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Strike on Iraq: CNN's Correspondents, Crew Expelled from Iraq Safe in Jordan

Aired March 22, 2003 - 08:39   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Sorry to interrupt you, but we now have Nic Robertson and Rym Brahimi live from the border of Jordan and Iraq. Nic, can you hear me?

ZAHN: We can hear you fine.

Can't tell you how happy our organization is to see you and your team getting across safely from the border. If you are hearing a large explosion bleeding through my audio, I want you to know there is some construction work being done, blasting work being done at the corner of this building at the corner of 51st and 6th, so I don't want you to be alarmed by what appear to be explosions going off. We have confirmed with the building management that is all that. OK, so ,Nic, back to you and the more relevant story here. Your return to Jordan, what did the two of you and the rest of your crew experience as you worked your way out of Iraq?

ROBERTSON: Let me let Rym answer this first.

RYM BRAHIMI, CNN ANCHOR: I didn't understand the question.

ROBERTSON: Let me step in for a moment here. We've been asking Rym what the journey was coming out from Jordan. I'll start with Baghdad, coming out of Baghdad, we saw collateral damage, windows blown out in shops near the presidential area that was very heavily damaged today and as we came out of the streets of Baghdad, a lot of Ba'ath party in Iraq, armed on the street corners, groups of two's, three's and four's in bunkers and many places across the city as we headed toward the edge of the city.

Let me hand it over to Rym little bit for more.

BRAHIMI: I'll take it from when we left the edge of the city. It seemed -- it looked quite normal for a while, though a very quiet, as you can imagine. I have to say that just as we left, we had the last all-clear siren. There had been another series of bombings in the morning just before we left. When we arrived on the highway basically to Jordan, the first little, how would you call it, Nic? The first little place where truck drivers stop.

ROBERTSON: Gas station.

BRAHIMI: Was it a gas station?


ROBERTSON: That first gas station had been hit and then on the road to Jordan, this was about a hundred kilometers, a little more maybe, before arriving at the border with Jordan, we did see one huge hole in a street in the road on the highway at one point and then another lesser bit that was damaged a little further down.

ZAHN: Nic, now that you're out of Iraq, are you able to tell us why the you were expelled? The Iraqis have done it in the past and you got back in.

What happened?

ROBERTSON: Late yesterday afternoon, Iraqi officials told us that they were going to close the CNN office. They said that they were going to tell the CNN team to leave. They told us to leave, that it was late in the day. We said that we wanted to stay, it wasn't safe to leave because it was getting dark. They didn't really acquiesce on that issue. They just allowed that to happen. We stayed in the hotel overnight and left early this morning.

Let me bring in for a moment, if I can, our executive producer here, Ingrid Formaknek. Ingrid was more involved with the Iraqi officials the last few days.

Ingrid, talk us through what happened, why did they expel us, and how did that progress over the last few days?

INGRID FORMANEK, CNN PRODUCER: Well, obviously, the situation had grown more tense in Iraq in recent days due to the bombings and the officials were feeling the pressure. It's been a great propaganda campaign. I mean, all sides want to control the media as much as possible and that goes for the Iraqis, as well as the Americans. And their concern was that they were getting their message out. They're increasing tense as the bombing went on. And they just got very much more difficult to work in the days during the bombing. We were not allowed to use our satellite phones from the rooms in our hotel, which made it more difficult to be able to report, but these two guys did a job of doing that, nevertheless. We're very limited in being able to transmit pictures. All of the satellite dishes remained at the Minister of Information, which was in an area that was bombed heavily in the last few days, so we were unable to go there and transmit pictures. And, therefore, had to rely on full communication -- phone communication to describe what was going on which is what Nic and Rym were doing.

BRAHIMI: Nic, I also -- I just wanted to add, though, the only other thing that we were able to do was we were able to go out. We were taken, in fact, bused. It was an organized bus tour by the Ministry of Information. We were bused to a couple of places. One of them was an electricity plant, a power plant, where we were introduced to the Minister of Electricity. He -- the point of the whole visit seemed to be to show us that the electricity network was still up and running. And also to show us the human shields that were still there, despite the bombing having started and being well underway. Then we were taken also to a couple of hospitals where they showed us some of the injured people, the people that were injured in the first two days of bombing. So that was something else. But, again, we were bused and taken and taken back and forth by the authorities there.

ZAHN: I think the last time we saw you in this time period was Thursday where you bravely described some of the strategic air strikes that were happening in Baghdad. And you were telling us the very specific targets that were hit and then 15 minutes later, when I came back to you, you made it very clear that there was Iraqi minder standing right beside you. And even though you had reported all of that information that was on the wires, you were not allowed to say that again.

Can you explain to us why that happened and what it was they were so concerned about?

ROBERTSON: The situation became very fluid. The situation changed as we were on air. We were also filming, our cameraman, Brian Pachadi (ph) was filming the impacts as they were happening, the bombing as it was going on. We did have a government official with us when I was talking with you, when he was filming. Then more government officials arrived and took tape out of his camera and began to say things about our reporting. So it was clear that the mood at that stage was already changing.

Now, it's not unheard of for Iraqi officials to do this. Back in 1991, they did ban us from reporting this on specific strategic military installations and conveying strategic information. So it was -- so it wasn't a surprise. What perhaps was different last night when we weren't able to communicate with you at all, the bombing was much more intense. I know you've all been able to see that. But we had an extremely good field of view and able to see what was being hit. It was incredible to see the number of direct hits within the presidential compound in the center of Baghdad.

A wide area that covers several square miles, yet, as I looked around the city, if you moved just away from that presidential area, the civilian areas weren't being targeted. Perhaps the only change by this morning that was significant, we began to hear aircraft through the night. But by morning, when the first of the bombing raids happened at 5:30, I heard the aircraft fly in and heard the bomb strike close to our hotel. There was no air raid siren. It was clear to us this morning that Iraq's air defense capability, its early warning system was not working properly. The air raid warning only went off after the bomb fell. Before that time, the air raid could give 10, 15 minutes notice. That, this morning, didn't seem to be working quite so well.

ZAHN: I need to apologize to our audience. Believe it or not, there is a lot of blasting going on the floor that is above us and making it sound like there is a major explosion going on here when, in fact, all it is a conference room being constructed. Unfortunately, you're going to have to deal with that throughout morning. That is all it is.

OK, Nic, back to some of this reporting. You talked very pointedly about what you thought was hit during that first strike and then the second strike. One of the things that has been pointed out today by some of those reporters who were left in Baghdad last night when the "Shock and Awe" campaign got started was that the biggest concern now is hitting some of the air defense targets and the problem with that is that some of those are located within population centers.

Can you share with us your understanding of how challenging that might be to take some of those air defense systems out in Baghdad?

ROBERTSON: Well, the defense systems, in many cases, are located on the top of buildings that are very adjacent to civilian areas. For example, the presidential area that was hit extensively last night. It was -- excuse me. Excuse me. The residential area that was very adjacent to the presidential compound, that bore the brunt of some collateral damage, windows blown out. It would be quite easy to imagine if there were residents still in those houses, then they might have potentially been in harm's way.

But let me ask Rym. I'm not sure you can hear the questions. We're talking about the location of the anti-aircraft positions and the disposition of that in the civilian area.

BRAHIMI: Since I've been in Baghdad, I have seen anti-aircraft systems, even on very low buildings. Surprisingly low buildings and buildings in very residential areas like the area near the University of Baghdad. They're quite easily visible. I don't think the Iraqis make a huge effort to hide them. They're also on many government buildings, but a lot of the government buildings are next to residential compounds or groups of buildings, so it would, obviously, be extremely difficult to target one of those without bearing any damage at all to what is around and what civilian population would be around. The whole Baghdad is made that way, government building and next to it, residential compound that homes actually a lot of the times, the government employees that work in that building. So it would be something very difficult to achieve, in fact.

ROBERTSON: Let me bring in Ingrid with another question, if I may.

Ingrid, you've been going into Baghdad since 1990. Do you see any difference in the position of anti-aircraft? There is talk of more defense around the capitol.

FORMANEK: There does seem to be a considerable amount of air defense around the city, but what I wanted to add to was the point you were talking about before, is the type of bombing and the targeting. It was very interesting that this time around, there was electricity in the city, there was running water in the city. Now, there have been talks that perhaps the Americans would make an effort to spare the civilian population from the bombing and would make a effort to not alienate the Iraqi population.

In 1991, when (UNINTELLIGIBLE) going on air campaigns, one of the first things that happening the power goes out. The water stops. The medical services are very much stretched and this time around, at least when we left this morning, that was not evident at all in the Iraqi capitol. There was power, there was electricity. So those things were functioning basic services were functioning. I thought that was a very interesting thing that some 48 hours after the bombing had started, all that was still happening. You would look at the city, the lights were on from a distance. If the bombing wasn't going on and, and you weren't seeing detonations or anti-airplane craft fire, it looked like normal life at a distance.

ROBERTSON: That was of -- after many hundreds and hundreds of impacts over the two days we were there over the bombings.

BRAHIMI: This has caused, you both remember this. I don't know if it has anything to do with it, but there had been before, a massive campaign on the part of -- humanitarian groups and aid groups saying how dire the situation would be for the Iraqi population if those facilities, what they call vital facilities, electricity, power plants, water treatment plants, were to be hit. The UNICEF, the U.N. Children's Fund, CARE, a lot of those national organizations had made a lot of publicity over what the consequences would be. They talked about humanitarian catastrophe if those facilities were hit and how much effect it would have on the Iraqi population. I don't know if that has anything to do with it. But certainly, that was a major concern among most Iraqis.

ZAHN: I want to come back to Ingrid. You were describing how involved you were with these last-minute negotiations, once it was decided you all were going to be expelled.

Can you share with us some of the last requests you made of the Iraqi government officials?

Did you ask for an interview with Saddam Hussein?

Were you led to believe he was still alive after that first night of the so-called decapitation attack?

FORMANEK: There was a request put in from the network for an interview. Of course, as far as our negotiations -- and I'm having a hard time hearing you. I think you were asking about our negotiations to be able to stay, with everything possible, we pointed out it was in everybody's interest and CNN's interest and Iraq's interest and certainly the interest of the world and of the American people to see what was going on in Baghdad and it was very important to have set of independent eyes and ears to report this. That's a point that we've always made to the Iraqi authorities throughout the years that we have been in Baghdad. We certainly made that point last night. In all of the years we worked there, we pointed out we have reported fairly. We followed the rules and it was in their interests, as well as ours.

Now, of course, it was a request by the network for an interview with the president. Interestingly enough, the Iraqis have never, as far as we could tell, taken advantage of the foreign media in the sense that all of the world, for example, the Bush administration, they take advantage of the media, they speak every minute that they can get of air time they take to get their point across to the world. This is done all over the world. The Iraqis, I think, has never taken full advantage of this. And I think it's a great missed opportunity because the world can hear and see what's happening if organizations like CNN are allowed to remain in Baghdad. And a great missed opportunity for everybody.

ROBERTSON: I think -- if I can just add, if I may. I think our expulsion this time points to the increasing pressure and stress being put on the Iraqi leadership at this time. And it looks, at least judging from when we left, that that is only going to increase at this time.

ZAHN: Nic, for the folks joining us to, I want to explain where we -- why we are talking to Inrgid Formanek, Nic Robertson, Rym Brahimi. They are some of the last journalists working for an American network that were kicked out of Iraq. And they were explaining to us why they were expelled and a little bit of their harrowing journey out of Iraq. I want to bring Bill in on the discussion in a second.

One question once you were expelled, did you feel your lives were in any danger during this very long road trip -- Nic?

BRAHIMI: I didn't hear that.

ROBERTSON: We were just being -- let me put this to, Rym.

We were being asked did we feel our lives were in danger when we were being expelled?

BRAHIMI: I wouldn't say we felt our lives were in danger at that point. But I would not -- I would not have felt comfortable defying that request to leave the country, for one. Secondly, the expulsion made us extremely aware. As Nic was just saying, that this, with the pressure of the American bombing with the threats that have been building up to this moment for the past few months now, we did -- it did hit on us that this -- we did become aware, that we were in a totally different ball game.

All of the times we have been reporting so far, all that was very different. We're now in a different set of rules, different set of references and, clearly, the concerns were maybe things that they didn't explain to us very clearly in some way. So, definitely, there was very little margin there, I would say to maneuver. That's my personal feeling. I don't know about, Nic.

ROBERTSON: Ingrid, did you feel we were under a particular threat after the expulsion order?

FORMANEK: Not necessarily after the expulsion order. More than before. But I think that any country that is under attack and the rules are changing very rapidly, there is a set of unknown factors that are very, very difficult to calculate. As we report, we always try and calculate these factors into the equation of how safe do we feel to stay in a place and report in a place. And when you look at a place like Iraq, that is very isolated.

That is only -- that only has government-controlled media. There are very limited options for people to get alternate points of view and that, of course, limits possibilities and limits maneuvering. So there is fewer options perhaps in other places. Feeling under threat, personally I don't think that it changed that much after we were expelled but it was made perfectly clear to us that it was in our interesting to leave.

ROBERTSON: Although you're only seeing three of us right now, the fourth member of our team just can't fit up on the back of the truck at the moment, Brian Pachadi.

But what made us feel safer is being a stronger team, that's something we've built up over a time and Brian was a very, very strong unifying part of that team and I think has been a good strong team that's helped us get through this and there were troubling moments, but I don't think at any point we felt our lives were in danger, but we didn't also want to push our luck, knowing, really knowing just how beginning to be erratic the administration in Iraq was beginning to appear to us.

ZAHN: We couldn't be more pleased to have your distinguished team back safely on -- in Jordanian territory. I, for one, don't think we'll ever forget the looks of joy on your faces as you walked toward our cameras this morning. Thank you all and I hope you're able to get some rest at some point.


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