want to get too far ahead of the main army. They don't want to get too far ahead of their main supplies for just that reason. They are dependent at a point on the people in back of them to keep them alive, to keep them fed et cetera.

MCINTYRE: That's right, Aaron. And the interesting thing about here is that as I'm watching Walter Rodgers reporting and, of course, that gives us a very small window on what's going on in one part of Iraq, a country that we keep saying is about the size of California. There's a lot going on in other parts that we're not seeing. We talked about what might be going on in the north. The reports of explosions tonight in Basra, the port city where it is expected that U.S. and British troops will be taking control of very soon. And it just shows that there's a lot going on that we're not seeing at the moment.

BROWN: Jamie, thank you, Jamie, McIntyre at the Pentagon. Ben Wedeman is in the northern part of Iraq, another part -- right, he is to the north. That is another part of the story that is unfolding. We were up there a bit ago. To the extent you can identify your location within the rules and within the rules of logic as well, tell us where you are and what's going on.

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, Aaron, actually, we're not embedded with anybody. We're up here about halfway between the Kurdish stronghold of Erbil and the Iraqi-controlled city of Mosul, about 40 kilometers. Now just a few minutes ago, we heard a jet fly over head. Moments later there were sign the tell-tale signs. In fact, I hear another jet overhead right now. We heard anti-aircrafts over the city of Mosul. And moments later we saw distant flashes, and then heard the report of explosions. And so, it would appear that just a few minutes ago, about six minutes ago, the Iraqi-controlled city of Mosul did come under bombardment. And by the sounds of this jet overhead, it may come under bombing, once again - Aaron.

BROWN: Well, just, those of you who have been with us for awhile, you may recall we showed you some pictures of the city of Mosul oh, I guess, 20 minutes or so ago, a pretty good-sized city. That's the area that Ben is referring to. You get a sense now of that and, again, Ben, you heard these loud explosions. Multiple explosions?

WEDEMAN: Yes, multiple explosions. It's hard to tell. We are about 40 kilometers. That's about a half hour drive away. So, it's hard to determine how many explosions. But we saw several flashes on the horizon behind me. And that is where Mosul is - Aaron.

BROWN: Ben, thank you, very much. Ben Wedeman. Before this is over, all of us are going to be a whole lot better at converting kilometers into miles. We all should have done our homework better at some point. We mentioned about 20 minutes ago there was a significant anti-war demonstration in New York today. There has been one in Chicago tonight. According to the reports we're getting, traffic was stopped on Lake Shore Drive, the main street down by Lake Michigan in Chicago. These are live pictures from CNN affiliate, WLS. You get a sense of the size and proportion. It's of some size, but it certainly is not overwhelming in size.

Protesters met in the downtown plaza to begin marching on the lake front. Police, as you can see, on foot and horseback are trying to hold them away from the federal building there. The federal plaza, I think they call it. About 2,000 people according to the best guess. These are always guesses. Anyway, this is going on now. As we say, around here, going on now in Chicago. And you can see the Chicago police. And if you're of my age, Chicago and anti-war demonstrations have some history and meaning and, hopefully, it doesn't get the way it was back in 1968. That's Chicago tonight. Traffic does seem to be moving a bit, I would say along the Lake Shore. I think that is the federal building down there in Chicago.

Dana Bash is at the White House. Dana, the president in the residence and closed it down for the night?

DANA BASH, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Pretty close to it. Actually, Aaron, the president had an interesting meeting tonight. He met with the president of Cameroon in the Oval Office, and then had dinner with him. It is very interesting to show what a difference a week makes, because if he was meeting with the president of Cameroon this time last week, we all would be asking whether or not he had his vote on the Security Council, because, of course, Cameroon was one of those key six swing votes on the Security Council. Now, of course, that is all moot. But, nevertheless, they did have that meeting here at the White House tonight. But the president spent much of his day today in the Oval Office. We were told he was working the phones, talking to other world leaders. There you see a picture from this morning where he was getting a briefing from the CIA directer, and the vice president and the chief of staff about the overnight developments. But he did continue, we are told, to get updates from his national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, and others today. And the other thing the president did today, his other public event here at the White House was his cabinet meeting. And, Aaron, he made a concerted effort to talk about the fact that he is focusing with them on domestic issues. Talked about education and the economy, but he also, of course, was given a briefing by Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, and the defense secretary there. And he made a point when talking to reporters to thank the troops.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There's no question we've sent the finest of our citizens into harm's way. They perform with great skill and great bravery. We thank them, we thank their loved ones, we appreciate their sacrifice.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BASH: And, Aaron, I spoke on the phone earlier today with one of the president's cabinet members, Don Evans, the commerce secretary. He's been friends with the president for a very long time. They go back very far. And I asked him how the president was feeling and what's his mood? Now, it's been almost 24 hours since the military strike has begun. And he said he's handling it the way he handles everything. He is focused. He is decisive. He is making decisions. And he is not second guessing them.

He also pointed out something that is kind of obvious, but it is worth noting that many members of his council have been there and done that. Colin Powell, of course, now the secretary of state was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs 12 years ago. Dick Cheney was defense secretary, now he's vice president. Donald Rumsfeld, it's his second tour at the defense department as defense secretary. So, it's kind of a obvious point, but he pointed it out. And it definitely is worth noting. He's got a lot of experience in these meetings, Aaron.

BROWN: Dana, thank you. They had been there and done that, but this is a very different mission. It's a very different mission to liberate Kuwait, which was the mission a dozen years ago, as opposed to going into Baghdad.

As we take a look at Baghdad on a Friday morning there. We can only imagine the anxiety that must exist, not simply in the leadership of Baghdad, we spent a lot of time talking about Saddam Hussein and the hundred or so in his cadre of people. And we assume they're reasonably anxious, but there are about 5 million or so people that live in that city. The president has talked a good deal about this is not a war against the citizens of Iraq. In fact, this is a war in the president's view about liberating Iraq. Nevertheless, the anxiety that they must feel on a morning like this not knowing what's coming next, certainly knowing that something is coming, as dawn approaches on another day in the Persian Gulf. While many of the people of Iraq lived through the first Gulf War, Iraq is a city, I think I read the other day, that 40 percent of the citizens of Iraq are children. And what their lives have been like because of the sanctions, because of the government there. The lack of medical care. The lack of food in many cases. They've been living on rations. Some day that may - and we all hope, regardless of one's position on the war, it doesn't matter - we all hope that the citizens of Iraq will live better then they have been living for the last dozen years or so.

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