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Strike on Iraq: More Iraq Resistances Than Expected

Aired March 22, 2003 - 03:01   ET


CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: Christiane Amanpour is still with us.
Christiane -- can you expound more on what Jason was saying that when the Marines came in here, they didn't expect to find much resistance, and they're finding more than they expected.

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, you know, we have been reporting this, and Jason as well, over the last 24 hours. Essentially, Umm Qasr is a smallish area. It's not a very big town, but it does have this important port. It's the big, deep water port in southern Iraq, and it is not so much a military target in terms of bringing military logistics into Iraq for the allied forces, but they need it to bring humanitarian aid, and they want to start doing that as soon as possible, as Jason just said as well.

And so what they had hoped -- because really Umm Qasr is only a few kilometers across the border from Kuwait, and they had hoped to be able to take it very, very rapidly.

And there have been a certain number of defections. We've been told that they've got -- or rather, surrenders. About 450 Iraqis have surrendered, both between Umm Qasr and the Al-Faw peninsula in this operation. They are now being treated as prisoners of war.

So you have had a certain amount of surrenders, but they are also getting this, in some cases, fairly stiff resistance. But again, when we asked the commanders: Is this something that is going to be disabling? Is it going to keep you pinned down for very long? They said, no, we have superior fire power. We plan to have this wrapped up by the end of the day. Of course, things don't often go to plan, as you know, in the military in terms of timeline, but they don't believe that this is something that is overwhelmingly difficult for them to put down.

There are small, isolated pockets, in some cases snipers, in some cases groups of Iraqis. And as I say, they are never quite sure exactly who these Iraqis are, because in some cases they are in civilian clothes, and then we're told they find, you know, weapons on them and military badges and this and that. So it is obviously elements of the Iraqi army.

But remember down here in the southern part, this is not Republican Guard territory. This is regular Iraqi army. And both the British and the American forces do not believe that these forces can seriously challenge them. COSTELLO: And you were talking about the artillery. We want to put up a graphic now, so people can see what kind of helicopters are flying in the air above Umm Qasr. We believe they are AH-1W Cobra attack helicopters, and two crewmembers on board -- there we go, we have the graphic now -- 20-millimeter cannon rockets and missiles. And it's sort of a modified version of a Vietnam War area attack helicopter.

So two on board each helicopter you're seeing, and according to Jason Bellini, these are American helicopters in the skies.

COOPER: Yes, Christiane, I'm interested to know -- I mean, I'm sure that any troops you have talked to, I'm sure they will tell you going to house-to-house is a scary notion indeed. We're seeing these helicopters flying around. The Cobra is obviously an extraordinarily powerful weapon. How effective are they, though, in this kind of small-scale, sporadic building-to-building sniping?

AMANPOUR: Well, we saw those four Cobras overhead here, the port. They say it came into here and then moved off down to do those operations. But one of the U.K. troops that we just talked to said, oh, look at those, they're going to take care of the snipers.

So they obviously are being used to pinpoint targets as well, and to try and suppress any kind of enemy fire -- Iraqi fire that's coming up from these isolated pockets.

COOPER: Christiane, you know, we had talked a lot about Umm Qasr as the end point for humanitarian assistance, and that is something coalition troops are sort of pushing, getting that message out. How soon and how realistic is it that they plan to get humanitarian assistance moving through this port?

AMANPOUR: Well, they had really wanted to do it very, very soon, but what we're being told is that they may, given as long as all of this is secured, given perhaps about 48 hours to start, but that would not be large-scale yet. They think that, you know, what the military has in terms of humanitarian aid -- MREs, food supplies, things like that. But they are obviously wanting to bring in any kind of NGO or U.N. stockpiles, World Food Program and other governmental aid into this southern area.

The whole point of what they're trying to do here is not destroy or not go into urban areas if they don't have to. I don't think they expected to get quite the resistance they did here in Umm Qasr. But they are hoping to be able to leave these urban areas, these civilian populations. We're being told those are not military targets, because they want them to be -- they want them to be welcomed in. They want the U.S. or U.K. forces, whoever it is in various areas, to be welcomed in.

But they had to take Umm Qasr, even though it is a town and a port, because overall Umm Qasr was a strategic objective, and they needed to have it under control in order to bring in humanitarian aid.

COSTELLO: And, Christiane, once it's under control, who will remain there to make sure it stays under control? Will it be British forces?

AMANPOUR: Well, yes, it will be British forces, and in fact, we're not able to give you pinpoint future operations, but just in a broad sense I can say that the British do have control of the al-Faw peninsula. They are the commanding unit of this Marine -- U.S. Marine unit, and eventually the U.S. forces, both Marines and others, are going to be moving on up north and then peeling off west to go up towards Nasaria (ph) and Baghdad.

Basically the southern area, including the oil fields, Basra area, down here, the strategic economic targets, those will all be under U.S. -- or rather U.K. command, the British command down here.

COOPER: And, Christiane, as you well know now, the first time British troops have been in that region many years ago, a long, long time ago, another generation, another era there were British forces in the Basra area.

Christiane, I want to ask you, the troops you are talking to -- you've talked to, whether British or American, is there any frustration at the kind of operations that are going on? And what I mean by that is that a lot of observers who are looking at this operation here in the United States are remarking upon the fact that this is military action which is largely being based on political objectives, the political objectives being obviously decapitation of the Iraqi leadership, but not wanting to, as you just mentioned, destroy too much of the infrastructure of Iraq. I imagine there are some troops who might be wishing they could just go full force and it would be in a sense easier and safer for them.

Is there -- are you hearing that from any troops? Or do they say anything about it?

AMANPOUR: No, but certainly the people who brief us and the commanders are saying that this is our objective, to be able to do what we need to do without, as you say, causing damage to either the economic or the environmental infrastructure, and of course particularly without doing any harm to civilians.

In fact, we were just again told today by the commanders that I mentioned earlier, both the U.S. Marine and the British commander here, that they are being extremely careful here in Umm Qasr. When they see women or children, they are being very, very careful about how they respond, because that's the last thing they want to do to be seen as or to incur any kind of civilian casualties.

Obviously it's very difficult when you're in a battle area, and sometimes there will be casualties, but they say that that is one of the obviously prime objectives to keep those casualties to a very minimum.

And just a note on the British and U.K. joint operation here, it is actually very rare to have U.S. forces under British command, and that is what's happening in this Umm Qasr operation.

COSTELLO: And, Christiane, talking about the POWs, the prisoners of war taken there, what more can you tell us about that? Do you have any number, any specifics?

AMANPOUR: Yes, 450 have been taken in the Umm Qasr and al-Faw peninsula region, most of those taken around Umm Qasr. Not just in the town, but even yesterday as they were coming in from the north they took surrenders.

We're not allowed to see them, because the Geneva Convention prohibits us being able to do that, taking pictures of them. They are being treated as prisoners of war. Again, the total number we've been told is about 450.

The total number of troops -- U.S. and U.K. combined -- in this southern operation is about 6,000.

COOPER: Christiane, the picture we're seeing of you, over your left shoulder it looks like port facilities. You are in the new port versus the old port...


COOPER: ... where Jason Bellini is, where there's a different kind of action. Can you tell us a little bit about how far a distance is it from the new port where you are to the old port? How far is it?

AMANPOUR: It's not massively far. This is quite a contained area. I haven't been up to the old port, but when we just landed in a helicopter I saw the areas, and it's not a huge, huge difference. And the town is not hugely far away.

And just to give you some perspective, this is an urban area, the part that is urban, the town. The maximum, about 4,000 residents. So it's not a huge place by any stretch of the imagination. And just the numbers of troops that I gave you, 6,000 troops are involved. It shows you the proportions of what we're dealing with, and clearly the U.S. and U.K. troops have the advantage, not only in numbers, but in the weaponry and in their ability to fight.

COSTELLO: OK, it might be a silly question, but why do they call it "new port" and "old port?"

AMANPOUR: Well, because one is new, and it is the big one that is the big, big commercial, newer of course. Everything is relative. This is the one that's mostly used for the big commercial operations that they want to be able to do and certainly to bring in the kinds of quantities of humanitarian aid.

COSTELLO: And another question about the people who live in Umm Qasr. Are they hiding out in their homes? I mean, what's the mood of just the townspeople?

AMANPOUR: Well, I asked the commander that, and he said they saw many people leaving. So I think one might find when one gets into the town that there may not be a huge number of residents left at this moment. They may be leaving to just get out of the way. And what we're being told is mostly those who are still there are these isolated pockets of resistance, but presumably elements of the military forces.

But again to re-emphasize, this part is not Iraqi -- the Republican Guard is not in these forces. It's the regular Iraqi army, and in most of the other areas they have seen these people mostly surrender and choose not to fight. In Umm Qasr, there has been slightly more resistance than they expected, and they are, they say, dealing with it. They expect fully to have it dealt with by the end of the day, but of course, we'll wait and watch and monitor that.

COOPER: And, Christiane, just so we are informing our viewers, who are just joining us, we are seeing you on the left-hand side of our screen in the new port in Umm Qasr. On the right-hand side of our screen is a broader view, a larger picture of Umm Qasr. We are seeing intermittingly helicopters moving across the horizon, those helicopters Cobra attack helicopters, looking for pockets of resistance, as Christiane has reported, perhaps snipers, Iraqis dressed perhaps at one time in military garb now apparently in some cases in civilian garb.

Christiane, recount for our viewers, who are just joining us at this soon after the top of the hour here, how this operation has proceeded. It has been going on since I was sitting in this chair some I believe 20 hours ago. How long has it taken? How has it moved through the city from one port to another? But tell us a little bit of an overview of the past 20 hours or so.

AMANPOUR: Well, as I say, they started to come in and to try to take Umm Qasr about that time, and they started to, as we were told by the commanders, take Suamberg (ph) on the northern part of the town. And as they tried to move in, and there were, you know, different elements of attack, if you like. We've seen elements of the U.K. Marines basically came on shore on boat. Their boats are sort of parked -- you can't see them, but outside just beyond right there, the edge of the port there.

So they've had them coming from there. They've had them by helicopter, mostly in that fashion.

And they've been trying to get this town, because -- and mostly the port. It's the port that's the important part in order to bring in the humanitarian supplies that they want to do.

Again, Umm Qasr is Iraq's biggest commercial port, deep water port here, and it's in southern Iraq. It's going to -- the waterway leads out into the Persian Gulf. And...

COSTELLO: Christiane, we're just...

AMANPOUR: Anderson?

COOPER: Yes, Christiane, we...

COSTELLO: Christiane, we're just getting word that journalists were told to put on their gas masks, but we're not sure whether it's the new port or the old port. And we're going to get that information now. Do we have it yet? Is it... COOPER: This is...

COSTELLO: We do have it. David, do you have the information?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, the new port.

COSTELLO: The new port, they're supposed to put on their...

COOPER: According to Abu Dhabi TV...

COSTELLO: It's not where Christiane is.

COOPER: According to Abu Dhabi TV, Christiane, this is what's going on. According to Abu Dhabi TV, some journalists have been asked to put on gas masks, not in the area you are in. We're not sure exactly the area this was in, but we're told it's not where you are. But this, according to Abu Dhabi TV, some journalists apparently have been asked to don gas masks.

Are you hearing anything of that on the ground?

AMANPOUR: No, not here, but this is not unusual. Perhaps, you know, I haven't heard about that in Umm Qasr, but certainly in the other positions that we've been over the last 24 hours or so. You know, whenever there is any kind of signal or fear that there will be a Scud or whatever, we keep getting these alerts, and everybody has to don gas masks and go into trenches.

This is not an unusual occurrence, but it's not happening here where I am right now.

COSTELLO: We just saw a group of people walking behind you. Are they -- they look like military people. Can you tell us about them?

AMANPOUR: Yes, there are military people here. There is the element, as I said, of the 15th U.S. Marine Expeditionary Unit, and also the British unit which is called 3 Commando. And it is that -- the commander of 3 Commando which has overall charge of the Marine unit here and which is commanding this operation.

So this port does have both U.S. and British forces here at the moment.

COOPER: Christiane, there had been a picture several hours ago which circulated quite widely on television in the United States of what appeared to be a U.S. Marine hoisting an American flag. Shortly after -- in Umm Qasr. Shortly after that, the reports went out that they were asked to take down that flag, obviously it being a desire not to seem to be an occupying force.

I assume you're not seeing a lot of flags flying where you are right now.

AMANPOUR: No, but we did hear about that story, and you know, it's not unusual for the U.S. to put up flags when they go to various places. But we were told, for what it's worth, the British weren't too happy about that. They wanted to keep the appearance, as you say, of not occupying a place, and certainly of, you know, maintaining Iraq's sovereignty. This is still Iraqi territory, not U.S. or U.K. territory.

So the symbolism of that flag was considered not what they wanted to project at this moment, and in due course that flag came down.

COSTELLO: Christiane, we're going to let you go right now. Of course, you'll stick around for more reporting later.


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