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Strike on Iraq: Bombs Strike Presidential Palaces

Aired March 21, 2003 - 15:32   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Ben Wedeman, we'll be getting back to you as well.
Kevin Sites is not far away from Kirkuk. He's joining us now. What are you seeing from your vantage point, Kevin?

KEVIN SITES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, basically, about 8:30 tonight, 8:45, we saw the skies begin to light up over the horizon. Our position is Cham Chamal, and basically we're in Kurdish-controlled territory, and we butt right up to the Iraqi front lines.

Now about 40 kilometers away from us in Kirkuk we began to see an orange glow over the sky, lots of the sky lighting up. And then anti- aircraft fire response. Now what seemed to happen is that the Iraqis on this front line in front of us began to see the same thing we did and started firing into the sky.

Basically, this area has seen some fire in recent days; mostly small mortar fire and small arms fire, heavy machine gun. Just kind of sporadic, maybe harassment fire. And tonight, the war really seemed to begin in earnest here. As I said, it was quite some time ago, but you can still see a bit of the orange glow left over Kirkuk, and it kind of gives evidence of the massive extent of the bombing that must have occurred there.

It's a bit far for us to see directly. But as you can see, there still is quite a bit of light left. And to see that at 40 kilometers away it certainly gives some evidence of that -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Kevin, we'll be getting back to you as well. Thanks very much, Kevin Sites, he's newspaper northern Iraq.

A lot of activity, an historic day today. The day today the start of A-Day, as the Pentagon is calling it, this shock and awe aerial campaign, coinciding with a massive ground invasion of southern Iraq. One hundred miles, the Pentagon says, U.S. ground forces have moved. They're not only in the south, they're in western Iraq, they're also in northern Iraq. We're continuing to monitor for details.


BLITZER: And I can report now the all-clear signal has not only sounded here in Kuwait City, where I am, where there had been an alert, a siren that had gone off earlier, but we're also told in Baghdad the all clear siren has now sounded as well, only within the past couple of minutes. I'll go right to the computer just to double check.

Yes, the all-clear sounded in Baghdad at 11:30 PM local time 3:30 PM on the East Coast, about three hours after the intense air strikes started. Actually, more precisely, about three and a half hours since those air strikes started, 9:00 PM local time, which was 1:00 PM on the East Coast.

I also want to alert our viewers and let them know -- I'm sure many of them are interested -- unfortunately, the Iraqi government shut down CNN's operation in Baghdad earlier today, deciding to expel our four journalists who have been covering this story very courageously all of these weeks and months. Nic Robertson, our senior correspondent there; Rym Brahimi, our other correspondent; our senior producer, Ingrid Fromanek (ph); as well as our photographer, Brian Pukadi (ph).

All of them now shut down, being expelled from Iraq, told to leave -- at least told to leave from Baghdad. We can, fortunately, report to our viewers in the United States and around the world that all of them are fine. Unfortunately, though, they're not going to be reporting at least for the time being.

CNN's Mile's O'Brien is reporting for us. He's at the CNN Center in Atlanta. He's got some more important analysis on what's unfolding right now -- Miles.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Thank you very much, Wolf. And we're glad that are folks are safe and well. We will miss their reporting, but we do wish them well.

General Wes Clark is with me. And we want to take a moment here to kind of bring you up to date, give you the big picture. We've been looking at a lot of imagery, a lot of video shot from Baghdad. But there's a lot of information that came out in that briefing which gives you a sense of what's going on in the rest of the country, which obviously we don't have cameras there to tell you all about it as easily.

All right. Wes Clark, let's start right down at the coast, that 19-mile coastline of the Basra area of Iraq. And pick us up from there.

GEN. WESLEY CLARK (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, we've got forces into this area, and this area has been taken, according to British secretary of defense -- minister of defense. It's not yet secure, but it will be tomorrow.

We know that we've got Marines that have crossed the border this way. We're fighting through these oil fields. We know that somewhere down in here, the 3rd Infantry Division's Calvary squadron has moved forward on the long march to Baghdad.

O'BRIEN: How far are they, do we know?

CLARK: Just by estimate of the speed that they were traveling last night, they must be somewhere 60 to 100 miles deep inside Iraq. Maybe around where that arrow is, Miles.

O'BRIEN: Right about at that arrow. OK.

CLARK: In the north, of course, we've also got action. Up here in the northern no-fly zone, where the Kurds are, we know that we've had bombing in the cities of Mosul and Kirkuk. We know other air defense command and control structures have been attacked in the north and probably outside Baghdad as well, as part of this large strike package that's gone into night.

We've heard rumors of Iraqi forces trying to surrender. We know they're surrendering in the south, we've heard rumors of surrender in the north. So this is a full effort north and south. We know that in the west two airfields have been taken by a combination of Special Forces and Rangers.

So this is the plan as it's been discussed. Some of the outlines got to the press early on about a three-direction squeeze into Baghdad. And it appears that's exactly what's happening.

O'BRIEN: Three-direction squeeze. What is that? It's not a proportionate squeeze, though. You've got a lot more forces in this portion. Does that matter much?

CLARK: It depends on really how the Iraqi forces dispose themselves and what happens with Iraq's will to resist. This is a tactical battle. It's a strategic battle, and it's a geopolitical battle all at the same time, Miles.

Tactically, what you've got is our Marine forces fighting down here and the Brits. And you've got the movement, the strategic movement of 3rd Infantry Division toward Baghdad thus far unopposed. You've got the geo-strategic problem of the Iraqi military and whatever is left of its government trying to determine whether to resist and how to resist and how fiercely to resist as their defenses are crumbling all around them.

So much remains to be determined, and it's just, as General Myers said, there's a basic plan. They can make adjustments to that plan, and you can be sure they're making adjustments every day.

O'BRIEN: All right. Lots of moving parts, to say the least. Let's take a closer look at Baghdad and try to give people some perspective on that image we saw. There was a tremendous video of those explosions as they came through.

"Shock and awe" was the term that we've used over and over again. But, as you can see, these pictures are very dramatic. You have the sense that Baghdad is completely aflame. Let's give people a sense of perspective here if we could.

CLARK: This is precision bombing. The most we've seen is about six probably JDAMS released by a high altitude or a medium altitude bomber or series of bombers. They're directed at specific, individual targets. This is not carpet bombing. This is not indiscriminate bombing. And this bombing is not directed at populated areas. You're looking through from a different area, so you may be looking through a populated area. But the bombs are actually falling in an area that belongs to Saddam Hussein and the Republican Guards.

O'BRIEN: Look at this. One, two, three, four, five potentially there. And that is focusing in on that presidential palace compound. That is obviously a prime regime target, home of the Republican Guard, the Special Republican Guard.

If we give people a quick tour of Baghdad with our, as we look at a significant string of explosions through that area, we'll give you a sense of what that target was. As we know, Saddam Hussein is very fond of his palaces. We know of at least 50; he spent billions on them who while his people were hungry, building these shrines., digital globe imagery, let's zoom in on Baghdad and give you a sense of what we're talking about here. This area -- this section of Baghdad, this is the Tigris River. And pretty much, this entire section is what is called a presidential palace. That's a euphemism, isn't it? Because it's much more than a palace.

CLARK: Much more than a palace.

O'BRIEN: We're talking about all kinds of potential targets in there. As we move in, we'll show you this spot where that -- one, two, three, four five -- string of explosions occurred. It occurred right here. This is, to my way of counting, palace number three in this compound.

You can spot these palaces a mile away because they've got that blue dome. Almost all of them have a blue dome, almost all of them have a swimming pool. Saddam Hussein is known to enjoy swimming. And what that should tell you is that this is very focused on that regime.

And that's where you start putting these pieces together between what's going on politically, within the regime in Baghdad, and what's going on as we watch these continued air strikes. How closely can the plan be shaped, molded? And how can it respond to cracking regimes? Do they have that real-time information, and can they put the brakes on it that quickly if they see the thing crumble?

CLARK: You can always put the brakes on a plan, Miles. You can't always restart the plan instantly. It may take an hour or two hours, four hours to get a new target and go in after it if there's no aircraft there because you have to package it. But the real key is, do you understand exactly where the Iraqi mindset is at a particular moment. Do you know whether, at that time, they need a little more talking time or do they need a little more pounding time.

And it's the psychology of it, the linkage of the use of military force with the pressure that it's putting on the regime and their understanding. They must understand by now they can't stop this. This is inevitable destruction of Iraqi government facilities. They cannot stop it and defend against it.

O'BRIEN: All right. Let's move on. Let's get right into the theater. Frank Buckley is one of our embedded reporters. He happens to be on board the USS Constellation, which I believe is in the Red Sea, Frank Buckley?

FRANK BUCKLEY, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: We are in the Persian Gulf, and we have an incredible moment here. Captain Mark Fox, who is the carrier airway commander who led from the front on this first strike package off of the USS Constellation into Iraq is joining us.

First of all, welcome back, sir. I know you just got out of your jet.


BUCKLEY: You're back home safely. Tell us, first, for the families of your men who are in Oscar Bravo Sierra package, tell the families at home how are the guys?

FOX: We've got -- we successfully accomplished our mission. We did everything that we set out to do. Everybody's back safe and sound from the first wave.

I've got another wave that's out that's going and another wave that's coming back right now. So we're in this -- we're at it hammer and tong.

BUCKLEY: Captain, you are a veteran Desert Storm. The first day of Desert Storm you had the first Navy shoot down. Now you're leading men on the first day of this air campaign. Tell me what it was like as you were inbound.

FOX: Well, it's actually the honor of a lifetime to be in this position. I mean to have so many wonderful patriotic Americans working for me. It was a pretty visual (ph) experience. I mean I had a couple of (UNINTELLIGIBLE) in Desert Storm that were equal to it.

The difference from then to now is we didn't fly on night vision goggles back then. So everything that you saw then was with the naked eye. And now you've got an ability to see a lot more. So I don't know if that's necessarily a good thing or lot, but there was a hell of a lot of stuff to look at tonight.

BUCKLEY: We were talking just a moment ago. They didn't light you up, it was all ballistically guided. They weren't tracking you with radar. That suggests that perhaps your jammers and your eroding of the defense capabilities is working.

FOX: Well, that's what -- it would indicate that all of the suppression measures that we took were effective.

BUCKLEY: Tell us about -- I know you can't tell us the exact targets, but when we sat in on your briefing tonight, you were very solemn and you said to the men, "You're going to remember this day forever. You're going downtown." You went into the vicinity of Baghdad is all we're told. What else can you tell us in terms of detail? And how successful do you believe your strikes were?

FOX: Well, we haven't gotten the bomb hit assessment yet, so we're going to have to take some time to analyze all of the tapes and all of the things that we did. But at first blush, certainly all of our weapons were released in the proper parameters with the proper settings and that sort of thing. And we'll just have to take a look at it and analyze it.

It's going to be -- you know we're on a real track right now. I mean, there's not time to just sit down and kind of contemplate each strike. So it's going to be a cumulative effect.

BUCKLEY: Sir, you, as you probably are aware, have a reputation on this ship as being someone who gives a good speech. You've been known for your air wing of destiny speech among the crew. They give you a hard time about it.

You're professionals as well. As you were inbound and outbound, did you -- and you and I discussed this a couple of weeks ago about what might you say to the men. And you weren't sure as you were actually on the way in to the target. Was it just all business, or was there a word?

FOX: It was mostly all business. There were a couple of, "Wow, look at that," but it is an air wing of destiny. And I tell you what, we're at the right place at the right time. It's an honor to serve.

BUCKLEY: And on your way back out, anything? Was there a sense of excitement, a sense of accomplishment? Still looking forward to the night landing on a carrier, what?

FOX: Well, I thought I flew a pretty nice pass fly tonight, but I had a moon to help out a little bit. So the hop is not over until you've (UNINTELLIGIBLE) your plane and you've safely gotten out and off the flight deck. So I'm so thankful the good lord smiled on us today. I'm very thankful to have everybody back safely.

BUCKLEY: Tell me about the performance of your men. You had nuggets (ph) in that group. These are first-time cruisers. You're, of course, one of the veterans. Tell me how they performed.

FOX: Magnificently, just terrific. I couldn't be more pleased or more proud of the young folks. Not just the aviators. There's a whole -- anybody that has any kind of doubts about the future of this nation's next generation should come out here and take a look at these young heroes.

BUCKLEY: Sir, we're going to end it on that note. And thank you very much. You just got out of your jet; I know you've got to debrief. And I appreciate your time, sir.

FOX: You're welcome. BUCKLEY: All right. Captain Mark Fox, the carrier air wing commander on USS Constellation, literally out of his jet and walked over and took time with us. And we'll send it back to you.

O'BRIEN: Frank, it's Miles, and hopefully you can still hear me OK on the deck of that ship. I know it's awfully loud. If you can just give us a sense, take the temperature of the ship for us. Can you give us a sense of the mood on there? And do they have -- are they feeling the weight of the stress and the pressure of the moment, if you will?

BUCKLEY: Yes, Miles. You know the mood on the ship has certainly, since the president issued the deadline, lifted significantly. This is a ship that's been on station here in the Persian Gulf since mid-December.

They've been flying operations, sorties into Iraq as part of Operation Southern Watch, never going above the 33rd parallel, however. Tonight was the first night they did that as a strike package.

The morale was, you know, as it gets toward the end of a deployment. They were supposed to rotate out of here if this was a normal deployment about now. They wanted to know something. Are we staying? Are we going? Are we moving in, are we not?

That's the crew speaking. And they were frankly pretty happy to hear that there was at least a deadline, that something was happening. Tonight, I stood on the -- in the observation area of this aircraft carrier known as Vulture's Row, where you stand on the island overlooking the flight deck, as this package with Captain Fox took off. There have been a couple of occasions where I've seen many people out there.

Tonight, it really was in a darkened Vulture's Row standing room only. The entire rail was lined with sailors and airmen looking down, really understanding the sense of this moment, knowing that this was the first night of air strikes. They were watching and clearly understanding what was happening here.

They knew long before everyone in the U.S. They knew before the people in Iraq that these munitions were inbound. There was no high- fiving. There weren't people who were jumping or excited.

It wasn't like that. It was more of a professional atmosphere and a sense of this moment in history is what I observed.

O'BRIEN: What about the tempo? Do you expect -- do you have any sense of what lies ahead? Is it going to be continued levels of sorties for the foreseeable future, or are they sharing that information with you, Frank?

BUCKLEY: They are sharing it. And I want to be very careful, as I know you do, Miles, about exactly how much we want to share just to make sure that we don't put anyone in harm's way. But suffice it to say, as the captain was just saying, air operations are continuing. They' are continuing not only on this aircraft carrier, but the USS Lincoln and the USS Kittyhawk.

All three of these carriers steaming in the Persian Gulf. And when one goes down -- that is, when one ship goes to sleep -- and that's a relative term, of course -- but when they're not doing flight ops, another one is already transitioning in. And another one is transitioning in if that one starts to go to sleep.

So with three aircraft carriers that are active with hot flight decks, you can imagine each one of these aircraft carriers has roughly 70 or so aircraft. And the strike fighters will constantly be moving for quite some time.

O'BRIEN: CNN's Frank Buckley.

And perhaps the most important point, everybody back home, in a manner of speaking, safe and sound on the USS Constellation in the Persian Gulf. General Wes Clark, as you listen to the report, I'm always reminded of just the hazards of the operations of war.

CLARK: It's an incredibly difficult...

O'BRIEN: An aircraft carrier is a dangerous thing in peace or war. And to know that they can execute these missions into Baghdad and have everybody come back safe and sound is a testament to, as Frank put it, the professionalism of these people.

CLARK: I think one of the toughest missions in the armed forces has to be a land on an aircraft carrier at night. And here in this small body of water, the Persian Gulf, we've got several aircraft carriers, we've got many other ships, we've got congestion in there. So the seamanship is superb to keep the flight deck moving in the right direction to bring in those aircraft at the right time.

It's tough on the pilots. It's great professionalism.

O'BRIEN: Well, and, as you say, it's tight enough having the carrier groups maneuvering for space in the Persian Gulf. And of course we have some over in the Red Sea as well. But when they get into this air space, the coordination that is required across all services to get everybody in to and out of harm's way safely coordinated, get them on to their targets, it really boggles the mind.

CLARK: It's staggering, really. And I mean it only comes from lots and lots of practice. We have done this again and again and again. And we get better and better at it. And it's the same people who come up through the system and learn and grow with it and step by step innovate and improve it.

O'BRIEN: All right. Let's -- I want to show some of that video which we've been showing you and explain to you -- this is -- what we have here is an F-117 for a demonstration -- which we know were involved. This is a bunker buster weapon. Some of the weaponry that we are fairly confident was used in all of this.

And what that demonstrates there -- and it's worth pointing out -- is that it has the ability to penetrate and then explode below surface. Now when we saw those multiple strikes in that palace compound, and what seemed to occur in the same spot multiple times, which is a testament to the precision right there, what does that tell you? They're just augering deeper and deeper, and we're talking about something that has a tremendous underground infrastructure?

CLARK: Well I think that's true, there is a tremendous underground infrastructure. And I think that some of the weapons were probably bunker busters and some may not have been. And so you may see, at first, that we strike it on the surface and then we put a bunker buster through it. Or right next door we put a bunker buster into it.

O'BRIEN: I see. So looking at those explosions with a trained eye, you can get a little sense of it. We probably shouldn't jump to too many conclusions then about exactly what we're seeing there, right?

CLARK: You can't be certain when you look at it without precision measurement. You don't know exactly how far away you are. You don't know what's in the target. But it looked to me like some of the explosions went off deeper underground than others did. And that would be the indication of a bunker buster.

O'BRIEN: All right. I want to ask you one philosophical question here. When you witness that power it is so tremendous, and the air superiority is something that no nation has won a war without in the modern era. Nevertheless, I'm talking to a guy who wore a green suit, an Army general, who would tell you the value of bringing actual people into Baghdad here, you really can't have one without the other, without -- when you talk about the objective that is on the plate here right now.

CLARK: With these objectives, as described by Secretary Rumsfeld today, got to have boots on the ground for this. The air power may dissuade the Iraqis from fighting. But to get those weapons of mass destruction out there, to get the linkages with the proliferating countries and industries, you got to have people on the ground for that.

O'BRIEN: So air power has some limitations?

CLARK: It does have limitations, but it's always indispensable.

O'BRIEN: All right, fair enough. Well put. General Wes Clark, diplomatically put for an Army general.

CLARK: For an Army guy.

O'BRIEN: We appreciate that. Let's send it to Judy Woodruff -- Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks, Miles. All of that is fascinating. We're of course looking at the countries that ring (ph) Iraq, some of them being in a very delicate diplomatic situation today in Jordan, which borders Iraq to its west. Today, the king of Jordan, King Abdullah, went on television to urge the people of his country to temper the anger that some of them are demonstrating out in the streets, sympathy with the Iraqi people, urging them to think about the consequences of that. He is in a -- what could be a very dicey political situation.

We have a correspondent, Rula Amin, who is actually on the border of Jordan and Iraq. She's on the Jordanian side. Rula, I want to ask you about how many Iraqi refugees may have been coming across there trying to leave Iraq -- Rula.

RULA AMIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Judy, almost no Iraqi refugees have been able to make it through the border here. The Jordanians have very strict restrictions on those borders. They say they cannot allow many refugees to come through Jordan. They simply cannot afford to absorb a large number of refugees, and they want to make sure that Iraqis know that they are not welcome here.

So they have been putting very strict restrictions. And we have not seen one Iraqi refugee at one of the Iraqi -- at one of the refugee camps that had been set up here by the government and by the United Nations humanitarian agencies in order to receive these refugees. So, so far, no refugees -- Judy.

WOODRUFF: Rula, another matter I want to ask you about. Today, the U.S. military announced that they've taken over two important airfields in western Iraq. So-called H-2 and H-3 air bases. What's the significance of that to the Jordanian officials and others you're talking to?

AMIN: Well, it's significant on a number of fronts. First, these troops are about 75 kilometers east to where I'm standing right now. They have taken over two strategic airfields. And why it's significant is that because some of those airfields are more than 8,000 feet long, which means they may be able to allow big planes, you know a large aircraft, military aircraft, supply aircraft to land there to bring U.S. troops to bring supplies.

And that means this is very close to the main highway between Amman and Baghdad. And that way, the U.S. troops and the British troops will be able to control that major road.

Now behind me you can see the lit arches. This is the border. And on the other side of the border, the Iraqi soldiers are still manning that border. However, with the presence of the U.S. troops so close now, they're being cut off from the headquarters in Baghdad. Still, as I said before, the Iraqi soldiers are still there and they're still manning those borders.

On another front, the fact that these U.S. troops have taken over the airfields very close to the border here actually substantiates some opposition leaders here doubts and accusations to the government that the government is allowing some U.S. special troops and Special Operations Forces in order to use Jordan as a launching pad to carry out some offensive operations in Iraq. This is something that the Jordanian government denies.

They say there are U.S. troops here, hundreds of them, including Special Forces, but they are here to defend Jordan. And the information minister today made sure he said that any claim that these special operations forces came from Jordan is lies. It's meant to harm Jordan.

And the reason why he's so -- being so defensive is that the people here are very much against this war. They have been urging the government not to allow the U.S. troops to use Jordan as a launching pad. And that's why the government is being very sensitive about telling people that they are cooperating with the U.S. Army in this war, if there is such a cooperation.


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