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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

West of Basra U.S. Tanks Battling Iraqi Forces.

Aired March 22, 2003 - 03:30   ET

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

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Well, Carol, about an hour-and-a- half ago we had a press conference from the Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf. He made various claims. Viewers can interpret them as they will. We're going to check in right now with Alain de Chalvron, with our French TV Channel 2. He is live in Baghdad.
Alain, can you hear me?

ALAIN DE CHALVRON, CHANNEL 2 (FRANCE): Yes.

COOPER: Very good.

DE CHALVRON: Good morning, good night, I don't know what exactly the time...

COOPER: Well, it's 3:30 a.m. here. I know it's eight hours ahead in Baghdad where you're at. What have you seen today in terms of damage from the missile attacks, the bomb attacks so far?

DE CHALVRON: Yes. You know that it's very difficult to go around and around in the city of Baghdad. We cannot go simply and it's must tougher now even the way they act with us, I mean, in the Ministry of Information. But there is something they can any way not hide is what happened in the center of Baghdad. The first bombing yesterday, as its target, the presidential complex inside Baghdad. And this is, of course, what we can see. It has - some of the building of this complex.

COOPER: Have you seen how badly it was hit? We are looking at some pictures with an enormous hole in this building. It seems the building is still standing. Have you seen other buildings, how badly they were hit?

DE CHALVRON: Well, some of the buildings have been hit, but we don't see really how they have been hit. We see them from quite far away, that's all.

COOPER: OK. In this press conference which happened about an hour-and-a-half ago, the information minister in Iraq has made a claim that more than 200 civilians have been injured in Baghdad. And he offered to take people to see these civilians. Has that in fact happened? Have you seen any of these alleged 207-odd civilians injured?

DE CHALVRON: No. I didn't anybody. But this is what the Ministry of Information said, that it's obviously true. I think the bombing was very tough. And now at this moment some journalists are in the hospitals precisely to see the victims of these bombings.

COOPER: I think there are some people who would question whether something that the Ministry of Information said is necessarily and obviously true. He also made the claim that only 19 missiles have actually hit. And he said that they've only hit in a very small area. Does that jibe with what you have seen, what you have witnessed of the bombing thus far?

DE CHALVRON: You know, this is very difficult to see. All I can say is that the bombing was very, very tough. It's the center of Baghdad, but it's also the suburbs of the city. But it was really very difficult to count the bombings.

COOPER: I know it's really tough moving around. And I know you're really not able to move. Have you been able to see anyone on the streets? What is the mood in Baghdad at this hour?

DE CHALVRON: Yes. This is the surrealistic aspect of Baghdad, is that life is almost normal now. It was a very tough night but now you have cars in the street, people working, some shops reopened. They are living quite normally after a nightmare night.

COOPER: Tell us a little bit what the bombing was like for you as you watched it, as you felt it, and I imagine you did feel it, what was it like?

DE CHALVRON: Sorry, I don't hear you.

COOPER: I'm sorry, let me just repeat the question.

DE CHALVRON: Hello?

COOPER: Do you hear me, Alain?

DE CHALVRON: Yes, now I can hear you.

COOPER: Tell me, I'm interested just from your personal perspective what it was like being in the - being - watching that bombing and feeling it? And I would imagine you felt it because the percussions from what I understand could be felt in quite a wide swath. What was it like, personally, your experience?

DE CHALVRON: Oh, it was very, very tough, especially the bombing just on the river side. We are on the other side of the river. But it was maybe 200 meters from the bombings. And it was really very hard, very tough and we heard a lot at that time.

COOPER: Were you actually able to witness it? Were you in a bunker of any kind? Where were you?

DE CHALVRON: We are broadcasting from the roof of the Ministry of Information where all the S&Gs (ph) are.

COOPER: OK. And have - I'm interested to hear how you would categorize the amount of anti-aircraft weaponry you saw in terms of the resistance that was offered. Is there anything you - how would you characterize it?

DE CHALVRON: Well, there was a lot of anti-aircraft shootings from the Iraqi forces, but you know, we didn't see even the planes. So they were certainly very high. And any anti-aircraft defense in this case is not efficient.

COOPER: How have things changed in the amount of time that you have been in Baghdad? How was today different than yesterday and the week before? I know you said it is surreal. Surreal in what sense, in what way?

DE CHALVRON: Well, the city is, I could say, quite normal, as it would be, for instance, a Friday. Of course, one week ago it was overcrowded, difficult traffic and things like that. Now the traffic is very easy. But the city is not closed. There is no curfew, you know? The people are living more or less normally after the bombings.

COOPER: All right. Alain de Chalvron with French TV Channel 2, I appreciate you joining us live from Baghdad. Thanks very much.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: All right. We have some news just in to the CNN Center. I believe this is from Reuters. Apparently just outside of Basra, which is only about 30 miles from Umm Qasr where there is another battle taking place, but west of Basra U.S. tanks are battling Iraqi forces. We don't know much more about that.

But let me read this wire copy for you. "U.S. Marine tanks battled Iraqi forces on the western outskirts of Basra." That according to a U.S. Marine captain. He said, "we are attacking Iraqi forces, all of which are west of Basra." This is from Captain Andrew Bergen. He said, "I would certainly say it is a major battle."

As you can see, Basra very close to Umm Qasr, and that's where American military helicopters, Cobras, are fighting pockets of resistance on the ground.

COOPER: And this, a report out of Reuters News Wire and we are -- we've just gotten that and just bring it to you as we get it.

Again, just one of the pieces of the puzzle; we know there is ongoing conflict, or at least there was some 20 or 30 minutes ago, when we last checked in with both Christiane Amanpour and Jason Bellini, who are in Umm Qasr.

The action that was taking place there, both in the new port which had been secured if we can use that term, that's where Christiane Amanpour was, secured by British troops and you are seeing a live picture from Umm Qasr, you're seeing a -- a ship, a tanker ship of some sort. It looks like it's actually moving a little bit.

Jason Bellini was in the old port where there are still what he described as pockets of resistance. Marines not only attack helicopters firing on some of those -- apparently firing on some of those pockets of resistance but actually going building to building, searching rooms, trying to secure that area.

COSTELLO: And of course the big problem there, some soldiers, Iraqi soldiers, are dressed up as civilians. So the situation is pretty tense and pretty dangerous. Christiane Amanpour also reporting from there, saying that it shouldn't take long but who knows in these situations.

And we don't know...

COOPER: And a pretty ominous...

COSTELLO: If -- if the battle going on in Basra, 30 miles to the north, has anything to do with this, but the thing is really Allied forces expected very little resistance in both of these places.

COOPER: Yes, and it seems largely, as Christiane reported, the town is largely secure, but again it's just these pockets of resistance and as -- as anyone who knows much about the military will tell you a sniper -- a well-trained sniper with a well-calibrated weapon can keep at bay a very large number of troops, and would you not know that that is happening right now in Basra.

But, again, we're hearing of pockets of resistance, we've heard the word sniper used and that of course is what the Marines are looking for right now in the new port area.

COSTELLO: And it sounds quite different from what's apparently happening in Basra, because this Captain, this Marine Captain, is saying I would certainly say it's a "major battle."

They're in tanks there, so that's different from what's going on in Umm Qasr, where most of the artillery fire is coming from the air, the military helicopters in the air.

Want to go to northern Iraq now, because there has been some skirmishes there from an al Qaeda -- I should say -- firing on an al Qaeda linked group.

Kevin Sites is there, and he's going to tell us more about that. Good morning.

KEVIN SITES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Carol.

Since last I spoke to you, just to remind viewers -- we're in Chamchamal, which is about 40 kilometers away from Kirkuk.

This is Kurdish held territory, it's basically free Iraq, and we butt right up against the Iraqi front lines here. The forces of Saddam Hussein.

It's been kind of quiet this morning until about 15 minutes ago when Iraqi forces have fired off three mortars. They've hit not too far from their own lines.

We don't really understand what they're doing there, but that's the first action we've seen from this front lines. Maybe it's just to let the Kurdish fighters know they're still there after the bombing of Kirkuk last night.

About 8:45 last night we saw an -- basically a white-hot glow in the horizon over my shoulder as Kirkuk was being attacked by U.S. bombers.

Now our sources here, a PUK a patriotic unit of Kurdistan sources, tell us that it wasn't Kirkuk, the city's center, that was being attacked, but the Haleed (ph) Military Compound, that's an Iraqi military compound, that houses the first Iraqi Legion.

There's also an airbase there, as well as ammunition depots.

The PUK sources we have here were calling family members who were watching the attack. They didn't see bombs fall on Kirkuk. That doesn't mean there hasn't been any, but they couldn't observe any. What they did see was bombs going west, towards that military base.

Now the other incident that you mentioned, Ansar al-Islam, that is the Islamic group, the fundamentalist Islamic group, that Colin Powell has linked to al Qaeda and has -- has said that the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein that is his al Qaeda connection here, Ansar al-Islam.

And there were reports that 30 Cruise missiles hit Ansar al-Islam locations along the border with Iran and Iraq.

It's a force of maybe about 600 fighters there, they are (AUDIO GAP) to the Kurds here because they have been fighting these guys off and on, it's a left flank that they've had to watch for quite a long time and there are reports that the PUK, that's the Kurdish militia, will -- is preparing to do battle with Ansar al-Islam either today or tomorrow.

That may be an overstatement; they say they're preparing to fight sometimes and they don't do battle, but now that these targets are softened up, PUK sources tell us they'll probably go in.

Another development -- there's been a lot of things happening here in Kurdistan this morning and over night. There certainly have been interesting developments south of us, but there's a whole geopolitical dynamic that's going on here.

We also have reports that there are 1,000 Turkish troops that have moved into the north of Kurdistan and that is something that the Kurds are not very happy with.

They are sworn enemies with the Turks, they have been negotiating with the U.S. to keep the Turks out of the region and it could have some significance as far as Kurdish support. The Kurds do not want Saddam Hussein -- they are supporting this military action against him but they are very concerned about Turks being in the region and that will be their first choice to fight if they come much further down. That is what they're telling us, that is their major concern -- Carol.

COSTELLO: Kevin, a question about that. Now that the Turkish forces are in there, how might that complicate things for the U.S. military?

SITES: Well, it complicates things quite a bit. It's not that they're going to halt any military action, obviously. I mean it's well underway.

It's going to -- it's going to complicate the political maneuvering they need to do. They need the Kurds on their side, they need their support to build a unified Iraq after this war is over and the Kurds although they support this military action against Saddam Hussein, they're very wary of U.S. intentions.

After the Gulf War, the Kurds were told to uprise against Saddam Hussein and that the U.S. would support them. The U.S. pulled out of that promise and the Kurds have not forgotten that.

They're convened at this point that Turkey may have a toehold within Kurdistan. They don't want that to happen, they don't want the Turks on their territory, and you know this is going to be an ongoing political discussion.

If the United States wants the Kurds to be a part of this coalition, they're going to have to do some damage control as far as this is concerned. Perhaps, you know, advancing further into Kurdistan.

COSTELLO: And negotiations with Turkey haven't exactly been stellar in the past. Kevin, I wanted to ask you about this.

You talked about how the Kurds are supporting the U.S. military and they don't like Saddam Hussein. You had some interesting pictures a couple of hours ago of Iraqis seemingly dancing. Can you tell us about that?

SITES: That's right. What you were seeing; this is the day after the Turkish -- I'm sorry the Kurdish New Year, Newroz -- and a lot of these guys, they're very happy with what's going on here.

And this was just kind of a spontaneous dance; it was actually one of our producers and a couple of drivers and some friend from the PUK here.

And as we were preparing for a live shot, they just decided to go ahead and start dancing and singing. It's something they do here very often. I mean, the national pastime is going out for picnics in the hills and dancing. They're really colorful.

They're happy, they're happy people. What we've seen from here -- they have a very, very positive attitude despite the suffering they've endured for such a long time.

COSTELLO: You're not kidding. I see some of them are holding white kerchiefs. Any significance to them?

SITES: You know unfortunately, I'm not an authority on Kurdish dancing. I guess it's a Kurdish folkdance and the men jump in and they have a good time and it's great to watch them; it's great fun. Yes, I could tell you from a personal standpoint they've endured a lot of hardship. You know, we're paid and paid fairly well to do what we do to come out to a war zone.

You know, these people they come with us, in some instances, providing information for CNN. It's not their battle; they don't have to do it to the extent that they do, but they stay here and they suffer with it, they sleep in cement huts like us, they eat food that isn't hot.

They suffer bad weather, and they come up smiling. And do the work for us.

You know, all the information that you get from us could not happen without our sources here on the ground you know feeding us, talking to the PUK people. Getting us information, double checking it, and coming back to us and informing.

We don't speak the language. In some ways we're like infants here and we need help. We know what we want to do but we need a lot of help doing it.

COSTELLO: Well that's terrific. You know something I'm struck by. The picture beside you, you probably can't see it but it's of Southern Iraq, of the 7th Cavalry.

Pausing here because there was enemy fire ahead. And you can see the difference in terrain from Southern Iraq and Northern Iraq.

It's so green where you are, and so brown in Southern Iraq.

SITES: And so cold here, too, Carol. The temperatures get way below freezing. We didn't get much sleep anyway -- we're watching the air war, but the climate is incredibly different. As you said there are rolling green hills behind us. It's a beautiful, beautiful country. Beautiful streams and rivers. And the mountains are absolutely spectacular.

Quite a difference from the desert terrain down south.

COSTELLO: Yes and it's very hot down south, too. You said you were watching the bombing on television. Were any of the Kurds present watching with you and if so what were -- what was their reaction?

SITES: No, we don't have a television out here. In fact, we barely have battery-powered radio. We actually could see the glow of the bombing that was happening in Kirkuk, we're about 40 kilometers fro there so we could see that happen.

And also the Iraqi troops that are just about 2 kilometers away from us opened up wit their antiaircraft fire so we got a little show of our own from here and we were (AUDIOGAP) bombs drop but we could see the glow from their aftermath.

COSTELLO: All right... SITES: ... as well as the anti-aircraft fire. You know, they're all excited -- you know -- when they actually see this. I mean, they want to see Saddam Hussein go in a big way.

COSTELLO: All right, Kevin Sites you stay safe, reporting from Northern Iraq this morning.

COOPER: All right now if you are just joining us there is an ongoing conflict right now in Southeastern Iraq, the town of Umm Qasr. Also apparently further on the road to Baghdad -- on the road to Basra I should say.

We're going to check in right now with Chris Plante at the Pentagon.

Chris, before we get to that let's just talk briefly about this helicopter -- this helicopter apparently an accident that occurred shortly ago. What can you tell us about that?

CHRIS PLANTE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well it was at about 4:30 a.m. local time in the Persian Gulf, Anderson.

Two British H-3 Sea King helicopters had taken off from a ship operating in the region, a British ship, and a short time after departing the ship they apparently collided in flight and crashed into the Persian Gulf.

Aboard were three British crewmembers on each helicopter and one American was aboard on one of the helicopters also.

It's unclear right now whether the American was a member of the U.S. military or a civilian, perhaps a contractor. Details are sketchy at this point, and we're still waiting for some additional details on that.

Search and rescue helicopters were launched off of nearby ships almost immediately and search and rescue divers in the water at the scene of the crash very, very quickly after the incident yet it is still believed that all seven people aboard were killed -- Anderson.

COOPER: Now Chris I know it's, obviously, it's 3:52 a.m. at the Pentagon right now, here on the East Coast, so there is not a lot of information being given out.

I'm going to ask you a couple of questions you -- some of them you probably won't be able to answer and that's fine.

We are getting word; you may have seen Christiane Amanpour and Jason Bellini reporting in the last hour from Umm Qasr pockets of resistance still being mopped up.

We haven't heard from them in about 20 minutes or so and I'm sure if those pockets of resistance still exist likely they are Jason Bellini reporting Marines going in the old fort house building to building. They have not yet moved onto tankers to search those. And then we just got this report from Reuters -- which says that U.S. Marine tanks battled Iraqi forces on the western outskirts of Basra on Saturday according to Marine Captain Andrew Bergin (ph) saying we are attacking Iraqi forces all of which are west of Basra. "I would certainly say it is a major battle."

Again that a Reuters report. CNN has not been able to independently confirm it yet.

I'm assuming you haven't heard anything fresh on this. Have you heard anything from eh Pentagon?

PLANTE: Not a lot in the way of detail, Anderson. We are aware here that there is apparently a tank battle taking place. Marines took up positions west of Basra yesterday in the -- early on in the ground offensive. They have staked out that position since early yesterday morning.

Pushing people back who were attempting to leave Basra, asking them to stay in Basra, hoping there that there would be a peaceful entry into the city; this is Basra in the south as a largely Shi'ite city and the Shi'ite's have suffered under the regime of Saddam Hussein. They look forward for the most part to the removal of the Saddam Hussein regime.

The move on Basra was not expected to be very problematic but outside of Basra they've apparently run into some resistance from Iraqi forces not all of whom are surrendering although there have been thousands of troops that have surrendered to U.S. and British forces. Some are, in fact, putting up a fight.

There have been reports of exchange of tank rounds between U.S. and Iraqi forces. It's not clear right now whether these are Republican Guard forces, there have been some reports that there were Republican Guard forces down in that area.

But, clearly tank battles taking place, some conflict perhaps more than the planners had expected in Southern Iraq where most of the soldiers there, the Iraqi soldiers are conscripts, they're draftees, they're not treated very well, they're not paid well, they're not fed well.

They're not equipped or trained well for the most part but there were also reports that Baghdad had sent political officers out into the field to marry up, if you will, with the forces in the field in an effort to compel them to fight when the American troops came in.

So, there have been some clashes yesterday. As you know, the taking of the oilfields in the south led to two fatalities from the U.S. Marine Corps, so there is some fighting going on even as troops move toward Baghdad from a number of directions.

COOPER: And, Chris, just so you know, viewers on the right hand side of our screen are seeing a tanker probably off the port of Umm Qasr again there's both an old port and a new port -- Christiane Amanpour is reporting in the last hour the new port is secured largely by British forces. It is under their authority.

At this hour, the -- we heard from Jason Bellini in the old port about a mile away from the new port, there are still pockets of resistance.

We saw Cobra helicopters circling overhead. We heard from Jason reports of Marines going from building to building. At last word Jason was saying those tankers what you're seeing right there in your picture had not yet been searched. Some of the tankers that were both in the water off shore and in the port not yet being searched.

Let's just talk a little bit, Chris, about the significance both of Umm Qasr and of Basra and the significance both in terms of tactically.

Umm Qasr, I assume, being the place where U.S. military was hoping to get humanitarian assistance through it being a port t and very important strategically and also Basra just in terms of going to a place where the reception was from all predictions going to be quite receptive.

Largely, as you mentioned, the Shi'ite community, they have been uprising there after the last Gulf War an uprising that was brutally repressed by Saddam Hussein's regime.

So there -- the hope I suppose on the part of Pentagon planners was that there would be pictures of people being -- of troops being greeted with open arms, with thanks and praise. It very well may happen but there is some -- some -- an alteration to that plan going on right now.

PLANTE: Well, that certainly appears to be the case. We did see some video that came out of Basra earlier today where Marines were in part of downtown Basra.

A fairly large city, it's Iraq's second largest city, and Marines were being received fairly warmly actually by members of the Shi'ite community there in Basra.

They joined in with the Marines in tearing down a poster of Saddam Hussein and it appeared that at least where these Marines were in this large city there was no resistance and they were being welcomed.

It is, in fact, something that the Pentagon planners had hoped to see. They hoped to see more of that maybe even cheering in the streets.

They wanted these images to get out to the public early on in an effort to show that they were liberating and not coming to conquer or dominate Iraq as is being put out by the regime of Saddam Hussein.

They're getting a little bit of that but clearly there is some combat taking place. I think that this is outside of Basra, not in Basra. But, some Iraqi troops clearly are fighting. COOPER: That is the report and fighting apparently in civilian outfits at least in Umm Qasr and places. Chris Plante live at the Pentagon thanks very much -- Carol.

COSTELLO: And Chris, and you were talking about casualties, well, of course, word came early Friday that Operation Iraqi Freedom has claimed its first coalition causalities.

Thelma Gutierrez reports from camp Pendleton.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

THELMA GUTIERREZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The flag at Camp Pendleton flies at half-staff. Three of the four U.S. coalition casualties in Iraq were from Camp Pendleton.

They died along with another American and eight British soldiers when their CH-46 transport helicopter crashed and burned near the Iraqi border. Officials say caused by mechanical failure.

The pilot was 30-year-old Captain Bryan Bofrey (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We just -- we were scared that something like this would happen.

GUTIERREZ: He is mourned by family in his hometown of Bloomington, Illinois.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He did always want to fly. He thought that he could do more as a person, and said that he was going to join the Marine Corps.

GUTIERREZ: Also killed in the helicopter crash, 36-year-old Major Jay Oben (ph) of Waterville, Maine, 25-year-old Corporal Brian Kennedy of Houston, Texas, and 29-year-old Staff Sergeant Kendall Watersbey of Baltimore, Maryland.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: George Bush, take a good look at this man, because you took my only son away from me.

GUTIERREZ: His father angrily blamed George W. Bush.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When you lose your only son and child, you don't really know what's really going on but what they tell you.

MAJ. CURTIS HILL, U.S. MARINE CORPS: When any one loses a member of their family, it's not something that's taken lightly. We mourn the loss of these Marines.

GUTIERREZ: Before the end of the second day of the ground invasion, two more Marines were killed in action.

At this family diner in Fort Stewart, Georgia, military families, many with relatives serving in the Gulf, watched nervously as the war unfolds, hoping there will be no more causalities. But somehow knowing it will not be the end. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm just hoping they get back safe, do a good job. I know they've all been trained to do it, and just do their job and get back home safe.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Get it over with, and bring them home.

GUTIERREZ: Thelma Gutierrez, CNN, Camp Pendleton, California.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

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