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Strike on Iraq: 30 Oil Wells on Fire in Southern Iraq

Aired March 21, 2003 - 09:30   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: It appears as though there are 30 oil wells on fire at this hour, in southern Iraq, a part of the country that has seen a lot of action in the last few hours.
We're going to talk about this key port city of Umm Qasr, which basically is the only little piece of access Iraq has to the Persian Gulf, and there was a coalition victory this morning. British Marines followed by American Marines taking over the port city. An American flag now flying over it. It, also, very important because that is the gateway to these very important southern Iraqi oil fields.

Again, thanks for joining us. I'm Paula Zahn in New York -- Bill.

BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Bill Hemmer live here in Kuwait City. Paula, it's been quiet here in terms of air raid sirens. Have not heard anything for about four and a half hours, running. That's always good news for our colleagues here working in Kuwait City, and we push on right now. About 5:30 local time here in the afternoon.

Good morning, again, to you, by the way -- Paula.

ZAHN: Thanks, Bill. Yes, we haven't had time to greet each other this morning because we've been so busy. See you in a little bit. We're going to check on some of the other latest developments, now.

What happened to Saddam Hussein? Iraq says he's safe after Wednesday night's attacks.

U.S. officials aren't so sure, but they're working under the assumption that he is alive. "Washington Post" reporting, this morning, that an unnamed administration source is saying he was actually injured in that Wednesday attack on that small complex of buildings.

U.S. officials says Iraq's commanders have been quiet, this morning, indicating either a disruption in communications or, possibly, an effort at deception.

Now, even though Turkey's parliament has given a go-ahead to U.S. flights over Turkish airspace, they are still on hold. There is a big fight going on about whether Turkish troops can go into northern Iraq. That could delay opening a northern front. And the Pentagon is reporting that U.S. troops, as I think we mentioned the last half hour, have successfully taken control over two key airfields in western Iraq considered strategically important, as sites where scud missiles could have been launched at Israel.

A lot of information to plow through this morning. Let's get the latest from Kuwait, right now, with Bill.

HEMMER: Hey, Paula, just north of the border, here, about 50 miles north of our location in Kuwait City, that's where you're going to find most of the ground action. So far, over the past 24 hours, we've reported on it quite a bit.

But in the southeastern portion of Iraq, the town of Umm Qasr, two ports there. One old, one new.

We're told the new port, apparently, has been taken by coalition troops, by the U.S. and by the British. But the old port, we're told, still in the hands of Iraqis. The two ports separated by about a mile.

We do have reporters near the scene there embedded with the U.S. Marines. And as soon as we get more information on both of these locations, certainly, you'll hear it first.

Considered a key port for not only military movement, bringing hardware on shore, but also humanitarian aid which should follow at some point in the coming days or weeks to help the Iraqi people.

Meanwhile, the oil well story has been a significant one for us, today. When we woke up this morning to the morning dawn light here in Kuwait, we noticed a distinct haze, darkened, sometimes blackened skies outside of our hotel that clearly indicated that the oil wells to the north were drifting through Kuwait City.

At one point, the Kuwaiti government told us that 30 different oil wells were burning in southern Iraq. Cannot verify that, firsthand. But what we can tell you is that, at least, four of these oil wells have been taken care of by the U.S. Marines, extinguished. And that effort, probably in large part, Paula, based on the wind shift in the effort to extinguish them has helped to make our skies and our sights here in Kuwait City a bit clearer, at this point -- Paula.

ZAHN: Thanks so much, Bill. We just had some fresh pictures in from Al-Jazeera TV of some of those protests we've been talking about today that are now underway in Cairo. You can see smoke there off in the distance part of your screen, there.

We are told that tens of thousands of protesters are on the ground there, spilling into the streets not far from the U.S. Embassy. Police forces fired with cannons, apparently. Some of the protesters were throwing rocks.

Some worshippers were heard chanting anti-American slogans. They were those accused of hurling rocks and bits of furniture at riot police from the roofs of a medieval mosque.

Some of those chanting said, quote "Bush is the enemy of God. With our souls and our blood, we will defend Iraq." Others in a more chilling call, called for jihad in defense of Islam and Iraq.

Now, we have also come to understand there have been protests over the last 24 hours in Yemen and Syria. We have not yet seen those pictures here.

All right, now, we're going to switch your attention to the raising of the American flag over the port of Umm Qasr. That's something we've been talking about a lot this morning.

After a joint operation of British and American Marine forces. This is a very key victory for coalition forces because this is the town where you have the only sliver of access Iraq has to the Persian Gulf. It is also strategically important because it is the gateway to those southern oil wells and fields we've been talking so much about.

At this hour, it is our belief that some 30 oil wells are on fire. This is something that was expected. There was fear that the Iraqis would sabotage these oil fields and, apparently, they have.

We're going to stick with this picture, but check in with Barbara Starr to talk a little bit more about the significance of the raising of the American flag there at Umm Qasr.

Good morning, Barbara.

BARBARA STARR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Paula. Well, that had been one of the goals for U.S. military forces. Of course, a key port for the Iraqi oil industry. Something the U.S. very much wanted to get a hold of. Southern Iraq, the city of Basra, this whole area.

But there were other important developments overnight at the other end of the country. In far western Iraq, U.S. Special Forces are now said to be in control of two key airfields known as H2 and H3, you see here on the map.

Now, these are very strategic locations, of course, because they are so close to Israel just on the other side of Jordan. Those airfields have been of concern for some time because it was believed that the regime of President Saddam Hussein might have been hiding scud missiles, the Scud-B missile, and launchers at that airfield. It had always been a goal of U.S. military forces to take those airfields in the opening hours of the campaign to ensure that there could be no scud activity and that Israel would not be threatened.

Right now, however, one of the key issues on the table here at the Pentagon is the status of Iraqi command and control. And here at the Pentagon, they have a little more cautious view than perhaps the White House does that John King was relating to us in some detail, earlier.

The White House optimistic that Iraqi command and control has been substantially damaged in the last two nights of attacks on Baghdad. Officials here at the Pentagon are just holding their breath a little bit longer, a little more cautious.

They say that they know these so called airwaves of the Iraqi have been quiet now for several hours. But they are watching and waiting because they are concerned, perhaps, that the Iraqis are deliberately staying off the airwaves, that they may be husbanding their resources, waiting for U.S. ground forces to get closer to Baghdad and then, the Republican guard may come out swinging or, at least, that's the concern here at the Pentagon. They want to make sure they're just a little more cautious before they proceed -- Paula.

ZAHN: Can you help us better understand the timeline here? You have been reporting all morning long that the Shock and Awe campaign has been postponed indefinitely. John King reporting from the White House believes that a significant amount of chaos was caused by these initial air strikes.

What are they looking for? What will be the next thing that might trigger more military action?

STARR: Well, you know, by all accounts, as they say, sooner rather than later, the U.S. is not going to let a lull develop by any stretch of the imagination. But there's now several things in play with so many U.S. ground forces in southern Iraq, they're, right now, moving through areas where they did not anticipate a lot of resistance.

They, so far, have really only encountered the regular conscript Iraqi army. That was an organization not really expected to put up much resistance.

The concern is in the coming hours and days, as the U.S. military ground force proceeds closer to Baghdad, they will begin to encounter Republican Guard. Those are the units that may fight. Those are the units most likely to use chemical weapons, if they are used.

So the U.S. wants to know, the Pentagon wants to know a lot more about what it may walking into. The key question being if there is central command and control out of Baghdad, in any fashion, then military commanders in Baghdad may be able to communicate to these units out in the field and issue orders. So they just want to get a little better fix on what these communications links are and whether there are any really substantial links still up and running.

But there is no question, we are going to see more action in the hours ahead.

ZAHN: Barbara, I want you to stand by, as we look, again, at some of the first pictures we've seen of the American flag and the Marine flag being raised over the port town of Umm Qasr in southern Iraq. Both British and U.S. forces had a successful mission, gaining control of that town.

Barbara, let's, once again, review the strategic importance of this town. First of all, Iraq has very limited access to the Persian Gulf. This is the small sliver they've got. So this is a very important victory for coalition forces.

STARR: It is indeed, Paula. Preserving the oil fields, the oil pipelines, the distribution points, the ports. All of that is very critical to what will be perceived as a U.S. success, if it comes to that in the days ahead.

The U.S. military wanted to preserve as much of the oil industry as possible. They wanted to take this area without a big fight because, of course, Iraq pumps about two-and-a-half million barrels of oil a day under its membership, both with OPEC and the U.N. Oil for Food program. It's an important source of revenue for Iraq. The U.S. believing if they can preserver the oil industry, the pipelines, the distribution, the refineries, such as they exist and even, improve them after the war is over, it will be an early source of revenue to get the country back on its feet, to get the Iraqi business community on its feet. And that was an important revenue source they didn't want to destroy. So getting into this area and not having a huge amount of resistance is something the U.S. military always wanted.

ZAHN: Let's talk about the big challenge for the Marines, now, as you look at the number of oil wells on fire in southern Iraq. The numbers have varied all morning, but we believe now, at least, 30 of them. And the U.S. lost its first Marine in a battle related to control of the oil fields. Just a final thought on that, this morning, Barbara.

STARR: Well, I think Christiane said it best a little bit earlier. Oil wells perhaps on fire. No evidence, at this point, of major distribution facilities or pipelines being destroyed. Of course, the U.S. military watching in the hours ahead very, very carefully for that.

We are getting conflicting information as to exactly how many oil wells are on fire. Not at all certain. No indication that there are significant large numbers of oil wells on fire.

But we're also hearing here at the Pentagon, Paula, that there will be a briefing later, today, by Secretary Rumsfeld and the Chairman of the Chief Joints of Staff Richard Myers, perhaps, about one, 1:30 this afternoon. We may get a better read on the status of play.

ZAHN: All right, Barbara Starr, thanks so much. We'll be back to you throughout the morning.

We're going to put that picture back up, one more time, of the American and Marine flag being raised over Umm Qasr. That very important southern Iraqi port city.

We were later told that once it was raised to show that coalition forces were in control, it was later brought down. That is interesting because the defense secretary of Great Britain said, in fact, his forces encountered stern resistance from the military in this part of the town. So we'll get a little more information on the symbolism of later bringing that flag down.

Let's go back to Bill in Kuwait.

HEMMER: All right, Paula, I want to talk about some of the headlines we're getting over the past couple of hours about these strategic oil fields being seized in the southeastern part of Iraq.

Also, hearing about these airfields, said to be strategic, as well, known as H2 and H3 in western Iraq.

Major General Don Shepperd, our military analyst, can join us, right now, and help walk us through why they are so critical and important.

And, Don, I think the headline, here, is that if indeed it's true that these airfields have been taken, right now, the folks in Israel have to be smiling, at this point. Tell us why it's so critical.

MAJ. GEN. DON SHEPPERD, USAF (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Indeed, Bill. This comes back from a report from Barbara Starr that she made earlier this morning. And the subject is the scuds H2, H3 and Israel. We have a baseball card that's caused -- that shows the capability of the scuds.

Thirty-nine scuds were launched into Israel during the Gulf War, and it killed one person, but it caused significant diplomatic problems because we wanted to make sure that the Gulf War was not perceived as the United States and Israel against Iraq. This time, it perhaps is even more important with the sensitivity of the Palestinian situation.

So what has happened, U.S. forces have gone in and seized H2 and H3. We're going to switch to a keyhole view, if you will, of the region and try to show you the importance of this area of western Iraq and the importance of H2 and H3 airfields.

Now, H2 and H3 airfields are located in eastern Iraq -- western Iraq, I'm sorry -- and what happened during the Gulf War is from this area. Missiles were launched into Israel. Again, 39 of them.

We're going to zoom in a little bit closer, here, on these airfields and show you, again, the strategic importance of the area and not only strategic important of the area, but we're going to show you the airfields, themselves.

Now, what's important from a strategic standpoint is all of western Iraq. Now, here, right here, is H2 airfield. Up here is H3 airfield. And from both of those airfields in storage facilities, which we will show you later, these missiles were hidden and launched, but all of this area in western Iraq are areas from which these things can be launched.

We'll zoom in a little bit closer, here, and show you even better some of the facilities on them. Again, all of this area around in here is area in which things can be hidden and launched. And then, on the airfields, themselves, we'll zoom right in on H2 on the airfield itself, you will see tremendous places to hide. It's not just a strip out in the western desert. This is a sophisticated airfield with all kinds of bunkers, with all kinds of aircraft shelters.

Now, these not only can be used to hide scuds, what have you, but as we capture these airfields from a military standpoint, U.S. forces are then able to establish forward operating bases that takes the need away for airborne tankers. So it's important that we be able, from a military standpoint, to go in and put aircraft on these fields and use operations.

Again, as you can see, all over this airfield are places to hide, and we can zoom up different angles, and this type of thing and take a look. All sorts of places to hide scud weapons, fire scud weapons and then, the surrounding area, as well.

So, Bill, from the standpoint of military, the seizing of these airfields, taking of western Iraq is extremely important. The 3rd Infantry Division is moving north, which will cut off most of western Iraq and then, taking these airfields to deny scud capability is extremely important.

HEMMER: Yes, denying and also answering two critical questions. Not only the airfields, but also -- from the military standpoint -- but also, the political position, as well.

Don, let's move away from that, quickly. What explains to you what's happening right now inside Baghdad.

SHEPPERD: I tell you, one of the most encouraging things I find is the ability of the flexibility of the planners in this military engagement. The Shock and Awe campaign has been postponed, for now. The reason is, obviously, that the purpose of this is not to kill people. But the purpose of it is to separate the leadership and have the army surrender. And that's what's taken place. So I think the U.S. military, the intelligence forces are listening to see has the leadership been decapitated? Is it still communicating? And how can they further deny the capability of the Iraqis to command and control forces and then, separate the forces and get them to surrender. This is a very, very encouraging development. I'm very glad to see that Shock and Awe is not necessary, right now, but the Iraqis must know that the United States forces can turn it loose, if necessary, because, as the saying goes, they ain't seen nothing yet.

HEMMER: Wow. In television, we call it adlibbing. Apparently, the military might be doing a little bit of that, right now, too.

Thanks, Don. Major General Don Shepperd at the CNN Center -- Paula.

ZAHN: Thanks, Bill.

The massive U.S. fighting force in the Persian Gulf includes the son of U.S. Senator Tim Johnson. Sergeant Brooks Johnson serves with the Army's 101st Airborne Division. Ironically, his father's vote, last fall, helped send his son into combat. And South Dakota Democrat Tim Johnson joins us now from Washington.

Good of you to join us, Senator.

SEN. TIM JOHNSON, (D), SOUTH DAKOTA: Good to be here, Paula.

ZAHN: Welcome to our show.

First of all, have you had any contact with your son?

JOHNSON: Not for several days, now. We've had some very brief e-mail communications. He indicated to us that they are intensely busy. He hasn't been getting a lot of sleep. He, of course, is not allowed to share with us anything about where they're going, what they're doing or any kind of mission description.

ZAHN: Do you have any idea even where he is, right now?

JOHNSON: Well, the 101st was positioned in Camp New Jersey outside of Kuwait City. And it's my understanding the 101st may be beginning to move, even today. But where they're going, precisely what they're doing is -- all I can do is watch CNN and read the papers.

ZAHN: Your son has served, now, in four wars in over a five-year period, here. Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo. What were your thoughts when you heard about the first air strikes on Wednesday night?

JOHNSON: Well, I think that every parent of our military personnel worries about their young men and women everyday. And so we have a large map of Iraq on our kitchen wall. And Barbara and I follow this as closely as we can. We're proud of what he does, but obviously, there's a certain level of fear and concern that goes with all of our men and women in uniform in the Iraq theater.

ZAHN: Yes, it's hard for those of us who don't have family members involved to know just how challenging that is.

Last fall, you were among the other members of Congress that gave the president the authority to go ahead to war. Knowing that your oldest son might be called to duty, I'm just curious what was going on inside.

JOHNSON: Well, in my communications to Brooks, he indicated to me that, Dad, I'll do the best I can as a soldier. You have to do what's right for the country as a United States Senator. We can't allow personal issues to be involved in this kind of matter. And so, there are times we have to put our sons and daughters in harm's way. We don't do it lightly. We try to explore every other option. We try to use tactics which will minimize the numbers of losses, but there are times when those decisions have to be made.

ZAHN: So as a father and a U.S. Senator, what do you think of the way the Bush administration has been waging this war, so far?

JOHNSON: Well, I'm not a military tactician, but I think if there is a possibility to very quickly decapitate the leadership in Iraq and do that with a minimum of destruction to the Iraqi infrastructure and to the civilian population and to bring a close to this conflict, as quickly as possible, I'm certainly all for that. It's a different tactic than what many of us expected. But we're all hopeful, at least, that we can bring this to a very swift conclusion.

ZAHN: I know, Senator, you have joked in the past about public service being wired into your genes, and your son has son that he likes to lead men. And I know he has often invoked quotes of General Patton, when he said, I'm an American soldier, and I fight where I'm told, and I win where I fight. How long did it take before you understood the true depth of your son's commitment to the military?

JOHNSON: Well, even as a boy, we understood he had a particular interest. We have three children. Each of them have different interests. Brooks happened to be directed towards military. I think they're all interest in public service in some capacity or another. But he has had this interest, and his current position is not due to any parental career counseling. I've got to say that. It's all to his credit that he's chosen to make this decision.

His mother has encouraged him to perhaps become a recruiter, do some other kinds of things. He waived recruiter school, in order to make himself available for Afghanistan. He says, he tell us, I've trained to do this. This is what I'm about, and I don't want to miss an opportunity to use my training and to be of use to the country. And so while his mother and I, there are times, we'd prefer that he was doing other things.

At the same time, we're very proud of what he does. He's making a bold choice, and we have to be grateful that there are those hundreds of thousands of young men and women all across this country who, for a very modest pay, difficult living conditions, disruptions to their families, are laying their lives, literally, on the line. And thank goodness in a day and age of voluntary military, these people are still there and willing to do this kind of job.

ZAHN: I think you're saying something that a lot of us feel and certainly don't have enough time to say that. Senator Tim Johnson, thank you for your time. Thanks for...

JOHNSON: Thank you, Paula.

ZAHN: ... your honesty about not only being the father of a soldier, but a senator, as well. We salute your son's commitment.

Coming up, the element of surprise. The U.S. military's brass trying to keep the Iraqis guessing. We'll talk more about that.

And from the front lines, live reports from our embedded reporters tracking the military's movements.

Plus, voices of opposition in the U.S. and overseas. Hundreds of arrests, as protesters take to the streets.

All of that just ahead in our next hour. Back to Bill, now. HEMMER: All right, Paula, a lot of questions. Significant questions about what happens in Iraq in a post-Saddam world. That country's essentially divided among three different people, the Shiites in the south, the Sunnis in the middle, then, the Kurds in the north. Will they fracture? Will they stay together? How much of a challenge will this be for the U.S. and British troops after the fighting concludes.

Ben Wedeman has been scouting out that position. He's been scouting out that issue. He is in northern Iraq in a territory controlled by the Kurds and, now, joins us for an update as to what he is seeing, today.

Ben, hello, good evening.

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Bill. We're in Kalak, which is -- we're outside Kalak, a Kurdish village which is right below the Iraqi front lines.

Now, we've been coming to this village for, now, about a month on a fairly regular basis. But today, we've seen more action in one day than we saw in an entire month.

The day began with bombing raids on Mosul which is up this road, here. This bridge, basically. On this side is the Kurdish side. At the other end of the bridge, you'll see that the Iraqis, the other day, brought a bulldozer over here. It blocked the road. There are Iraqi troops right on the other side of this bridge.

Now, we saw, at 4:30 this morning, the antiaircraft fire rising above the city of Mosul and then, we heard aircraft above us. Saw flashes and heard thuds in the distance. Mosul is about 47 kilometers to the west of here.

Now, this afternoon, we've been hearing fairly regular outbursts of gunfire, antiaircraft fire and just a little while ago, about 10 minutes ago, we heard two RPG rounds. We saw one of them land where you may be able to see, right now, on the road that leads to the Kurdish town of Dahuk. And incidentally, that's a road that me and my colleagues have driven on several times, now. And it appears that that's going to be closed, at the moment, because of the fighting in this area or the gunfire.

Now, the Iraqi positions are all along the ridge line here. And we've been watching them very closely. Apparently, on some of the roads, the Iraqis have been digging them up and laying antitank mines on them. So some anticipation of potential action here.

But of course, in the absence of U.S. forces, the Kurds are rather hesitant to jump into the fray because they are very likely armed. In fact, I was discussing this with my camerawoman Mary Rogers (ph). We were in northern Afghanistan, and the northern alliance there was much better armed than the Kurds are.

Apparently, the Kurds, in their entire territory, have only four tanks. And the northern alliance, for instance, had plenty of hardware. So they really are no match for the Iraqi forces, which in this little front right here, have heavy artillery, heavy mortars and antiaircraft guns.

So the Kurds say they are ready to go into action, but they would like to have some sort of American support. And at this point, with the Turkish decision not to give the go-ahead, the final go-ahead for American over flights, that may not happen -- Bill.

HEMMER: Ben, it's getting dark. What have you noticed in the past at nighttime? Does the activity increase on the military side? Does the fighting get ramped up?

WEDEMAN: No, in fact, until today really, there was only occasional gunfire. In fact, fairly rare. At night, though, we've noticed that the Iraqi forces, the Iraqi soldiers really seem to hunker down in their trenches, in their bunkers. The Iraqi positions on the other side of the bridge, they're abandoned at night. The feeling is that both sides don't appear to really want to become engaged in fighting during the darkness. And most of the action occurs during the day -- Bill.

HEMMER: All right, Ben, take care, and Mary, as well. Ben Wedeman reporting in northern Iraq with the Kurds -- Paula.

ZAHN: Thanks, Bill.

Now, we're going to check in with Gary Tuchman, who is standing by actually not too far from Bill's position in Kuwait City at a mosque.

Gary, what's the latest from there?

GARY TUCHMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Paula, we're standing the outside the Al-Sharazi (ph) mosque here in Kuwait City, a place that's semi normal these days, despite the fact that they've had nine missile alerts over the last two days, which have resulted in loud sirens. People running into their basements with their gas masks. Despite the fact that occasionally, we hear explosions an hour-and-a-half away from here, at the Iraq Kuwait border.

And, right now, it is Friday. This is the Muslim holy day, and Muslims are coming to this mosque, right now, for sunset prayers.

And with us, right now, are two people who are going in for prayers we want to talk about what they'll be praying about. Next to me, Abdul Kalfan (ph) and Husein Sultan (ph).

Sir, I want to ask you, first, when you go inside the mosque, right now, what are you going to be praying for?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, we just pray for peace and for getting this war over and getting rid of the Iraqi regime. All the Kuwaiti people, in fact, the Muslim people, pray from their hearts to get rid of this, the oppress, the Iraqi regime, the Saddam regime, the president of Iraq. So we pray from our hearts to get this war over, you know, with a minimum loss of life and for all the parties taking part in this war.

TUCHMAN: Now, of course, when you pray for this, you are praying against brother Muslims who live in Iraq, who are also fighting against your country, against the United States, against the coalition.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Of course, but at end of the day, we don't consider them as a Muslim. The Iraqi regime is a socialist, it's a BAF regime, which coming from BAF party, so they are not really true Muslims. So the Iraq regime is just claiming to be a Muslim. So we don't believe he is a Muslim. So we are against this.

TUCHMAN: Husein (ph), do you agree with that? You don't believe that the people who are fighting for the nation of Iraq are Muslims?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, they are, especially the BAF regime, they are oppress the Iraqi people. They oppress the Iranian in the first Gulf War. They oppressed the Kuwaitis, and all of these nations are Muslims. So they oppressed the Muslim peoples And we are not considering the Iraqi regime as Muslims. So when we go to the mosque, usually, the Iman pray to God to help the Iraqian people to get rid of this regime and to get rid of Saddam and his regime, which oppress all the region area against the humanity.

TUCHMAN: Gentlemen, thank you very much for talking to us on this important day of prayer for you.

It'd be very interesting, right now, to stand outside a mosque in the nation of Iraq and see what people there are saying. That's a story we hope to do very soon.

Paula, back to you.


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